August 28, 2014

Man of the House

In an effort to get a handle on the national crisis we are all going through, I find myself thinking more and more about our Founding Fathers. They were truly a remarkable group of men. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution seem to have an answer for almost any problem that comes up, with the possible exception of the Electoral College and the Right to Bear Arms. What exceptional foresight and vision! What intellect! Why, these men were about as good as it gets.

They are long gone, of course, remote creatures from another era. What you learn about them must be garnered, second hand, from books. Unless you visit their houses! Yes, many of the homes of our Founding Fathers have been preserved and are open to the public. So it was in this spirit of inquiry that I recently set out for Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the smartest of them all. What clues would it hold to his character? What wisdom would it contain?

Monticello takes a long time to get to, particularly if you still refuse to fly, but the Founding Fathers never flew, so a long journey seemed oddly appropriate. The place itself turns out to be located in a particularly beautiful part of Virginia, just outside of Charlottesville. The area is chock-full of history; every 20 feet or so is an historic marker. And it really is on a little mountain. It was sunny and balmy at the visitors' center, but the tram driver who drives you up the hill insisted that I go back to the car and get a sweater.

I'm glad he did. It was cold and windy as our little group huddled in front of the mansion, waiting for the next tour. The first thing I noticed was that Monticello attracts the classiest tourists imaginable, and that several of the women were doing their shivering in cashmere and sables. Even the docents were above the norm, and everything was presented at a graduate-school level. It was a big change from the ordinary government-run tourist attraction and I soon discovered why: Monticello is owned by a private foundation and not the government.

Once the tour begins and the docent points out all the features of Monticello's beautiful Palladian interior, you quickly become aware that back in those days, it was the man of the house who set the tone, not the woman. It was he who decided the style of architecture, the décor, the way the house was run, what flowers are planted in the garden, the plans for entertaining, even the wallpaper. The so-called minor arts, today a feminine concern, were very much a masculine one in our Founding Fathers' day. And they were an enormously important concern.

These guys were obsessed with the way they presented themselves to the world through their homes. Aside from statecraft, it was their major occupation, more so, even, than making money. And Jefferson must have been the worst. If he were alive today one could just picture him in Architectural Digest, posed in front of a cheerful fire and proudly telling Paige Rense, "I did it all myself. I didn't want it to look 'decorated.'"

The sable-clad women seemed to be digesting this news unhappily. Even though it verges on the fussy and over-elaborate, Monticello is very much a man's house, almost a bachelor's house. The female sex was extremely unimportant back in those days. As far as I can figure out, its only function was to bear children and carry out its husband's orders. Jefferson's wife Patty died in childbirth after 10 years of marriage, but her major importance in his life seems to be the nice fortune she brought to the match. And as for his mother, in all the thousands of letters he wrote during his life, he mentioned her only once or twice.

Another unexpected thing: There is a complete absence of anything religious. One would have thought that back in those days, when it was so much easier to believe in God, people would be a little closer to their Creator. Well, not Jefferson. Even though Monticello was a community of more than 100 souls, there was no chapel, no services of worship, no religious imagery in all the paintings and sculpture, not even a family Bible. Jefferson was completely secular. His interests centered around the scientific, the historical and the art of good living.

To underscore this, he even insisted his tombstone read that, in addition to writing the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia, he was author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. One can't help but wonder if he were around today what he would make of Billy Graham or his son Franklin, much less fellow Virginian Jerry Falwell.

But it took the dining room for Monticello to finally fall into place. It is a lovely room, decorated with an Adams-esque Wedgewood motif. Just beyond it is a more informal dining area-a sort of breakfast nook-set in a beautiful little octagon with windows looking out onto the garden. There was something naggingly familiar about the whole effect, and for a moment I struggled to make the connection. Then it hit me. It was just like a Florida mega-mansion! In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized the whole house was just like a Florida mega-mansion.

I reviewed what I had just seen: a lavish two-story entrance hall with a grand staircase, an equally lavish drawing room full of formal and rather uncomfortable French furniture, a much cozier library where the family spent most of its time, an elaborate master suite on the ground floor complete with sitting area, and a separate home office full of the latest technology, including an early form of copy machine.

All the rooms opened out onto terraces and porches and lawns, making it perfect for entertaining. There was a guest suite complete with chic ivy and trellis wallpaper. And the kitchen was state of the art, even if it was designed for slaves. There was even a pasta maker from Italy. It was the perfect trophy home.

After the tour the wind had died down a little and the sun had warmed things up so I sat on the lawn and thought about what I had learned. Jefferson didn't seem so different from us after all. Monticello showcased his glories, to be sure, but it also revealed his flaws. He played a little too completely the role of The Great Man. His family must have often found him unbearable. He had to control everything; he even insisted on naming all his grandchildren after himself. His tombstone in the family graveyard was by far the biggest. Some of his descendants were so unnerved by it that their tombstones read merely "Joe" or "Fred."

And then there's the issue of Sally Hemmings, the beautiful slave by whom it is generally acknowledged-even by the docents -he probably sired several children (whom, by the way, he did not treat particularly well). All great men have feet of clay, but Jefferson's boots were muddier than most. He was just like the rest of us: more brilliant, to be sure, but more than a little vain and self-involved and subject to sexual urges that today would land him on the front page of the Naples Daily News. You leave his beautiful trophy home in awe of his accomplishments, but also feeling just the tiniest bit sorry for him. 

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