Monticello v. Mount Vernon

We know yesterday President Obama took France’s visiting President Hollande on a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello.

Hmm. One wonders if Jefferson’s view of Rosalie and William’s Franco-American romance – which also included, early on, probably, uh, extramarital behavior – rated a mention? Seems unlikely. 😉

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I write this as a long-time Jefferson fan. Having been to both Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, my personal take is that Mount Vernon reflects a more down to earth and conventional man. Washington’s home is predictable in its layout and room usage; while it is large, it reminds one today of pretty much any other big, rural, framed home. It was the Father of our Country’s living there for much of his life that most makes it special.

>Washington's Mount Vernon, seen looking at the rear of the house. [Photo by me, 2011.]
Washington’s Mount Vernon, seen looking at the rear of the house. [Photo by me, 2011.]
In comparison, Monticello is full of architectural quirks, personal inventions, and decoration that clearly reflects the input of its “quirky” owner. Of course all those help make for a great tour and masses of interesting anecdotes for guides to share. But they also mark it out as being more of a museum, and an experiment in construction, rather than a home.

What also struck me about Monticello is perhaps the contrast between the two founding fathers’ daily living environments. Yes, both estates had slave quarters. Yet because Mount Vernon strikes one first and foremost as a family home rather than its owner’s personal statement on refined living, Mount Vernon’s slave housing area feels somehow just a bit less morally appalling than Monticello’s.

The top of Jefferson's Monticello, seen from "Mulberry Row," a path along which slave cabins had stood. [Photo by me, 2011.]
The top of Jefferson’s Monticello, seen from “Mulberry Row,” a path along which slave cabins had stood. [Photo by me, 2011.]
Consider this. From its Mulberry Row path situated below the house, you can spot the top of the Monticello mansion. (Those two standard looking windows that are clearly visible are on a secondary, nearer, structure. That isn’t the house itself.) However, from the mansion, you cannot easily see down to Mulberry Row, so presumably Jefferson couldn’t see it easily either.

The wooden structures that once constituted Mulberry Row are long gone. But today you can still stand exactly where many of Monticello’s slaves once “lived.” That is about from where I took that photo above.

Standing there now, nearly two centuries after Jefferson died, one can only but wonder: what must those dwelling in those often ramshackle structures really have thought of the “great man” up on the hill in that arguably obscene museum of a house?

I recall also how a guide explained Jefferson rarely set foot in the kitchen, which was located in a part of “the basement” that ran the entire under-length of the house. Slaves would pop upstairs as needed, rather than traipsing around inside the interior of the house. His famous “dumbwaiters” were also loaded from the basement, transporting wine upstairs to the main floor.

After his death, the guide said slaves who had worked in the kitchen had recalled Jefferson appearing in the basement among them only when he came down every few days, to wind the kitchen clock himself.