Wednesday, July 3, 2013

DC diary: A visit to Monticello

The mansion at Monticello is a beautiful building. As you walk through the building with a guide, you hear the same thing over again: “Jefferson wanted only the best.” The building today is stuffed with paintings, furniture, china, clocks, most of them reproductions of what we know Jefferson had in his house in his time.

The mansion is enormous, by the standards of revolutionary America. George Mason's Dunston mansion has 11 rooms, and Mason was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. Jefferson's Monticello has 21, plus a cellar where slaves worked to prepare meals and put them on dumbwaiters. Jefferson loved to entertain the many visitors who flocked to get a glimpse of the great man or partake of his conversation. Mason rarely entertained. Visitors rarely sought out the man who refused to sign the Constitution.

Mason and Jefferson have several marked similarities. Primarily, Mason wrote the Declaration of Rights included in the Constitution of Virginia in May, 1776, while Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence in June of the same year.

From George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted around May 20, 1776:

...That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights...; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

More famously, from Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, begun on June 11, 1776:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

None of the ideas, or even the words, in Jefferson's Declaration are original; he leaned heavily on the Declaration authored by Mason.

Mason was the older of the two. He held properties along the Potomac, much more accessible to transportation along the river. Jefferson built Monticello on top of a hill in a remote area of Virginia, which had been the very edge of civilization at the time of Jefferson's birth. Importing luxury goods to Dunston was relatively cheap compared to the cost of shipping them to Charlottesville, then transporting them to the top of a mountain.

Despite these difficulties and expenses, Jefferson persisted for 40 years in spending his fortune on a large, impressive mansion. Among his extravagances were a large dome over the fourth story of his house; rooms designed in irregular shapes, such as octagons; a vast cellar complex with kitchens, storerooms, and living quarters for slaves; and experimental contraptions like dumbwaiters and a threshing machine for wheat. He always used the finest materials for construction of his house, despite the ever-mounting cost and its concommittant debt.

Jefferson considered himself a farmer and foresaw the US as a nation of farmers. But Jefferson was not a profitable farmer. He continually experimented with new crops instead of concentrating on crops that were proven money-makers. He also experimented with a threshing machine that had no remarkable value. This threshing machine may have been a proof that automation has no value when labor is cheap.
Jefferson used his enslaved work force to raise money in two ways. He forced young boys to work in the nail factory, making a product that could be sold in the market; and he mortgaged his slaves as you would mortgage a house or a farm. The nail-making business was profitable for awhile, although the boys had to be whipped to keep them at their task. Eventually, manufactured nails became available and hand-made nails became obsolete.

The mortgaging of human chattel continued, however, permitting Jefferson to continue making elaborate and expensive additions to Monticello. He appeared to be copying the European nobility by creating an elaborate palace for himself. Jefferson visited Europe while he was a minister to France from 1785-1789. There he became enamored of the homes and palaces of the aristocracy. He designed Monticello and buildings at the University of Virginia according to the theories of Palatino. Jefferson's infatuation with architecture bankrupted him. On his death, he had built a fine mansion, but owed $100,000, a debt which his heirs had to repay by selling slaves into the cotton plantations.

We should always remind ourselves that great architecture is expensive and must be paid by someone. The Romans used slave labor to build their temples and aqueducts. The grandeur of Versailles bankrupted France and led indirectly to the French Revolution. Jefferson's home was built by slave labor and led to the eviction of his slaves from their homes and their subjection to backbreaking labor in the cotton fields of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

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