I recently visited the University of Virginia for a speech at the Miller Center, which was always an immense pleasure. It is remains one of the most beautiful and historic campuses in the country and I was able to bring my son, Aidan, who is looking at Virginia for college. As has been my custom for decades, I never go to Charlottesville without taking a pilgrimage to Monticello and the home of Thomas Jefferson. There has been many changes since my last visit due to a wonderful gift of David Rubenstein, who continues to leave a lasting mark on our historical record with his generous and well-placed giving. Monticello is an even greater delight with Rubenstein’s support. No other historic home more perfectly reflects the figure who lived within it. In this case, the home is filled with designs and inventions of Jefferson whose creativity seems to explode in every room with novel architectural points and quirky inventions. Located in one of the most beautiful areas of our country, Monticello is as timeless as the legal contributions of Jefferson from the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom to our Declaration of Independence.
Monticello is a lovely and short ride from University of Virginia, which should also be visited if only to see Jefferson’s vision of the “Academical Village” with its great lawn and Rotunda. The chapel is also quite lovely. (By the way, we stayed at the Boar’s Inn, which was a lovely and expansive property just five minutes from the campus. We also had a great burger at “Citizen Burger” with some onion rings to die for – literally). Here are a few pictures from the campus.
Now for Monticello. I strongly recommend that all visitors take advantage of all of the tours. These guides are some the most knowledgable that you will find at any historical site. They are incredible people who love history and committed their lives to preserving the stories of all who lived here. They hold a wealth of information and do an excellent job of dealing frankly with the most troubling part of Jefferson’s legacy as a slave owner. While Jefferson was never known to have personally beaten a slave and freed a number of people at his death, he was still a slave owner and had hundreds of enslaved persons on his estate. Despite my respect for Jefferson (and opposition to those who want to remove monuments to him), he deserves the condemnation of history for being a slave owner. The guides do a terrific job in vividly explaining the human cost of slavery for these families, including many sold off at Jefferson’s death. While Jefferson died in great debt, there was no excuse for his possession of enslaved persons or his leaving so many in slavery at the end of his life. One has to consider that conflicted legacy when visiting this beautiful stop. For that reason, it is fortunate that the tour begins in the area of slave housing at Monticello, including structures used for forging and Jefferson’s prized horses.
Notably, along his path is a little graveyard that can be easily missed but should not be ignored. (It is next to the garden used by Jefferson’s slaves to grow food for their families). It is the grave site of Uriah Levy. Levy is not known to most Americans but he should be. He was an extraordinary American in his own right. He was the first Jewish Commodore of the United States Navy and he is credited with being one of the most determined opponents to flogging — a practice ended due in part to his advocacy. Perhaps the greatest debt that we owe to Levy and his family is that they saved Monticello. Jefferson died heavily in debt and the family could not unload the property. It was at risk of being lost for the ages. Levy saw the need for preserving this site for his country and moved his family to the mountain top and took remarkable care in preserving the home that Jefferson built. This is one of those debts that a nation could not possibly repay. It is also another example of how Jewish families have contributed so much to our country despite facing anti-Semitism, as did Levy. The grave of Levy is located along a path fittingly preserved and improved by the largess of David Rubenstein, who has given this country so much in terms of own philanthropy.
After exploring the mountain top (and visiting Jefferson’s grave site), you can join the tour of the house. My favorite part of the house has always been the Jefferson clock just inside of the front door. It has both a face on the outside and the main clock facing inside. It is still working and also tracks the day of the week (the chain marking the days on the side was too long for all of the days so Jefferson cut a hole in the floor to allow Sunday to be marked in the room below). It still chimes and is lovingly cranked once a week. The clock for me personifies Jefferson’s genius and his restless creativity.
The house is filled with quirky Jeffersonian touches including European elements that he incorporates after serving as ambassador to France. That includes automatically closing doors and a dumbwaiter for wine to the dining room. Of course, as a Madisonian scholar, I perfectly move the “Madison room” where Madison often stayed while visiting Jefferson.
One element that I particularly enjoyed on this visit was the trunk of a huge tree that was felled recently. To the surprise of the custodians, a new tree then sprouted up with the trunk — a symbol of the stubborn persistence of the Jefferson legacy.
I was also given access to the octagon room at the top of the home. This was my first such visit to this area, which is often cut off from tours. A narrow stairway goes to the top floor. It is gorgeous including a cute little room where the girls would hide and have their own special space. It was a reminder that this home for the Jeffersons and the Levys was filled with kids. The thought of all those kids running about adds to the vision of this as a real home. It is also a home that is bathed in sunlight. I love Mount Vernon but it can be a tad confining and dark at places. These two properties are true personifications of the two leaders. Jefferson wanted a home open to sunlight with areas designed for gatherings and discussions. In that architecture, Monticello was virtually unique among the great estates of its time.
Here are a few more pictures from the estate:
Now for one last note. On the way to Monticello, you pass the Michie Tavern. This 1784 landmark was actually moved in 1927 from its original location in Earlysville — seventeen miles away. It is a great way to finish off a visit at Monticello with the quintessential Revolutionary-era pub. We were fortunate to be the last customers around 3 when any crowds or buses had long left. While a little pricey, they serve the same all-you-can-eat menu with fried chicken, pulled pork, greens, mashed potatoes, and peach cobbler. I came largely for the building and expected the food to be frankly a disappointment. It was not. I may have had better fried chicken but I cannot remember when. The chicken is unbelievably good — an unchanged recipe that alone is worth the money. The mashed potatoes, biscuits, and gravy were another hit for us. You should definitely plan a stop at the Michie Tavern for lunch.
Here are few pictures from the Tavern:
So here is my recommendation (and your marching orders). Visit the University of Virginia (and go to the top of the Rotunda to the round reading room). Then go to Monticello for much of the day. Finish off with a late lunch (before 3 pm) at the Michie Tavern (save room for extra fried chicken). That is a day (like mine) that you will not soon forget.