Monticello: Not as bad as I feared, but not as good as it could have been

Yesterday, I visited Monticello.  Having heard that the site had gone completely woke, with scant attention paid to Thomas Jefferson, I was prepared for the worst.  In fact, the "behind-the-scenes" tour I took, while it obsessively named every slave who worked in the house and insisted that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, focused primarily on Jefferson and his family.

In early July, the New York Post wrote that a visit to Monticello, Jefferson's famous home, was a woke nightmare, with guides haranguing visitors about the horrors of slavery and speaking slightingly about Jefferson.  I did not experience that.

The difference could have been because the historic site cleaned up its act after being exposed or because I took a specialty tour.  In addition to the usual tour rooms, we also visited the two upper floors, where family members other than Jefferson lived.  The tour was very much about the house (almost disappointingly so), rather than about the man himself.

We got almost no mention of Jefferson's accomplishments.  Instead, we learned about his innovative and idiosyncratic decisions about the house itself.  For example, the original plan didn't include the famous cupola.  That was a later idea.  Interestingly, when we got to see the cupola (pretty cool, right?), it was completely barren — no furniture; no wall decorations — which was the way Jefferson kept it.


Photo by Andrea Widburg.

We also learned that Jefferson shared the house with up to 25 family members: his sister, his daughters, one husband, 11 grandchildren, and others whose identities I never quite grasped.  Downstairs, on the ground floor, Jefferson had a suite for himself that had three rooms, with his bed tucked into an alcove between two of the rooms.  There, he read his books; did his architectural drawings; and, in two of those three rooms, allowed his family to be with him.

The main family rooms were a parlor that was open to well behaved children and a dining room.  We learned that Jefferson intended the paintings and maps to stimulate conversation about geography, famous men, American political leaders, and religion, among other things.  I found that somewhat baffling because, if that was where he gathered with his family, one would hope that conversation would extend beyond repeatedly discussing other presidents or how John the Baptist's head ended on Salome's platter.

The dining room was notable for a revolving door through which food was passed into the room, negating the need for myriad servants to handle the food and for a dumbwaiter dedicated to delivering wine to the diners.  (Although Jefferson grew up drinking Madeira, a fortified wine, his stint in France left him with a taste for regular wine.)

We then ascended via an incredibly narrow, steep staircase to the second floor, on which the women and girls lived.  Some had tiny bedrooms, while some apparently camped out on the hall floor, even if they were permanent residents.  A climb up an identical staircase to the third floor took us to the men's and boys' quarters.  Jefferson's lavish spending on his books and various experiments versus his complete disregard for anyone else's comfort did not reflect well on him.

So that's Jefferson: we learned about his house and his relationship to his house.

And what about the wokeism?  That showed up in two ways.  First, every slave connected with the house had to be named, just as Jefferson's daughters and grandchildren were named.  None of this naming was illuminating.  It adds nothing to our understanding of history or of Jefferson to know that had a granddaughter named Ellen or that he purportedly had a daughter with Sally Hemings named Harriet.

Second, we were strongly assured that Jefferson fathered Hemings's six children.  Our guide acknowledged that the DNA test showed only that a Jefferson male fathered those children.  She made more of a purported agreement that Jefferson struck with Hemings to entice her to return to Virginia after being a companion to Jefferson's younger daughter in Paris.

The source for this alleged agreement is an interview that Hemings's son, Madison, who was born 16 years after the agreement, gave to a newspaper in 1873.  It's a fascinating interview, but, as this article points out, Madison has zero corroborating evidence for his claims.

This was my second visit to Monticello, and, while more detailed than my first visit seven years ago, it was no more woke.  I'm not a huge Jefferson fan or a Monticello fan, but it was a fine visit, and I can recommend it to anyone who wants to see one of the world's most famous homes.  (Indeed, it's a World Heritage Site, a designation that always irritates me because these sites matter to the countries in which they exist.  When it comes to the rest of the world, they are merely World Tourist Attractions.)

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