This past weekend, it was my super amazing girlfriend’s birthday, so to celebrate we went down to Charlottesville, VA. It was lovely! We stayed in a quaint little inn and managed to go to if not all then the vast majority of used bookstores and yarn shops in the town and enjoyed every minute of it. But why Charlottesville? I’ll tell you why. My super amazing girlfriend loves presidential sites, and Charlottesville has no shortage of them.
By “no shortage” I specifically mean three. The three presidents are Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison, and the sites are their former homes and plantations of Monticello, Highland, and Montpelier. Over the course of a three-day weekend we went to all three and it was absolutely fantastic. The first one we went to was Monticello on a warm but cloudy December day.
When you arrive at Monticello, you pull up to the Visitor’s Center (a good place for visitors admittedly). Our first destination was the very nice little farm table café they got going on because it was lunch time, but after that I think the general thing to do is probably visit the museum they got there. At Mount Vernon, they like to paint a picture of George Washington as a nerdy farming enthusiast, and in that same way at Monticello they like to portray Thomas Jefferson as a passionate hobbyist architect who maybe also did politics. I gotta say, it is a good thing he was apparently half decent at architecture, though it would probably be funnier if he wasn’t – “this building was designed by Thomas Jefferson. It’s shit, but we gotta keep it because, you know, Jefferson.” So in the museum they have all his European influences as he was designing his house at Monticello and displays of how the dome is constructed and all sorts of drafting tools on display.
After poking around the museum we took the bus to the top of the hill for our tour. The tour was really great. Our tour guide was Linda, a short, silver-haired woman wearing a kooky cat pin on a blue pantsuit and round red art deco glasses and who was really passionate about the information she was delivering. It was not busy at Monticello that day (or at any of the sites we would visit) so she had plenty of time to answer all of our questions. I had actually been to Monticello once before a long time ago, and all I really remembered were some nifty gadget doors, Thomas Jefferson’s not-worn-in-yet pair of boots, and his gravestone which didn’t list “president.” All that to say is that I learned a lot!
Of the three plantations we visited that weekend, Monticello I think did by far the best at telling the story of slavery at the plantation. At Mount Vernon slavery is presented as this sort of unsavory fact of life that an otherwise immaculate George Washington couldn’t help but be involved in. At the other two sites the way they address slavery felt sort of tacked on. But at Monticello slavery is centered in the story as an undeniable and central part of plantation life that was fully intertwined with the story of Thomas Jefferson. They make sure to present the enslaved people’s names and give them credit where it is due, such as in the display three pictures ago listing the people who built Monticello. To be fair to Highland and Montpelier, Monticello has the huge advantage of Thomas Jefferson’s meticulous records and so they know the stories of all these people where in other places it has been lost.
And like I said I learned a lot! For example, I learned how interwoven the stories of the Jeffersons and the Hemmings were. I hadn’t learned before that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, nor had I learned before that Sally had only one African grandparent. After the house tour, we went on the tour about slavery on the plantation, and we learned that Thomas Jefferson “freed” two of his children by Sally Hemmings by just sending them away so they could “pass” for white. One of the most significant facts we learned about Sally Hemings is that she agreed to re-enter slavery after negotiating with Jefferson. He had brought her to France where she was free, because slavery was illegal. She initially refused to return to the United States, and only agreed when Jefferson granted her privileges and pledged to free her children – extraordinary concessions for a 16-year-old girl to extract from one of the more powerful men around.
It wasn’t just Sally Hemings’ story they told. They’ve made sure to try to research every enslaved person’s story the best they could. The things they told were heart-wrenching. I wrote down so I wouldn’t forget how although Joseph Fossett was freed in Jefferson’s will, his wife wasn’t, so that, as Linda told us, he had to watch as his wife was sold away on the auction block placed on the west lawn. I think seared into my brain is Linda’s phrase describing Jefferson’s habit of gifting enslaved persons as part of his daughters’ dowries – “he was very generous with other people’s children.” All this done to people who’s ancestry only differed from Jefferson himself by one Black great-grandparent. The best new perspective I gained I think in my tour of Monticello is from a quote from Andrew Mitchell Davenport, a descendant of Peter Hemings: “Like any fiction worth its weight, race must be read and reread, interpreted, and examined.”
I don’t have a solid transition from that, but neither does America and it probably isn’t something I should transition away from anyways. After you exit the tour you can explore the grounds. They grounds include a fish pond, which of course I was very fond of. They have the usual displays about carriages and the sheer amount of booze that people who are hosting guests every day wind up going through. In the smoke house they had fake hams hanging up, just like the ones at Mount Vernon, so there must be a place out there from which you can buy fake hams to display in your former-presidential-smoke-house. And as you finish with the grounds, you can stroll back down the mountain, on the way passing the grave of the man who caused all this to be built, but thankfully we all know who deserves the credit for building it.