Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, by the William L. Beiswanger
It took until page 190 before this particular book mentioned Sally Hemings by name. That does not make this a bad book, but it does demonstrate the sort of awkwardness that one gets in reading a book that wants to acknowledge the truth about history but is written from the point of view of wanting to praise Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson as a whole is a rather troublesome figure as a whole in early American history, for few people have ever been as paradoxical as he has been. A stern believer in his own moral rectitude and a firm believer in the equality of mankind, he was an equally firm believer in the inequality of races, while also contributing mightily to the amalgamation that he claimed to abhor. A paternalistic plantation owner who despised conflict, he sought to be a good “father” to the people of his plantation, until his death and the crushing burden of debt caused in large part by his irresponsibility construction and his ineptitude as a farmer forced his slaves and property to be sold and scattered to the four winds. But thanks to some largely unsung heroes, we can still visit and appreciate Monticello today, and that is what this book is here to celebrate.
This book is roughly 200 pages long and it makes the perfect sort of book one would want on one’s coffee table. The written contents of the book consist of five essays, along with supplementary material that includes a foreword and preface as well as notes, suggested readings, and some comments about the contributors. The first essay looks at Monticello (both of them, the current building was the second iteration) as an essay in architecture in the flesh, metaphorically speaking. After that an essay takes a look inside Monticello while also noting the high degree of privacy that Jefferson had (and seems to ignore that someone other than his eldest daughter went into his private rooms). After that an essay examines the furnishing and art of Monticello and comments upon Jefferson as a consumer and collector of various fine art. After that we have a book on the gorgeous gardens of Monticello, putting them in the context of the gardens of the time (including the slave gardens as well as that of neighboring plantations). Finally, the book closes with a look at the plantation and the people (slave and free) who were on it, where the essayist has cause to comment upon the famous Hemingses about whom so much has been written.
The real star of this book, though, are the gorgeous photographs of Monticello in all seasons, both inside and out. However much of a failure Jefferson was in many aspects of his life, morally, economically, and as a state and national executive, he certainly did build a beautiful building, filled with many beautiful artifacts, in a beautiful location. This book celebrates that beauty and is honest about the less than savory aspects of Jefferson’s life, even commenting on his other major plantation in Poplar Springs, which served as a sort of retreat and is well worth seeing as well. If the authors of this book seem somewhat reluctant to talk about Jefferson’s unsavory reputation as a slaveowner, the book as a whole is testament to the tension that exists between the celebration of high art and the desire to lament or condemn the oppression that allowed that art to come into existence. One imagines feeling a similar tension when it comes to the celebration of the Welsh castles of Edward I, or the Forbidden City of China or the great buildings of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. Both the authors and the readers of this book are likely to wrestle with the beauty of the building of Monticello as well as with the loathsome nature of the social system of plantation slavery that provided the wealth for it to be built in the first place.