Friday, July 23, 2010

Mulling Over Monticello

I had been promising over the years to take my mother and any other family who wanted to come along on a day trip to Monticello, situated just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Life, laziness and things in general conspired in the usual ways to delay the plans but finally the day arrived, a Thursday.

Home on vacation to visit family in the deep country of rural Virginia, at the end of the trip the five hour drive back to Washington/Baltimore lay in front of us with all day to get there. It was just Mom and I in Dad's Lincoln after we loaded our cobbler stuffed bodies in to the car for a leisurely drive north along US Highway 29. Monticello would serve as a commitment fulfilled and a nice mid-point break in the journey.

The estate sits on top of an impressive hill, almost alpine in the twisting narrow gauge of the road we learned it took Jefferson four days to get to from DC. A fairly fat admission fee, a stop at the restroom and up some stairs to wait for the shuttle to carry us to the main grounds of the 5,000 acre estate. The sky above could not have been any bluer.

We had decided before boarding the shuttle to take the Plantation Tour. There was an option to tour the interior of the house but Mom and I felt the more meaningful hour would be learning what life was like for the slaves. We also hoped to learn more about the legendary Sally Hemings, the slave girl with whom Thomas Jefferson allegedly fathered several children.

Guide Lady showed up on schedule and apart from tending to speak a tad too softly and monotone certainly knew her material quite well. The leisurely stroll along "Mulberry Lane," just to the south of the main house and parade grounds included the foundations of former slave cabins, workshops and other structures. "House" family anecdotes were shared as Guide Lady weaved the somewhat surprising story of the estate, including the indebted state of the Jefferson family at the time of Thomas' death.

Where I took exception to the narrative of Guide Lady was the overtly apologetic account of the life and treatment of slaves at Monticello. They were treated somewhat better here, she essentially said, having freedom of movement, permission to marry and even negotiate the purchase of loved ones from other plantations.

"A slave still has to return to his master," an uncle once said. "A free man walks where he will." Jefferson owned roughly 600 slaves at Monticello, beat only a handful, sold fewer still for only the most grievous of offenses and stated on record that he hated the peculiar institution. Nobody else in local legislature agreed with him, however, so he kept his just the same.

The main house is stunningly small, not necessarily much bigger than the image stamped on the back of the American nickel. Spreading from the back portico is a large expanse of green lined with large shade trees for strolling and entertaining. The setting, landscaping and architecture were breathtaking, including my instant favorite, white gossamer tulips whose bells cupped sunlight as a child might hold a wondrous new toy.

The family cemetery is just down the hill and still in use today though restricted from tourists and the subject of controversy from Ms. Hemings' descendents wishing to be interred there like any other blood relative. Genetic testing has proven a link to the Jefferson family but period gossip is "hearsay" that does not hold up in court. Any seadog lawyer will tell you DNA testing merely places several Jefferson men of the time in the room but none of them in particular in her bed.

Back at the parking lot is a small patch of enclosed forest holding the unmarked graves of some 40 slaves. Some Hemings are here but Sally is not among them. She supposedly lies at rest under the parking lot of the Main Street Hampton Inn in downtown Charlottesville.

Gotta go.

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