Thomas Jefferson-Monticello
Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello is remains architectural marvel. (Image via Virginia.Org)

Loran Smith: History lesson not lost on visit to Monticello

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Stopping at a convenience store before moving onto the expansive property that accommodates the home of Thomas Jefferson, our third president, I asked the lady behind the cash register if she could exchange two nickels for a dime.

With a quizzical look, she exclaimed, “Haven’t had that request lately.” She may have been thinking that there was nothing in stock that cost less than 10 cents, but I was not interested in making a small purchase. I wanted to survey the back of a nickel which reflects the image of Jefferson’s plantation home before touring the impressive mansion which Jefferson built on 5,000 acres in Albemarle County, land he inherited from his father. He began work on Monticello at age 26.

Since 1938, the “Jefferson nickel,” which replaced the Buffalo nickel, has featured an image of the former president on one side and his domed plantation home on the other. While this money-changing exercise did not reveal anything insightful, it enabled one to stand outside the Jefferson mansion and connect with the nickel emotionally. For sentimental reasons, I wanted to make sure I was in possession of a “Jefferson nickel” while touring Monticello.

Long before he became controversial, I was fascinated with the genius of Mr. Jefferson, who was emotionally attached to the French to the extent that there are several tributes to him in Paris. The statue that seems to be most prominent is the one by the Seine, a favorite photo-op. When he was ambassador to France, Jefferson admired the dome of the Hotel Salm (now a national museum) which was being built when he was a temporary Parisian. When he returned home, Jefferson had the roof at his residence at Monticello removed and replaced with a Dome that reminded him of the Salm. This is the image on the Jefferson nickel.

Jefferson was a farmer, a builder, a botanist, an architect, a writer and more. He was proficient and efficient, given to thought-provoking wisdom and insightful phrases. He built his alcove bed so that he could get up and move just a few feet to his study and work at any hour of the day or night. An idea or thought touched his consciousness, and he would move post haste to record his thoughts.

Having lived in Paris, he seriously studied French architecture. Throughout the house and grounds at Monticello, the Jefferson influence makes you realize that this founder of the University of Virginia was one of the most remarkable Renaissance men that our country has ever known.

He kept detailed records on everything, especially trees and plants. He swapped farming ideas with his friend and neighbor James Madison. Montpelier, Madison’s plantation, is 29 miles away, but when the Madisons came to visit the Jeffersons, they stayed for weeks.

The Louisiana Purchase, managed by Jefferson, was, perhaps, the greatest real estate decision made by an American official, unless you consider Seward’s Folly, the purchase of Alaska from the Russians to be a better deal. The Louisiana Purchase — 530,000,000 acres for $15,000,000— literally changed the face of America and helped to further reduce the influence of the English on this side of the Atlantic.

Jefferson’s best work, perhaps, came when he became the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. In this great work there is reference to “all men are created equal,” which brought a latent cloud on this wording and Jefferson, himself, in that he was a slave owner.

In addition to that, there is the DNA testing that became proof that Sally Hemings was indeed his mistress, and she had at least six children by Jefferson. Jefferson, by all accounts, treated his slaves better than his fellow plantation owners, but was apparently given to the view that they were inferior human beings.

After a second trip here, there was the continued inspiration from Jefferson’s brilliance, but sobered by the controversy in his life — a slave owner who did not live up to his poignant wording in the Declaration of Independence.

The slave history and its aftermath have troubled our great country for generations. The effects still trouble our conscience and reminds that all men are, without question, created imperfectly.

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