President’s Day technically marks the observance of George Washington’s birthday, but the holiday is widely viewed as a catch-all day to reflect on the accomplishments of all the founding fathers. Historians can argue over which of our founding fathers was most instrumental in establishing American institutions, but it’s hard to find anyone who lived a more eventful life than Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson was an architect, a statesman, a writer, a voracious reader, a linguist, a diplomat, a gardener, a meteorologist, a botanist, a foodie before the term existed, a vintner and a traveler, among other things. In an age when travel was an ordeal, Jefferson nourished his hungry intellect by traveling the world. He spoke six languages and used them on the road. In 1784, when he was named the U.S. Ambassador to France, he and his 12-year-old daughter, Martha, took a lengthy trip through 7 U.S. states before departing for Paris.
And during his five years in Paris, he traveled extensively on the continent. In 1787, he took a 3 ½ month trip around France and Italy on his own dime, and in 1791, as the U.S. Secretary of State, he took a month-long “botanizing excursion” through New England with James Madison.
Jefferson constructed his home at Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian, bit-by-bit over a forty year period (1768-1809) and his travels helped shape his vision for the grand estate. When Jefferson retired in 1809, at 66, he moved into Monticello and never left the state of Virginia again. But he continued to indulge passions and tastes he acquired overseas, including fine French wines and books in a variety of languages, which is probably why he spent most of his retirement deeply in debt.
I’d been to Monticello before and consider this remarkable place, which is dramatically situated high above the city of Charlottesville amidst a stunning landscape of rolling hills, horse farms and vineyards, an essential stop for any traveler with an interest in early American history. I returned to Monticello this year on President’s Day in order to check out their new “behind the scenes tour.” Last summer, the foundation that operates the site relocated some of their staff offices out of the second and third floors of the house in order to open up more of the site to visitors.
The result is that travelers can now see what’s long been off-limits at Monticello: the second and third floors. The standard tour lasts about 35 minutes and costs $24, but for an extra $18 you can also purchase an hour-long “behind the scenes” tour, which gives you access to three additional bedrooms and the spectacular “dome room.”
The bedrooms are sparsely furnished and aren’t staged for visitors in the same way that rooms on the first floor are. But the guides clue you in on some of the history there’s no time for on the standard tour. For example, I learned about Jefferson’s three indoor privies, and the fact that Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s oldest grandson, was the Confederacy’s Secretary of War.
I also learned about the Levys, a Jewish family that bought Monticello after Jefferson’s death and ultimately sold it to the foundation that runs the property for $500,000 in 1923. But the real show-stopping attraction of the behind the scenes tour is the so-called “dome room” (see video below) – a stunning sitting room with six huge circular windows.
I did the two tours back-to-back and would probably do them on separate visits in the future. Standing for an hour and thirty five minutes straight was a bit long for me, even though I found the guides to be engaging and well informed. Children seven and younger aren’t allowed on the behind the scenes tour, which is for small groups of 15 or fewer. By the mid-point of our tour, several weary members of our group were sitting sprawled on the floor, which I found understandable, if a big undignified, given the hallowed ground we were on.
The dark side to life at Monticello is the fact that some 600 enslaved African-Americans lived and worked there over the course of Jefferson’s lifetime, including his paramour, Sally Hemmings. (He freed just 7 of his slaves) My guide on the standard house tour mentioned her, briefly noting that most historians now agree that Jefferson probably fathered six children with Hemmings, who also accompanied him to Paris. At lunch, my wife and I overheard a fellow traveler lament the lack of gossipy details on Jefferson’s sex life on the tours.
“I wanted to know all the juicy details about Sally,” a woman said.
Starting in April, visitors will be able to avail themselves of a Slavery at Monticello tour, free with the purchase of a standard house tour. I don’t know if the tour will include much more on Ms. Hemmings, but it’ll no doubt give visitors an understanding of what life was like for Monticello’s slaves.
Before you leave Monticello, take the time to explore the grounds, spread out across 2,600 acres. If you’re fit, consider hiking up to or down from Monticello on the Saunders Trail, a beautiful two mile path, which begins near the intersection of Rt. 53 and Rt. 20 and winds up through the woods right to Monticello. And you should also make sure to visit Jefferson’s grave. (He died on the 4th of July, 1826, at 83, on the same day as John Adams, 90, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence) Jefferson wrote his own epitaph and modestly mentioned only three of his many accomplishments: authoring the declaration of independence and the statute of Virginia for religious freedom and founding the University of Virginia.
If you visit Monticello on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, consider capping your outing with a visit to the nearby Star Hill Brewery, which offers free, yes free, tastings of their outstanding brews in their tasting room. Like everything else in Charlottesville, there’s a Jefferson connection too. Star Hill’s delicious Monticello Reserve Ale, an unfiltered wheat ale that is made using the same East Kent Golding hops and other ingredients grown right at Monticello that Jefferson and his wife, Martha used to brew their own beer.
If you prefer wine, drive right down the street to the Jefferson Vineyards, which also has a connection to the country’s third president and produces a mean Monticello Cabernet Franc. Aside from all of his other accomplishments, Jefferson knew how to produce and enjoy good beers and wines. In my book, that makes him worthy of his own national holiday.
Videos- Dave Seminara. Images via Flickr, Randy Pertiet, Tony the Misfit, Dave Seminara and Star Hill.