Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builderby Jack Mclaughlin
This book, a National Book Award nominee in 1988, is the life of Thomas Jefferson as seen through the prism of his love affair with Monticello. For over half a century, it was his consuming passion, his most serious amusement. With a sure command of sources and skilled intuitive understanding of Jefferson, McLaughlin crafts and uncommon portrait of builder and… See more details below
This book, a National Book Award nominee in 1988, is the life of Thomas Jefferson as seen through the prism of his love affair with Monticello. For over half a century, it was his consuming passion, his most serious amusement. With a sure command of sources and skilled intuitive understanding of Jefferson, McLaughlin crafts and uncommon portrait of builder and building alike. En route he tells us much about life in Virginia; about Monticello's craftsmen and how they worked their materials; about slavery, class, and family; and, above all, about the multiplicity of domestic concerns that preoccupied this complex man. It is and engaging and incisive look at the eighteenth-century mind: systematic, rational, and curious, but also playful, comfort-loving, and amusing. Ultimately, it provides readers with great insight into daily life in Colonial and Federal America.
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Jefferson and Monticello
"A Very Long Time Maturing His Projects"
SUMMER RAINS had made the roads between Orange and Albemarle counties even more gouged and treacherous than usual. Two carriages had left the Virginia plantation of the Madisons, James and Dolley, at 10:30 in the morning, early enough on a mid-September day in 1802 to make the twenty-eight-mile journey to the home of President Jefferson before nightfall. So slow and tortuous had been the carriage ride, however, that it was now close to dark. From the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, silhouetted by the almost constant flashes of lightning, came the distant rumbles of an approaching thunderstorm. As the horses slipped and strained on the ascending and mud-rutted road, the carriages pulled to a halt. James Madison, the nation's secretary of state, short, slight, dressed almost entirely in black, emerged from the lead carriage and talked with his driver. Madison then informed the passengers that it was too hazardous to continue. They were less than a mile from their destination, however, so they could safely walk to the Jefferson home through a path in the woods. If they hurried, they could get there before the storm broke.
In the two carriages were Dolley Madison, her younger sister Anna Payne, Dr. and Mrs. William Thornton, and Mrs. Thornton'smother, Mrs. Anna Brodeau. Dr. Thornton worked under Madison as director of the newly created Patent Office, and the two men were close friends as well as colleagues. The women quickly decided that the steep climb to the top of the small mountain where the house stood was too difficult for Mrs. Brodeau and that she would stay with the carriages; the servants would carefully walk the horses the rest of the way. After giving instructions to the drivers, the five travelers filed at a quick pace into the forest, a clap of thunder announcing the storm at their heels.
The French-born Mrs. Thornton had accompanied her husband to Washington, leaving the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia for the new capital, little more than a bustling, rapidly growing village at this time. The Thorntons lived in a town house next to the Madisons, and the two wives were intimate friends. Women like Anna Maria Thornton and Dolley Madison, married to talented men of power and influence, quickly made themselves indispensable to the social life of the nation's capital. They were to define and shape the rules of social etiquette suitable for a democracy at such important governmental rituals as the formal dinner, diplomatic reception, private luncheon, public entertainment, and the "at home." They were among the first to assume a title that was to become rich with ambiguity--the Washington Hostess.
Anna Maria Thornton was short and slight--she had weighed only 106 pounds, fully dressed, two years earlier when "we all went to the scales1 near the President's house [later to become the White House] to be weighed." In Gilbert Stuart's portrait, 2 painted in 1804, she is shown with large brown eyes and a delicate complexion, her hair fashionably tied up. She wears a low-cut empire gown calculated to accentuate her modest bustline. Organ pipes in the background and a score in her hand allude to her musical talents--she was an accomplished organist and pianist.
She and her husband had just concluded a pleasant two-week visit at Montpelier. the Madison house. Like many eighteenth-century men and women, she kept a daily diary, and in it she had recorded the pleasures of her visit. During the week she was to remain at the Jefferson plantation (the entire party was stranded for several days by the almost daily rains), she would note with the eye of a well-traveledtourist and amateur artist her impression of President Thomas Jefferson's unfinished home, Monticello.
The party quickly crossed the third "roundabout"--one of four roads that girdle the mountain upon which the house rests. The first roundabout is only a half mile in circumference directly around the house; the other increasingly longer ones circle the mountain at progressively lower elevations. All are interconnected by a series of short roads or paths. By the time the party reached the top of the mountain, Mrs. Thornton could see the house illuminated eerily by lightning; "the exercise of ascending the hill and the warmth of the evening [had] fatigued us much."3 Nevertheless, they had reached shelter, "about a quarter of an hour before it began to rain violently."
Mrs. Thornton had been told that Mr. Jefferson's house, like the Madisons', was still in the process of remodeling; indeed, she knew he had been building it, on and off, for many years. But she was unprepared for what she found when, finally reaching the entrance, she was admitted by a servant. Winded, tired, and feeling ill from a harrowing trip, she no doubt thought she would at last step into the furnished comfort, indeed the luxury and ease, of the house of the nation's chief executive--a man of courtly polish and acknowledged taste. She was, however, sorely disappointed. The stately columns and portico that would one day embellish the front of the house were not yet completed, and the large entrance hall was a cavern of raw brick, with boards covering window openings. It was lit by a single lantern, which dimly revealed a ceiling of rough beams and a floor of dangerously unnailed planks thrown loosely over floor joists.
"Tho' I had been prepared to see an unfinished house," she later recorded in her diary, "still I could not help being much struck with the uncommon appearance ... which the general gloom ... contributed much to increase." The party was led across wobbly planks "into a large room with a small bow [room] separated by an arch, where the company were seated at tea. No light being in the large part of the room, part of the family being seated there, the appearance was irregular and unpleasant." Visitors entering the dining and tea rooms of Monticello today would no doubt be surprised by Mrs. Thornton's description, because both rooms are bright and cheerful, particularly the octagonal tea room, with its arc of windows. Both rooms werenearly completed, approximately as they now appear, but it was a stormy evening, candles had not yet been lit, and the lady was very tired.
Mrs. Thornton might also have been struck by the large company of family and friends having tea--about fifteen--but likely not, for Mr. Jefferson was known for his hospitality, and it was not unusual for travelers to drop in for a day or two at the great plantations of Virginia. Accommodations on the road were poor or nonexistent, and travelers often proceeded from house to house, stopping with family, friends, or mere acquaintances. The visitors were no doubt offered a late dinner; Jefferson had written Thornton to "be here half after three,4 our dinner hour," but the travelers had left much too late to have arrived by then.
The man who greeted the Thorntons and Madisons would have resembled the figure in the portrait by Rembrandt Peale, painted three years later in 1805. Although it is a "public" portrait, designed to depict its subject as a dignified statesman, an Augustan paterfamilias, it also reveals some of Jefferson's known personal traits. The most striking feature of the portrait is the eyes, which gaze forthrightly at the viewer with a crystalline intelligence. Any attempt to penetrate beyond them to the inner man is reduced to conjecture, for the eyes are reflections rather than portals. The nose is patrician, the mouth firmly set, the facial muscles in perfect tune beneath the skin. His hair has by now turned from red to a sandy grey and is worn collar length. It falls in loose curls around his ears and neck, softening the tight line of his jaw.
Augustus Foster,5 secretary of the British legation in Washington at this time, described Jefferson in terms quite different from the Peale portrait: "He was a tall man, with a very red freckled face and gray neglected hair, his manners goodnatured, frank, and rather friendly, though he had somewhat of a cynical expression." Jefferson did not meet strangers easily; he was reserved and distant, often described as cold. His body language was telling: a characteristic pose when standing was with his arms crossed in front of him. Once assured of acceptance, however, he became more open, with a remarkable power to charm and disarm, even those who had come prepared to dislike him. With friends like the Thorntons, he was warm and affable. Hewas most open with his family, particularly his grandchildren, with whom he liked to frolic and play.
After introductions--the Thorntons and Madisons knew most of those present--Mrs. Thornton asked to be shown to her bedroom, for by now she was "exhausted and quite unwell." The Thorntons were given one of the second-floor bedrooms on the east, or entrance, side of the house, and as they were shown to their room by a servant, Mrs. Thornton observed a singular anomaly, one that confounds everyone who has ever visited Monticello. "We had to mount a little ladder of a staircase, about two feet wide, and very steep," she noted critically.
The staircases of Monticello, which Mrs. Thornton described perfectly, are perhaps the most serious design flaw in the building. Visitors to the mansion today are not permitted to view the second and third floors, largely because the stairs are a clear danger to life and limb. No building code in America would permit such staircases to be constructed, yet Jefferson, one of the most gifted architects the nation has produced, designed and built them. There are two of these staircases, on the north and south wings of the house, and each climbs from the basement to the third floor. They are built into stairwells a scant six feet square, so small that the stair treads are only twenty-four inches wide and the risers dangerously high. Because the staircases turn twice on each floor, the stairway is virtually spiral, with hazardous, narrow, wedge-shaped steps. The stairs are located in the interior of the house and, although Jefferson built small skylights in the roof above them, they are not illuminated by natural light from windows, which means they were often mounted candle in hand. Ascending this staircase with her floor-length dress pulled up to avoid tripping, Mrs. Thornton must have wondered how the house servants ever managed to climb from floor to floor, their arms full, without breaking their necks.
The staircases would prove to be even more of an enigma to Mrs. Thornton when she learned next day how almost every other part of the house was painstakingly designed for convenience and domestic efficiency. When the President later showed her his drawings of the house, he might have explained, as he did to others, that his staircase design was patterned after those of the fashionable new residences ofParis. During his stay in Paris as minister plenipotentiary to France, from 1784 to 1789, Jefferson made it a point to study continental architecture at every opportunity. Although he admired much of what he saw in France, he was particularly taken by a new style of architecture that abandoned multistoried houses in favor of single-story, horizontal dwellings. The logic was compelling when applied to a nation like America: in a country where real estate was cheap and plentiful, why build expensive three- and four-story buildings, which were originally designed for costly high-density urban land? A single-story house, or a two-story house that gives the appearance of being one-story, eliminates grand staircases "which are expensive,6 and occupy a space which would make a good room in every story." The theory may have been flawless, but Jefferson designed not a single-story dwelling, but one with four stories, if the basement, with its important functional rooms, is included. The four levels of the house were divided roughly into the utilitarian basement level, with its storage areas, warming kitchen, and servant's rooms; the main floor, which included Jefferson's bedroom-library suite, the dining and entertainment rooms, plus several bedrooms; and the second and third levels, which were, except for the dome room, entirely given over to bedrooms. Because the stairways were used mainly by guests, children, and servants, it could be argued that there was no practical need for more spacious stairways; the stairs Jefferson built were adequate enough for temporary visitors, youngsters, and slaves. This assumes, however, that in an eighteenth-century house the stairway was merely functional.
In the baronial halls and palaces of Europe, a staircase was much more than an inefficient elevator, a way of lifting a body from one floor to another. A staircase was part of an elaborate ritual of rank. At social functions, where class and status were publicly displayed, the staircase was an important prop. One received guests at the top of a staircase, resplendent and regal, gesturing welcome from olympian heights to those who climbed to be greeted. Conversely, grand entrances were made by descending a staircase, while those below, their faces turned upward, admired and paid homage. Those subservient to power climbed to pay obeisance; those in power received guests from elevated heights and descended to adoration. These ritualisticceremonies of caste and privilege required a suitable theatrical setting; therefore the grand staircase--spacious, ornate, designed with elegance and grace, preferably of marble--became the central fixture around which the entrance halls of the mansions and palaces of Europe were constructed. Such staircases were opulent symbols of the life, blood, and spirit of aristocracy.
One could easily predict what Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing salutation to the princes of Europe, "all men are created equal"--one could anticipate what his notions about grand staircases would be. In contrast to the palatial staircase, the simple stairway produces domestic democracy; it reduces climbing or descending to a utilitarian nuisance, and demands that meetings of those who are equal before the law be conducted on an egalitarian surface, level ground.
While working for more than fifty years on his home--building, altering, remodeling, putting up and tearing down--Jefferson created, as all owner-builders do, a dwelling that mirrored himself. Monticello is the man, and the house is a living testimony to the truth, "I am what I build." It is not unusual, therefore, that the man who has been called one of the most complex and enigmatic personalities this nation has ever produced should build into his home some equally puzzling components. To reduce the staircase from a representation of power to a functional architectural space is one thing, but to further constrict it to a dark, cramped passageway suggests that it was perhaps more deeply symbolic of its owner's difficulties with free access and disclosure.
The Thorntons would not, of course, have preoccupied themselves with such speculations, because they lived in a pre-Freudian age where terms such as "retentive personality" were subsumed under two broad psychological states--sanity and madness. In between were vagaries such as "eccentricity" and "whimsicality." In fact, Mrs. Thornton's conclusion about the house, stairs, and bedroom was, "everything has a whimsical and droll appearance." The window in her bedroom appeared strange to her because it was virtually at floor level and was only about four feet square. Instead of opening on a sash, it pivoted on a center pin, somewhat like a modern awning window. She was not to learn until next day that the windows wereplanned to deceive the eye of one who viewed the house from outside. Jefferson had designed the first- and second-story windows as a single unit to give the house the appearance of being one story. The tiny window Mrs. Thornton thought "droll" seemed from outside the house to be the upper sash of a single large window in a high-ceilinged room. This was one of the ingenious ideas Jefferson incorporated into his house plan from the building styles he had observed in France.
One final "whimsicality" that Mrs. Thornton pondered, not only upon seeing her bedroom, but perhaps during the night, was the fact that the beds were "fixed up in recesses in the walls." She referred to the alcove beds, which are a feature of nearly every bedroom in the house. Jefferson also borrowed the idea for alcove beds from his observations of French architecture. The alcoves are designed into the rooms in roughly the same way clothes closets fit into modern bedrooms; indeed the alcove is approximately the same size as the average clothes closet, a little over six feet in length. (Eighteenth-century houses rarely had built-in clothes closets; like many continental homes today, a piece of furniture--a clothes press or armoire--was used to store clothing.)
The alcove bed was an exercise in design efficiency on Jefferson's part. In most small bedrooms, a double bed is an intruder, its head against a wall, its body thrust into the center of the room, consuming much of the usable space. The alcove bed, tucked into a wall, allows the rest of the bedroom space to be used as a small, unobstructed sitting room. A single person sleeping in an alcove is enclosed on three sides in a womblike cocoon, somewhat like a modern Pullman compartment, an experience that can be either comforting or claustrophobic, depending on the individual. A married couple, however, faces certain problems with an alcove bed. Mrs. Thornton did not record for posterity whether she slept on the inside or the outside of the alcove, but the inside person must climb, crawl, or roll over the outside sleeper in order to get in and out of bed. For newlyweds, this would no doubt be more of an opportunity than an inconvenience, but for couples like the Thorntons, who had been married for twelve years, the alcove bed was more likely to be a recurring nocturnal annoyance. The only alcove bed in the house that was designed to eliminate this problem was that of the master of Monticello. His alcove was locatedbetween two rooms so that he could theoretically get in or out of bed on either side. He soon discovered, however, that his open alcove was drafty and afforded no privacy, so he closed one side, first with glass sashes, and later with paper-covered screens.
Next morning, a bell rang at seven o'clock to rouse the guests and allow them time to dress for breakfast at eight. Jefferson would have been awake and at work in his private bedroom-study-library suite long before this. Late in his life he commented that the sun had not caught him in bed 7 for fifty years. (The last time he apparently slept past dawn was during his ten-year marriage.) His habit was to wake at dawn, read, and then work on his huge correspondence--he often wrote as many as a dozen or more letters daily. He would meet the rest of the household at breakfast.
Mealtime shifted with the seasons at Monticello;8 in the summertime, when days were long and weather hot, breakfast was normally at eight and dinner at five. During the short days of winter, breakfast was at nine and dinner at three-thirty or four, so that meals were always eaten by natural light. (That September, dinner had obviously been shifted to the winter schedule, "half after three," as Jefferson wrote Thornton.) Tea and coffee were served two hours after dinner.
The Thorntons would expect to dine well, for the President had the reputation of serving a fine table; however, breakfast, although ample by today's standards, was not the "Virginia breakfast" served at some of the great plantation houses. A guest of Jefferson's in later years, Margaret Bayard Smith, wife of the editor of the National Intelligencer and one of the foundation stones of Washington society for a generation, expressed some disappointment that breakfast consisted only of "tea, coffee, excellent muffins, hot wheat and corn bread, cold ham, and butter." At Montpelier, where Mrs. Smith, like the Thorntons, also visited, Dolley Madison served "a most excellent Virginian breakfast--tea, coffee, hot wheat bread, light cakes, a pone or corn loaf--cold ham, nice hashes, chickens, etc." Jefferson characteristically ate a moderate breakfast of tea or coffee, hot bread, and occasionally some cold ham. At the President's House in Washington, he at times had what his French chef, Etienne Lemaire, whose Englishwas minimal, referred to in his recipe as "pannequaiques."9 Lemaire's pancakes were made with egg yolks, cream, and flour, and with whipped egg whites in place of baking soda. The light griddle cakes were coated with sugar and stacked into a small torte. The stack was then cut into wedges like a cake and served. This recipe later became a favorite at Monticello.
The Thorntons joined some twenty others, family and guests, at the breakfast table, including William Short, "lately from France," Mrs. Thornton noted. Short had been Jefferson's secretary in Paris. Also present were Jefferson's two daughters and their husbands (Martha and Thomas Mann Randolph, and Maria and John Wayles Eppes) and several of Martha's five children. After breakfast the Thorntons, like all guests at Monticello, were on their own until dinner time. Jefferson had a daytime schedule he adhered to rather rigidly, forcing guests, as is still the tradition in the country houses of England, to amuse themselves. He did take time after breakfast, however, to show the Thorntons the house and to go over with them his drawings for those parts that were not yet completed.
William Thornton 10would be particularly interested in the President's architectural drawings, for Thornton was himself an amateur architect; he had recently won the competition for a plan for the nation's Capitol building in Washington. The Capitol, as it stands today, after undergoing numerous deletions, additions, and alterations, after being burned by the British and rebuilt, after consuming the creative powers of numerous architects and engineers, still contains a hard core of Thornton's original prize-winning plan. Thornton was a man Jefferson could understand and admire, for the two men shared a broad cultural education, inventive minds, and the kind of intellectual curiosity which motivated so many of the nation's founders.
Thornton studied medicine in Scotland and took his M.D. degree, but never practiced. He was an indefatigable inventor. He had been associated with John Fitch in the development of paddle steamboats some years before Fulton's historic steamboats, but his was not a commercial success. In 1814, he wrote Jefferson that for several months he had been employing a craftsman "making a musical instrument 11 that I invented abt. 12 or 14 yrs ago." It will be the size of a large chamber organ, he explained, with 68 strings, and "Keys in the mannerof a piano Forte." The instrument, he promised, would give all the tones of the "violin, violincello--bass--double bass etc." It uses neither catgut nor horsehair for its strings, Thornton wrote, but an artificial material that is "far superior." It "produces notes which equal the above Instruments." He never told Jefferson whether his ingenious musical instrument was ever finished, or whether it worked. A year later he sent a drawing for what Jefferson termed "a beautiful hydraulic machine," to be used for raising water from the cisterns at Monticello. He also gave Jefferson detailed instructions on how to waterproof his cisterns, and included a drawing for a "Filtering Machine"12 he invented for purifying water or cider.
He was a talented writer and painter as well. He copied a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Jefferson and "placed it in the Congressional Library 13 in my superb gilt Frame, that when the members view the works by which the inside of your head was so well stored [a reference to the library Jefferson had sold to Congress] they might also have a good Idea of the outside of the Head." Thornton 14 was also a successful farmer and horticulturist and the foremost breeder and racer of fine horses in Washington. The term "genius" was frequently applied to him because of his many talents, but if he was a genius, he was certainly not of the reclusive kind. He was the friend and confidant of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, David Rittenhouse, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and he and his wife Anna Maria rode the Washington social carousel for nearly three decades.
Gilbert Stuart's portrait of him shows something of his intensity and intelligence. He was described by a contemporary as "a scholar and a gentleman--full of talent and eccentricity--a Quaker15 by profession, a painter, a poet, and a horse-racer--well acquainted with the mechanic arts. He was a man of infinite humour--humane and generous, yet fond of field sports--his company was complete antidote to dullness." Jefferson obviously found Thornton and his wife amiable company, for not only did he invite them to his home in Virginia, but he entertained them at dinner on a number of occasions at the President's House in Washington and dined at their home. In explaining to William Thornton his architectural drawings for Monticello, Jefferson would have been assured of a knowledgeable, sympathetic listener.
Although both men were amateur architects, they were amateursin the eighteenth-century sense of the term. Indeed, the word had only recently entered into the language; it was lifted from the French and quickly underwent a sea change from its original Latin derivation, amare, to love. Its initial meaning was "one who loves or is fond of," but by the turn of the century, an amateur16 was described in the newly published Cyclopedia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature as a "foreign term introduced and now passing current amongst us, to denote a person understanding, and loving or practicing the polite arts of painting, sculpture, or architecture, without any regard to pecuniary advantage." Thornton and Jefferson were amateurs only insofar as they did not earn a living by designing buildings; although self-taught, their expertise was professional. Besides the Capitol building, Thornton designed a number of ambitious structures, including the Octagon in Washington, now an historic house owned by the American Institute of Architects Foundation. He also acted as general contractor for some buildings, including the Madison town house, which adjoined the Thorntons' on F Street, two blocks east of the President's House. Unlike most eighteenth-century architects, whose work was limited to the drafting table, Thornton and Jefferson were "handson" designers who did not share the gentleman's traditional disdain for the "mechanic arts,"17 defined as those occupations "wherein the hand and body are more concerned than the mind." Both men were raised in traditions that, even before the egalitarianism born of the Revolution, had no aristocratic contempt for handwork. Thornton was a Quaker, and the Society of Friends took as an article of faith the dignity of physical labor. Some of the leading members of the Philadelphia gentry were Quaker silversmiths, carpenters, and cabinetmakers. Jefferson was a Virginia planter, and members of his class, as a matter of survival, were involved in every detail of plantation economy. They supervised coopers, blacksmiths, and sawyers, and like farmers everywhere, at harvest time they were in the fields. The notion that trade or physical work was tainted would have been absurd to most of them. One of Jefferson's favorite stories about his father, Peter Jefferson, a man of prodigious strength,18 was that he once directed three husky slaves to pull down an old outbuilding with a rope. After they had repeatedly tried and failed, Jefferson's father "bade them stand aside, seized the rope and dragged down the structure in aninstant." It is difficult to believe that the man who repeated this story could be contemptuous of physical work.
In constructing their own homes, Thornton and Jefferson were much closer to modern owner-builders than to architects. 19 They took into their own hands the autonomy of creating shelter for themselves and their families. Because Jefferson was a planter and slaveowner, a member of the Old Dominion landed gentry, it might be thought that he had little in common with those men and women two hundred years later who also design and build their own houses. But this is not the case. The difficulties he faced in planning and executing the construction of his house are a paradigm of what every owner-builder overcomes in building a home. Allowing for the differences of two centuries of cultural change, Jefferson experienced all of the successes and failures, the triumphs and mistakes, the rewards and frustrations of twentieth-century house builders. One of his spiritual sons was to write some fifty years later, "It avails not, time nor place--distance avails not, / I am with you, men and women of a generation or ever so many generations hence." Like those of Walt Whitman, Jefferson's experiences have leaped the ages. His white-domed mansion, with its classical porticoes echoing the grandeur that was Rome, belies the mundane stuff of which it was made. Its brick walls, burnished with the patina of as many years as have yellowed the Declaration of Independence, were molded of mud from the mountain on which it stands. Its finely wrought architraves are from trees felled nearby. Its designer and maker, like his descendants across the centuries, was troubled by finances, could not find skilled labor, had to search for special building materials, and was frustrated to the very edge of his well-tempered emotional restraints by the creeping pace, the snail-crawl progress, the endless delays, the foreverness of it all.
But to say that Thomas Jefferson was simply among the first of millions of Americans who designed and built their own homes, or that Monticello is a typical, if somewhat large, example of domestic architecture, is to deny the palpable genius of the man. He was larger than life in most things he did--America's outstanding example of a Renaissance man in an age that produced more than its share. As in virtually everything he attempted, Jefferson's lifelong involvement in rendering into reality the house of his creative imagination was heroicin scale. Most owner-builders take inordinate lengths of time to complete their projects; Jefferson took fifty-four years. Many owner-builders construct dwellings larger than necessary; Jefferson, a widower, built a thirty-five-room mansion. Owner-builders invariably extemporize as they build, adding to and modifying their original design as the house grows. Jefferson built one house, tore much of it down, doubled its size, and continued to alter, remodel, improve, and add to it for decades. It is a wonder that the house was ever finally completed; many thought it never would be. One of those was probably William Thornton.
Anna Maria and William Thornton apparently had a very good marriage. Although there were no children, they shared artistic interests, enjoyed reading and entertaining, and took mutual pleasure in the farm they owned outside of Washington. In a fit of depression, she did once confess to her diary that "this little journal is rather an account of my husband's transactions than mine ... . There is so little variety in our life 20 that I have nothing worth recording." But the diary then continues with the rounds of visits, teas, dinners, and shopping trips that consumed her days. At times she became impatient with her social obligations. After a tea at her house, for example, where she was forced to play the piano with a nagging headache, she concluded that "tea drinking is very stupid."21 On another occasion, she sat uncomfortably through a student musical and left with the opinion that "it was intolerably stupid." Then there was the time she and Thornton went with Dolley Madison "to hear a madman preach." They walked out after ten minutes.
Thornton was apparently not at home as much as she would have liked--his many interests pulled him away on business trips constantly--but she and her husband seemed to share a full and varied life together. Her comments in her diary about Monticello, therefore, undoubtedly reflect not only her own, but the opinions of her architect husband as well.
After examining the floor plans with her husband and Jefferson and taking a daylight tour of the house and grounds, Mrs. Thornton thought that the inside of the house would be "handsome and convenient" 22 when it was finished. "The President intends completing itnext summer," she wrote. It was not completed the next summer, in spite of Jefferson's best intentions, nor the summer after that, nor the one after that. It was seven years later, in 1809, that the interior of the house was completed in roughly the state it appears today, but the porticoes on the exterior were not finished until 1823. Mrs. Thornton (and probably her husband), after being told how long Jefferson had been working on the house, came to this conclusion: "Mr. J. has been 27 years engaged in improving the plans, but he has pulled down and built up again so often, that nothing is completed, nor do I think ever will be. A great deal of money has been expended, both above and below grounds, but not so as to appear to the best advantage." To take this much time on a house, and still have it in the condition that Mrs. Thornton described, would appear to confirm her conclusion that the President was "a very long time maturing his projects." Moreover, the house had been so long exposed to the weather, unpainted, that even those parts of it that had been finished were badly deteriorating. After walking around the exterior of the house and observing the condition of the wood trim, door jambs, and window sashes, Mrs. Thornton observed, "he has altered his plan so frequently, pulled down and built, that in many parts ... it looks like a house going to decay from the length of time it has been created."
The same conclusion was reached by another Thornton. The British charge d'affaires Edward Thornton, who was also one of Jefferson's guests during Mr. and Mrs. Thornton's visit (but was no relation to them), commented critically that the house was in a "state of commencement and decay,"23 and added that only in Virginia did people inhabit an unfinished house "till it is falling around their ears." Obviously, this was not the way it was done in England. Even Jefferson himself had admitted earlier, in 1796, when he first began rebuilding Monticello, that "during a war of 8 years 24 and my subsequent absence of 10 years [my house had] gone into almost total decay. I am now engaged in repairing, altering & finishing it."
In his campaign to complete the house, his first priority was to alter rather than repair it. He might have first repaired the deteriorated woodwork in those parts of the house that remained from the older, original building. Those were the rooms on the western--the domed--side of the house, the face that is turned toward the mountains. Thiswas also the weather side, the portion of the structure that took the brunt of cold fronts that swept over the mountaintops during winter months, and thunderstorms that punctuated the summer. It was no wonder the woodwork, unpainted and unrepaired for some twenty years or more, was ravaged by neglect.
Instead of repairing this first, and thereby giving at least part of the house a respectable appearance, Jefferson chose to proceed with his plan for enlarging the house to more than double its original size. His reasons would be readily understood by anyone who has ever built a house. The repair work required finished carpentry, but the additions called for a great amount of masonry work--the cellars and walls had to be built--and rough carpentry for framing floors and roofs. Workmen had to be hired and used the same way they are today: teams of specialists were assembled to work on each house system sequentially. Masons were followed by carpenters, who in turn were followed by plasterers, joiners, and finally painters. Hiring workers out of sequence for a repair job is expensive, and in Jefferson's Virginia, where there was a shortage of skilled tradesmen, it was often impossible. To paint deteriorated woodwork, for example, would have meant bringing a painter to Monticello, arranging for his housing and board, and then letting him go, only to rehire him again when newly completed work was ready. Instead, he chose the only rational alternative, to postpone repairs on badly weathered woodwork until the new construction had reached a parallel state of completion, and then to complete the repairs.
Mrs. Thornton's belief that Jefferson never would finish his house was not an unreasonable assumption. If, after twenty-seven years of building (the figure was obviously the estimate Jefferson gave her, based on the number of years he actually was in residence at Monticello and doing some kind of building), the house was still in its present condition of simultaneous incompleteness and disrepair, there were not enough years left in the life of a nearly sixty-year-old man ever to finish. But Jefferson proved her wrong: during his presidency, he made slow but steady progress, for the first time regularly returning to Monticello from Washington twice a year every year. Moreover, he acquired, for the first time, some excellent, dependable craftsmen who could be trusted to work on their own initiative. And he lived to be eighty-three.
Anna Maria Thornton was an avid reader, but like many literate women of her generation, she was largely self-taught. Her commonplace book contains careful lists of those books she owned, those she had read, and those she desired to read. Her taste in reading was impressively varied--history, drama, biography, geography, poetry, and some fiction. She read and wrote French, and was particularly fond of French drama. She had been looking forward to browsing in Jefferson's library, which she had heard was "one of the best private libraries on the continent." But she learned what every guest at Monticello quickly discovered, that no one but Jefferson had access to his private quarters. Although there were three inside doors to this suite, they were all kept locked, and only the door from the entrance hall to his bedroom-library was used by Jefferson. To get to the library, guests had to be personally escorted by their host.
Mrs. Thornton wrote in her diary that on the first day of her visit she found the library suite "constantly locked, 25 and I have been disappointed much by not being able to get in today." On the following day, however, Jefferson invited her, and no doubt her husband, into the library. He probably also showed the Thorntons his adjoining bedroom. Mrs. Thornton would have observed that the room was two stories high, illuminated by a skylight. The bed was located in an alcove between the bedroom and the adjoining study; over the alcove was a small room with three oval windows, something like a ship's portholes. This was Jefferson's clothes closet, which was reached by a small ladder at the head of the bed. Typically, Jefferson designed this closet with an eye to the future. Structurally, it would allow him to build another room above the bedroom if he ever wanted to in the future. Like most rooms in the house, this too was being worked on.
Walking through the doorway at the foot of the bed-alcove, the Thorntons would have entered the study--he called it the cabinet--one of the half-octagon rooms on the southwest corner of the house. This room, its opposite semi-octagon room on the southeast corner, and the "south square room"--an adjoining bedroom that had been converted into a book room--were Jefferson's library-study suite. The first thing that Mrs. Thornton would have noticed was that there were more books, all neatly shelved, than she had ever seen in a private home in her life.
This library, which numbered some six thousand volumes, was the second of what was to be a total of three collections Jefferson compiled for himself during his lifetime. When the British burned the Library of Congress in the sack of Washington in 1814, Jefferson sold his library, the one Anna Maria now admired, and this became the nucleus of the new Library of Congress collection. After selling his books, for the bargain price of $23,950, Jefferson immediately began a new, much more specialized collection, one that numbered more than a thousand volumes at his death.
His first library, books he had inherited from his father and those he had purchased throughout his college years and during his early days as a lawyer, were destroyed when Shadwell, his ancestral home, burned in 1770. He immediately began purchasing books at a frantic pace to build his second and greatest library. Thirteen years later, he catalogued it; in 1783, he had 2,640 volumes, an average purchase of 200 books a year. This was in an era when a good private library of a Virginia planter numbered no more than a few hundred volumes. Jefferson more than doubled his library during the five years he spent in Europe. When he offered his collection to the Library of Congress, he wrote to Samuel Harrison Smith and described how he had haunted the bookstores of Paris during his stay in France:
While residing in Paris, 26 I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science. Besides this, I had standing orders during the whole time I was in Europe, on its principal book-marts, particularly Amsterdam, Frankfort, Madrid, and London, for such works relating to America as could not be found in Paris.
The volumes that Mrs. Thornton gazed upon that morning, as she ran her eyes over the shelves of books, floor to ceiling, covering every available bit of wall space in the suite, were the result of a massive, self-indulgent gorging by one of the most omnivorous book collectors the nation had yet produced.
It is not surprising that Thomas Jefferson was a collector of books because from his earliest youth he was a collector of knowledge, and books were its repository. He was what we would now term a compulsive personality; he retained, either physically or in his Memorandum Books, virtually everything that passed through his hands during his entire life. The Memorandum Books record, over a period of nearly sixty years, a daily note of every cent he spent or acquired, as well as jottings about the trivial events that most people allow to fall through the grates of memory into oblivion. Yet, what seems to observers of these daily records to be meaningless quotidian trivia, often conceals a long-term methodology. There is a record, for example, of his counting the number of garden peas that make a pint-2,500. One puzzles over the kind of personality that would engage in and record this kind of event. But he was as ardent a gardener as he was a reader, and this record allowed him to determine the exact number of rows of peas 27 that a pint of seed would produce. And peas were his favorite vegetable. While in Washington he recorded, over a period of eight years, the days of the month of the earliest and latest appearance of some thirty-seven varieties of fruit and vegetables at the Washington vegetable market. One asks, what earthly reason could have motivated him to seek this information? The response is that the data enabled him to compare the agricultural climate of Washington with that of other parts of the country, particularly with Monticello, where he kept parallel accounts of the harvest dates of a long list of garden products.
But this explanation is still not satisfactory; the information he gleaned from this experiment does not justify the amount of energy expended over an incredibly long period of time. Assembling data of this sort had to be an end in itself for Jefferson, just as his collection of books was more than a convenient library of knowledge. Collecting odd pieces of data and fitting these meaningless bits into a rational system was a way of structuring and ordering his personal universe. He was a man who demanded of his life the same symmetry he found in the Newtonian universe he believed in so explicitly. This could not simply be because he was a product of the European Enlightenment and its worship of reason--Franklin swam in these same intellectual currents, yet he lacked Jefferson's compulsive need for order. It was, perhaps, because of an offset, a dissociation at the very coreof his personality, which had to be balanced with the weights of systems.
Even his library had been fashioned by Jefferson into a selfcontained cosmos, a Monticellean microsystem. Most eighteenth-century private libraries were arranged by size--folios, quartos, octavos, and duodecimos were gathered together on shelves of a suitable dimension. If any attempt at all was made to classify books, it was done by such broad categories as literature, history, politics, or natural philosophy. Indeed, it was done the way most home libraries are arranged today. Jefferson, on the other hand, devised an extended system of classification based on the Baconian structure of knowledge. This system, divided into forty-four subject categories, was the formula adopted and used by the Library of Congress for a hundred years after Jefferson sold his books--arranged according to his classification system--to the federal government.
Because books were such an important part of his intellectual life--"I cannot live without books,"28 he once wrote--he gave a great deal of thought to their physical storage. His foremost need was to be able to locate any single book instantly; his classification system accomplished this. But there were other practical matters to be dealt with. Bookshelves had to be built and fitted into rooms that were poorly designed for a library. The ideal room for a library is a simple rectangle with no windows or doors, allowing all four walls to be shelved floor to ceiling. Jefferson's library-study suite included a pair of semi-octagons with doors, windows, an alcove bed, and a fireplace consuming valuable space. The remaining wall space was odd-sized, with no wall longer than 6½ feet. The length of the cases could not be standardized, but had to be custom-constructed to fit each wall space. This suite might have accommodated the library Jefferson owned when he designed it, but his appetite for books rapidly outstripped the amount of space he had to store them in, and his library, when Mrs. Thornton entered it, was badly cramped. Every inch of available wall space was covered with bookshelves.
The construction of these bookcases was utilitarian; they were built of pine in the Monticello cabinet shop under the supervision of John Hemings, one of the most talented of Jefferson's artisan slaves. The cases themselves were cleverly designed to utilize space mostefficiently. Each case, approximately nine feet high, was a series of individual book boxes 29 stacked atop each other. The bottom of the case was designed to hold folios, the largest of Jefferson's books; it was thirteen inches deep and consisted of two boxes. The second tier of three boxes was designed for quartos; they were approximately seven inches deep. The top three boxes were less than six inches deep, and held the smallest volumes. Even with Jefferson's rather complex system of classification, he still arranged books, within each category of the system, according to size in order to conserve precious space. Jefferson owned several bookcases of fine wood, including a "mahogany book case with glass doors,"30 and two walnut cases. As his library rapidly grew, however, he abandoned any attempt at shelving his books in pieces of fine furniture. He chose instead to shelve his book collection as it expanded, adding small inexpensive cases that could be moved and handled easily as they were needed. Moreover, when his collection was finally sold to the Library of Congress (he had always planned to bequeath it to some public institution, for he felt it was improper for a single individual to hoard so valuable an intellectual property), he was not left with rooms filled with empty, fixed bookshelves. The books were moved to Washington packed in the cases upon which they rested in Jefferson's rooms, their classification system intact. Lids were simply nailed over the fronts of the cases, making them into sturdy packing boxes. Because the cases were inexpensive pine, they were expendable as furniture, and with their removal, the library rooms could be readily put to new use.
After Anna Maria Thornton had made herself comfortable in one of the library chairs, Jefferson brought to her several volumes of architectural engravings of the antiquities of Greece and Rome. For most owners of them, these expensive works were the equivalent of the modern coffee-table book. In an age before the invention of the camera, etched or engraved prints, with their exquisitely wrought fine line, could approximate a black-and-white photograph in detail and modeling. During most of the eighteenth century, amateur archaeologists had fanned out from England, France, and Germany to the far reaches of Attica and the Roman empire to measure and record in drawings the fabled ruins of the past. The books they produced took cultivated Europeans by storm; never before had the architectural andsculptural grandeurs of antiquity, so loved and admired in the abstract, been made readily available for after-dinner perusal in handsome folio form by ladies and gentlemen of taste. For Jefferson, however, they were more than handsome books to page through and admire. Because the architecture of Rome was the model for his own construction plans, these books, 31 along with the works of Palladio and the English Palladians, were scriptural texts for what was beautiful and right. And he no doubt studied them with the same care that he had exercised as a young law student in mastering his Blackstone and Coke.
One of the folios that impressed Mrs. Thornton, for she mentioned it that night in her diary, was Robert Wood's The Ruins of Balbec, which contained a number of fine prints of the remains of the Roman city of Heliopolis at Baalbek in present-day Lebanon. Because she was French, Jefferson may also have shown her his copy of Antoine Desgodets's Edifices Antiques de Rome, which he had purchased during his stay in France. This work, with its measured drawings of such Roman monuments as the Pantheon, the Temple of Vesta, the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Constantine, and the Colosseum, was used by Jefferson as a pattern book for the architraves of a number of Monticello's rooms. And he may have taken down from the shelf his copy of Charles-Louis Clérisseau's Antiquites de la France, a book he purchased from Clérisseau himself. This work illustrated the Maison Carrée at Nîmes, still one of the best preserved of all Roman buildings. So infatuated was Jefferson by this temple when he visited it in 1787 during a tour of southern France, that he used it as the model for the Virginia state capitol. It was in part because of Clérisseau's book that Jefferson chose him as a collaborator on the design of the capitol at Richmond.
Mrs. Thornton spent the rest of the day reading in the Monticello library until it was time for her to dress for dinner. She could be expected to arrive at the dining table stylishly attired; even while traveling she wore the latest fashions. On one of her later trips to Virginia, she confessed in her diary how she embarrassed herself at a ferry crossing: "Stepping into the boat,"32 she wrote " ... I fell flat into it in consequence of my petticoat being too fashionably narrow." Apparently incidents such as this prompted her to change her mind about her travel wardrobe. A year later, she wrote a reminder to herself thatshe had been in the habit of taking "too many clothes," 33 and added acerbically, "at least for the part of the world we have been in." She included several items of summary wisdom gleaned from years of travel in rural America, advice that is as timeless as it is universally unheeded: "In going on a journey take as little baggage as possible." Among indispensable items are "a pair of sheets and pillow cases, lavender water, biscuits in the carriage, as the stages are very far apart," and for undressing in rooms where there was little privacy--a frequent inconvenience on the road in eighteenth-century America--"take a long wrapper from head to feet." As gifts, "take little books to give to smart children," but as for herself and her husband, she concluded that they traveled with "too many books." She also decided that chessmen were unnecessary.
Apparently, Mrs. Thornton was not as much a lover of chess as was her husband. Chess was played frequently at their home in Washington, and it was played at Monticello throughout her stay. Jefferson did not believe in gambling, although he had done a little in his youth, and he did not permit cards--the universal gambling 34 game in Virginia--to be played at Monticello. Chess, on the other hand, is a game of skill that appeals both to the intellect and to the architectonic imagination; it was one of his favorite amusements. Chess had become enormously popular among the intelligentsia in France and England during the eighteenth century--Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau were passionate players, and the coffee houses of London resounded with cries of "Check!"35 Jefferson had been in France during the final years of the great French chessmaster François Philidor, who astounded his countrymen by playing--it was the first time it had ever been done--as many as three games simultaneously while blindfolded. (In December 1801, Jefferson requested his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph to send him "Philidor on chess 36 which you will find in the book room.") Jefferson no doubt played chess often in the salons of Paris while he was minister plenipotentiary to France, and he played in Washington during his presidency. In his old age he told a visitor to Monticello, "I played with Dr. Franklin 37 at chess, and was equal to him at the game." He purchased two chess 38 sets in France, one a "light neat pattern" for his friend Francis Eppes, the other for himself, although he already had three sets at home. Several of these sets have survived; two can be seen at Monticello.
In spite of bad weather, Mrs. Thornton, no doubt with her husband and several other of the visitors, got out of the house the next day, Wednesday, for a stroll over the first roundabout. "Took a walk of half a mile 39 which has been made around the Hill, this through the trees," she wrote that night. "Below there is another of two miles." This may have been the day she also took paper and paint to the lawn on the west side of the house and started a watercolor of Monticello, 40 one of the few records of the appearance of the house at this time. She attempted to paint not what she saw, but what the house would look like when finished. Since the north pavilion was not yet built, and the porticoes and steps were incomplete, she must have consulted Jefferson's plans. (She inadvertently drew five columns instead of six on the portico; only four temporary supports were in place.)
What Mrs. Thornton would have observed on her walk was a plantation designed unlike any she had ever before seen. The appearance of an eighteenth-century house from the outside is deceptive; it seems little different from its twentieth-century counterpart. In fact, there are many contemporary homes, built in the Georgian style, that could pass for James River plantation dwellings on the exterior. Inside, however, there are worlds of differences. The utility core of a modern house is entirely missing from eighteenth-century dwellings; there is no kitchen, no pantry, no bathrooms, no laundry room, no storage rooms, no servants' quarters. All of these utility spaces are invariably set apart from the main structure, in separate buildings known as dependencies or offices.
The rooms inside the main dwelling are those for sleeping, dining, entertainment, and leisure. The reasons for the separation under different roofs of the two functions, the living and the utilitarian, had to do with considerations that were both practical and aesthetic. The main reason for having cooking facilities under a separate roof was because of the very real danger of fire. Cooking in an open fireplace presented a constant hazard because a fire had to be maintained and tended during the entire year, virtually night and day. This sustained, intense heat caused the hearth and chimney masonry to deteriorate rapidly. Chimney flue fires, as well as those caused by carelessness--slaves had the reputation of showing inadequate respect for fire--accounted for the frequent loss of kitchen buildings in colonial America. If the kitchen was located in the main house, all would be goneinstead of only one outbuilding. For this reason, the kitchen building was usually separated as far from the main dwelling as was consistent with keeping food warm as it was carried from kitchen to dining table in all kinds of weather.
Aesthetic considerations were equally important. In an age with no refrigeration, where sanitary conditions were often primitive, when all foodstuffs had to be processed on the premises, the sounds and particularly the smells of food preparation as well as of laundry, horses, and waste disposal, were ubiquitous. An absence of offensive odors was one of the marks of civilized living, and if disagreeable smells could not be entirely removed, they were masked by generous applications of perfume and toilet water--by both men and women. (This explains Mrs. Thornton's reminder to herself never to travel without lavender water.) Getting the noise and stench out of the house was usually accomplished by constructing a series of outbuildings clustered around the central dwelling, each building usually satisfying a single function--kitchen, laundry, stable, carriage house, storerooms, icehouse, pantry, smokehouse, and privy. Slave quarters were usually located farthest from the house. The result was a series of architecturally nondescript buildings scattered in the vicinity of the main residence, their chief distinction often being their randomness.
When Anna Maria Thornton took her walk around the first roundabout, she was able to observe how Thomas Jefferson had solved the aesthetic problems associated with dependencies. Extending from the main house on each side were two L-shaped wings that, combined with the central residence, formed a U facing the western mountains. Anchoring each end of the U would be two small buildings or pavilions; between them, in balanced wings on each side of the house, most of the dependencies were to be located. Not only did this ingenious arrangement of outbuildings create an ordered architectural symmetry, the kind favored by Jefferson's architectural mentor, Palladio, but the contour of the mountaintop made it possible to construct all of the dependencies partially underground so that they could not be seen--or heard or smelled--from the main house.
Of course, like virtually everything else at Monticello, the dependencies were not yet completed, although work was in progress on them, and the south wing was close to being finished. The southpavilion, a twenty-foot-square, single-room brick building at the end of the south wing, had been the first structure completed at Monticello. This was where Jefferson and his bride, Martha Wayles Skelton, lived when they first arrived at their new home in 1772. Then, as in 1802, the mountaintop was a construction site. In 1801, a year before the Thorntons' visit, Jefferson had begun construction of the dependencies connecting the south pavilion with the mansion, and this series of joined rooms, which included the kitchen, smokehouse, dairy, and slave quarters, had just recently been completed to the intersection of the L. The short section connecting the dependencies to the house, an all-weather, covered passage, was still incomplete.
Mrs. Thornton would have been particularly impressed with the new kitchen. She enjoyed entertaining and cooking; her commonplace book includes a number of her favorite recipes, including potato pudding, vegetable soup, crabs and lobster, pot au feu, marrow pastries, custards, and pound cake. The kitchen in her Washington town house, however, was located in the basement. It was not only dark and damp, but it "inundated" several times a year after heavy rains. One time, four men had to be hired to bail water out. The new Monticello kitchen was spacious, well-lit, and because it faced south, would be sunny during the cold winter months. Most important, however, for those who had to carry food as well as those who ate it, the kitchen was much closer to the main house than when it was located under the south pavilion.
The north-wing dependencies were still under construction; work was currently being done on an icehouse. The north pavilion, the outbuilding matching the one on the south, would not be started for a number of years.
Mrs. Thornton's walk also took her past Mulberry Row, a plantation street on the south side of the first roundabout. In 1771, shortly after he began building at Monticello, Jefferson had planted the mulberry trees that gave the street its name. As everywhere else on the mountaintop, Mulberry Row was also in the process of transformation. Before the south dependencies were completed, Mulberry Row had been not only the manufacturing and shop center of the plantation, but also the living quarters for the house slaves, 41 those who worked in and around the mansion. With the completion of the southeast wing,these slaves moved into new, improved quarters. These rooms were of brick, well lighted, and certainly much more comfortable in poor weather than the log cabins the house servants had been living in on Mulberry Row. Some of the now-empty log houses, utility buildings, and privies would later be dismantled.
There were a number of other outbuildings along Mulberry Row, including several that played a crucial part in the operation of a plantation as large as Jefferson's. The stable, for instance, was as important to an early American dwelling as a garage is to a modern one. This was particularly true among Virginia gentry, who not only rode horses and had them pull their coaches and carriages, but also bred them, traded them, bought and sold them, gambled on them, and talked about them incessantly. Virginians were no doubt as boring on the subject of breeding and racing horses as modern sports car enthusiasts are on the subject of fast machinery. Jefferson was as much an admirer of horseflesh as any other Virginia aristocrat. Throughout his life, his stables contained some of the finest-blooded horses in his part of the country.
The other buildings along Mulberry Row housed the important industrial activities of the plantation. Jefferson went into the business of manufacturing and selling nails in 1794 and continued at it, on and off, for most of his life. The nail manufacturing was attached to the blacksmith shop in a single wooden building, but the two were now being separated, the smith shop to be relocated to a new position on the roundabout. As Mrs. Thornton and her party of strollers passed Mulberry Row, they may have looked in on the nailery and exchanged pleasantries with some of the workers there, nearly all slave boys between the ages often and sixteen. Jefferson employed male children in his nailshop before they were old enough to do field work or be trained for a trade.
When the party of strollers returned to the house, the Thorntons made preparations to leave next day, Mrs. Thornton being anxious to continue her journey. A violent storm, however, prevented departure. "Rained all the day--chilly and damp,"42 she wrote. She spent the day reading a French opera. "Miss Randolph," the sister of Jefferson's son-in-law, "and the gentlemen play[ed] at chess almost all day and evening." The next morning, the weather cleared enough for the party to leave on the trip that was to take them back to Washington. Onthe way, they visited several of the scenic attractions in the area, Weyer's and Madison caves and the Natural Bridge. The Thorntons no doubt learned much about the Natural Bridge from Jefferson before their departure. He was one of its most enthusiastic admirers, so much so that some years back he had purchased it.
This was not the last time that Anna Maria Thornton would visit Monticello; she returned again four years later in 1806 and found "the house and grounds amazingly improved 43 since we were here before. It is now quite a handsome place." Her impressions of her week-long stay in 1802 had been vivid ones, heightened no doubt by the fact that she was the guest of the President of the United States. After her return to Washington, she gathered together her diary entries and, in a flawless calligraphic hand, copied the following entry into her commonplace book, one of the most candid contemporary descriptions of Jefferson's mountaintop estate to come down to us:
The seat of Thomas Jefferson (president of the United States) is situated in Albemarle County in Virginia. The House,placed on the summit of a conical Mountain, on an elliptical level, formed by art, commands a very grand, uncommon and extensive view. The small town of Charlottesville, and a little winding river called the Ravenna [Rivanna], with a view of the Blue ridge & even more distant mountains, form a beautiful scene on the north side of the house. On the West there is [a] high mountain covered with wood, and on the other sides a varied appearance of mountains and distant country. The house is of brick, but in an unfinished state, tho' commenced 27 years ago; the ground plan is a good one, & the elevation may look very well if ever completed, but Mr. Jefferson has so frequently changed his plan, & pulled down & rebuilt so often that it has generally more the appearance of a house going to decay from the length of time it has been erected, than an unfinished building. A great deal of money must have been expended both above & below ground, but not so as to appear to the best advantage. The grounds are very little improved, except the level on the top of the mountain, & two walks, one of ½ mile, the other of two miles encircling the mountain. The whole is in a state of rude nature. There is something rather grand & awful, than agreeable or convenient in the whole place, a situation you would rather look at now & then than inhabit. AMT 1802.
Copyright ©1988 by John McLaughlin
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