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Thursday, June 6, 2013 : Monticello, Richmond

 

We have now been in the United States for two weeks. Time goes by too fast !

 

The weather is not going any better. When we get up, it is raining on Charlottesville. We do not know it yet, but we are headed straight toward the remains of a tropical storm coming from Florida and slowly travelling up along the East Coast, before crossing the Atlantic and showering Europe.

 

We only have a rather short drive today, which leaves up ample time for two major historical visits, Monticello, the residence of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, and the city of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865.

 

Monticello is less than 10 minutes from our hotel. It is a large plantation on top of a hill, close to Charlottesville, where Jefferson cultivated tobacco, then wheat, fruit and vegetables, and made beer and cider. As many other plantations at the same time, it was more or less self-sufficient. There was even a workshop to make nails !

 

Most of the workforce were slaves, roughly 200 of them.

 

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate

Monticello, residence of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States

 

After purchasing our tickets, we rapidly cross the visitor center and its predictable shop.

 

Monticello was Jefferson's residence from 1770 until his death in 1826.

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Monticello, statue of Thomas Jefferson

Monticello, statue of Thomas Jefferson

 

The mansion being on top of a hill, we take the shuttle. The statue on the picture is located on the square where the minibuses leave from, for a commute we did not know was so short !

 

Our tickets request us to enter the line for the visit of the mansion at sharp 12:10. Before that, we stroll in the gardens, but the pouring rain sort of waters down our motivation. We compensate by visiting the basement and the dependencies, properly sheltered.

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Monticello, the kitchen

At Monticello, the kitchen is in the basement

 

As shown on the picture, the kitchen is large enough to prepare a plentiful meal for many guests.

 

I always wondered how the inhabitants of those large mansions could ever eat a warm meal, considering the significant distance between the kitchen and the dining room.

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Monticello, the cook's bedroom

Monticello, the cook's bedroom

 

Jefferson largely had his house built on his own designs. A scientific and pragmatic mind, he brought highly practical solutions to problems. For instance, the cook and his family had a room next to the kitchen. That way, he could cook something if the owner of the house or his guests were kind of hungry in the middle of the night !

 

It is not long before we realize that this house is stuffed with ideas and innovations, sometimes unexpected, sometimes weird, but always carefully thought-out. For the best and the more questionable, its design is highly influenced by Jefferson's brilliant and enlightened mind.

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Monticello, the smokehouse

The smokehouse, where meat was smoked to keep it

 

The smokehouse is very logically located close to the kitchen. At the time, the only way to keep meat was to salt or smoke it.

 

The room is large enough to store meat for the whole household. This, too, bears Jefferson's print : even the size of the various rooms is calculated according to a carefully balanced holistic plan.

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Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's mansion

Thomas Jefferson's mansion

 

It is our turn to visit the mansion, and we gather around our guide. As often in similar visits, we are not authorized to take pictures inside. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the house that I can show you.

 

This house, originally made of 8 rooms, was later expanded to 21 rooms. The colonial-style front porch with the columns, typical of late-18th century wealthy mansions, is part of the extension, also designed by Jefferson himself. It is at his owner's image, a nice and comfortable house, without any superfluous luxury.

 

Strikingly, the entry hall does not have a monumental stairway. Thinking that it was a poor utilization of volume, Jefferson had favored two narrow stairways, one in each of the wings. The scientific mind of the great man had found a practical limitation : each piece of furniture had to be unmounted before being re-installed upstairs.

 

After his wife died, Jefferson did not remarry. In order to work as soon as he got up, and occasionally during the night, his work cabinet is next to the main bedroom. On his desk lies a strange wooden contraption : it is the famous polygraph, which enabled the great man to get a copy of everything he wrote.

 

We then visit the main parlor, or living room, where people would gather for conversation and other social activities. On the left side of the fireplace is a smart lift. In the beer cellar in the basement, an employee would put the beer bottles on small trays and turn the lift crank, taking the bottles straight up to the first floor.

 

Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant, open, pragmatic and highly fastidious mind. I would not have relished being his overseer. Recording before the time all inbound and outbound flows, he maintained meticulously detailed inventories of everything Monticello produced, consumed and stored, even teaspoons ! Without a doubt, he would nowadays be called a prodigious micro-manager, with a very limited ability to delegate.

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Monticello, the privies

Monticello, the privies

 

At that time, very few residences, even wealthy ones, had toilets. But a brilliant mind like Jefferson's could not ignore such a necessity. Therefore, he included two restrooms, one at the end of each wing under the main mansion, called privies.

 

There is no water flush. At the end of the 18th century, even an enlightened mind has not yet reinvented what already existed at King Minos' palace in Crete 3,300 years ago.

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Monticello, the stables

The stables

 

On the other side of the dependencies are the stables and the garage. There is enough room to host the horses and the cars of Jefferson and his guests. James Madison, the fourth President, his friend and almost neighbor, frequently visited Monticello.

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Monticello, the wine cellar

Monticello, the wine cellar

 

Like any other wealthy mansion, Monticello is equipped with a wine cellar. At the time, wine is mostly sold in casks. It is therefore necessary to bottle it locally, which is what the picture shows.

 

Jefferson is not known to have indulged on drinking. That being said, as a perfect gentleman, he knew how to receive, and he always wanted his guests to keep fond memories of their stay at Monticello.

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Monticello, the beer cellar

Monticello, the beer cellar

 

Next door is the beer cellar. Like wine, beer is stored in casks and bottled later. This is where the beer lift I described a few paragraphs above starts from.

 

The picture shows the hammer, corks and bottles used at the time. No doubt, we made a trip of more than two centuries back in time. Life seems never to have stopped in this house.

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Monticello, the garden under the rain

Monticello, the garden under the rain

 

Rain has not stopped either. After visiting the house and dependencies, we cross the historic gardens. Monticello is 5,000 acres large, about 8 sq. mi. Only a tiny portion is open for visits.

 

During our crossing of the orchards, we notice the small slave houses which, though quite basic, seem to offer whatever minimal comfort was available at the time. It seems that Jefferson fully understood that, from the well-being of his workforce, his own largely depended.

 

Although both men worked together until they fell out, I can't help but mentally oppose George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's ways of thinking. One was a classic and rigorous military man, the other an open and innovative scientific mind.

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Monticello, Thomas and Martha Jefferson's grave

Monticello, Thomas and Martha Jefferson's grave

 

Our last stop is logically at Thomas and Martha Jefferson's grave. The plot on which the monument, a gift of the United States to the Jefferson family in 1883, has been erected, is still the property of Jefferson's descendants, and other family graves can be found here.

 

Thomas Jefferson died on the exact day of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, after 83 years of a very rich life.

 

What did the great man leave us ? According to his epitaph, which he wrote himself :

 

 

To this list, I add :


  • The Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803 : by removing the presence of another nation west of the United States, it created the condition for its continental expansion,
  • The Lewis and Clarke Expedition : linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, it first determined the future size of the United States territory,
  • A relatively broad and flexible interpretation of the United States Constitution that, though at times under attack in the name of the Freedom it is supposed to protect, is essentially still in force today,
  • And, of course, this simultaneously sharp, open, occasionally controversial, always relevant mind, able to be interested in everything.

 

This latter point gets all my attention. As Leonardo da Vinci before him, Thomas Jefferson was a genuinely universal mind.

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Richmond, museum of the Confederacy

Richmond, museum of the Confederacy

 

Richmond is not very far from Monticello, little more than an hour's drive. We park in the historic city center and devote our afternoon to the history of the Confederacy, the result of the secession of seven southern States (later, eleven States plus two Territories) that allowed slavery, and the Civil War that ensued.

 

We visit the three floors of the Museum of the Confederacy, inside which we can't take any pictures as well.

 

It is all the more remarkable that this troubled period of history, yesterday source of conflict, has now become part of a consensually accepted common historic heritage. I already noticed this at Gettysburg, we see it again today, the fate of the Confederacy draws the attention of all the population. We did not notice any Southern proselytism during our visit, but a strong common interest in the history of yesteryear's conflict.

 

It is a fact that the North and the South have different cultures and lifestyles. Many countries, including mine, more or less willingly accept those regional specificities. But looking back on the past, the fate of the Confederacy looks more like a huge historical accident, that crystallized around slavery many tensions of all kinds, which might have been worked out properly, if human ego had not meddled in between at the worst possible moment and in the worst possible manner.

 

The accident in question nevertheless devastated whole regions, annihilated decades of prosperity and did, according to various estimates, between 620,000 and 750,000 military casualties, the number of civilian victims remaining unknown to this day. It also carried economic (the total ruin of the South), political (Reconstruction, marred by corruption) and social (the Jim Crow laws, restricting voting rights for blacks and enshrining segregation into law) consequences, which persisted until the 1960s and, at least it can be asserted, to the present day. It is, by very far, the conflict that carried the heaviest human toll of the whole history of the United States of America.

 

The Civil War was not a war of positions, like WWI, in which fighting occurred every day, sometimes hand-to-hand, but a war of movements, largely conditioned by the sheer size of the country, in which armies spent more time looking for each other, often ransacking everything in their path, than actually fighting. Lee's surrender at Appomatox on April 9, 1865 was as much a common relief for both camps as a defeat for one and a victory for the other.

 

The Museum of the Confederacy is organized in chronological order, allowing the neophyte in me to accurately follow the timeline of events year after year, and around several themes, such as military and civilian life, battles (obviously ...), weaponry, uniforms, supplies. A few individuals have their own displays, like General Robert E. Lee.

 

This museum is so rich in historical heritage and so educative that it absolutely deserves an in-depth visit.

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Richmond, front door of the White House

Richmond, the White House

 

It is now time to meet our guide to visit the White House, a few steps from the Museum of the Confederacy. We are only four, I can ask as many historical questions as I want. The visit lasts over an hour. As can be seen on the picture, the White House is not very large. Contrary to the one in Washington, which is also the seat of the Executive Branch of Government, this one was only the residence and office of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. The Executive Offices were in other buildings in the neighborhood.

 

Charles, our guide, extensively knows the place. He displays uncommon skills and brilliance, earning him our respectful admiration. His presentation of the very last moments of the Confederacy, in April 1865, is part history, part theater : he sits at Jefferson Davis' desk and takes an absolutely exhausted face, then gets up, sits at the assistant's desk and comments, on a tone trying to be neutral, the evolution of the situation, then gets up again and plays the part of the butler who informs the President of Lee's surrender at Appomatox, telling him he urgently needs to go. And, following Charles, we also leave the White House.

 

Charles, if you read this, kudos to you for your explanations, your skills and your sense of acting. That was a presentation !

 

It is now time to leave the neighborhood and go to our hotel, a comfortable Best Western without a soul on the outskirts of Richmond. Before that, we drive across most of the historical center of the Confederate capital. Here too, we will willingly come back.

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