Virginia: Monticello Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The house and grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s estate were designed by Jefferson himself as his main residence. Construction of the main house began in 1770 and was completed in 1782; reconstruction of the main house began in 1793 and was largely completed by 1809. The construction of additional buildings continued for twenty years. The estate was sold in 1831 to James L. Barclay and converted to a silkworm farm; in 1834, it was sold to Uriah Phillips Levy. Monticello was acquired in 1923 by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.

Site Office

Monticello, Department of Public Affairs

P.O. Box 316

Charlottesville, VA 22902

ph.: (804) 984-9822, 984-9800

Web site: www.monticello.org

The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, contributed perhaps more than any other person of his time to the shaping of the United States. He drafted not only the Declaration of Independence in 1776 but also the Territorial Ordinance of 1784, which provided for new states to be created west of the original thirteen, and the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In 1803 he bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon for fifteen million dollars and thereby doubled the size of the country, and in that same year he also commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition into the unexplored lands of the West. He even saw to the creation of the U.S. dollar and decimal currency. In these and other ways Jefferson undoubtedly had an enormous impact on American history; accordingly, he has secured a place in the national mythology.

Jefferson’s Home

Something of that impact can still be felt today at his home, Monticello, on the “little mountain” from which Jefferson derived its Italian name. He designed the house and its grounds himself, and they stand now as a memorial to his fascinating and contradictory personality.

Born in 1743, Jefferson included architecture among the many interests he pursued as a young man while managing the property he inherited from his father. His father, who died when Jefferson was fourteen years old, had also bequeathed him surveying equipment, and his education at the College of William and Mary had included mathematics and classics. By 1768 or 1770 he was ready to start work on his first plans for buildings at Monticello, a site on the edge of one of his estates commanding spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and what was then unsettled wilderness.

The first building at Monticello, the south pavilion known as Honeymoon Cottage, was an adaptation of a conventional western Virginia farmhouse. In contrast, the first version of the main house, begun in 1770 and completed in 1782, featured classical columns forming a double loggia that covered both the first and second floors of the front of the house. Throughout the changes Jefferson was to make in its design, the external symmetry and the classical styling of the main house at Monticello reflected the influence of the sixteenth century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose I quattro libri dell’ architettura (1570; four books of architecture) were referred to by Jefferson as his “Bible.” Even so, Jefferson made some innovations. For example, in both versions of the main house he placed the kitchens and other service rooms in the basement and in extensions, known as “dependencies,” under the terraces on either side of the house, rather than in the wings customarily added above ground, and he gave the rooms varying shapes, sizes, and heights.

It was at Monticello in 1774 that Jefferson, prevented by illness from attending the first Virginia convention on new British laws for the colonies, wrote A Summary of the Rights of British America, one of the first and most influential pamphlets to claim that the British Parliament’s right to govern the colonies was not merely limited but in fact was nonexistent, for the colonies were new societies, self-created and self-governing. Yet at that stage Jefferson still believed that the colonies were subject to the king, and he did not expect them to become independent. After 1774, as the movement toward independence grew into war against the British, Jefferson spent little time at Monticello, dividing his time between the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and state politics in Williamsburg, where he helped to write the first of the new state constitutions and became governor under its terms. It was from Monticello that he had to flee in 1781, when British troops arrived to try to capture him. His wife, Martha, died there in 1782, only ten years after their marriage.

In 1784 Jefferson became U.S. minister to France. By 1789, when he returned home, he had collected enough works of art, pieces of furniture, and other effects to fill eighty-six crates. He had also further refined both his appreciation of European architecture and his revulsion against existing American architectural practices. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1785, he had dismissed the famous colonial buildings of Williamsburg, the former state capital, as a “shapeless pile of bricks” built in “the most wretched style I ever saw.”

Building Monticello

Soon after returning he was able to see the newly built state capitol at Richmond, which was based on his own adaptation of a Roman building, the Maison Carrée in the French city of Nîmes. In 1792 he decided to rebuild Monticello on a larger scale. He retired from public life and began making changes to the house in 1793, residing there until 1797. His second plan called for a new entrance hall, the doubling of the floor space of the house, the building of an extra story, the extension of the front windows to form continuous verticals across all three floors, and, to the astonishment of his workmen, the addition of the first dome in Virginia. (A similar dome can be seen on the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1943 to mark the bicentennial of his birth.) He decided to leave the Honeymoon Cottage unchanged alongside this home fit for a European aristocrat.

The project took twenty years to complete, and once again Jefferson was absent for much of the time. He served as the first secretary of state, under George Washington, from 1789 to 1793; as vice president to John Adams, from 1797 to 1801; and as president himself for two terms, from 1801 to 1809, during which he used Monticello as his annual summer residence. He retired at last, aged sixty-six, after taking on this unique succession of public offices, and went to live at Monticello once again, this time with his daughter Martha, her husband, and their children. Jefferson continued to make modifications at Monticello, telling a visitor in 1809 that he hoped it would go on being unfinished while he lived, since he greatly enjoyed putting up buildings and pulling them down. Between 1806 and 1823 he also saw to the building of an octagonal house at Poplar Forest, eighty miles from Monticello, as a retreat, and his last major project was the creation of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He himself designed the university’s buildings, which were put up between 1819 and 1826 and were arranged as separate units on a campus instead of as a set of traditional courtyards. He died on July 4, 1826–the same day his rival John Adams died and the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He was buried in the family graveyard that he had placed on the western edge of the Monticello site in 1773.

Jefferson was not the only prominent Virginian of his day to enlarge his house and remodel it along European aristocratic lines. In the 1770’s, George Washington had already doubled the size of Mount Vernon and added a portico along the entire front of the house. James Madison, too, enlarged his home at Montpelier. Together, Montpelier, Mount Vernon, and Monticello, with their large, columned entrance porticoes, contributed to what has since become known as the “Federal” style.

Features of Monticello

No other house has an interior quite like Monticello’s. The entrance hall, on the eastern side of the house, was used to exhibit Jefferson’s collection of curiosities, including Native American artifacts collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition, the remains of a mastodon and other animals, several maps, and a clock designed by Jefferson himself that indicated not only hours and minutes but also the days of the week by a system of weights and pulleys. To the west of the hall, and balancing it architecturally with its own portico opening onto the flower garden, is the parlor, with its collection of thirty-five portraits and other works of art. The northern wing contains the tea room, decorated with busts of American leaders and Roman emperors; the dining room, separated from the tea room by sliding glass doors, where food was brought in through revolving shelves and wine through a dumb waiter; and two guest bedrooms.

In Jefferson’s time, visitors were usually not permitted to enter the private southern wing. The sitting room here became the schoolroom for Jefferson’s grandchildren after 1809. Jefferson’s bedroom, his “cabinet” or study, and his book room or library are also located in this wing. (After the British had burned down the original Library of Congress, along with the other federal buildings in Washington, D.C., in 1814, Jefferson sold his collection of about 6,500 books to the federal government to form the nucleus of what is now the world’s largest library.) On the south side of the first floor is a glass-walled greenhouse, where Jefferson cultivated seeds and practiced carpentry. While Jefferson worked, slept, and received visitors on the first floor, the relatives who lived with him occupied the nursery and bedrooms on the second and third floors. Fire regulations require that these floors are now closed to visitors.

Jefferson paid close attention to the landscape as well as to the house. A terraced vegetable garden, two vineyards, beds of figs and other fruit known as “berry squares,” and orchards were laid out on the southeastern slopes below the main house, and a small brick pavilion was built on the edge of the vegetable garden. (All these features were restored or reconstructed during the 1980’s.) In 1808, assisted by one of his granddaughters, he laid out flowerbeds at the corners of the main house and planted floral borders along the smallest and highest of the four curving paths that run concentrically around the mountaintop. (The gardens were restored in 1939.) Further down the mountain to the west, beyond the graveyard, Jefferson left the woods to grow untended. He also took an active interest in the plantation of five thousand acres that supported the life of the homestead, converting from tobacco to wheat after 1794 and experimenting with crop rotation and contour plowing.

Condition of Monticello at Jefferson’s Death

The magnificence of the main house and its grounds, now that they have been restored, makes it difficult to envisage the condition of Monticello after Jefferson’s death in 1826. The financial problems of the estate had begun even before that point. A lottery and a voluntary subscription scheme to help the aged former president had raised $6,000, yet at his death Jefferson’s debts still totaled more than $100,000. In 1827 his family was forced to sell all his remaining personal property. The empty house and deserted grounds of Monticello were sold in 1831, to be converted into a silkworm farm. Only three years later, after silk production had proven unprofitable, Monticello was sold again, this time to the Levy family, who owned it up until 1923. In that year the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation bought it and began the work of restoration.

Monticello was the place Jefferson loved more than any other. As he wrote, “I am as happy nowhere else, and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will, at Monticello.” It was also the place where most of Jefferson’s slaves lived. By 1796 this revolutionary champion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, who had described slavery as “an abominable crime,” nevertheless owned one hundred seventy of his fellow human beings, and he still owned one hundred thirty when he died thirty years later. It was mainly their labor that provided the capital for the construction and maintenance of Monticello and helped Jefferson to keep up the way of life of a country gentleman.

Jefferson and Slavery

At Monticello, the slaves were housed in log cabins along Mulberry Row, a thousand-foot road laid out between the flower garden and the vegetable garden and hidden from the house by the mulberry trees for which it was named. Here some of them worked iron and wood; raised poultry; slaughtered livestock; operated the dairy, the washhouse, and the stable; and (from 1815) made woolen, hemp, and cotton cloth. Others went to work in the house, the gardens, or the plantation. Many historians have concluded that Jefferson fathered at least one child by Sally Hemings, one of the house slaves.

Like most white people of his day Jefferson believed that blacks were naturally inferior to whites. This prejudice led him to assume that his slaves needed his protection and that the only long-term solution would be to emancipate all the slaves at once and expel them from the United States. It proved impossible even to begin to put such a policy into practice. His condemnation of the slave trade was struck out of the Declaration of Independence, and his proposal to prohibit slavery altogether was defeated–though by only one vote–in the Continental Congress in 1784. In later years he was less able, or less willing, to challenge the institution. As president he banned the slave trade, but not slavery itself, from the Louisiana Territory; in 1807 he signed a law that banned the Atlantic slave trade but left it to the states to enforce the ban (or, in the South, turn a blind eye to smuggling). Monticello is a memorial to a great American whose principles of democracy and liberty can still inspire people all over the world, but it is also a reminder of slavery and of Jefferson’s ambivalence to it.

For Further Information
  • Adams, William Howard. Jefferson’s Monticello. New York: Abbeville Press, 1983. Among the thousands of books on various aspects of Jefferson’s life and times, this appears to have been the first study of Monticello itself. This beautifully illustrated and absorbingly detailed account of Jefferson’s plans for the site, his life there, and its fate after his death
  • Bear, James A., Jr., ed. Jefferson at Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1967. The life of the slaves at Monticello and their relations with their owner as glimpsed through the memoirs of one of these slaves, Isaac Jefferson, and of their overseer, Edmund Bacon.
  • Betts, Edwin M., ed. Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987. Includes Jefferson’s letters about slaves and slavery.
  • Jones, Veda Poyd. Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. A biography of Jefferson that discusses his childhood, education, involvement in colonial politics, writings, and career as a statesman.
  • Langhorne, Elizabeth C. Monticello: A Family Story. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Concentrates on Jefferson’s family and slaves.
  • McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. Highlights the men and techniques involved in the construction of the house.
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