• Brooke Santina

All the President’s Homes - #3 Monticello

Updated: Feb 28

Ever want to know what life was like early days in our country? Visit the homes of the presidents. Let’s start with Monticello.

Historic travel is my thing, has been for a while, I love this country, how we started and my favorite president, John Adams. He was the only founding father that refused to own slaves. The Adams farm was worked by people who were paid a day’s wage and that impressed me. So I went to visit his home and fell in love with the story of our second president and his family. To see where and how they lived, to experience their gardens, see the rose planted by Abigail, John's favorite couch... I was hooked.

I've made it a mission to visit the homes of each of our 46 presidents, either their birth homes, or their adult homes, their libraries or their resting places. Whatever I can see or learn about the men who, along with their wives, guided this nation throughout the past 200 years.

In 2013 I visited Monticello, the home built by Thomas Jefferson. This is my three minute takeaway from the visit. It was a plantation really, run by many slaves in its heyday, and a pecan farm, among other things. Monticello, located in Charlottesville, Virginia, surprised me. Not because it was beautiful and stately, but because it was kind of wonky in certain ways.

Knowing my history, I expected Jefferson to be a man of precise design, but after seeing his home, he was quite eccentric. Kind of a character, like Caracticus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. An inventor who comes up with many things that don’t work so well, yet he built a flying car. Jefferson was much the same.

For example, TJ built beds into the walls. Not like a murphy bed that comes off the wall and fills the room... the walls were built thick enough someone could sleep in a cut out of the wall. He also built a clock which kept track of hours and days. The elaborate system utilized weights that hung on chains draping the interior front door, but due to a miscalculation, a hole had to be cut through the floor and Sunday resides in the basement. Yet the same guy wrote the masterpiece Declaration of Independence... who knew?

On the tour, I learned Jefferson was a typical slave owner. By that I mean he treated them not as graciously as some, but not as harshly as others. Still, I wanted to hear he was a great guy and treated them more fairly than others… that wasn’t the case. (I revert back to my love of John Adams for not owning slaves. That's me hanging with a bronze TJ).

Disappointed, I asked the tour guide about Sally Hemings, the known mistress of Jefferson’s with whom he bore many children, yet never allowed her to be free. Not even after his death. The guide was gracious and acknowledged the existence of Miss Hemmings which I appreciated. They say the children each bore a strong resemblance to Jefferson.

In the end, Jefferson was not financially solvent and his family lost his belongings and the house to the state, so the items you see inside the home are not original. Historians have furnished it with period pieces and things they believe similar to what he would have had. They have done a wonderful job. Walking the gardens you can’t help appreciating the beauty, the feeling of fresh air and blue skies, the smells of wet soil and budding plants, still the stench of slavery hung with me.

Here’s the good news, Monticello has been preserving the oral history of former slaves through the Getting Word Oral History Project. Recently they partnered with the Slave Dwelling Project, a group who preserves slave quarters and their history. The past few years, this team invited Jefferson’s former slave families to spend the night in the quarters or other locations at Monticello. They sang, danced, had a bonfire and celebrated their ancestors and their connection. Please check out the photos on the links in this post - pretty impressive. I’m glad to see Monticello embracing and preserving all of its history!

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