Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong obsession with Monticello helps to explain both the nature of his thought and the mysteries of the man. Owner, architect, and construction manager all in one, he began in 1768 but repeatedly tore apart his own handiwork, rebuilding compulsively across half a century before leaving the house unfinished at his death in 1826. Throughout, Jefferson’s declared love for the tranquillity of home warred with his compulsive desire to tinker with its terms, and he saw the contradiction clearly enough to acknowledge it, once referring to the presumed grandeur of Monticello as living in a brick kiln. There is a puzzle to be read in these conflicted efforts. “Architecture as a spatial creation is the outer garment of a secretive and vital system,” Bettina Knapp has argued in Archetype, Architecture, and the Writer, “it is a nonverbal manifestation of a preconscious condition.” If so, the presumed link between outer and inner frames of reference would seem to be especially significant in an architect who so self-consciously and laboriously turned his private home into a public symbol of his time and place.
The many roles of the public man—politician, scholar, inventor, lawyer, farmer, and slaveowner—meant that Jeflierson built for many different purposes and, not least, with a national audience in mind. The symbol of the ideally constructed house was a vital one for a new nation absorbed in problems of self-definition, and the relative insufficiencies of early American society encouraged its participants to emphasize the house as the basic unit of meaning over larger elements in the social fabric. Moreover, the symbolism of the house applied with special force in the aristocratic South. The Virginia planter class to which Jefferson belonged used the manor or plantation house to enact the social code of hospitality that it lived by and as a controlling metaphor for enforcing caste and hierarchy in a slave culture. Town life, as Jefferson made clear in Notes on the State of Virginia, was virtually non-existent; the basis of communal identity was indeed the manor house, and Jefferson was peculiarly receptive to the symbolism involved. He worried about the absence of important buildings and architectural sophistication in American society; these absences, he argued, undermined social authority as well as republican principle.
The commitment to build a house that would be more than a house left Jefferson with several obvious difficulties. Unified symbols do not easily emerge from the messiness of everyday life, and early Americans from Tom Paine to Abraham Lincoln were fond of reminding themselves that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Monticello could not help but be such a divided house. Literally a monumental extravagance, it arose out of a slave economy that the architect-owner hated, and it simultaneously bespoke the debtor status of a planter class that needed forced labor to support its lavish lifestyle. Monticello also staged a more personal struggle: the public figure entertained frequently but insisted on his own privacy in conflicting patterns of hospitality and architectonic withdrawal. Guests at Monticello typically found the essential openness of its design to be of little avail; a series of carefully locked doors cut up the interior floor plan, thwarting access to the best rooms for everyone except their host.
But even if Monticello can be seen as a house divided against itself, we must not overlook the forgotten unities that made Monticello a potent symbol, then and now. Jefferson displayed enormous ingenuity within the functional integrity available to him. He brought unique form as well as beauty to a brick mansion of 35 rooms—a mansion built not on a riverbank, where most plantation houses stood for reasons of commerce, but, improbably and inefficiently, on the top of a mountain, where access was hard and construction twice as difficult. Inevitably, perhaps, it is the tensions involved that attract the modern observer, but in regarding these tensions, we should consider first the purposes that presumed discrepancies might have served in their own time. Jefferson built his house on a mountain because he wanted to see farther and because he wanted to be seen clearly in the mind’s eye. Monticello, in this sense, was explicitly a house of the Enlightenment, and to understand it requires better recognition of the ideology that gave its builder tools of construction at least as real as any hammer or trowel.
Indeed, the attempt to see Monticello as a house of the Enlightenment should be rewarding if just because critics have ignored the underlying complexity of Enlightenment thought in early republican culture, and Thomas Jefferson was the most subtle exponent of that frame of reference. Lost, in particular, is the originating philosophical notion of the process of enlightenment, of seeking knowledge, as opposed to the more superficial affirmations about knowledge attained that historians like to find by quoting the rhetorical excesses of the philosophe tradition. Immanuel Kant’s famous injunction in “An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?” “took the form of the Horatian command “Sapere aude!”: “dare to know!” or “have courage to use your own understanding!” Properly understood, this command helps to explain the greatest puzzle of Jefferson’s house. Why did Monticello remain unfinished while the mansions of other leaders in the Virginia pantheon—leaders as busy as Jefferson—were routinely completed?
To answer that question and the more complicated issue of Jefferson’s achievement, we will examine ten factors in the following pages: three elements in the physical structure of Monticello, four aspects of what might be called the process of living at Monticello, and three moments of Jeffersonian observation from the vantage that Monticello allowed. Taken together, all ten facets raise the question of “seeing,” the angle of refraction that seeing takes, and the meaning that it allows. Sight, after all, was the constitutive metaphor of the Enlightenment. Jefferson took its importance to be profound but with a nuanced understanding of problems in epistemology that he is rarely given credit for having considered. One can, in fact, go further: Jefferson’s nuanced understanding of Enlightenment epistemology turned perceived discrepancies into something far more important, a philosophy to live by and in. Monticello is the architectural proof of that philosophy.
The three physical or structural elements of Monticello to be considered here have been chosen because they link serious problems with abiding interests in Jefferson the architect. They are, in ascending order of conceptual difficulty, the inner staircases of Monticello, Jefferson’s almost festishistic interest in clocks, and the most dominant feature of the finished house, Jefferson’s dome room. There are, to be sure, many other features that might be considered for investigation, but these three elements contain mysteries that bring us closer to the purposes and idiosyncracies of the secretive Jefferson, and each element opens into a larger explanation of the house.
Anyone who has climbed either of the two inner staircases of Monticello immediately understands the problem in the first element; the stairs are narrow, dark, steep, and twisting—altogether and thoroughly dangerous to life and limb. Modern architects have generally agreed in calling them the most serious design flaw in the building, and some have even tried to compensate by arguing that the democratic Jefferson, resenting the grand staircase as an elaboration of rank, decided to reduce the social implications in this element to the utilitarian function of clambering up and down. Jefferson gave a simpler explanation himself: “great staircases . . .are expensive and occupy a space which would make a good room in every story.”
But neither the rejection of rank nor the question of expense provides a convincing argument for the apparent deficiency. Monticello projects a primal sense of hierarchy from the tip of its dome to the undercellar of its hidden slave quarters, and the painstaking expense that Jefferson gave to other areas of design belies the explanation of cost. The separate and more difficult question of space, raised by Jefferson himself, opens in two directions. Jefferson would double the size of his dwelling between the first and second plans for Monticello, but he was knowingly building in the second instance for a large family of collateral dependents, grandchildren, and house guests, and the constraints of the first plan left him with intrinsic design restrictions. However different the second Monticello is in design and conception from the first, it nonetheless builds within the understanding of the first—a reminder that knowledge is always cumulative in a Jeffersonian understanding. In any case, the problem of space did not lead to other space-saving decisions of note.
A more important consideration for minimal staircasing seems to have been Jefferson’s recognition that he already had built a natural staircase. True, the Palladian design of Monticello dictated the working model of a single story, but while this issue began in the question of French and classical influences, it did not end there. On a mundane level, we have the empirical information that Jefferson rarely moved above the first floor of Monticello; perhaps alone among the regular occupants of the house, he didn’t need a staircase! There were, however, other and more important aesthetic considerations. Jefferson, on top of his mountain, was already as high as he needed to be, and he knew who he was there and what it could mean. In 1771, writing to Robert Skipwith, he called Monticello “the new Rowanty,” his own Olympos or mountain of the world. This mountain site, as many have noted, was a massive inconvenience for economic reasons, but it fulfilled as no other location could the Enlightenment imperative of seeing as far as possible and in every direction. Monticello is a virtual glass house with vistas to all points of the compass from the open expanse of its first floor. Windows are everywhere, a priority that its builder maintained despite serious difficulties in maintenance and heating.
Jefferson was, in this context, well ahead of his time in the attention that he gave to light in architecture. He pushed to its structural limits the “Italian” rule of his day that windows should represent at least one-third of wall space in a dwelling, and, as we know from historical accounts, he followed the sun from room to room in the course of a day, even scheduling meal times so that dinners could always be served by daylight. The desired plane of sight at Monticello is always horizontal and outward and on a pivot rather than vertical or within. This controlling perspective of Jefferson’s, seeing around and down at the world, will make even greater sense when we move to the aesthetic considerations behind the view—considerations that for all of their spirit of adventure architecturally were conventions of the spread of Enlightenment as Jefferson had come to understand them.
Clocks, the second structural element under consideration, are also everywhere at Monticello, and they play on another convention of the age—the clockwork universe and the notion of mechanism that it expressed. Then as now, time was an ambivalent construct within the mortal condition. The Enlightenment tried to think of time as flowing with the growth of reason and understanding in an improving universe. “The general spread of the light of science,” Jefferson claimed, two weeks before his death, “has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” A form of secular salvation in human progress powered such thinking, a parallel to millennialism but a millennialism lacking the idea of personal salvation. Jefferson looked only to the conjunction of human history and science for help. In the moment that death touched him most closely, the loss of his wife Martha, Jefferson chose a pagan reference for comfort. He placed on Martha’s tombstone the inscription from Homer in which Achilleus insists that he will never forget his “dear comrade,” the dead Patroklos. As for himself, Jefferson was proud of a fatalistic stoicism on the point. “I assure you,” he wrote John Adams in 1816, “I am ripe for leaving all, this year, this day, this hour.” Closer to the end, in 1823, he could welcome “the friendly hand of death [that] shall rid us of all at once.”
When placed against the assumption of human progress, this cosmic fatalism meant that every minute had to count in the land of the living. Jefferson made it an absolute duty to subordinate time to the accumulation of knowledge. Idleness was the great sin in his secular theology, and time represented both a measure and a disruption to be reckoned with at every moment. Edmund Bacon, a plantation overseer with direct and frequent access to his employer day and night, found him inactive just twice in 12 years; once with a toothache and once with a migraine attack. Late in life Jefferson boasted, in a comment scarcely credible in another, that the sun had not caught him in bed once in 50 years. A special clock at the foot of his alcove bed, just six feet from the resting head, chimed the hour and half hour. Jefferson would rise the moment he distinguished its hands from the darkness.
Chiming clocks dominate every major room at Monticello, led by the great Chinese gong clock in the front hall, specially ordered in 1792. The workings of this clock also form the celebrated cannonball mechanism, where a second face of the clock tells the days as the weights in question fall through openings cut for that purpose in the hall floor. The half-moon window on the West Portico or front entrance is also marked in the ambiguous form of a clock or rising sun—a sun that can also be understood to be setting. Meanwhile, the special alcove bed clock in the master bedroom, designed by the French clockmaker Chantrot to Jefferson’s careful specifications in 1791, duplicates its owner’s favorite symbol of death: the neoclassical obelisk cast here in black marble. The point is not that Jefferson was preoccupied with death but rather with the two-fold possibility in time: use and waste. He knew and accepted that time would cut across his plans as surely as the mechanism of the hall clock required an unsightly hole in his floor. Vigilance was both the price and the reward of intelligence.
The third structural device worth considering is the renowned neoclassical dome of Monticello, the first of its kind in America, designed entirely by Jefferson and built at exorbitant expense starting in 1800. The salient feature of the dome room is its utter uselessness. All scholars of Monticello seem to agree on this point. Unheated, lacking a proper staircase for easy access, the dome room was too cold in winter, too hot in summer, and without decent ventilation in every season.
Jefferson, the master of efficiency and practical utility, asked nothing of this room except that it be there. Its significance lay entirely in its aesthetic merit—a consideration that needs to be understood beyond the superficial equations with Palladian influences and French examples. To the extent that commentary stops with references to Jefferson’s appreciation of domed buildings while in Paris, including the Hotel de Salm, the Hotel de Langeac, and the Halle aux Bleds, we lose sight of a vital concern. The real issue to be faced here is quite different and, in the end, much more significant. Jefferson’s dome is physical proof that a major structural item and, therefore, knowledge itself can have a purely aesthetic function in his philosophy.
The re-doubled implication of Jeffersonian aesthetics lies in the need to be seen even as one sees. Monticello was both a platform for seeing and the spectacle that was seen. The dome in particular— Jefferson liked to call it his “sky-room”—was the reflection or mirror of the man, the symbolic head that could be seen and that also celebrated the circularity of perspective (the ability of the seer to pivot on an axis that encompassed the entire world). Here, too, as in the octagonal motif of room structure at Monticello, the emphasis was on light. But there was also a darker purpose. Just as the Gothic novel in representing the house as a head invariably projects a state of mind through architecture, so the overshadowing mass of Jefferson’s unique and deliberately monumental dome supplied the quality of mind that every slave plantation required and that Jefferson brought nearly to mania: the possibility and indeed the necessity of surveillance.
Over and over again in his correspondence, Jefferson noted the impossibility of accomplishing anything on his house unless he was present and presiding over every detail, one reason for its slow progress during the years that he was a public servant in Paris, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. This problem can be traced to the irreplacable expertise of the perfectionist builder as architect, but it also had something to do with the unwillingness of slave labor to perform on its own. Jefferson often complained that his slaves did not work unless watched, and he built accordingly. Even today, the small pavilion that rests on the retaining wall just above the garden terraces at Monticello, a room where Jefferson worked in the afternoon, vividly conveys this notion of surveillance.
The dome represented the logical extension of constant surveillance, carrying the physical fact of being watched to the level of psychological perception. As the visible center of Monticello’s slave economy, the dome introduced into that community the panoptic effect of control analyzed at some length in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Here, literalized in architectural form, was an overriding connection, that of master and mansion. Poised in space, it also formed an externally oriented, logical continuum from master, to overseer, to house servant, to field hand. Anyone within its purview would have felt watched. The beauty of that form—what the philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space has called “the phenomenology of roundness”—signified geometrical perfection, completeness, and inclusiveness. Above and duplicating the essence of the mountain itself, the dome held those beneath it enthralled, and, in this case, captivated. As a slave positioned underneath all of that beauty and power, you could have no answer. Your only options would be cooperation and acceptance or escape, and to escape you had to leave the most beautiful man-made thing you had ever seen or could imagine.
Jefferson, to be sure, would not have expressed matters in exactly these terms, but there was plenty of 18th-century vocabulary to help him toward just such an understanding. He believed in the aesthetic power of architecture as a form of social control. As he told his housejoiner James Oldham in 1805, “a single example of chaste architecture may guide the taste of the city.” “Palladio is the Bible,” explained Jefferson in ranking his architects, and it was Andreas Palladio who ordered that the ideal house be made an organic, holistic extension of its owner.
How such an extension of ownership worked for a planter with slaves in 18th-century Virginia had many nuances but a single controlling principle. The definition of the 18th-century gentleman to which Jefferson adhered suggested a configuration of concentric circles, leading from private, to domestic, to vocational, to communal and then public life. Jefferson’s primal signature in architecture, the octagonal room, was an extension of the dome motif through his house, and it eloquently registered the controlling idea in concentricity—a privacy or mystery or authority at the center that radiates toward the mastery of surrounding spheres.
All three of these structural elements taken together—stairs, clocks, and dome—suggest Jeffersonian priorities in an aesthetics of seeing. At issue is a complicated dynamic of vision, spectacle, mirrored reciprocity, intellectual vigilance, social surveillance, and the perception of beauty where grace in form is also a conscious exercise of power. Sometimes that dynamic involved a series of balances; at other times a qualified displacement; at still others, a deliberate conflation in which meaning required a blurred sense of placement in the eye of the perceiver.
The underlying basis and interaction of these strategies become clearer in four aspects of life at Monticello, and, since each aspect also contains a conundrum or riddle, they are best expressed in the form of questions. First, how could an Enlightenment intellectual who valued accuracy in sight as the first order of knowledge engage so readily in artifice for visual effect? Reducing two stories to the visual appearance of one story through awkward window combinations, hiding the slave quarters or dependencies underneath the structure of his house, creating false ballustrades and railings to conceal imperfections in the roof and dome all afford unsettling examples here. Second, why didn’t Jefferson’s compulsive insistence upon record keeping and minute accountability in financial matters help him to minimize the economic ruin that his records showed was coming? Third, what of the secrecy and occasional reclusiveness of the private life up against Jefferson’s insistence upon an active social arrangement of continuous hospitality? Fourth, what are we to make of the unfinished nature of Monticello, a building that Jefferson put up and tore down repeatedly between 1768 and 1826? This last charge can also be levelled in another way. The accounts of many visitors to Monticello indicate that Jefferson allowed standing parts of the building to fall into utter disrepair and even an unkempt state as he continued to labor on new parts and the completion of his plans. Why?
These questions all have major dimensions, but a common key to each puzzle is the intellectual process of Enlightenment, which, in turn, explains some of the peculiar combinations in the aesthetics of seeing just noted. Jefferson could falsify elements in the structure of his house and could hide his slave quarters and even his servants within the daily routine of the house because he believed in form as a saving reality. In order to see farthest, one must eliminate that which disturbs the form in immediate proximity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said much the same thing in Nature, “Circles,” and other essays when he told his readers to keep their eyes on the horizon and away from close or secondary desires. Jefferson removed slavery from the vision, if not the reality, of his plan because he assumed slavery would pass from view in subsequent American history. As he wrote in 1785, “the hour of emancipation is advancing in the march of time. It will come.” Meanwhile, the sight of it disturbed the truth that was possible in the present.
The same construct of a willed disregard applies to the plantation economics that held Jefferson and many another Virginia aristocrat in permanent debt. Even as he noted every account, Jefferson always expected his farming enterprise to fail on its own terms. He loathed the tobacco economy that was his main staple. “It is,” he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “a culture productive of infinite wretchedness,” and he expected Maryland and Virginia “to abandon the raising tobacco altogether” in the near future. Building for time and distance, the architect-owner of Monticello stripped slavery and tobacco from his sight as much as possible. The higher vision of a more timeless truth held the planner, as another Enlightenment figure who visited Jefferson in 1782, the Marquis de Chastellux, intuited. “For no object had escaped Mr. Jefferson,” wrote Chastellux, “and it seemed as if from his youth he had placed his mind as he had done his house, on an elevated situation from which he might contemplate the universe.”
Another side of Jefferson, the Virginia gentleman, understood perfectly well that slavery and tobacco were essential realities in the practical order of his world. Both were cornerstones of the hospitality that he encouraged—even though his constant reception of guests went against every intellectual impulse in his being and even though his elaborate treatment of them plunged him ever deeper into the indebtedness that would destroy his estate. But something more than duty was at stake in such entertainment. Supporting the obligation of hospitality was another level of meaning: the idea of spectacle.
Spectacle defined the successful planter within aristocratic Virginia society. Thus, when Martha Jefferson Randolph, the long-suffering hostess of Monticello, finally complained against the stream of visitors that filled her daily life, Jefferson responded in just these terms. We might even conclude that spectacle was the reverse side of vision in 18th-century culture. “The manner and usages of our country,” Jefferson wrote in 1805, “are laws we cannot repeal.” To revolt against them “would undo the whole labor of our lives.” These words, coming from the great revolutionary innovator, sound curiously passive until we note “the pleasing side,” which Jefferson also recorded. As he told his daughter, “these visits are evidences of the general esteem which we have been . . .all our lives trying to merit.”
The visits were “evidences” because they supplied connection between the inner and outer life. Whether in the form of minute plantation records, which collectively established an understanding of larger enterprise, or in the social opinion of the visiting community, which assured the aristocrat of his sense of place, the builder of Monticello was absolutely invested in “evidences” as thinker, farmer, architect, and political leader. His obsession with accumulating facts, which existed at every level of investigation, was another gauge of this temperament. The philosopher in the man assumed that all of the facts would some day add up, if not in his own time, then for others when the proper amount and coordination of information were in place. Knowledge was cumulative in an organic sense, one reason why Monticello, to remain state of the art, had to change with each incremental piece of understanding. In “daring to know,” the architect of the Enlightenment also dared to change the structures that held him back, and there was something wonderful in this stance. Jefferson never seems to have given in to the mere passiveness in living.
Put another way, the house of the Enlightenment was never about ease, leisure and comfort; it was about the constant struggle to improve one’s understanding and to demonstrate that understanding to a candid world. Significantly, new coats of paint and the mundane notion of repair had little to do with the spirit behind that demonstration. Restoration was not exactly immaterial to aesthetic appeal— beauty must always be young and vital—but for the increasingly embattled Jefferson, running out of time and money, upkeep did not begin to approach the fascination with design and form that drove him. Monticello was not a house that could be finished on the terms that its architect set for himself. Only today, as a retrospection, is Monticello a finished work, and there is some reason to believe that its original owner might query its value as a static museum piece.
Three moments of observation by Jefferson can illustrate aspects of what we have been calling an 18th-century Enlightenment aesthetics of seeing. They are, in order: the famous description of “looming” in Query VII of Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1787 but written at least three years before; the placement of Monticello in Jefferson’s equally famous dialogue of the head and the heart in his letter to Maria Cosway from 1786; and less noted but perhaps even more telling, the Reverend Henry C. Thweatt’s description of a conversation with Jefferson at Monticello during a storm that they watch together in 1826, during the last year of Jefferson’s life. All three passages commend the unique perspective that Monticello offered for purposes of observation, and all three suggest a special value in elevation as the truest platform for the process of human understanding, but there are also differences between them that show what Monticello finally came to mean for its complicated owner.
The description of “looming,” when, in Jefferson’s words, “distant objects appear larger, in opposition to the general law of vision, by which they are diminished,” comes after many pages of precise observations in Notes on the State of Virginia, and it serves the purpose of suggesting how easily observation can be deceived when it is not driven by scientific method and an accurate sense of “philosophy.” Jefferson’s focus is another mountain, which he knows to be 40 miles distant, and about the way “it assumes at times the most whimsical shapes, and all these perhaps successively in the same morning.” Method appears in Jefferson’s repeated measurements of the weight, moisture, and heat of the atmosphere during the process of looming. And yet the writer admits that no measurement has made any real difference. “Refraction will not account for this metamorphosis,” he concludes, but he does not give up there.
The rest of the passage limits the degree of error that others have brought to “the whimsical shapes” of looming, and the removal of error becomes in itself a vital contribution to enlightened science, where superstition and ignorance have previously reigned. Jefferson offers no positive hypothesis where scientific explanation “by none of its laws, as yet developed” can support him, and all of his integrity rests in the qualification (“as yet developed”). He observes for others who will follow, and he never doubts but that new laws, when developed, will render Nature mediate on this point and every other. As the structure of his knowledge is there for others to build upon, so the example of Monticello is a structure for others to measure themselves against. Not surprisingly, many of the compromises at Monticello are about the elimination or at least the displacement of discovered error.
The description of Monticello offered to Maria Cosway is of a very different and yet eerily similar character. The language is far more effusive, but once again “the workhouse of nature” is the subject, and Jefferson’s stress is once again upon repeated observation, and the calm that it produces. “With what majesty do we there ride above the storms!” exalts Jefferson. Notably, it is one of those rare moments in the embattled dialogue between the head and the heart, where the two combatants agree absolutely. From Monticello can be seen “subjects worthy of immortality,” and it is instructive that Maria Cosway, a painter and sketch artist, can achieve immortality herself by elucidating them, a process that can “make them, & thereby ourselves known to all ages.” The monumental dome of Monticello, its own elucidation, is another sketch by another artist, and it too is about imposing form beyond the immediate press of time. Again, the axis of sight is automatically improved by the capacity “to look down into” the workhouse of nature.
The last passage, that of the Reverend Thweatt, takes on the press of time more directly. Nature arrives with force in this scene instead of waiting to be observed. This time, we are subjected to the very storm that we were permitted to ride above in majestic calm during the letter to Maria Cosway. Jefferson and his guests sit, in Thweatt’s description, in “a room walled on every side but one by glass,” and they wait for the storm to hit. When it does:
The theme of this little story is Jefferson’s equanimity amidst the consternation of others, but the internal narrative tells us much more about the process of seeing and what it meant to the master of Monticello.
this scene of indescribable terror continued near. . , an hour during the silence of death [that] pervaded the room. Not a word had been spoken . . .during the whole. At length as the storm subsided . . . I ventured to ask Mr. Jefferson if it was not often unpleasant to him . . .to be thus exposed to such violent & terrible storms . . .and if during the present one he had not felt a good alarm—that for my part I had never before during my life been more frightened . . . With his usual placid & soft, tone of voice he answered, “I was not in the least alarmed my son but silently enjoyed the solemn grandeur & awful sublimity of the scene. I have witnessed many such here & elsewhere and always on like occasions endeavor as best I can to realize the presence, power & majesty of the almighty Being.”
Jefferson has been a witness “here & elsewhere” many times before, and his equanimity is of the hard-won variety in which all terrors have been faced and rendered describable. Within months of his own “silence of death,” this figure is perpetually ready. Meanwhile, he has secured his own privacy within the circle of publicity around him (“not a word had been spoken during the whole”).
At one level, the passage is a fairly conventional early 19th-century description of the sublime. At another, it is an appropriately subtle manifestation of what Gaston Bachelard has called “the dialectics of outside and inside.” By this phrase, Bachelard means to describe a state where “once we have been touched by the grace of super-imagination, we feel it in the presence of simpler images through which the exterior world deposits virtual elements of highly-colored space in the heart of our being.” Is it too much to suggest that the architect of Monticello used the perspective gained from his building to achieve a level of imagination in which external form tallies with an inner calm of understanding and appreciation? Forty years before, the man now in the eye of the storm had written to George Gilmer “all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello,” and he speaks now, knowing that it is one of the wishes that he has been granted.
Jefferson possesses the most vivid and irreducible sense of place in this scene. Every other figure is an intruder as he alone “silently enjoys” the perspective that he has crafted from a lifetime and painstakingly built in a room where “presence” overcomes the silence of death, “power” lies in the match of inner calm to outward turmoil, and “majesty” appears in the position and availability of every conceivable window. Architect, owner, and philosopher are one and the same in this scene, and their joint equanimity is all the greater when we recognize that Jefferson fully understood that his house and maybe even his nation were crumbling around him in 1826. Such equanimity can come only from many different sources at once, but one source stands out as we reach a last time for the indefatigable, adventuring architect of Monticello. The goal, whether one is caught in the storm or allowed to ride above it, is always the same. Faced with the ultimate challenge of meaning, Jefferson tells Henry Thweatt, “[I always] endeavor as best I can.”