Tracking Thomas Jefferson

Historical figures often define a city, their presences lingering long after their deaths. Nowhere is this more the case than in Washington, D.C. Here, you can’t avoid history and the legacy of America’s great men. I mean, there’s a giant white needle in the middle of the city to commemorate our first founding father. You can’t miss it even if you try.

A large part of my summer in D.C. has been shaped by one of these great men: Thomas Jefferson. It all started when my grandpa found out I would be in D.C. this summer and sent me his copy of Jefferson’s Bible. Yes, it’s a real book. Jefferson took issue with the Gospels, considering the authors to be uneducated and to have written them too long after Jesus’ death, so he examined a Latin, Greek, French, and English version of the four books of the Bible (aside: Jefferson spoke six languages; legend has it that he learned Spanish on the three week boat trip from America to Spain), and cut and pasted what he liked into a new version of the Gospels.

I sent my grandpa a thank you note, telling him I would return the book upon finishing it and expressing my interest to learn more about Jefferson. Instead, he told me to keep the book and sent me another: a biography of the third president–a compilation of excerpts from letters he had written–that my grandpa had bought when he and his wife had stopped at Monticello on their RV trip across the United States. So, I decided to learn more about the man my grandpa called “a genius, albeit with some human frailties.”

First stop: the beautiful Thomas Jefferson Building in the Library of Congress (above), which has an ongoing exhibit on the second floor featuring the books around which the great library developed. When the British burned the Capitol in 1814, the entire Congressional Library was destroyed. Jefferson could relate because when his family home, Shadwell, burned in 1770, he grieved the loss of his books more than anything. So, in a controversial move, he sold his personal library to Congress for $23,950 in 1815. This original library has been restored in the exhibit, with Jefferson’s books catalogued in an order he described as “sometimes analytical, sometimes chronological, and sometimes a combination of both.” Based on Francis Bacon’s method, he divided his books into three categories–Memory, Reason, and Imagination (which included History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts)–and from there, into 44 smaller categories. Two thousand original books remain, while those ruined by fire and wear have been replaced with different versions of the same edition.

Then, I made the obligatory trip to the Jefferson Memorial. Though it was magnificent, built away from the crowds on the Mall and overlooking the Tidal Basin, I couldn’t help wishing the cherry trees were in bloom.

When my parents came to visit me a couple of weeks ago, I took advantage of having access to a car and convinced them that we should visit Monticello, Jefferson’s home, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary of completion this year. (One of our earlier posts had gotten me excited about the trip.) It was well worth the two and a half hour drive. Word of warning: get there early, especially on summer weekends. My parents and I got there around 1 p.m. and were given tickets for a 4:10 tour–one of the last of the day. We grabbed lunch and made our way to the grounds at around 2. A wooded trail led us past the family graveyard to an open path lined with golden trees. Near the top, I veered off to the right and gasped. Suddenly I understood why Jefferson decided to build his house on top of this hill, and why these mountains are often called blue. I could see for miles, and there seemed to be little but trees out there. Then I turned my attention to Jefferson’s painstakingly preserved herb garden; a man was out there caring for the plants, which were each marked with handwritten labels staked into the earth.

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Ed Imhoff, our guide, taught us more about Jefferson and Monticello in 30 minutes than I would ever have thought to ask. We stepped into the hall first, where Jefferson hung displays of antlers from Lewis and Clark’s expedition. At one point, Imhoff told us that Jefferson loved four material things: clocks, maps, books, and to buy wine for other people. We saw Jefferson’s bedroom and attached study, where he wrote many of the 19,000 letters he would write in his lifetime; the experience moved my mom to tears.

Standing across the Great Lawn from Monticello, I was overwhelmed. How did this man have time to write his own version of the Gospels, master six languages, play the fiddle, father modern meteorology, be a successful lawyer, design architectural masterpieces, keep up a fabulous garden, help form a new nation, and serve as President?

Oh, and one of the achievements he was most proud of was founding the University of Virginia–where he was the architect of the school’s central “academical village” (the original library stands at one end and is featured at left). The campus is stunning. While you’re there, Michael’s Bistro across the street is a great place to get drinks and appetizers (try the brie) and Finch is a hip clothing store nearby.

Perhaps Jefferson was a bit arrogant; the standard way of doing things never seemed to suit him, so he would invent his own methods. But this personal characteristic–of a single man, mind you–is a key element in the entrepreneurial spirit of America today. At the very least, it made for an interesting few days for this D.C. intern.

Photos: Sarah Aldrich