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Jefferson, Monroe, Grant, and…..


High atop Montalto mountain sits Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s neoclassical, Palladian mansion, the centerpiece of his once 5,000-acre tobacco and mixed crop plantation.  Located outside of Charlottesville, Monticello offers extensive history into what life was like in the 18th century for slaves and slaveholders alike.  I have visited several times in the past, but not in the last 20 years during which, the museum and library have expanded their tours to include “Slavery at Monticello” and “Sally Hemmings Exhibits.” There is a brand new Visitor’s Center with a theater and museum.

Poplar Forest

While I’ve been to Monticello several times with my aunt Sondra, I had never visited Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s country retreat.  The plantation, in Forest, Virginia was inherited by Jefferson’s wife Martha upon the death of her father in 1773.  At that time, there were only a few outlying buildings on the property.  Jefferson and his family went there to hide from the British in 1781 as he assumed (correctly) that the Redcoats would not think to look for him on a nearly undeveloped tobacco plantation.  While there, Jefferson wrote, Notes on the State of Virginia.  

In 1806, the President started the octagon shaped home seen on the left.  As a self-taught architect, Jefferson designed it himself in perfect symmetry.  He was obsessed with octagons as they had “no dark corner.”

This is the backside of the home.  You’ll note that the lawn is sunken giving the illusion of a 2 story house.  While there is a basement floor, the home itself is only one story which is evident from the front.  Jefferson paid one of his slaves to dig out this large “trench” and then pile the dirt on either side of the mansion to create a symmetrical effect.  The interior layout is also rather unique as you can see in the photo to the right.  The dining room is the square in the center and in the ceiling of that room is a grand skylight (unusual for that time).  The perimeter rooms are bedrooms, a pantry, and a parlor.

Soon after the Jefferson’s died, his grandson who inherited the property decided to sell.  Over time, the plantation was divided and the house changed.  In the 1840s, a fire destroyed the interior and exterior woodwork.  In the 1980s, it was designated a National Historic Landmark and rescued from development by local citizens who turned it over to a historical society.  It has been going through a renovation process ever since.  The exterior appears as it would have looked in Jefferson’s time, but the interior is still being restored.

Highland – James Monroe’s Charlottesville Home

Next door to Monticello, you will find Ashland – Highland, the home of President James Monroe, America’s 5th President.  Monroe was the youngest of the Founding Father generation and the last of the “Virginia Dynasty” of Presidents.  The ash trees that greet visitors along the long winding road came long after the President lived there; the Monroes called the property “Highland.”

Prior to the presidency, Monroe served multiple presidents as Secretary of State, War, Ambassador, and other diplomatic posts.  He played a pivotal role in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase.  After his election in 1816, he became the first president to tour the country and having seen how vulnerable the United States was to foreign attack (War of 1812), set out to improve our military readiness through a series of investments.  He negotiated with France, Britain, and Spain to settle issues on the frontier which led to what most of us remember about Monroe:  the Monroe Doctrine.  “The United States will stay out of European affairs and Europe should stay out of this hemisphere’s affairs.  The Monroe Doctrine would be American Foreign Policy until the 20th century.

Like many of his time, Monroe had problems with money.  He had expensive tastes and not enough money.  Not surprisingly, much of Highland was sold once the Monroes decided to retire.  Interestingly and unlike Monticello, there is no manor house at Highland.  The Monroe home burned in the mid 19th century.  The guest house, which was built while Monroe was president still stands and is available for tours.

Monroe’s statue is found in the gardens.  Highland is interesting in that it offers insight into how historians and researchers approach the development of a museum or site.  Museum curators are still researching and discovering relics from Monroe’s time at Highland to understand what his life was like and decisions that he made both as President and farmer.


Appomattox Court House

My last stop of the day was at Appomattox, the site of Lee’s surrender to Grant that ended the Civil War.  I drove really fast to get there before it closed and I have to say, I was a bit disappointed.  Granted, I know the details leading up to April 9, 1865.  But typically, the National Park Service gives some of the best tours.  Not here.  The McLean House, pictured to the left is where the peace agreement was signed.

The road where I am standing to take the photograph is the road in which Lee and Grant rode on horseback to meet each other in the front parlor of the McLean home.  And to my left, next to the Court House, at the Tavern, thousands of pardons were printed.  Just days before, Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman had met to discuss the terms of the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender that was now inevitable.  Lincoln wanted reconciliation, which Grant executed at Appomattox.  Confederate soldiers, once they pledged not to take up arms again against the Union, were given a pardon, newly printed at the local tavern, and were then allowed to take their horses and go home.

It is hard not to be disheartened knowing what comes next in American history.  Reconstruction failed to provide the equality that the Declaration of Independence proscribed, and the root cause of that failure lay in a white power structure in all parts of the country not wanting to share.  Reconstructions failure and the restoration of the white planter class cannot simply be blamed on southern racists.  No, it was the fault of both parties in all regions of the country.  It is ironic that Appomattox and specifically the McClean House is within 45 minutes drive from Charlottesville, the site of last year’s deadly white nationalist’s riot that the President blamed on “both sides.”  Maybe we really have not progressed that far.

That brings me to the end of Day 2.





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