Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, his family’s 3,000-acre plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a well-respected surveyor and politician while his mother, Jane Randolph, hailed from the pretensions of Virginian aristocracy. The Jeffersons enjoyed an affluent lifestyle and endowed young Thomas with a formal education—a privilege he deeply cherished throughout his life. Inspired by the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson gained an appreciation for natural sciences, philosophy, and classical literature. In 1760, he entered the College of William and Mary and pursued his interests further under the tutelage of Professor William Small. After two years of study, Jefferson apprenticed law with George Wythe—a prominent Virginia jurist and legislator—and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767. Jefferson later represented Albemarle County in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1775.
In December 1770, Jefferson began courting Martha Wayles Skelton—a 22-year-old debutante and widow of Bathurst Skelton (1744 – 1768). Martha delivered one son, John, during her previous marriage. Sadly, he died six months before Thomas and Martha wed on January 1, 1772. The couple bore six children over the course of their marriage. Only two—Martha (called Patsy) and Mary (Maria or Polly)—survived into adulthood. In 1773, Martha’s father, John Wayles, passed away, leaving the Jeffersons with 135 slaves and 11,000 acres of farmland. Among the slaves inherited were Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings—John Wayles’ mistress—and her six children, Martha’s half-siblings. Martha Jefferson died on September 6, 1782, following complications of childbirth.
In 1774, Jefferson authored his first political pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Written in response to the Intolerable Acts, Jefferson’s Summary repudiated Parliament’s authority over the colonies, criticized policies indoctrinated by King George III, and maintained the colonists’ desire for self-governance. Jefferson’s publication, though considered quite radical, impressed members of the Virginia Convention for its eloquence and resolve, earning Jefferson a respected reputation as an articulate draftsman.
On June 7, 1776, the Lee Resolution—the first formal proposal for American independence—was introduced to the Second Continental Congress. A Committee of Five—consisting of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman—was assembled to draft a declaration of independence, with Jefferson designated as its principal author. On June 28, the Committee presented their rough draft to Congress where it underwent intense criticism and modification. The most striking change was arguably the omission of Jefferson’s passage on slavery, in which he blames King George III for “violating [human nature’s] most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” The exclusion was prompted primarily to appease the southern colonies, whose plantation economies relied on forced labor, and northern shipping merchants who engaged in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. While Jefferson was dissatisfied with the revisions, he voiced no objections before Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4.
In September 1776, Jefferson left Congress after being elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Throughout his tenure in the House, Jefferson sat on the Committee of Revisors, reviewing and editing existing laws for an independent Virginia. In 1779, Jefferson introduced the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to the General Assembly. Though not ratified until January 1786, the Statute established the precedent separating church and state and influenced the Free Exercise Clause in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
On June 1, 1779, Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia. Although the Commonwealth had largely been spared of any revolutionary warfare, fears of invasion mounted as Britain’s Southern Campaign ravaged Patriot forces in Georgia and the Carolinas. In 1780, Jefferson relocated Virginia’s capital from Williamsburg to Richmond, believing the latter was more defensible against British attack. However, when turncoat Benedict Arnold marched on Richmond in January 1781, Jefferson frantically and ineffectually mobilized his state’s defenses. Virginia officials fled as Arnold’s forces easily besieged the virtually undefended capital—burning government records, public buildings, tobacco warehouses, and the armory before retiring to Portsmouth.
With Richmond a smoldering ruin, Jefferson pressed the General Assembly to raise additional funds and militiamen to counter future British attacks; however, the Assembly expressed little interest in coercing their constituents. Instead, they penned a remonstrance to Congress addressing the inequities southern states had faced throughout the war. In response, General George Washington dispatched 1,200 troops under Marquis de Lafayette to bolster Virginia’s defenses.
In May 1781, the Virginia government fled Richmond once again as General William Phillips defeated Baron von Steuben’s Patriot forces at Petersburg. The General Assembly reconvened in Charlottesville and decided to appoint a new governor on June 4, two days after Jefferson’s second gubernational term was scheduled to end. General Lord Charles Cornwallis—whose British forces were encamped seventy miles away at Hanover Court House—was informed of the extralegal proceedings on June 3. He immediately dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and 250 mounted soldiers to capture the Virginia assemblymen by surprise. Tarleton’s troops pressed expeditiously through the Virginia countryside before resting near Cuckoo Tavern, Louisa County. It was here that Jack Jouett—a 26-year-old captain of the Virginia militia—observed the British raiding party. He instinctively assumed their target, Charlottesville, and embarked on an overnight, forty-mile journey to warn the Virginia delegation of Tarleton’s impending attack.
Jouett reached Monticello at 4:30 a.m. and delivered Jefferson the news. The outgoing governor sent his family to Poplar Forest—Jefferson’s rural retreat near Lynchburg, Virginia—while he stayed behind to collect his books and other valuables. Jefferson narrowly escaped to safety several hours later as British dragoons galloped onto his property. While Jefferson made last-minute preparations at Monticello, Jouett informed the Assembly of Tarleton’s raid. The delegates agreed to reconvene in Staunton, 35 miles west of Charlottesville; however, as they prepared to flee, British troops coursed through town. Most managed to escape, but seven unfortunate legislators, including frontiersmen Daniel Boone, were captured and later paroled.
Jefferson’s flight from Monticello consequently stirred allegations of cowardice and executive ineptitude. His failure to protect Virginia’s welfare prompted the General Assembly to launch a formal inquiry into the ex-governor’s conduct. Jefferson vehemently defended his actions before the delegation and claimed that, since his governorship expired June 2, he held no public authority at the time of Tarleton’s assault. The Assembly agreed and found no obvious wrongdoing. Despite the dismissal of charges, Jefferson faced lifelong criticism for his ineffective leadership and developed a seething hatred towards Patrick Henry, who he blamed for the investigation.
While a delegate in the Confederation Congress (1781 – 1789), Jefferson authored the Land Ordinance of 1784, which outlined preliminary statehood criteria for the Northwest Territories and served as a forerunner to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. In May 1784, Jefferson was appointed minister plenipotentiary to France, joining John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in their diplomatic efforts. When Franklin resigned from his position on May 17, 1785, Jefferson was named his successor, becoming the second U.S. Ambassador to France.
Shortly after his ambassadorial appointment, Jefferson published Notes on the State of Virginia, one of the most influential and provocative American texts of the 18th Century. The founding father spent five years authoring his response to a list of queries posed by François Marbois, an administrator of French affairs in the United States. Notes defended Jefferson’s ideals of American democracy—the sanctity of republican values, religious freedom, and universal education—while simultaneously discussing his controversial and contradictory opinions of African Americans and slavery. Jefferson decried the evils of slavery yet postulated that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. He believed the two races could not coexist peacefully in American society—a fear partially fueled by slave uprisings in the Caribbean—and expressed attitudes supporting the Back to Africa movement. Regarding Native Americans, Jefferson was more accepting. He admired their physical attributes and cultural values and lauded their potential to assimilate in civilized American society.
In September 1785, Jefferson negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Kingdom of Prussia and the United States—the first commercial alliance between a European power and America following the Revolution. Besides this landmark legislation and a formal treaty with Morocco, Jefferson’s tenure as Minister to France was rather uneventful in terms of diplomatic relations. However, Jefferson bore witness to the ferocity of the French Revolution and influenced the principles behind Marquis de Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
While in France, Jefferson developed a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved housemaid and half-sister of his deceased wife. While the exact nature of their rendezvous remains obscure, Hemings’s descendants and contemporary historians have ranging opinions about the couple’s power dynamics—from affectionate romance and consensual sexual bartering to rape. What is known is that Sally was a freewoman on French soil and she negotiated “extraordinary privileges” for herself and unborn children upon their return to Monticello (and consequently enslavement) in September 1789. Jefferson is believed to have fathered six of Sally’s children, four of whom survived into adulthood.
On February 14, 1790, Jefferson became the nation’s first Secretary of State. Almost immediately, he became embroiled with Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton over fundamental administrative issues, namely the national debt and roles of the federal government. Hamilton favored a strong central government with a National Bank to consolidate state debts and promote industrial growth through lines of credit. Conversely, Jefferson favored an agrarian society governed by individual states, loosely confederated by a weak national authority. He also opposed the National Bank, believing it would foster corruption and undermine the foundation of republican governance. These conflicting viewpoints later evolved into the First Party System—Hamilton’s Federalists versus Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. Frustrated by perpetual executive infighting, Jefferson resigned from his position in December 1793.
The Election of 1796 and Vice Presidency
Jefferson was the favored Republican candidate during the 1796 General Election but lost to Federalist John Adams by three electoral votes. By Constitutional law, Jefferson’s runner-up finish earned him the Vice Presidency; however, his contrasting political ideologies with Adams essentially guaranteed conflict.
In October 1797, Adams dispatched envoys John Marshall, Charles Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry to France to maintain American neutrality and negotiate diplomatic commercial relations. The U.S. peace commission expected to deliberate with French Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Instead, they were received by three intermediaries—Jean Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval—who demanded a $250,000 bribe and $12 million loan to repay American shipping depredation claims before opening negotiations. The American delegation rejected the French agents’ terms and ultimately returned home after several months of fruitless endeavors.
The outrageous French demands fueled Federalist sentiments for war; however, pro-France Republicans, skeptical of Talleyrand’s unwillingness to negotiate, lobbied the President to release his commission’s correspondence. Adams agreed, but redacted the French intermediaries’ names as “X,” “Y,” and “Z.” Publication of the XYZ Affair embittered public opinion towards France, but Adams never formally issued a declaration of war. Rather, the United States entered the Quasi-War (1798 – 1800)—an undeclared naval conflict against French privateers in the Caribbean Sea.
Fears of escalating French aggression motivated Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts—a collection of four laws designed to curtail French sympathies and public dissention towards the federal government. The Naturalization Act increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, which drastically limited immigrant voting power within the Republican party. Two “Alien” Acts authorized the president to arbitrarily arrest and detain “dangerous aliens” and permitted their deportation during wartime. Finally, the Sedition Act empowered the government to imprison anyone, including American citizens, who “print, utter, or publish…any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the federal government. Unsurprisingly, the American populace vigorously rejected these intrusions against free speech and individual liberties.
In late 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison anonymously authored their respective Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, challenging the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts. They both argued against the national government’s implied constitutional powers, reflecting the Republican ideal of strict constructionism. Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution further declared that states had the power to nullify federal laws they deemed unconstitutional—an authority Madison deemed illegitimate. The formal opposition to Federalist policy sullied Adams’s prospects for reelection.
The Election of 1800 and Jefferson’s First Term
Following the Election of 1800, Jefferson and his Republican running mate, former New York senator Aaron Burr, narrowly defeated incumbent John Adams and Federalist Charles Pinckney; however, both Jefferson and Burr received 73 electoral votes apiece, resulting in a deadlocked ballot. A contingent election was passed to the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. Alexander Hamilton, once Jefferson’s arch rival, lobbied legislators on his behalf, believing him the lesser political evil than Burr, who he described as “an unprincipled scoundrel.” On February 17, 1801, after 36 successive ballots, the House elected Thomas Jefferson as the third President of the United States. Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801, was the first such ceremony performed at the new Capitol Building and signified the first peaceful transfer of executive power in American history.
Though civilized, Jefferson’s accession was not without controversy. In the waning hours of his presidency, John Adams appointed several strong Federalists to vacant judgeships in the federal court system; however, his commissions remained undelivered when Jefferson’s Republican Cabinet took office. Secretary of State James Madison refused to deliver the nominations in an effort to keep these “midnight judges” off the bench. One appointee, William Marbury, claimed that his commission could not be denied to him and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus compelling its delivery.
Chief Justice John Marshall issued the Court’s ruling on February 24, 1803. He agreed with Marbury that his commission could not be denied; however, according to Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court did not have the authority to issue such injunctions. Marshall’s landmark decision further held that the Judiciary Act of 1789—which allowed the Supreme Court to issue writs of mandamus—exceeded the court’s intended jurisdiction, making the legislative act unconstitutional. Marbury v. Madison set the precedent for judicial review and enhanced the federal government’s system of checks and balances.
Jefferson sought to establish a “wise and frugal Government” to address the nation’s staggering $83 million debt. He and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin dismantled Hamilton’s Federalist fiscal system—abolishing internal taxes and limiting powers of the National Bank—and closed “unnecessary offices…[and other] useless establishments.” One such establishment was the nation’s standing army, which Jefferson deemed unwarranted during peacetime. He called upon individual states to raise “well-disciplined militia” and incorporated a fleet of inexpensive gunboats for the nation’s defense.
The reduction of military capacity was ill-timed as the United States soon became entangled with Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. For years, North African corsairs had been capturing foreign merchant vessels and holding their crews for ransom under threat of enslavement. Customary bribes were reluctantly paid, but when Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli, raised his demands in 1801, President Jefferson refused to comply. Instead, he dispatched a U.S. Navy flotilla under Commodore Richard Dale to Tripolitania to protect American vessels and “chastise [the regency’s] insolence…by sinking, burning, or destroying their ships.” On May 14, 1801—seven weeks before the arrival of Dale’s fleet—the Pasha declared war on the United States. While no formal act of war was reciprocated by the United States, Congress unofficially recognized the Barbary War in February 1802, making it the nation’s first foreign conflict.
The Barbary War reached its apex on April 27, 1805, when General William Eaton’s mercenary army—reinforced by eight U.S. marines and three warships—captured the Tripolitan port city of Derna. The legionnaries’ ultimate objective was to depose the presiding Pasha with his brother, Hamet, who been exiled in Egypt since 1795. Eaton prepared to march on Tripoli, but under threat of a coup, the Pasha beckoned for peace. On June 4, 1805, Tripolitan and U.S. dignitaries signed the Treaty of Peace and Amity in Tripoli, effectively ending hostilities. According to the armistice, the United States was relinquished from all Tripolitan tributes but agreed to pay $60,000 for the release of all remaining American prisoners.
America’s participation in the Barbary War prompted Jefferson to reconsider his intentions for military abatement. A proponent of higher education, Jefferson strongly endorsed the creation of a national military university dedicated to science and engineering. Jefferson’s vision was realized on March 16, 1802, when he signed the Military Peace Establishment Act, establishing the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
In 1802, President Jefferson learned that Spain had secretly ceded the Louisiana Territory to France in the Treaty of Ildefonso two years prior. Concerns mounted over Napoleon’s desire to restore French colonialism in North America—the potential loss of New Orleans would deal a brutal blow to American commercial and agricultural interests along the Mississippi River. In January 1803, Jefferson sent envoys James Monroe and Robert Livingston to France with instructions to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and West Florida for $10 million. Napoleon, whose Hispaniolan colonies were faltering amidst the Haitian Revolution, was in desperate need of funds for his impending war against Britain. Recognizing grim prospects in North America, the French Consul issued the Americans a counteroffer—the entire Louisiana Territory (over 828,000 square miles) for $15 million. Astonished by the opportunity, Monroe and Livingston agreed to the terms on April 30, 1803. Although the Constitution made no explicit indications about the purchase of foreign territory, Jefferson set aside his strict constructionist views and submitted the deal to Congress, who formally approved the transaction five months later.
Following the acquisition of Louisiana, Jefferson appointed his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, and Second Lieutenant William Clark to lead a scientific expedition—the Corps of Discovery—to the Pacific Coast. From May 1804 to September 1806, Lewis and Clark explored the Missouri River and Pacific Northwest, obtaining valuable biological, sociological, and geographical information of America’s new territories.
One of the last major legislative actions during Jefferson’s first term was the passage of the Twelfth Amendment. Ratified on June 15, 1804, the Twelfth Amendment instituted separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President, thus eliminating the risk for incompatible executives and stalemated elections.
The Election of 1804 and Jefferson’s Second Term
Jefferson handedly defeated Federalist Charles Pinckney in the 1804 Election after securing 92% of the electorate. Vice President Burr, however, was conspicuously replaced on the Republican ticket by New York Governor George Clinton. Jefferson’s relationship with Burr had rapidly deteriorated into animosity following the contentious Election of 1800. Burr’s outspoken distrust towards Jefferson ostracized him from the Republican party, rendering him largely ineffective as Vice President. Burr also held deep resentment towards Alexander Hamilton, who he believed cost him the presidency with his underhanded congressional lobbying and defamatory remarks. While Burr campaigned for the vacant New York governorship in 1804, Hamilton publicly condemned the Vice President’s “despicable” character. Burr ultimately challenged Hamilton to a fateful duel where the latter was mortally wounded on July 11, 1804.
With his domestic political influences essentially evaporated, the estranged Vice President contacted Anthony Merry, Britain’s Minister to the United States, in August 1804. Burr disclosed to Merry that America’s western territories could be returned to Britain if they supplied him with money and ships to carry out the conquest. When Merry balked to provide support, Burr recruited James Wilkinson—Commanding General of the U.S. Army and territorial governor of Northern Louisiana—who could coordinate military maneuvers without arousing suspicion from Washington, D.C. In late 1805, Jefferson unsuccessfully attempted to annex West Florida from Spain, which instigated border disputes between the two nations. Burr hoped Wilkinson would seize the opportunity to attack Texas or Mexico in the name of American sovereignty. Once the territories were conquered, Burr sought to establish his own sovereign nation independent from the United States—this calculated expropriation of Spanish landholdings is known today as the Burr Conspiracy.
However, by 1806, Burr’s plan was in complete dissolution. That October, General Wilkinson—acting to preserve his own reputation—informed Jefferson of the planned military expedition against the western territories. While Wilkinson neglected to mention Burr’s involvement, publications across the nation implicated the ex-Vice President with this treasonous act. In November, Jefferson ordered all “sundry persons, citizens of the U.S. or resident within the same, [who] are conspiring and confederating...against the dominions of Spain” to disperse and charged Burr with treason. Burr surrendered to federal authorities in January 1807 and was arraigned before a grand jury in Mississippi Territory. The jury found no compelling evidence and failed to indict Burr, who subsequently fled into the Mississippi wilderness. On February 19, Burr was arrested in Alabama on a federal treason charge. He was transported under armed guard to Richmond, Virginia, where his sedition trial opened on May 22, 1807.
After three months of deliberations, Burr’s defense petitioned the court to dismiss further prosecution testimony on the grounds that the evidence presented had “utterly failed to prove any overt act of war”—the precedent for treason outlined in Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. The presiding judge, Chief Justice Marshall—who had a record for strict constitutional interpretation—agreed with the defense, and to Jefferson’s dismay, Burr was acquitted, thereby establishing the narrow precedent for treason.
In December 1806, Jefferson delivered an appeal to Congress denouncing the “violation of human rights” perpetuated by the international slave trade. In March 1807, Congress passed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which criminalized the practice as of January 1, 1808; although, it did not address the issue domestically.
As the Napoleonic Wars raged in Europe, American trade thrived supplying textiles and agricultural produce to the belligerent nations; however, in 1806, competing French and British regulations outlawed neutral American trade. As a result, hundreds of American vessels were seized by the warring navies. Thousands more U.S. sailors were impressed by the Royal Navy, forcibly conscripted into British maritime service. On April 18, 1806—in protest against impressment—Congress prohibited the importation of British goods into the United States. Unfortunately, the menacing practice continued unhindered on the high seas.
In June 1807, the British frigate HMS Leopard approached the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, captain of the Leopard, issued Commodore James Barron a search warrant for British deserters aboard the Chesapeake. When Barron refused Humphrey’s request, the Leopard fired broadsides into the American vessel. The unguarded Chesapeake managed for fire a single shot before capitulating. Three of Barron’s crew were killed and another eighteen wounded, including Barron himself. A British boarding party apprehended four Chesapeake sailors before releasing the rest of the crew. Barron was court martialed for the embarrassing surrender and later relieved of command.
In December 1807, Jefferson signed the Embargo Act which suspended trade between America and all foreign nations. Intended to leverage American neutrality, the Embargo Act contrarily triggered commercial chaos across the United States, especially in New England. Merchants and farmers alike were unable to transport products overseas, which devastated the domestic economy. Many sailors disregarded the law and smuggled goods to foreign buyers. In January 1808, Jefferson signed the Second Embargo Act, which authorized federal agents to arrest anyone who violated the trade ban. During the final days of his administration, Jefferson finally acknowledged the embargoes’ failures. On March 1, Congress repealed the Embargo Acts and replaced them with the Non-Intercourse Act, which reinstated trade with all foreign powers except Britain and France.
The Later Years
Following James Madison’s victory in the 1808 Presidential Election, Jefferson retired to his Monticello home where he indulged his lifelong interests of science, history, and innovation. He remained active in the American Philosophical Society—serving as President (1797 – 1814) and Councilor (1818 – 1826)—and founded the University of Virginia in 1819. Jefferson spearheaded the legislative campaign for its charter, designed its buildings and architectural layout, and served as its first rector. Contrary to other contemporary establishments, “Mr. Jefferson’s university” was a secular, publicly funded institution accessible to students from all social strata. Marquis de Lafayette—Jefferson’s old friend from Revolutionary times—toured the academic campus and attended the University’s inaugural banquet during his Farewell Tour of America in November 1824. On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson passed away at Monticello. Coincidentally, John Adams—Jefferson’s esteemed compatriot and former political adversary—died only a few hours later.
THOMAS JEFFERSON’S MONTICELLO
When Jefferson was 21 years old, he inherited five thousand acres of land from his father’s estate, including a lofty hilltop overlooking Charlottesville. Jefferson cleared the highlands in 1768 and spent the next fort years meticulously designing, developing, and remodeling his Monticello residence. The first prototype, drafted in 1770, exemplified neoclassicist characteristics influenced by Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508 – 1580). While abroad as Minister to France, Jefferson was captivated by Parisian architecture and its “modern” amenities. Beginning in 1796, Monticello underwent extensive renovations to attune Jefferson’s ever-evolving vision. A domed roof and second-story mezzanine replaced the original porticos while a central hallway connected the two L-shaped service pavilions. Monticello was essentially completed by 1809, though Jefferson continually modified its appearance until his final days.
In 1827, the Monticello estate, its furnishings, and majority of its slave population were auctioned off to recompense Jefferson’s staggering $100,000 debt. Uriah Phillips Levy—the first Jewish-American Commodore in U.S. naval history—acquired Monticello in 1834. An ardent admirer of Jefferson’s character, Levy spent decades restoring Monticello to its original appearance. He attempted to donate the estate to the U.S. government in 1862 but was denied due to the ongoing Civil War. Uriah’s son, Jefferson Monroe Levy, gained ownership of Monticello in 1879. He sold the 662-acre estate to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923. After nearly a century, The Jefferson Foundation remains committed to preserving Monticello—a UNESCO World Heritage site as of 1987—and educating visitors about Jefferson’s complex legacy and diverse plantation community.
A trip to Monticello begins at the David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center, where tourists can explore exhibits related to Jefferson’s sociopolitical views and architectural pursuits, plantation life, and archaeological reclamation. From here, visitors can ride a shuttle or hike the Saunders-Monticello Trail up to Jefferson’s estate—just note, basic ticket packages cost $22 to walk the grounds and $32 to tour the house.
Self-guided first floor tours begin in the grand Entrance Hall of Monticello’s East Wing; adorned with natural and cultural artifacts from Jefferson’s personal collection. To the left, through the South Square Room, are the Library and Cabinet where Jefferson stored his many manuscripts and scientific instruments and habitually wrote correspondence. Adjacent to the Cabinet are Jefferson’s Chambers and alcove bed. Visitors pass through the Parlor and Dining Rooms before exiting onto the North Pavilion. Outside the home, tourists can walk through the West Lawn and Flower Gardens, which showcase over one hundred species of North American perennials and wildflowers.
Several restored workspaces are situated beneath the North Pavilion, including the carriage bays, stables, and Ice House. From the North Pavilion, tourists can walk through the central basement hallway, observe Jefferson’s wine and beer cellars, and access the South Pavilion on the other side. The South Pavilion contains numerous thought-provoking galleries related to slavery and Monticello’s daily operations.
Adjacent to the South Pavilion is Mulberry Row, Monticello’s labor village. At its peak, Mulberry Row was lined with 25 domiciles and workshops. Today, four reconstructed buildings remain—the Hemings’ Cabin, Textile Workshop, Iron Storehouse, and Stables—each containing their own unique exhibits. Below Mulberry Row are the terraced Vegetable Gardens, where Jefferson planted imported produce and experimented with various cultivation methods. Jefferson also established two vineyards beneath the garden’s south-facing slope. Although his fields failed to yield viable crops, Jefferson pioneered grape growing and experimental viticulture in America, stimulating the domestic wine industry.
The Jefferson family graveyard is located on the west end of the property. Interested visitors can walk a quarter-mile from Monticello and pay their respects to America’s third President before catching the shuttle back to the Visitor Center.
Thomas Jefferson was the personification of American democracy—an architect for individual freedom and self-determination entangled in fundamental paradoxes and logical fallacies. Private and discreet, yet polarizing and controversial. The multitudinous layers of Jefferson’s persona are complex and contemplative and no lone attribute can succinctly define his legacy. At Monticello, we can begin to uncover and appreciate who Thomas Jefferson truly was—a Founding Father, a sanctimonious slave owner, an introspective intellectual, a human being.
Read the following publications to learn more about Thomas Jefferson:
Brodie, Fawn M. Thomas Jefferson an Intimate History. Japan: Ishi Press International, 2019.
Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. United States: Vintage Books, 1998.
Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. United States: HarperCollins, 2009.
Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. United States: Random House Publishing Group, 2013.
Onuf, Peter S. The Mind of Thomas Jefferson. United Kingdom: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Thomas Jefferson at Monticello: Architecture, Landscape, Collections, Books, Food, Wine. United States: Rizzoli, 2021.
Wood, Gordon S. Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. United Kingdom: Penguin Press, 2017.