Skip to main content

Beacon on Monticello

ISSUE:  Spring 1943

Jefferson: The Road to Glory. By Marie Kimball. Coward-McCann. $5.00. Jefferson Himself, The Personal Narrative of a Many-Sided American. By Bernard Mayo. Houghton Mifflin Company. $4.00. Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book. Edited by Edwin M. Betts. The American Philosophical Society. $5.00.

A fter conspicuous neglect for a century and a half of the epic figure who had so large a part in the creation of the United States, our Nation at last has built a marble dome which now reflects itself in the Tidal Basin to remind us that Thomas Jefferson was the founder of democracy as we know it. But there is still no adequate biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence, despite the fact that two hundred years have passed since his birth. Numerous cursory accounts of him have been published, but no serious attempt at an exhaustive study has been made since the appearance of Henry S. Randall’s three volumes in 1858. The Jefferson bicentennial is ushering into pi’int various books and articles dealing with this Virginia aristocrat who devoted his life to the enfranchisement of his countrymen.

That he was an aristocrat in every sense of the word is made abundantly clear by Marie Kimball’s “Jefferson: The Road to Glory.” When the University of Virginia was being built, it is said that Mr. Jefferson, from his mountain top, watched through a spyglass the progress of the work. So much insight into the life and habits of the master of Monticello is displayed in this adroitly presented study, that it is easy to imagine Mrs. Kimball as a nearby neighbor who in turn spied on him daily, then put him on the witness stand, turning his mind inside out with penetrating questions, and finally went through all his private papers. Few of Jefferson’s early letters have survived, but his habit of making notes from his readings and keeping numerous account books has, along with widespread research, enabled the author to bring to light new facts concerning his early years. She gives much hitherto unpublished information concerning his family background and corrects misconceptions of Peter Jefferson, father of the President, who is usually represented as a backwoodsman. Peter Jefferson was not only well born; he was a great landed proprietor who required five overseers and a bailiff to look after his vast estates. He was a leading citizen who served Albemarle at various times as justice, sheriff, surveyor, and county lieutenant. He was also co-compiler of the first detailed map of Virginia ever published. His son, Thomas, was not only an aristocrat by inheritance on the Jefferson as well as the Randolph side of his family; he was also one by taste and association. He never selected friends but from among his own kind, and Patrick Henry’s plebeian habits did not escape his observing eye. To be a scholar and a connoisseur was a part of being a gentleman in those days, and Jefferson was both. To be a scholar was to be a philosopher, and to be a philosopher was, almost certainly, to be a liberal. Thus Jefferson’s democracy was largely a result of his intellectuality and not of his frontier environment; for he was by no means a product of the frontier, as most of our doctrinaire historians have maintained.

Mrs. Kimball’s book does much more than upset this misinterpretation of Jefferson. It enables one to read the mind of a moody, sensitive, and wealthy young man who, even in youth, found his chief delight in books, but who was not really happy until he was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1769 and found that the political crisis furnished a stimulating field for his talents. Through the author’s critical mind and charming, flexible style, we see the red-headed, freckle-faced lad learning his letters from the horn-book; we see him entranced with the classics or fiddling and frolicking at the College of William and Mary; we witness the folly of his young manhood, when the slaves whispered up and down the length of Three Notch’d Road that young Master Thomas was carrying on something awful with the wife of Mr. Walker; we follow him through 1776, by which time he had, at the age of thirty-three, become the man of ripe and understanding spirit for whom this was the year of destiny. While there is no attempt at deification, Mrs. Kimball writes with warm sympathy, and it is a richly satisfying figure which she has blocked out against his beloved Monticello.

To an unfinished Monticello he removed in 1770 after nearby Shadwell, the place of his birth, had been destroyed by fire. To this mountain top he brought his bride two years later, and here the moody and romantic youth became the wise and sanguine man of affairs. His burgeoning and maturity are portrayed through his own writings as collected and edited by Bernard Mayo in “Jefferson Himself.” These have been selected with such keen discrimination and arranged so ingeniously that they read like a consecutive narrative. They are the words of a thinking man, and reveal one who shrank from conflict, but who became the storm-center of all the angry passions of his day. Yet his philosophy enabled him to endure it and to be content with small gains where he had hoped for great. He certainly did not love politics for its own sake, and he had few of the arts of the politician, but he had great intellectual curiosity, and creative effort was his passion. He, therefore, enjoyed politics only in its creative phase. His most trying years were apparently those during which he served as Secretary of State, and the administrative duties of Governor and President left him so cold that he did not mention those offices in his epitaph. But wherever he recognized a problem he tried to solve it, and he was most happy when devising a new plow or formulating parliamentary rules for the United States Senate. That he was able to devote his last years to the founding of the University of Virginia was not only a testimonial to his ingenious creativeness, it was a fortunate circumstance in the life of a man who could have found no surer balm for an aging frame and a broken fortune. Professor Mayo weaves Jefferson’s writings into a fascinating pattern, and no biography could capture quite all the flavor of the original.

Even more than books and buildings, Jefferson loved the soil of his native Virginia. It was a joyous task when he could devote his time to his gardens at Shadwell, Monticello, Poplar Forest, or some other of his estates. He never tired of scouring the earth for new plants and drawing plans and laying out vistas to develop on his favorite mountain top. He pursued this interest with the same intellectual zeal which he applied to all his avocations, keeping up with the latest developments in Europe and adapting them to his own particular problem in a manner that never failed to manifest originality. It is, therefore, not surprising that he was the first American to build his home atop a mountain and to develop the art of landscape gardening. His correspondence contains many references to these interests, and he left many sketches and plans of his various gardens. Edwin Morris Betts has now collected and illuminatingly edited, under the title of “Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book,” the garden records kept by Jefferson from 1766 to 1824, along with other pertinent and hitherto unpublished material.

Monticello is symbolical: from these three volumes one can see something of the figure of the real Jefferson, standing out in craggy splendor on his mountain peak.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading