How a Jewish navy veteran and his descendants saved one of America's most recognizable architectural landmarks
|Publisher:||University of Virginia Press|
|Edition description:||1ST UNIVER|
|Product dimensions:||6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Marc Leepson is the author of nine books, including biographies of the Marquis de Lafayette and Francis Scott Key. His work has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, and he is a contributor to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Stealing Monticello
I am happy no where else and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson, August 12, 1787
Description: Brick, Flemish bond; two stories disguised to look as one; porticos front and rear, with octagonal dome on roof. Plan complicated by additions made to original building by Jefferson after his return from France. Much fine interior woodwork.
Historic American Buildings Survey For Monticello, November 2, 1940
Thomas Jefferson, the original American Renaissance man, began clearing the land atop a small mountaintop to build the house of his dreams in 1768. He was twenty-five years old. The heavily wooded land three miles outside of Charlottesville in Albemarle County, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains was part of the thousands of acres of land he had inherited in 1764 from his father, Peter Jefferson, a self-made cartographer, surveyor, landowner, and prominent citizen of Albemarle who married into one of the most powerful colonial American families, the Randolphs of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, his father's Albemarle County plantation. Since childhood Jefferson had dreamed of building a house on top of a nearby 560-foot mountain a radical idea at a time when most Virginia plantation homes were built in the low-lying, tobacco-growing Tidewater region. The name he selected for the site was "Monticello," Italian for hillock or small mountain. Jefferson designed the building based on his study of ancient particularly Roman architecture, and on the ideas of the great Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580).
Construction of Monticello began in 1769. A team of masons, carpenters, and joiners did the work. Some were white; others were Jefferson's slaves (he referred to them as "servants") who lived on the site along what became known as Mulberry Row. Jefferson himself moved to the small mountain in 1770 after Shadwell burned to the ground in a fire.
Some of the bricks and nails the workers used were forged on the mountaintop. The wood and stone used for the cellars and the columns on the East front and the limestone to make mortar came from Jefferson's own extensive estates. The window glass was imported from Europe.
Jefferson spent many years fine tuning the design for the house. In 1796 he tore up his original plans, and created new ones incorporating architectural ideas he was exposed to during the four years (1784-1789) he spent in Paris, first as American trade commissioner, and later as Minister to the Court of Louis XVI. By 1809, at the end of his second term as president when he came home from Washington to live full time at Monticello, the mansion was essentially complete.
The result was a 10,660-square-foot, twenty-room Roman neoclassical building with distinctly Jeffersonian touches. "The influence was Palladian, the immediate example was French, but viewed from any possible position Monticello was Jeffersonian," said longtime Monticello curator James A. Bear, Jr. Jefferson shaped every aspect of the house, inside and out, from the window draperies to the Windsor chairs. Jefferson packed the place with an impressive art collection, a library of books that grew to nearly seven thousand volumes in seven languages, and an enormous amount of household objects and fittings.
Most of the interior furnishings came from France in a shipment of 86 crates of furniture, silverware, glassware, china, wall paper, fabrics, books, portraits and other works of art, and household goods. As Monticello's curator Susan Stein says, during his years in France, Jefferson "shopped for a lifetime."
Included in this shipment of treasures were sixty-three paintings by different artists and seven terra-cotta plaster busts by the foremost French sculptor of the day, Jean-Antoine Houdon. Jefferson's European treasure trove also contained four dozen chairs, two sofas, six mirrors, assorted tables, four marble tabletops, and four full-length mirrors. Jefferson added more to this auspicious collection including eighteen chairs, six mirrors, several beds and tables from the top craftsmen in Williamsburg, New York, Philadelphia, and London.
Jefferson crammed Monticello's rooms with artwork, sculpture, archeological specimens, musical and scientific instruments, Indian artifacts, and objets d'art of all kinds. He designed features found in few homes in eighteenth-century America: two-story high ceilings, a dome the first on an American house beds tucked in alcoves, skylights, indoor "privies," extremely narrow staircases. Other one-of-a-kind interior touches included a dumbwaiter to carry wine from the cellar to the dining room and the enormous seven-day great clock framing the door of the entrance hall.
Jefferson the nation's third president and the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence was described by the Marquis de Chastellux in 1782 as a "Musician, Draftsman, Surveyor, Astronomer, Natural Philosopher, Jurist and Statesman." Jefferson was that and much more.
He also studied botany, agriculture, forestry, viticulture, and landscape architecture. Monticello's grounds which have been likened to an "ornamental working farm" were extremely well planned. Jefferson turned the wild hardwood forest on the mountaintop into a park with broad lawns and flowerbeds, and carved out an ornamental forest he called the Grove. He divided the surrounding three hundred acres into seven fields, each of which he planted in a different crop, rotating the crops annually. They were pleasingly and practically separated with rows of peach trees, numbering in the hundreds.
He selected many more fruit and shade trees, shrubs, and other plants at Main's nursery near Washington and personally laid out the flower beds surrounding the house. He imported seeds from Italy, from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and from the top nurseries in Virginia, Philadelphia, Washington, and South Carolina. He planted dozens of varieties of fruit trees, including peaches, apples, cherries, apricots, nectarines, quinces, plums, and pears. He cultivated Seville orange trees, which he brought indoors during the winter, and imported olive trees from Italy and southern France.
Jefferson built a thousand-foot-long, three-terraced "kitchen" vegetable garden, with twenty-four beds divided into "Fruits, Roots, and Leaves." There he grew some 250 varieties of vegetables, including beans and corn from seeds brought to him by Lewis and Clark, seventeen kinds of peas, white eggplant, and purple broccoli.
Monticello was "an artistic achievement of the first order," in the words of Jefferson scholar Merrill D. Peterson, but it was a seriously flawed achievement. All was not well when the nation's third president came to live at Monticello full time on March 15, 1809. The debts he had accumulated before becoming president in 1801 still weighed heavily. While Jefferson had managed to pay off many of his pre-Revolutionary debts to British firms out of his not-insignificant $25,000 annual presidential salary, the interest that had accumulated on the remaining debts was crippling.
Jefferson owed his creditors about $11,000 when he bid farewell to Washington, D.C., and headed home. That amount was not troubling to him, even though there was no presidential pension plan. Jefferson believed that he could easily repay what he owed from the income he would earn from his farming operations at Monticello and his other Virginia properties, which included the nearby farms of Shadwell, Tufton, and Lego in Albemarle County and Poplar Forest in Bedford County.
There was reason to be optimistic. Jefferson owned a total of some 10,000 acres, about half of it in Albemarle County and the remainder in nearby Bedford County, including his country retreat at the Poplar Forest plantation. He also owned the 157-acre Natural Bridge to the west in Rockbridge County in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Jefferson had bought that scenic property from King George III for twenty shillings in 1774. The plan was to earn money from travelers who came there to see the spectacular natural rock bridge formation. Jefferson took the first step in that direction in 1803 by building a two-room log cabin on the site. He also owned several building lots, including one in Richmond. He expected to reap further dividends from the two gristmills he owned on the Rivanna River, which he expected to produce more than a thousand dollars in income a year.
But Jefferson's financial problems worsened after he moved to Monticello. His farming operations rarely did anything but lose money due to periodic droughts, crop failures, and depressed crop prices. The mills were poorly managed and their hoped-for revenues never materialized. Jefferson's debts mounted, augmented by growing sums he owed to Charlottesville-area merchants from whom he bought everything from tea and coffee for his household to salt fish and "Negro cloth" for the more than two hundred slaves he owned.
He was also burdened financially by his generous hospitality and family responsibilities. Jefferson's wife Martha had died in 1782, but his adult children, his grandchildren, his sisters and their children, and various other relatives and friends spent long periods of time in residence at Monticello, especially after 1815. By all accounts, Jefferson was hospitable to other visitors as well, some who venerated the man, and others who sought him out for favors. They included artists and writers, traveling merchants, would-be biographers, adventurers, and the just plain curious. The list included noted figures such as Daniel Webster, the Marquis de Lafayette, James Madison, and Jefferson's Albemarle County neighbor, James Monroe. The well-heeled came with horses, servants, and family members. Sometimes he found himself hosting as many as fifty guests at a time.
The domestic manager of the sprawling household during Jefferson's post-presidency retirement was his eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, whom Jefferson called "Patsy." Martha had joined the household in 1809, with her children and her husband, Col. Thomas Mann Randolph a notoriously inept businessman who was constantly in financial straits. There she continued her role as hostess and female household head that she had begun in Washington.
Jefferson's financial situation deteriorated further after the War of 1812. His expenses continued to outstrip his income and he was forced to take on additional loans, while continuing to make interest payments. In 1815, his farming operations were particularly hard hit by a severe drought. That spring, Jefferson turned the management of his Albemarle County farms over to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, his eldest and favorite grandson. By all accounts Jeff Randolph was trustworthy and extremely competent in business matters, especially compared to his dissolute father.
But even with the good management of his grandson, Jefferson's financial woes continued. He experienced some relief in 1815 when Congress, after a spirited debate and by a small majority, agreed to buy his library of 6,487 books for $23,950. Jefferson had offered the books the largest personal collection in the country to the nation in September soon after he learned that British troops had burned the congressional library in Washington a month earlier. Because of his generous offer to expand the library, Jefferson has been known as the father of the Library of Congress, which had started in 1800 and had consisted of some three thousand volumes before the disastrous fire. A Library of Congress exhibit on Jefferson in 2000 included a re-creation of the library Jefferson sold to the nation in 1815. It filled twenty twelve-foot-high bookcases.
This large congressional cash infusion did little to stem Jefferson's fiscal woes. He continued to lay out lavish sums to maintain his large household. With his farms and mills providing little or no relief Jefferson was forced to borrow further and his debts mounted.
In January 1826, five months before his death, the eighty-two-year-old Jefferson came up with a plan that he believed would pay off all his debts: a state lottery. In part, the lottery idea was a reaction to his failed effort to sell off large parcels of land at a time when land prices were severely depressed. When he proposed the idea to the Virginia legislature in Richmond, Jefferson received a lukewarm reception, although several legislators floated a plan to provide him an $80,000 interest-free loan.
After the Virginia legislature's debate over the lottery made the newspapers, Jefferson's financial plight became known throughout the country. He received many letters of support, including one from James Monroe (1758-1831), the nation's fifth president who owned a large amount of land in the state and was in similar land-rich, cash-poor financial difficulties.
The publicity over Jefferson's misfortunes resulted in several unsolicited contributions, including a bank note for $7,500 from a group of admirers in New York.
But Jefferson pinned his hopes on the lottery. He let it be known that if the lottery did not work, he was prepared to sell Monticello and his mills and move to his property in Bedford County. As he put it in a February 17 letter to Madison: "If refused, I must sell everything here, perhaps considerably in Bedford, move thither with my family, where I have not even a log hut to put my head into."
A lottery bill was passed by the Virginia legislature on February 20, one in which Monticello essentially was the prize. The plan was to sell at least 11,000 lottery tickets at ten dollars each. Under the plan, Jefferson would keep Monticello for the rest of his life, but it would go to the lottery winner after his death. His daughter Martha, the head of the family, was reconciled to losing Monticello after the lottery law was passed.
When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, no lottery tickets had yet been sold.
At his death Jefferson owed his creditors $107,273.63. The largest amount by far was the $60,110 he owed to his grandson and executor of his estate, Jeff Randolph. Twenty thousand dollars of that amount represented a note Jefferson had co-signed for Jeff's late father-in-law, Wilson Cary Nicholas, and the balance was made up of expenses that Jeff Randolph paid while managing his grandfather's agricultural and other business ventures.
Jefferson's assets were not listed in his will. However, during the debate over the Jefferson lottery earlier that year, Monticello and its surrounding acres were valued at $71,000. His properties at Shadwell Mills and in Milton were deemed to be worth $41,500. The publicity over the lottery resulted in two other items in the estate's plus column: $10,000 contributions voted to Martha Randolph by the legislatures of South Carolina and Louisiana.
In his will, Jefferson gave his country retreat, Poplar Forest, to his grandson, Francis Eppes, the son of Jefferson's deceased daughter Maria and her husband (and cousin) John Wayles Eppes. Jefferson bequeathed Monticello and his remaining real estate in trust to his daughter, Martha. He named her son Jeff Randolph as his sole executor and also designated him as one of the estate's three trustees. The others were Alexander Garrett, the bursar at the University of Virginia, and Jefferson's grandson-in-law, Nicholas Philip Trist.
In a codicil to his will, Jefferson left his walking staff to James Madison. He gave watches to each of his grandchildren, and wanted his books to be donated to the University of Virginia although they later were sold, instead, to raise cash. The codicil also granted freedom to five of his slaves who had learned trades, all of whom were members of the Hemings family: Joe Fossett, Burwell Culbert, and John, Madison, and Eston Hemings. Burwell Culbert (called "Burwell" by the family), Jefferson's butler and main household servant, also received $300. All five freemen were also given houses.
Finally, Jefferson directed that his farm books, account books, and letters go to Jeff Randolph. Jefferson's collection of forty thousand letters included copies of every letter he wrote copies he made as he wrote with a device called a polygraph, which held two sheets of paper and two connected pens.
Jeff Randolph, his mother, and the trustees faced an extremely difficult task. Aside from the six-figure debt, there was the not inconsiderable problem of what to do about Monticello. Jefferson did not have enough cash to maintain the mansion properly during his retirement years. In the years leading up to his death, the house, especially the exterior, showed the strains of delayed maintenance and the continuous use by the unending parade of visitors and family members. The floors of the terrace walks had decayed and fallen in; the roof leaked badly around the skylights; the interior rooms were in need of attention.
Visitors commented on the sad state of affairs. "His house is rather old and going to decay," said Samuel Whitcomb, Jr., a bookseller who showed up to try to interest Jefferson in his wares at Monticello on May 31, 1824. "Appearances about his yard and hill are rather slovenly."
By the end of 1826, Martha Jefferson Randolph and her son decided they had only one course of action: to sell off Jefferson's lands and his household goods. They did so reluctantly. "You may suppose how unwilling we are to leave our home in a few weeks, perhaps never to return to it and how much we...prefer lingering here till the last moment," Mary Jefferson Randolph, Martha Randolph's twenty-two-year-old daughter, wrote to her older sister Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge in Boston on October 1.
Jeff Randolph placed a notice that appeared in the January 9, 1827, Richmond Enquirer under the headline "Executor's Sale." On January 15, the ad said, "the whole of the residue of the personal property of Thomas Jefferson" would be auctioned at Monticello. That included "130 valuable negroes, stock, crops &c., household and kitchen furniture."
The slaves were described as "believed to be the most valuable for their number ever offered at one time in the State of Virginia." The notice listed "many valuable historical and portrait paintings, busts of marble and plaster of distinguished individuals, one of marble of Thomas Jefferson by Caracci, with the pedestal and truncated columns on which it stands; a polygraph or copying instrument used by Thomas Jefferson, for the last twenty-five years" and "various other articles curious and useful to men of business and private families."
The sale began on January 15, 1827, and lasted five days. There is no complete record of who bought the items, but family letters reveal that Jefferson's grandchildren themselves purchased much of the furniture and furnishings. The rest was sold to friends, neighbors, and strangers who showed up for the sale at Monticello. Nearly all of the slaves were sold to Virginia buyers, many of them in Albemarle and the surrounding counties. According to an item in the newsmagazine Niles' Register, the sale brought in $47,840.
Mary Randolph wrote to Ellen on January 25 describing with great despair the siblings' feelings about the auction. "During five days that the sale lasted, you may imagine what must have been the state of our feelings, such a scene playing out actually within sight [and with people] bringing us fresh details of everything that was going on..." It is better, Mary said, "to submit to any personal inconveniences, however numerous and annoying they may be, than to live in a state of society where such things as trade are of daily occurrence..."
After the sale, Martha Randolph came back to Virginia from Boston with her young children and joined the rest of the family at Tufton where her father had built a house almost forty years earlier. Jeff Randolph had moved there with his wife Jane Nicholas and their children in 1817 and added a new wing. Virginia Randolph Trist and her husband Nicholas also left Monticello and joined the rest of the family, although they eventually resettled in Washington, D.C., after Nicholas accepted a clerkship at the State Department generously provided by Virginia-born secretary of state Henry Clay (1777-1852), who was aware of the family's financial difficulties.
Jefferson's art works and books were not part of the January 1827 auction. The family decided to market the paintings and other works of art in Boston, where they thought the collection would bring better prices than in Charlottesville. Martha Randolph's daughter Ellen and her husband Joseph Coolidge took charge. They held the sale at the Boston Athenaeum, the venerable independent library that had been founded in 1807 and which, the year before, had established an art gallery. The sale took place in July 1828 with disappointing results. Only one painting was sold.
In November, Jeff Randolph wrote to Joseph Coolidge to push for another sale. Despite Jeff's urging, it wasn't until five years later, on July 19, 1833, that the family arranged an auction of the paintings, this time at Harding's Gallery in Boston. Again, the results were disappointing; only a few paintings were sold and the total take was only about $450.
Jeff Randolph also had tried, without success, to resurrect the lottery and extend it to several states, including New York and Maryland. He gave up the lottery scheme and pinned his hopes on selling his grandfather's property including Monticello to get the estate solvent. "He hopes the property will pay all the debts and that Mama will have a comfortable support besides," Virginia said in a letter to Ellen.
Thomas Jefferson wanted his books to go to the school he founded, the University of Virginia. But, with the lottery scheme dead, Jeff Randolph decided to sell the books to raise cash to apply to the estate's debts. He sold the bulk of the collection to a Washington, D.C., bookseller in 1829. That same year Jeff Randolph sold a historically important collection of his grandfather's printed books, bound volumes, and manuscripts that dealt primarily with Virginia history to the Library of Congress. That valuable collection included early seventeenth-century Virginia colonial records, along with Jefferson's notes and commentaries on history, philosophy, and the law.
Also in 1829 Jeff Randolph again, to raise money edited and published four volumes of his grandfather's papers. Jeff Randolph fully realized the historical importance of the publication of Thomas Jefferson's Memoirs. He also had hoped that their publication would bring in cash, but he gained almost no profit from their publication.
In 1848 he sold the balance of Jefferson's public papers to the Library of Congress for $20,000. Those funds went toward paying off the estate's debt, which was not completely settled until 1878, three years after his own death.
While Jeff Randolph was scrambling to raise cash in the years after Thomas Jefferson's death, Monticello continued to suffer from neglect. "The house," Philadelphia lawyer and author Henry D. Gilpin said after a visit early in 1827, is "dark & much dilapidated with age and neglect." Things were made worse by visitors who came uninvited and helped themselves to mementos of Monticello.
It "will grieve you both very much to hear of the depredations that have been made at Monticello by the numerous parties who go to see the place," Virginia Trist wrote on March 23, 1827, in her letter from Tufton to her sister Ellen. "Mama's choicest flower roots have been carried off, one of her yellow jesmins, fig bushes (very few of which escaped the cold of last winter) grape vines and every thing and anything that they fancied."
Nicholas Trist reacted by putting a notice in the papers requesting visitors to "desist from such trespasses," she said. But it did little good. Burwell Culbert, the freed household slave who still lived on the property and maintained the house and yard, reported, she said, that the memento-seeking visitors were "worse than they were before."
Things did not get any better. Virginia Trist, in a May 1, 1827, letter from Tufton to Ellen said that "the vulgar herd that flock" to Monticello "behaved so badly that brother Jeff intends to forbid anyone's going there on Sunday." Jeff Randolph, Virginia said, also decided to "employ some respectable white man to take care of the place." Burwell Culbert, she said, "has given many proofs this winter of attachment to our family, as well as to Monticello. He has staid [sic] there ever since the sale, and appears to have taken pleasure in trying to keep the house clean...and the yard...in some sort of order."
That spring, Randolph family members occasionally came to Monticello to help keep things in order. "Today," Cornelia Randolph wrote to her sister Ellen from Monticello on May 18, "we have come up to have the bedding turned and house aired." One of the family's "greatest pleasures," she said, "is our occasional walk up here. The place is so lovely and in this beautiful season too, if it was not for our affection to it, it would be a pleasure to come." The house, she said, "is so cool that it is a relief from the heat of Tufton, which I fear we shall find overpowering this summer."
Burwell Culbert continued to keep the house in good condition, Cornelia said. They "found the doors and windows all open, the floors rubbed bright, and the old remaining chairs and marble tables (which mostly belong to brother Jeff. and of course have not been removed) were all set in order." The whole place, she said, "seemed to welcome us...I sat in the hall a long time enjoying it...with a mixture of pleasure and pain which I always feel here now."
Along with keeping the inside clean, Culbert also tended to the grounds. "He has even been at the trouble of digging up the young poplars which were springing up everywhere and would soon have made a wilderness of the yard and of pruning the trees," Cornelia said. "He seems to take pleasure in keeping things as they used to be. He and all the servants have so much feeling and affection for us and I often send their lonesome message to mama and yourself."
Cornelia said that her brother Jeff had plans to turn Monticello into a "grass farm." Doing that, she said, "will cover our unsightly red soil with beautiful green which will be kept in order and, at the same time, the stock upon it will be a great source of profit."
In July, the family turned the house over to Dr. Robley Dunglison, the British-born physician who had come to Charlottesville to join the original faculty at the University of Virginia two years earlier. Dunglison, the University's first anatomy and medical professor, also was Thomas Jefferson's physician. He and his wife Hariette brought their two-year-old daughter to Monticello for "the benefit of change of air," as Mary Randolph put it in a July 29 letter to Ellen from Tufton.
"Mrs. Dunglison arrived Wednesday evening and the next day we put her in possession of all the rooms prepared for her accommodation," Mary wrote. That included, she said, "the public rooms, the two chambers opposite the dining room, with all the appurtenances, closets, cupboards, etc., also the little closet at the foot of our staircase and our old 'washroom'..."
Cornelia Randolph stayed at Monticello while the Dunglisons were there to help nurse Willis, an elderly family slave. Willis, Mary Randolph said, "had been declining so visibly and so rapidly for the last week that it was a very great relief to our uneasiness about him to have such an opportunity of placing him under Dr. Dunglison's superintendence..."
The Dunglisons remained at Monticello until early in September 1827. Around that time Jeff Randolph and his wife Jane and their children moved from Tufton (which he subsequently sold) to a new house he had built on Edgehill Plantation six miles from Monticello.
Jeff Randolph's father, Col. Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., had inherited Edgehill from his grandfather, William Randolph of Tuckahoe (1683-1729), who was a contemporary of Peter Jefferson. Jeff Randolph had bought Edgehill from his father in January 1826.
After Jeff Randolph moved with his wife and children to Edgehill, Mary, Cornelia, and Nicholas and Virginia Trist moved back to Monticello. The plan was for their mother Martha and the two younger children to join them there in May and set up housekeeping on the first floor.
Mary Randolph described the arrangement to Ellen in an August 10, 1828, letter from Monticello. The greenhouse, she said, "serves as a very pleasant little sitting room for us, during a part of the day (when the sun was not shining upon the windows) and is at all times a favorite play place for the children." The adjacent library or book room "once filled with my dear grandfather's books" was turned into a "delightful sleeping room, large enough to hold two beds and furniture enough to accommodate those persons with ease and comfort."
The adjoining sitting room also became a bedroom, in "which two more can be comfortably lodged." Those first-floor rooms, Mary said, "are laid off in a manner to suit our circumstances precisely and are besides very pleasant in themselves."
In March 1828, Thomas Mann Randolph who was in failing health and who had been estranged from his family (especially from Jeff, his eldest son) for many years announced that he wanted to move to Monticello. He had been living nearby in a small, five-room house at Milton. Writing in the third person, Colonel Randolph wrote to Nicholas Trist on March 10 asking for permission to move. "Mr. Randolph begs to be informed by Mr. Trist whether he can be allowed to occupy again the North Pavilion at Monticello," Randolph wrote, "as Mrs. Randolph has just communicated her intention of returning to Monticello in May and her expectation that he will reside there with her again in future."
The plan was, Randolph said, for him to live "in his own room at his own charge, making no part of the family and receiving nothing from [them] in any way whatever. He will not come on any other terms...He wants only a place for his horse; the cellar under the house; one of the carriage houses for his fuel, which he will procure himself and a small spot for a garden, to be enclosed by him." Colonel Randolph asked Nicholas Trist to get back to him the next day because "his funds are getting too low for any tavern." Nicholas Trist wrote back the same day to accept.
Colonel Randolph soon took up occupancy in Monticello's north pavilion. The family members acceded to his wishes to live separately, though they tried to convince him to join the family group in the main section of the house. "We are doing everything in our power to contribute to his comfort," Virginia Trist wrote from Monticello to Ellen on March 19, "but as he expressly desired to live in solitude...Mary and myself never break in upon it, except for a few moments in the morning to ask how he is..."
Living at Monticello was proving to be difficult for the family. Financial problems, Virginia said, probably would force them to move. Because "Nicholas cannot continue here without getting in debt," she said, he "now speaks frequently of the probability of his having to go where he can find employment that will suit him. Washington he sometimes talks of and sometimes of the south." Not long after those words were written, Nicholas Trist left for Washington and the State Department job that had been arranged for him by President John Quincy Adams.
Thomas Mann Randolph died on June 20, 1828, having reconciled with the family near the end of his life. "He had made friends with your brother [Jefferson], who sat up with him and nursed him to the last moment," Martha Jefferson wrote from Monticello on June 30, to her son George, who was in Boston with his sister Ellen.
While the Randolphs lived at Monticello the house and grounds did not receive much attention. In a July 6, 1828, letter to Ellen from Monticello Cornelia Randolph said the property was "lovely" and the house "never so beautiful." But she also described "wild things growing up in the yard," the "negro cabins lyeing [sic] in little heaps of ruin everywhere" and "the thickening shade of the unpruned trees closing round the house."
Cornelia also spoke of rumors that a potential purchaser wanted to turn Monticello into a boarding house. "To me this seems like profaning a temple," she said, "and I had rather the weeds and wild animals which are fast taking possession of the grounds should grow and live in the house itself...I would see the house itself in ruins before I would see it turned into a tavern."
Soon after Colonel Randolph's death, Jeff Randolph and his mother decided to put Monticello on the market, along with other lands they had inherited in Bedford and Campbell counties. Monticello "is to be sold this fall with the remaining property of the family," Martha Randolph said in a June 30, 1828, letter to her son George. She had not decided where she would go after the sale. "That will depend on the circumstances," she said, holding out the possibility she would move to "some...northern town where my little income will best support my large family and where I shall be content."
The Randolphs placed a notice in the Richmond Enquirer on July 22 headlined "Valuable Lands For Sale." The hope was to sell Monticello by September 29 if not, an auction would be held that day on the premises.
"The whole of this property will be divided to suit purchasers," the ad said. "The sale being made for the payment of testator's debts, the desire to sell is sincere. The terms will be accommodating, and the prices anticipated low. Mrs. Randolph, of Monticello, will join in the conveyance, and will make the titles perfect."
There was no sale before September 29. Nor was there an auction on that date. One reason was that land prices in Virginia were low. Another was that Charlottesville, in rural central Virginia, was not exactly a desirable location. The few wealthy people in the area who could afford the $15,000 to $20,000 the family hoped to get for Monticello had their own estates and had little use for another, even if it had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. And Jefferson's architectural eccentricities including the extremely narrow staircases and lack of distinct bedchambers did little to make the property more desirable. In short, there was little prospect of selling the "dark and dilapidated" mansion.
With the auction postponed, Jeff Randolph set about selling the other parcels of Jefferson's land. He did so late in the year for what he called "low prices." In November 1828 Jeff Randolph received an offer from General John Hartwell Cocke, a longtime friend and neighbor of his grandfather's, to rent Monticello for $200 a year and use it for what he called a "gymnasium," a boys' prep school. Cocke, who helped Jefferson found the University of Virginia, envisioned the gymnasium as a feeder school for the all-male university.
An alternative plan was for six partners including Cocke and Jeff Randolph to purchase Monticello from the estate for $6,000 and set up a school on the premises to be run by a Professor Patten of the university. In the end, both plans came to naught.
During the first week of January 1829 Martha Randolph, her unmarried children, and Virginia Trist moved to Edgehill to live with Jeff Randolph and his family. Things continued to go downhill at Monticello in their absence. A British traveler who visited early in 1830 and toured the mansion found an empty house that he reported was "offered for sale for $12,000."
Another visitor, Anne Royall, a travel writer, came to Monticello on a snowy day in February 1830. She and her party walked into the unlocked mansion and discovered an unlikely group of people in residence the "respectable" white people Jeff Randolph had spoken of the previous year.
"We found a great coarse Irish woman, sitting by a tolerable fire in a neat room," she reported. "This woman with her husband (then absent), were put there to take care of the house: besides herself, there was a small child and a stout coarse girl."
The Irish woman eagerly offered to give a tour of the house for a fee of fifty cents. "This I was told was contrary to the orders of the proprietors, who left directions that no stranger should pay for viewing the rooms," Mrs. Royall said.
She reported that the marble bust of Jefferson by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi (referred to as "Caracci" in Jeff Randolph's 1827 sale notice) was still in the house. But she found the rooms empty of furniture. In the attic, she reported, was "Mrs. Jefferson's spinnet partly broken," standing "amongst heaps of slain coffee-urns, chinaware, glasses, globes, chairs and bedsteads."
Word of the pending sale prompted an old family friend, the Virginia-born Mississippi Senator George Poindexter, to try to get the federal government to come to the aid of Martha Randolph and her family. When he learned of the Randolphs' financial plight soon after coming to the Senate, Poindexter introduced a bill in that body on February 9, 1831, to grant 50,000 acres of land in Virginia to Martha Randolph. The idea was that she would sell part of the land and live off the proceeds.
"I have brought before this honorable body a proposition calculated to animate the patriotic feelings of every American citizen," Poindexter said on February 10 on the Senate floor. The measure, he said, was designed to prevent "the only surviving child of Thomas Jefferson [from living] in poverty in her native country while every page of its history points to the glory which has been shed over it by the acts of her illustrious father."
Martha Randolph held out hope that the Poindexter bill would solve her family's financial problems. "If we succeed, my plan is to divide [the 50,000 acres] in 12 shares, retaining 2 for myself and one a piece for each of my children," Martha said in a June 21, 1831, letter from Edgehill to Ellen in Boston. That arrangement, Martha said, would allow her to keep Monticello until she found someone willing to purchase it for the $10,000 asking price.
Martha said that Jeff Randolph wanted her and his younger siblings to return to Monticello, and suggested turning it into a "grazing farm" under his supervision. "But all these are bright visions like any other waking dream," Martha said, dismissing the notion. Monticello she said, was being kept "clean" by the current caretakers, "but the grounds are shockingly out of order and the shrubs and flowers very much pillaged..." She told Ellen that she had given up any idea of returning to Monticello, which she described as "a very expensive and comfortless winter residence."
Eight days later, on June 29, 1831, Cornelia wrote to Ellen from Edgehill, saying that the family was hoping that Senator Poindexter's bill would, indeed, allow them to return to Monticello. "We had been dreaming lately," she said, "almost hoping to return there to live." The family, she said, was "told by several persons that the measure was looked on favorably in Congress (the Virginia delegation always excepted)." Senator Poindexter, she said, had visited the family, explained to her mother and brother what his bill would do, and said that if Congress passed the measure, "it will enable us to live at Monticello if it is not sold."
Cornelia also predicted that Virginia's senators would oppose the measure, contending it was unconstitutional for the government to grant land to individuals. But, she said, the real reason for the opposition was "a feeling of hostility towards everything of Thomas Jefferson's in this state; it is said that in Richmond his principles are considered as having gone out of fashion..."
She said that if Monticello were sold, "I shall wish never to set foot in [Virginia] again, indeed Moma has suffered so much at the prospect of losing Monticello that I wish we had not returned this summer. She had a fever for several days...and is by no means well now; it is cruel to think that at her age she should be driven away in exile and from a home...so sacred to her."
Cornelia went on to bemoan her family's fiscal ills. The Randolphs, she said, have been "people of consideration in the world and now are poor and neglected." The family was coming to grips with the prospect of selling Monticello, she said, "but it is harder to learn to consider dear Monticello the property of strangers."
Poindexter's bill didn't come up for a vote until June 27. It was defeated by a 23-15 vote. Both Virginia senators John Tyler and Littleton Waller Tazewell voted against it.
In mid-July of 1831 a serious potential purchaser of Monticello finally came to Jeff Randolph and the two entered into negotiations. Randolph had given up any idea of getting as much as the $20,000 he had envisioned as the selling price for Monticello after his grandfather died. By the start of 1831, with no buyer in sight and Jefferson's debts still largely unpaid, he dropped his asking price to $12,000. By summer he was hoping to get $10,000.
In mid-August he reached an agreement to sell Monticello and 522 surrounding acres to twenty-four-year-old James Turner Barclay for a bargain basement price of $7,000. The deal also included Barclay deeding to Jeff Randolph for $4,000 Barclay's house in Charlottesville at the northeast corner of Market and Seventh streets. He had purchased it the year before from the Reverend F. W. Hatch. The Jefferson family retained the ownership of the family graveyard containing Jefferson's tomb.
The deed of sale was recorded by the Albemarle County clerk of the court in Charlottesville on November 1, 1831. The deed of sale of the Barclay house in Charlottesville was entered on December 3, 1832.
While the family had known since well before Jefferson's death that Monticello likely would be sold, the news of its imminent sale in the summer of 1831 was something of a shock. "We are none of us in very good spirits just now owing to the probability there is of Monticello being sold," Cornelia Randolph wrote to Ellen on June 29, 1831. It is "a blow to us," Cornelia said, "particularly as we had been dreaming lately, almost hoping, to return there to live."
Martha Randolph agonized over the pending sale in a July 5 letter to Virginia Trist. "There is some prospect of selling Monticello, but I do not wish the thing spoke of yet," she said to her daughter. "I thought I had made my mind up upon that subject and I find when it comes to the point, that all my [sorrows] are renewed and that it will be a bitter, bitter heartache to me its going out of the family."
Six weeks later Martha seemed more resigned to Monticello's fate, although she said in an August 15 letter from Edgehill to Ellen that during the negotiations with Barclay "which continued some weeks," she "was in a state of great agitation." Monticello, she said, "is at last sold and, bitter as the pang was, it is over...You will say it is a dreadful sacrifice, but the debts are letting the place go to ruin, and no other offer."
Martha Randolph seemed to harbor no ill feelings about Barclay's bargaining over the price. "I believe he goes as much as he can afford," she wrote in the letter to Ellen, "for, after all, it will be worth little to him." The "evil of visitors has increased to such a degree as to be a tremendous drawback on it as a residence." Barclay, she said, "has shown much kind feeling to the family and says that if at any future day they can repurchase it, he should feel himself bound to give it up."
With Barclay agreeing to buy Monticello, all the fanciful plans to keep it in the family became moot. "But now even if we have the means of purchasing, Dr. Barclay will hardly desire to part with the place," Cornelia wrote on August 28, 1831, from Edgehill to Ellen in Boston. "He is full of schemes; they tell us he intends to cultivate the grape and to rear silk worms and has some plan in his head for making a fortune which I do not know; they say he is a schemer and perhaps may get tired after a time...I am doubtful of Dr. Barclay's taste and have some fear that he may disfigure that beautiful and sacred spot by some of that gingerbread work which grandpapa used to hold in much contempt."
Cornelia went on to express her deep unhappiness with the sale. "I do not think I should feel at home or happy anywhere but at Monticello," she said. "I miss the very emotion excited by that beautiful scenery. I feel compressed in a small house where there is no place to retire and be alone a moment in the day. I want those familiar [things] which alone seem to be home and which seem as if grandpapa was still there..."
James T. Barclay was a learned, if eccentric, many-faceted man whose four and a half years as the owner of Jefferson's mansion have not been positively portrayed. He has been characterized as a Jefferson-hating eccentric who bargained ruthlessly with the land-rich, cash-poor Randolphs. At Monticello he set up what has been described as a crackpot scheme to grow silkworms. To that end, it is said, he cut down Jefferson's carefully cultivated trees. Barclay also let the house go to ruin, then went bankrupt and sold Monticello after being struck with fundamentalist Christian missionary fever and spiriting his family off to the Holy Land.
Merrill Peterson, for example, characterized Barclay as "a Charlottesville druggist who had ideas of silk worm culture on the mountain." Barclay, Peterson reported, "had no interest in the mansion itself, treated it shabbily, and reportedly vowed in vengeance on Jefferson's infidelity to leave not a stone...upon a stone."
In a popular 1925 biography of Jefferson, Paul Wilstach described Barclay as a recent resident of Charlottesville who "had a small drug business and soon acquired the title of Doctor." It would be "pleasant," Wilstach said, "to record that Barclay was an admirer of Jefferson; that he appreciated the beauties of 'the first dwelling-house architecturally in America,' that he preserved the place and maintained its tradition. The contrary of all this was the unfortunate fact."
Uriah Levy's biographers, Donovan Fitzpatrick and Saul Saphire, were particularly harsh on Barclay. He "had no interest in preserving Monticello as a shrine to Thomas Jefferson," they said. Barclay "wanted the property for a fanciful experiment a grandiose plan to grow mulberry trees and start a silkworm business. He dug up the flower gardens and cut down most of the fine trees on the lawn the poplar, linden, and copper beeches on which Jefferson had expended so much money and care and replaced them with mulberry trees. So began the despoliation of the most beautiful house in America."
Another Uriah Levy biographer, Samuel Sobel, called Barclay "a bitter opponent of the late President in politics. Instead he was motivated by the dream of developing a silkworm culture." After that failed, Sobel said, Barclay "vindictively...proceeded to cut down other trees Jefferson had planted with such care."
The Barclay family has a much different version of James Turner Barclay's life and times at Monticello. Accounts of his life written by one of his grandsons, Julian Thomas Barclay, in 1904 and by Decima Campbell Barclay, a daughter-in-law, around 1900 based on the reminiscences of his widow portray him in a completely different light. The family claims he was an ardent admirer of Jefferson who took great care of Monticello.
"Dr. Barclay never cut down a tree at Monticello that Mr. Jefferson had planted, or that was rare, or of any value whatever," Decima Campbell Barclay's account says. "He himself planted many trees on the 'little mountain' which he loved, as he had always loved and admired the memory of its former owner; and it was his greatest pleasure to embellish and beautify the grounds..."
James Turner Barclay was born May 22, 1807, at Hanover Court House, Virginia. His grandfather Thomas Barclay (1728-1793) came to this country from Ireland. He was an avid supporter of the Revolution and was appointed the first American consul to France by George Washington. Thomas Barclay, family lore has it, was "an intimate and cherished friend of Washington and Jefferson."
James Barclay's father Robert Barclay (1779-1809) died when his oldest son was eleven. His mother, Sarah Coleman Turner Barclay, subsequently married John Harris, described as "a wealthy tobacco planter of Albemarle County."
Harris saw to James Barclay's education at the University of Virginia and at the University of Pennsylvania, where Barclay was "graduated in medicine," Julian Barclay said, in 1829. He then moved to Charlottesville where he opened a drug store and married Julia Ann Stowers of Staunton, Virginia, on June 10, 1830. He was twenty-three years old. She was seventeen, the daughter of a wealthy family headed by her father, Captain Colson Stowers. Cornelia Randolph referred to Julia Ann Stowers as "an heiress."
Decima Barclay characterized her mother-in-law as "a beautiful housekeeper" who employed one maid at Monticello whose only duty was to "attend to the floors of the house, which were so tracked over daily by visitors, that it required a great deal of 'dry rubbing' to keep them in nice condition." Jeff Randolph, the account says, was "a frequent visitor" who "often complimented Mrs. Barclay on her management of the household."
"You keep the floors in a far more beautiful condition than they were ever kept in my grandfather's lifetime," Jeff Randolph supposedly said to Mrs. Barclay.
James Barclay, his daughter-in-law said, "kept gardeners constantly employed in pruning trees and shrubs, cultivating flowers, renewing the serpentine walks and improving the premises in every way in his power." He built new terraces, she said, and bought special tools to repair the great clock, which had been broken for "many years."
Julian Barclay's account mentions nothing about silkworms, hatred of Jefferson, cutting down trees, or bankruptcy. Julian Barclay says that James Barclay sold Monticello not because it was bleeding him dry, but because he "was persuaded by his mother and his wife's parents to dispose" of it.
Decima Barclay's account says that Barclay's parents begged him to leave Monticello because of the constant stream of visitors family, friends, and strangers. Barclay insisted on staying in the house where his two sons, Robert Gutzloff and John Judson, were born, and which he loved so much. He is said to have turned down a $20,000 offer for it from "a Mr. Brown of Philadelphia."
A Barclay descendant, his great-granddaughter, Mary Barclay Hancock Carroll of Portsmouth, Virginia, told a newspaper reporter in 1978 that the unending stream of visitors to Jefferson's mountain forced the family out. "There was never a day without visitors, friends and relatives who wanted to be shown around the house and grounds," Mrs. Carroll said, citing the family history.
There is irrefutable evidence that Barclay did try to grow silkworms at Monticello. "I have often heard one of my aunts, Mrs. M.W. Gilmer, who visited Mr. Barclay frequently at Monticello whilst a little girl, say that she remembered seeing the silkworms in the glass-covered conservatory which opens out of what was Mr. Jefferson's library," Judge R. T. W. Duke, Jr., of Charlottesville wrote in 1913.
Barclay himself wrote a report about his silkworm experiences in a long, detailed letter to the editor that appeared in the August 3, 1832, issue of American Farmer magazine. Datelined "Monticello, July 10th, 1832," Barclay's letter spoke about his "experiments in that interesting branch of industry." He called silkworm production "one of the most lucrative as well as agreeable pursuits we can engage in" and said he had "encountered no difficulty in the business." Even sympathetic family members, however, have written that Barclay's silkworm business failed.
There is little question that the Barclays were overwhelmed with visitors during their short tenure at Monticello. The number of visitors, as Martha Randolph said in 1831, was increasing greatly when Barclay bought the place. Decima's father, Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), the founder of the Disciples of Christ who visited the Barclays at Monticello, characterized the place as "too much visited to be a private residence for any Christian man."
Whatever the reason and it likely had to do with the visitor situation, the unsuccessful silkworm operation, and the cost of maintaining the house and grounds the Barclays left Monticello sometime after agreeing to sell it to Uriah Levy in April 1834. Soon after, James Turner Barclay began a new life as a missionary.
James and Julia Barclay were Presbyterians, but converted to Campbell's Disciples of Christ. In 1840 Barclay packed his wife and three young children off to do missionary work in Palestine. After he returned, Barclay wrote City of the Great King; Jerusalem: As It Was, As It Is, and As It Is To Be, a 627-page history of Jerusalem which was published in 1858. The engraving on the first page shows a stern, solid looking man with a pronounced widow's peak and an Abraham Lincoln beard. In 1858, he took his family to Jerusalem for a second round of missionary work, returning to the United States in 1865 to teach natural sciences at Bethany College in West Virginia, the Disciples of Christ School. In 1868, Barclay resigned and moved to Alabama where he spent the rest of his life preaching. He died at age sixty-seven in 1874.
Contrary to the rosy picture painted by the Barclay family, Monticello was worn out during James Barclay's ownership. "The late residence of Mr. Jefferson has lost all its interest, save what exists in memory, and that it is the sacred deposit of his remains," William T. Barry, then postmaster general of the United States, wrote after an August 1832 visit. "All is dilapidation and ruin, and I fear the present owner, Dr. Barclay, is not able, if he were inclined, to restore it to its former condition."
John Latrobe a prominent Baltimore lawyer, philanthropist, and a founder of the Maryland Historical Society described a similarly dispiriting scene after visiting Monticello that same month.
"The first thing that strikes you is the utter ruin and desolation of everything," Latrobe wrote after the visit. James Barclay was not at home when Latrobe visited, and his only view of the house was through some open windows. "The internal arrangement, so far as I could judge of it by the peeps I made into peepable places," he wrote, "is whimsical and, according to present notions of country houses, uncomfortable, being cut up into small apartments."
Outside the house, on the terrace overlooking Charlottesville, Latrobe spotted a discarded, dismembered column pedestal, its metal rod protruding from the center. Then, on the ground nearby, he saw the column's capital, "somewhat mutilated, which had been thrown or fallen down from the pedestal." He immediately recognized the design, one in which "the place usually occupied by Acanthus leaves of the Corinthian columns is filled by ears of corn, grouped together." It was a design that his illustrious father, the architect Benjamin H. Latrobe (1764-1820), had invented and used in the U.S. Capitol building.
"I moved the stone from the wreck of the garden chair on which it had fallen," John Latrobe said, "and placed it upright."
By the fall of 1833 when Barclay put Monticello on the market, Martha Randolph had changed her tune about her feelings toward him. "The garden is ploughed up to the door and planted in corn. Those glorious oaks and chestnut oak in the grove are cut down. The place I am told is so totally changed that it is distressing to see it," she wrote in a September 15 letter from Edgehill to Ellen. "The whole will...be one mass of ruins so rapid has the work of destruction been."
Barclay "asked $10,000 for the house and 230 acres of the land when he only gave $7,000 for it and 500," she wrote to Ellen on October 27. "He has sold all the land, cut down the grove and ploughed up the yard to the very edge of the lawn and planted it in corn. The terrace is a complete wreck. I suppose it would take between two and three thousand dollars to make it comfortable; to enclose the land and other repairs."
Later in the letter, Martha Randolph referred to James Turner Barclay as a "mad man."
Both the manner in which [Uriah] Levy came to own Monticello and his reasons for buying it are shrouded in mystery," the noted architectural historian Charles B. Hosmer, Jr. said. Indeed, exactly how Uriah Levy came to purchase Monticello has been the subject of speculation, some of it overtly anti-Semitic, for more than a hundred years.
The most commonly repeated tale is that in 1834 a group of patriotic, charitable, presumably white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans raised money to buy Monticello from James T. Barclay and present it to the aging Martha Jefferson Randolph. These benevolent people most often unidentified acted, it is said, because Martha was suffering financially, and they wanted to help return Jefferson's oldest daughter to her father's home.
One of the earliest published versions of this account appeared in The Hartford Courant in 1897 and was retold by Amos J. Cummings in the August 24, 1897, New York Sun. Five years later, Cummings republished his article, titled "A National Humiliation: A Story of Monticello," in a pamphlet.
Cummings led a varied and interesting life. He fought with the Union Army in the Civil War, became a successful newspaper editor and writer with the New York Tribune under the famed Horace Greeley, and later with the Sun. He also served in the House of Representatives for one term, from 1887 to 1889, as a Tammany Hall Democrat. While serving in Congress, Cummings paid a visit to Charlottesville and Monticello. "A National Humiliation" was his report on the trip.
Merrill Peterson, the Jefferson historian and scholar, calls the article "sprightly, amusing, and here and there fanciful." It may be sprightly written in parts and somewhat amusing in others. But "A National Humiliation" amounts to little more than a racist, thinly veiled anti-Semitic attack on Jefferson M. Levy, who then owned Monticello, and his uncle Uriah Levy, who purchased it in 1834.
In the article Cummings refers to Willis Sheldon, the gatekeeper at Monticello as "an aged darkey." The word "darkey" was commonly used by whites in the late nineteenth century. Nevertheless, using the word suggests patronizing condescension at best and racist thinking at worst.
Cummings calls Uriah Levy "Judah Levy," and misidentifies him as the father of Jefferson Levy. Was this misnomer a mistake or a thinly veiled anti-Semitic slur? Cummings writes that he arrived at Monticello believing that Thomas Jefferson "owned the place," only to learn from Willis Sheldon that the owner was Jefferson Levy. Thomas Jefferson, of course, had been dead for more than a half century. Cummings goes on to accuse Levy of selfishly and unpatriotically charging admission to Monticello's grounds, and expresses outrage that visitors were not allowed into the privately owned house. He intimates that Jefferson Levy bought Jefferson's house only to turn a profit.
"Monticello is now owned by a Levy, who charges patriotic Americans, Democrat and Republican, twenty-five cents admission to the grounds alone, and refuses admission to the house at any price during his absence," Cummings says. He reminds his readers that Jefferson Levy purchased Monticello for $10,000, but "is said to value Monticello at $100,000. Possibly he imagines that he can eventually sell it to either the State or the Federal Government for this sum."
The attack on Uriah Levy begins with a summary of the article that appeared in the Hartford Courant. "American hearts have recently been harrowed," Cummings writes, "by a story of [Monticello's] purchase by Judah Levy, late Commodore in the United States navy." The story, he says, "asserts that efforts were made to hold the estate after Jefferson's death for his favorite daughter, Martha Randolph. About $3,000 was required.
"The money was raised by patriotic Philadelphians, and entrusted to a young Virginian, a relative of Martha Randolph. He got drunk on the way to Monticello, and arrived a day too late. It is more than intimated that Captain Levy, who was a passenger in the same stage, took advantage of his drunkenness and bought the place. The appalled Virginian besought him to be merciful after his purchase, and asked him what he would take for the homestead.
"His reply was: 'Mein frien' you are a glever feller, but you talk too much. I will take a huntret tousand tollars.' It was a story that, if true ought to bring a blush of shame to every American face."
The story, of course, is not true. But the impression Cummings leaves with the reader is that it is. The made-up dialogue in which a Shylock-like Uriah Levy a fifth generation American speaks in some sort of Yiddish-German accent cannot be interpreted as anything but anti-Semitic. The same can be said about the article's title. For what reason other than his religion is the fact that Jefferson Levy the "son" of "Judah" owns Monticello a "humiliation?"
Maud Littleton repeats the story, with a few variations, in "Monticello," a fifty-two-page booklet she wrote, published, and distributed nationwide in 1914 as part of her campaign to have the government condemn and purchase Monticello from Jefferson Levy. Unidentified friends of a "heartbroken and crushed" Martha Jefferson Randolph "asked aid to purcha se Monticello to give back to her," Mrs. Littleton wrote. "About $3,000, they said, would be required to make the purchase."
A group of "patriotic Philadelphians," she said, "gave the money and entrusted it to a young Virginian to take to Charlottesville. Travelling, as a passenger, in the same stage-coach with him was Captain Uriah P. Levy of New York, who had served part of his life in the United States Navy. His career there was full of ups and downs. On the way to Monticello, the papers tell, the young Virginian became intoxicated, and arrived a day too late, for when Captain Levy, a stranger in the neighborhood, arrived in Charlottesville, he made private proposals to Barclay for the purchase of Monticello."
Around the same time, the widely read advice columnist Dorothy Dix wrote an article in Good Housekeeping Magazine, in which she attacked Jefferson Levy's ownership of Monticello, saying Jefferson's home had passed into "alien hands." She repeated the stagecoach story, except this time the man in question was identified as "a young relative of the Jeffersons."
Jefferson Levy spoke out strongly against the Cummings article, calling it "a scurrilous attack upon Commodore Levy." He also said that Amos Cummings "apologized to me for it. He regretted it very much," and said that the editor of the Hartford Courant also "apologized in an open editorial."
Apologies or not, the story did not die. An August 14, 1921, Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial that called for the government to buy Monticello, for example, repeated the tale. The same story, minus the overimbibing, was also included in Paul Wilstach's 1925 book Jefferson and Monticello.
Uncharitable versions of Uriah's Levy's purchase of Monticello continued into the 1950s. William H. Gaines, Jr., in the Spring 1952 issue of Virginia Cavalcade magazine, a publication of the Virginia State Library, portrayed Uriah Levy's ownership of Monticello decidedly negatively, including the way Levy allegedly gained possession.
Judge R. T. W. Duke, Jr., a Charlottesville lawyer who represented Jefferson Levy, called these stories "a tissue of fable" and "simply absurd." "No one had proposed to buy the property for Mrs. Randolph that anybody ever heard of in this section," Judge Duke said in a 1913 letter to Jefferson Levy, "and had Commodore Levy obtained the property in the way it is charged he did, it can be very well imagined that he would have met with scorn and contempt from every member of the Randolph family, but the contrary was the case. Both he and his sister [Amelia, who often visited Monticello] and the members of the Randolph family were on pleasant terms and exchanged frequent visits."
Judge Duke was not exactly an unbiased observer. However, as we will see, several members of the Randolph family did, indeed, have good relations with Uriah Levy during the period of his ownership of Monticello (1834-1862). On the other hand, there is evidence that there was at least one attempt unsolicited and unwelcomed by Martha Randolph to raise funds in 1833-34 to purchase Monticello and return it to her.
The offer was conveyed by a man identified by Martha Randolph and Ellen Coolidge only as "Mr. Hart," who showed up unannounced at Edgehill in mid-October 1833 with a fantastic story. He told Martha Randolph that he had been commissioned by a group of men in New York to purchase Monticello and turn it over to her along with a yearly income sufficient for her to afford to live there. He later journeyed to Boston to deliver the same message to Ellen. Neither Martha nor Ellen knew him, and both soon came to distrust him and his offer.
"That man Hart was here," Martha said in an October 23, 1833, letter from Edgehill to her daughter Virginia Trist in Washington, D.C. He "told me that people said it was a great shame that Monticello should go out of the family, that I ought to have it, and that he was commissioned by some body or bodies in New York to make the purchase for me."
Hart told Martha that he was prepared to offer the Randolphs as much as $6,000 a year to, as Martha said, "keep up the place genteelly or decently, I forget which." He was "such a wild talker," Martha said, "that we paid no attention to what he said, except to dissuade him from taking any step in the business...I told him I was much obliged to them, but it would be a source of trouble and distress to me [and] I could not afford to live there and keep it in repair." Even with the stipend, she said, she would not be able to maintain the place, and would "rather see it in the possession of someone [who] would keep it in order."
But Mr. Hart was persistent. "One and a half days," Martha said, "were spent in listening to his wandering babble, conversation it could not be called."
Four days later, on October 27, 1833, Martha wrote to Ellen in Boston, reiterating the Mr. Hart story, and adding that Hart "was such a wild talker that if anything of the kind had ever been contemplated, I hardly think he would have been the person selected for such a negotiation." Martha suspected that Hart had made up the entire story including the line he told her that federal district court judge Philip P. Barbour of Virginia had said of his mission: "We Virginians talk, but you New Yorkers act."
Ellen Coolidge also mentions the otherwise unidentified "Mr. Hart" in a letter to her sister Virginia of April 15, 1834. She refers to Mr. Hart as "that crazy creature" who "has been lately in Boston tormenting the natives to subscribe for the purchase" of Monticello. Hart, she said, "called to see me and his mind was so evidently wandering that I was glad to have him out of the house and dissuaded him all I could from going around among persons who, besides having no friendly feelings for the name of Jefferson, were about that time almost crazed by their own pecuniary troubles."
Ellen Coolidge doesn't say so, but Mr. Hart was too late with his dubious scheme. Uriah Levy already had purchased Monticello from Barclay on April 1st. There is no further mention of Mr. Hart in the correspondence between mother and daughter. In a long letter to Ellen in Boston, dated June 20, 1834, in which Martha Jefferson writes, "I have told you every thing of any consequence for the present," there is no mention of Mr. Hart, Monticello, or of Uriah Levy.
Some sort of effort was made to raise funds for Martha Randolph to return to Monticello. But as in the case of the lottery, and Jeff Randolph's efforts to raise funds to pay off his grandfather's debts this financial endeavor failed. It is also apparent that tales were concocted to provide some explanation other than financial failures on the part of the Randolphs and their friends as to why a rich, Jewish New York bachelor came to own the home of Thomas Jefferson.
"It is stated that Monticello, the late residence of Mr. Jefferson, has been purchased by Lieut. Levy of the navy of the United States," Niles' Register of April 19, 1834, reported, "and that he intends to commence immediately such improvements and repairs, as will fully restore the building, &c. to their original condition after which it will be accessible to visitors once a week."
That one-sentence announcement in a national newsweekly magazine has been the only evidence cited by historians that Uriah Levy agreed with James Barclay to purchase Jefferson's architectural masterpiece in the spring of 1834. The deal was not cemented until more than two years later, on May 21, 1836. On that day a deed, in which Barclay conveyed Monticello and 218 acres surrounding it to Levy for $2,700, was recorded in the Albemarle County Court Clerk's office. The existence of copies of the deed have led some secondary sources erroneously to say that Levy contracted to buy Monticello two years later than he did.
In their 1963 biography of Levy, for example, Donovan Fitzpatrick and Saul Saphire create a scene, without citing any sources, in which Uriah Levy, a fervent admirer of Jefferson, makes a pilgrimage to Monticello for the first time "in the spring of 1836." After a journey "on horseback and stage" to Charlottesville, the biographers say, Levy spent the night in town.
The next morning he "hired a buckboard and drove" to Monticello, where he first saw Jefferson's grave, then "walked up the hill, and had his first view of the mansion from the lawn at the west front." Levy returned to Charlottesville that afternoon, the story goes, where he discovered Jefferson's home was for sale, and "Lieutenant Uriah Levy decided to buy Monticello himself."
That version of how Uriah Levy came to purchase Monticello is, at the very least, fanciful, although no primary sources have come to light that provide details of exactly when Uriah Levy first laid eyes on Monticello. We do know when he and Barclay agreed to a sale, and it was more than two years before the deed was recorded.
The evidence presented here for the first time that Uriah P. Levy and James T. Barclay signed their first contract for Monticello on April 1, 1834, comes from the records of the Albemarle County Circuit Superior Court, which are now are held at the state's Library of Virginia in Richmond. The reason the sale to Levy did not take place for two years after the contract was signed was a disagreement between the two parties about acreage and contents of the house.
Another reason the case took so long to resolve was that the courts in those days were in session only twice a year. The Albemarle County Circuit Superior Court met only in the months of April and October. Ultimately the parties sued each other and the two lawsuits were not settled until a jury reached a verdict on May 18, 1836. Two days later the deed was signed, and on May 21 it was filed with the clerk of the court.
Until now, the only detailed information about the lawsuits had been the testimony of two people who heard or read about the story second hand: Uriah's nephew Jefferson M. Levy, and Maud Littleton, the woman who spearheaded the effort to take Monticello from Jefferson M. Levy. "If I remember it right," Jefferson M. Levy wrote in 1902, "there was a legal controversy between Barclay and Commodore Levy as to the number of acres in the property." The deed, he said, "was held in abeyance until the question of the acreage was settled. Therefore, the deed was not delivered until one or two years after the actual purchase and possession."
Ten years after Jefferson Levy wrote those words, Mrs. Littleton gave her version of the same events testifying under oath on July 9, 1912, at a U.S. Senate Library Committee hearing that was held to consider public ownership of Monticello. Mrs. Littleton laid out the Levy-Barclay chronology based on research she said she had conducted in Charlottesville.
In the spring of 1834, Uriah Levy "went to Virginia to purchase Monticello, then in possession of James T. Barclay, who desired to sell it," she said. "After his purchase, there arose a dispute between him and Barclay about the acreage, which was valued at $5 per acre, and about certain effects in the house. That is, valuable mirrors and an extraordinary clock, which had been reserved, and which Uriah Levy had manifested a desire to obtain. These disputes kept Monticello in the courts till the spring of 1836."
Although the deed book lists the selling price as $2,700, Mrs. Littleton said, "two hundred dollars was subtracted from that amount on account of the dispute about acreage, clocks, mirrors, etc., with the result that Uriah Levy paid $2,500 for Monticello and 218 acres of land."
Mrs. Littleton essentially was correct, although she left out the pertinent detail that Levy signed the contract to purchase Monticello on April 1, 1834.
Levy, the court documents show, had seen Barclay's advertisement in the fall of 1833 either in the Richmond Compiler or in Atkinson's Saturday Evening Post. Under the headline "Monticello for Sale," the ad read:
This celebrated seat, the former residence of Mr. Jefferson, is offered for sale. It is perhaps too well known to require any description, but it may be well to mention that its value has been much enhanced within the last few years by the addition of a perennial well of excellent water, in this kitchen yard, in which a new pump of the best construction has just been placed, besides many other improvements.
It may be proper also to state (in contradiction to an unfounded report) that the building, with the exception of the Terraces, which require reflooring, is in excellent preservation: being constructed of stone and brick, protected by a coating of tin, lead, zinc, iron or copper, wherever exposed to the action of the weather, it is rendered not only fire proof, but one of the most permanent buildings in Virginia.
Between two and three hundred acres of land are attached to the house, about half of which is in woods, and the remainder under cultivation. The land is generally of the best quality, well watered and susceptible of the highest degree of improvement. It is abundantly supplied with every species of Mulberry, and is perhaps one of the most eligible situations in the world for the lucrative pursuit of the culture of Silk.
If not disposed of in a short time, it will be leased out for several years.
Terms and conditions as usual with landed estates.
J. T. Barclay
In response to the ad, Uriah Levy traveled to Charlottesville to what he thought would be an auction of the property. "Lieut. Levy left here a week since to go to Albemarle, as I understand, to purchase Monticello," Jeff Randolph said in an April 4, 1834, letter from Washington to his sister Virginia Trist in Charlottesville. "Have you heard anything of him?"
When Uriah Levy arrived in Charlottesville he discovered that there was no auction. So he took it upon himself to seek out James Barclay and make an offer for Jefferson's mansion.
"In the spring of the present year," Uriah Levy said in the third person in an affidavit filed October 6, 1834, he "was called to this county by a desire to purchase a tract of land, lying therein, called [and] known by the name of Monticello, then in the possession of a certain James T. Barclay who had advertised it in the Newspapers for public sale about that time."
Uriah Levy "attended on the day and at the place of the sale," he said, "when there being no sale, then, affected by public auction under the terms of the aforesaid advertisement, he felt himself at liberty to make private proposals for the purchase thereof, which he accordingly did."
The parties agreed on a contract of $2,700 which Barclay termed "very reduced and inadequate" for which Uriah Levy would receive Monticello and its "appurtenances" and 230 acres of land, and Barclay would keep the valuable pier mirrors and the giant seven-day clock in the entrance hall. Uriah Levy retained a Charlottesville lawyer, Isaac Raphael, to represent him in the transaction.
The question of the exact amount of the acreage was brought up either later that day or the following day by an unidentified "by-stander." Levy then went to the clerk of the court and discovered how much land Barclay had sold of the original 522 acres he had purchased from the Randolphs. Levy calculated that all that Barclay had left was about 180 acres.
Levy and Raphael, who drew up the original April 1 contract, then paid a visit to Barclay. The following conversation ensued, according to Raphael's deposition taken eighteen months later, on October 6, 1835:
"Lieutenant Levy remarked, 'Well, Doctor, it seems the land falls short of your estimate considerably.'
"'Yes,' says Dr. Barclay, 'I regret very much to find that it does so. It was by no means intentional on my part to make any improper or incorrect statement and I am willing to deduct according to our contract for the deficiency.'"
Levy replied that the "diminished quantity of land rendered the balance less valuable," Raphael said, and asked Barclay to annul the initial contract. The parties agreed and wrote a new one in which Barclay dropped the price to $2,500 and, according to Raphael and Levy, threw in the mirrors and clock.
A few days later, probably on April 5, the parties met to close the transaction. Raphael gave Barclay $2,500 in New York bank drafts from Levy. At that time Raphael drew up a "paper," he said, "in which it was stipulated that if, upon a survey which was to be made of the land, there should appear to be a greater quantity than was supposed," Levy would pay Barclay $5 per acre over and above the $2,500. The amount of the acreage then was then deemed to be 181 1/4 acres.
A survey was undertaken by a Colonel Woods who, Barclay said, came up with a figure of 206 acres. Barclay then took the position that Levy was "bound to pay for all over 182 [acres] at the rate of $5 per acre." He also claimed that Levy "kept the mirrors and clock aforesaid and refuses to pay either for them or the excess of land."
So Barclay refused to take the final step of recording the deed until Levy paid him the extra money. Levy said Barclay was acting "in flagrant disregard" of their second contract and was "unjustly content to use [Levy's] money" while refusing "to perfect [Levy's] title to the tract of land, thus fairly purchased."
That's when Uriah Levy sued James T. Barclay. His goal was to close the matter and take title to Monticello. In the interim, it was determined that the Woods survey was inaccurate. A new survey was ordered by the court on October 14, 1835. Undertaken by A. Broadhead, the new survey found the tract of land at Monticello to be 218 acres. It was completed May 3, 1836.
During the legal wrangling, Barclay said Levy was obstinate and dishonest. In a deposition on January 12, 1835, Barclay accused Levy of "grossly misrepresenting the evidence" in the case. Barclay said he "has always been anxious to close this transaction with plaintiff [Levy] and has manifested this anxiety by repeated offers, even to sacrifice a great deal, to attain his end. But the plaintiff having acquired possession of the real personal property, has been content to enjoy it, and now harasses this respondent with this suit." So Barclay countersued "for the articles of property sold to him."
Uriah Levy, for his part, accused Barclay of being less than truthful. Barclay "has fraudulently contrived to jeopardize [my] rights in the premises," Levy said in his October 6, 1834, deposition. Barclay's "actings, doings and pretences," Levy said, "are contrary to equity and good conscience."
It appears that Levy obtained a judgment by default, but that a jury set that judgment aside on May 18, 1836. The jury ordered Levy to pay Barclay $284, with interest going back to August 3, 1834, presumably the date when Uriah Levy won his writ of inquiry.
That same day, Wednesday, May 18, 1836, Judge Lucas P. Thompson of the Albemarle County Circuit Court of Law and Chancery ruled in Levy's suit against Barclay. He found that Barclay was entitled to "compensations of the plaintiff for 36 3/4 acres of land the difference between 181 1/4 and 218 acres at $5 per acre, making the sum of $183.75." Thompson ordered Barclay to convey a deed to Levy after Levy paid the $183.75, plus interest from April 5, 1834, plus "the costs of this suit."
Levy paid up. Two days later the deed was recorded.
Based on the depositions and on Jefferson Levy's 1902 statements on the matter, it appears that the Barclays left Monticello almost immediately after agreeing to sell it to Uriah Levy and that he took possession of Jefferson's mansion early in April 1834. Despite the legal disagreement, Jefferson Levy wrote, the court had given possession of Monticello to Uriah Levy "on payment of the purchase price" in the spring of 1834.
There also is evidence that Uriah Levy was at Monticello overseeing repairs to the mansion in the winter of 1834-35 and that the forty-two-year-old bachelor was considering marrying one of Jefferson's three unattached Randolph granddaughters, Cornelia, thirty-four; Mary, thirty-one; or Septimia, twenty-two. Levy spoke about his marital dreams in January and February 1835 to the Randolph women's sister Virginia Randolph Trist in Washington, D.C., where she was living while her husband Nicholas was serving as U.S. counsel in Havana, Cuba.
"Captain Levi is hear [sic] 'raving for a wife,'" Virginia Trist wrote to her husband January 2, 1835. "He has thrown out hints about becoming a 'complete Jeffersonian' and yesterday evening he spent with us and prevented my writing to you."
Virginia Trist elaborated on Uriah Levy's marital plans in a February 3 letter to her husband. "Capt. Levi has been here," she said. "He has talked in a way to make [me] think that he wishes a grand-daughter of Mr. Jefferson to go and share the comforts of his charming home with him." Levy, she said, "also said to Cornelia that in France he was told that to make him a complete Jeffersonian he should marry a descendant of Thomas Jefferson."
Cornelia and her sister Mary, Virginia said, "had no suspicions of mal-intention towards" Levy's motives. "I think the Captain is willing to leave it to be decided in a family council which of the three is to be Mrs. Levi. However he has only given very broad hints as to his designs and perhaps...may change his mind."
Uriah Levy did change his mind if he had ever seriously considered a Randolph marriage and no Levy-Randolph marriage materialized.
As for his new home in Virginia, Uriah Levy did not intend to live at Monticello, his residence being in New York City. The first member of the Levy family to live in Monticello was his mother, Rachel. However, it is not clear when Uriah moved her to Monticello, although it most likely was in the late spring or early summer of 1836, if Jonas Levy's unpublished memoir can believed.
Jonas Levy, Uriah's younger brother, wrote that their mother was living with his older sister Amelia at 498 West Houstan (Houston) Street in New York City on November 1, 1835, when Jonas paid her an unexpected visit after returning from a long sea voyage. A "short time" later, perhaps as early as December 1835 or January 1836, Jonas Levy went to Monticello to visit his brother who, Jonas said, "was then superintending his slaves and other workmen that he had there to work." Jonas stayed at Monticello "for several weeks," before returning home to spend time with his mother in New York City.
Back in Virginia, Monticello was now in the hands of Uriah Phillips Levy, one of the most colorful, controversial officers in the history of the United States Navy. He was a fifth generation American, the descendant of a noteworthy, accomplished family that arrived in the American colonies in 1733. When Uriah Levy took possession of Monticello, a new chapter in the life of Jefferson's beloved mansion had begun.
Copyright © 2001 by Marc Leepson
Table of Contents
|Introduction: Jefferson's House||1|
|Chapter 1||Stealing Monticello||7|
|Chapter 2||The Commodore's House||47|
|Chapter 3||Saving Monticello||87|
|Chapter 4||Claiming Monticello||125|
|Chapter 5||Selling Monticello||185|
|Epilogue: A Long Time Coming: Recognizing the Levys||245|
|Appendix I||Nunez, Phillips, Levy Family Genealogy||257|
|Appendix II||Jefferson's Grandchildren||259|
What People are Saying About This
In its own way, the story of the Levys at Monticello is as compelling as the story of Jefferson at Monticello. It’s not simply a story of how a remarkable family saved a special place, it’s a very human storyindeed, a very American storywonderfully told. I highly recommend it.
Introduction: Jefferson's House
On July 4, 1776, the day the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence marking the beginning of the end of the British empire, King George III wrote in his diary: "Nothing of importance happened today."
On July 4, 1826, as people across the United States joyously celebrated the young nation's Independence Day Jubilee, several matters of great importance took place. Early that afternoon, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, died in his bed at Monticello, his beloved home in Central Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The nation's third president was eighty-three years old.
Later that day, in one of the more remarkable coincidences of history, Jefferson's fellow founding father John Adams died in Massachusetts. The nation's second president's last words were: "Thomas Jefferson still survives."
Thomas Jefferson rarely was sick during his long, productive life. But in the spring of 1825 he had developed dysuria, a painful discharge of urine, probably caused by an enlarged prostate gland. The condition weakened him considerably and he was under a physician's care all that summer.
"My own health is very low, not having been able to leave the house for three months," Jefferson wrote on August 7. "At the age of 82, with one foot in the grave, and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises."
Jefferson suffered greatly until his death the following summer. His physical suffering was made worse by mental anguish. In his last year, Jefferson was tormented by thoughts about the fate of his only surviving daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who was then fifty-three, and her children after his death.
"It is agony to leave her in the situation she is now in," Jefferson said to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph (Martha's oldest son) two weeks before he died. "She is sinking every day under the suffering she now endures; she is literally dying before my eyes."
Plagued by large debts, failed farming and other business ventures, constant extended visits from friends and family, and by his own often profligate spending habits, Jefferson knew that Martha would inherit only debts. He also knew that she would be forced to sell all of his property including Monticello, the neoclassical mansion Jefferson called his "essay in architecture" to satisfy his creditors.
On June 24, 1826, Jefferson called for his physician, the British-born Dr. Robley Dunglison of Charlottesville, who came up to Monticello and stayed there, attending the dying Jefferson during the last weeks of his life. Martha sat at her father's bedside during the day. Her oldest son (known to the family as "Jeff"), then thirty-three, and Nicholas Trist, her son-in-law, took over at night, aided by several household slaves, including Burwell Culbert, Joe Fossett, and John Hemings.
Jefferson seemed to become calmer as death drew near. He lost consciousness on the night of July 2. He awoke briefly on the morning of Monday, July 3. At least once that day he asked if the Fourth of July had come. Dr. Dunglison told him the day would soon be upon them. Nicholas Trist nodded in assent. He and his brother-in-law Jeff sweated out the last hours of July 3, staring at Jefferson's bedside clock as midnight approached, silently hoping he would keep breathing until the Fourth of July. He did.
Jefferson awoke around 4:00 in the morning on July 4 and called to his slaves whom Jefferson referred to as "servants" in what those around him said was a clear voice. He then lapsed into unconsciousness for the last time. Jefferson died in his sleep at 12:50 in the afternoon.
Church bells began tolling soon thereafter in Charlottesville. The next day was a day of mourning in that university town. The fifty-year-old nation began grieving soon thereafter. Jefferson was buried at Monticello on July 5.
When Jefferson died, Monticello, his idyllic mountaintop home, was in the early stages of physical decay. Due to his fiscal troubles, from the time Jefferson stepped down from the presidency in 1809 and retired to Monticello, he could not afford the upkeep on the mansion he had lovingly designed and created.
Monticello was an unbearable burden for Martha Randolph and her son, who was named executor of Jefferson's estate. They were forced to put Monticello on the market to try to raise cash to pay off Jefferson's $100,000-plus debts. The Randolphs soon discovered, however, that no one wanted Monticello, which today is recognized worldwide as a priceless architectural masterpiece. No one wanted what today has become an iconic structure revered by millions a house whose image has graced the back of the Jefferson-head nickel since 1938 and was engraved on the back of the two-dollar bill for a half century.
In 1827, at Monticello the Randolphs auctioned off Thomas Jefferson's slaves, household furniture and furnishings, supplies, grain, and farm equipment. Then they sold or gave to relatives nearly all of his priceless collection of artwork, along with thousands of acres of land he owned in Virginia.
That left Monticello bereft of furniture and furnishings. Martha Randolph fled the decaying, almost-empty mansion. When the Randolphs put the house itself and its surrounding acreage on the market, there were no takers for years. The house sat virtually neglected until 1831 when James Turner Barclay, a Charlottesville druggist, bought Monticello and 552 acres for $7,000.
Barclay and his family lasted less than three years in the house before they sold Monticello to a most unlikely buyer: U.S. Navy Lieutenant Uriah Phillips Levy, a colorful, brash, controversial man who was an ardent Jefferson admirer. Levy, the first Jewish American to make a career as a U.S. naval officer, had amassed a fortune in real estate. He immediately set about making much-needed repairs at Monticello.
Uriah Levy, by all accounts, saved Monticello from physical ruin. Although he did not live there, Levy opened Jefferson's mountaintop home to visitors who showed up to pay homage to his memory. Later, during the Civil War when the South seized Monticello because it was owned by a Northerner, another period of physical decline set in.
Uriah Levy died childless in 1862. He left a strange, convoluted will that did not sit well with his family heirs, who challenged it in court. Seventeen years of legal wrangling ensued, during which time Monticello again fell into near ruin.
In 1879, Uriah Levy's nephew the strangely but aptly named Jefferson Monroe Levy gained title to Monticello. Jefferson Levy was a big-time New York City lawyer, flamboyant stock speculator, real estate wheeler-dealer, and three-term U.S. congressman. When the lifelong bachelor took title to Monticello the building was falling apart. He immediately began spending what soon amounted to a small fortune to repair and restore Monticello and its grounds.
Like his uncle, J. M. Levy was a New York City resident, although he spent many summer weekends at Monticello. He allowed visitors to roam the grounds and permitted some to tour the house. Like his uncle, he was a great admirer of Jefferson. He served as host to one president (Theodore Roosevelt), countless members of Congress, ambassadors, and other officials and dignitaries who flocked to Monticello out of respect and admiration for Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson Levy's proud ownership of Monticello came under attack in 1911. A national movement to wrest control of the estate from him was led by Maud Littleton, a New York socialite. The goal of her well-organized and well-funded effort was to turn the house over to the federal government to be used as a shrine to Jefferson.
In 1912, Congressman Jefferson Levy had the singular misfortune of having to defend his ownership of Monticello in the House of Representatives as Congress debated legislation aimed at confiscating the mansion. That legislation was defeated, but in 1914 Jefferson Levy who once vowed that he never would sell the place bowed to public pressure and offered to sell Monticello to the government. His asking price was $500,000, about half the amount he estimated he had put into the property.
Congress balked at Levy's asking price. In 1919, in the throes of a deep personal financial crisis, Levy put Monticello on the market. There were no takers until 1923 when the newly formed private, nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation agreed to Levy's price. In December of that year the foundation purchased the property. Levy died less than three months later.
The Levy family owned Monticello for eighty-nine years far longer than the Jefferson family owned it. Uriah Levy and Jefferson Levy (who pronounced the name "Leh-vee," rhyming with "bevy") took control of Monticello at critical periods in the history of that historic house; in each case it was on the verge of physical ruin. A case can be made that Uriah Levy was the first American to act upon the idea of preserving a historic dwelling. His restoration of Monticello took place two decades before the first efforts to preserve George Washington's Virginia home, Mount Vernon.
This book offers the first close look at the post-Jefferson history of Monticello and the crucial roles played by Uriah Phillips Levy and Jefferson Monroe Levy in saving and restoring Monticello. The story is filled with memorable, larger-than-life characters, beginning with Jefferson himself and including James Turner Barclay, a messianic visionary; Uriah Phillips Levy six times court-martialed and his teen-aged wife; the colorful Confederate colonel Benjamin Franklin Ficklin who owned Monticello during the Civil War; the eccentric, high-living, deal-making egoist, Jefferson Monroe Levy; and the single-minded Mrs. Littleton.
The story is filled with mysteries and controversies. What happened at Monticello from 1826 to 1923 has been one of best-kept secrets in the history of American preservation.
Copyright © 2001 by Marc Leepson
Most Helpful Customer Reviews