Before arriving in Washington, D.C., we spent two days in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we toured Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home. From one of the verandas, we enjoyed sunset views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which look as if they have been painted in shades of dark blue watercolors below a light blue sky. We could also see the distant dome on one of the buildings of the University of Virginia, one of Jefferson’s proudest accomplishments, and inspired by his two greatest passions: a love of learning and architecture.
Prior to the evening tour, we had spent the afternoon walking around the periphery of his thoughtfully designed estate and gardens, imagining life in the late 1700’s, both as a free person and slave. Jefferson is buried on the grounds of Monticello in the family cemetery. At the end of his life, he chose only two of his accomplishments for the epitaph on his tombstone – author of the Declaration of Independence and Father of the University of Virginia. He did not choose to include his service as Secretary of State, Vice-President, or President. It struck me then that he seemed to have felt the greatest sense of pride in forging new trails: in the clear brave words he wrote for a new nation to declare its independence, and in the creation of a university that would support the universal education he believed necessary to maintain this free thinking, independent nation. Over and over again, Jefferson chose to embrace uncertain success if it meant a chance for something better.
It is in Jefferson’s library and study and adjoining bedroom that one truly gets a sense for a life of passionate learning. William, Natalie and I could imagine him sitting at his desk, writing one of his long letters, surrounded by his well-loved books. Next to him, atop his desk, stands an ingenious rotating bookstand, custom-crafted by a master carpenter who was a slave. The stand allowed him to easily turn to one of four reference books in the midst of writing. Another of his inventions, a mechanical arm with two quills attached, allowed him to make a copy of everything he wrote. Evidence of his fascination for measurements of all kinds is visible: rulers, a telescope, and a globe. At the foot of his sleeping alcove, he hung a clock that he could see from his pillow. As soon as it was light enough to read its face, he was up and ready to begin a new day of reading and writing, gardening, inventing, and building. There was so much to learn and he knew every minute of each day was precious.
And when we returned home, guess where Natalie placed her own clock?