Visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello provides insight into freedom and slavery

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – On the summit of an 850-foot high mountain peak in the southwest mountains of Virginia sits President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

“Jefferson is the most written about of all the presidents, other than Abraham Lincoln,” said Andrew O’Shaughnessy, director of the Robert H. Smith Center for Jefferson Studies.

The plantation home, located in Albemarle County just outside Charlottesville, draws more than 400,000 visitors each year.

“Author of the Declaration of Independence and that is really our most important pre-Constitution document,” said philanthropist David Rubinstein. “It really contains the fruit of our country – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ He was the author of that. I think it’s very inspirational for all citizens to see that the home of the man who authored that.”

Jefferson was 26-years-old when his father died, leaving him 5,000 acres in Virginia, as well as 150 slaves, who cared for and lived on the property.

“The dangers of visiting houses is you’re looking at the material culture and life, which certainly highlights and this is the best way to know Jefferson, cause he designed the house, which makes it unique and gives real insights to his life,” said O’Shaughnessy.

The 11,000 square-foot house features items collected by explorers Lewis and Clark on their journey across the Louisiana Territory and later given to President Jefferson.

Jefferson, the nation’s third president, served two terms from March 1801 to March 1809. After leaving politics, he founded the University of Virginia, which visitors can see from the Monticello grounds.

“…As an architect, he designed the university. As a former lawyer, he drafted the bills to go through the assembly. As an intellectual, he designated the curriculum and chose faculty,” O’Shaughnessy said.

After the death of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, the former president was known to have had a relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave.

Her living quarters were discovered as part of an archeological dig on the grounds. As part of the Mountaintop Project, six new exhibits and restored spaces recently opened to the public.

“But part of that was the realization we needed to restore the plantation and acknowledge the other 607 who were enslaved here,” Shaughnessy said. “So that’s what we’ve been celebrating this week is the completion of the multiyear project.”

On the slopes below, Mulberry Grove is an extensive garden that’s continued a line of flowers and vegetables that were grown here in the 18th century.

“The enslaved persons who helped build this mountaintop home and gardens and manufacturing of nails. These were done by enslaved people or indentured slaves,” said Bill Webb, a descendant of an enslaved person at Monticello.

The Mountaintop Project, which recently opened on Juneteenth, tells other stories of Monticello besides the former president.

“The only slaves that lived here were members of the Hemmings family and specifically Sally Hemmings. Nearly all the other rooms are related to workspaces,” O’Shaughnessy said.

“In the room itself, we use an interview with the son, Madison Hemmings, where he gives a detailed description of his mother’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson and he’s listed in a U.S. Census.”

Thomas Jefferson died July 4, 1826. He’s buried on the Monticello grounds behind an iron fence. His gravestone reads:

“Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia.”

Just past the entrance to Monticello sits the Jefferson Library, which claims to be the first free-standing library dedicated to the study of a founding father.

“One of our next big projects will be a contemplative site to give people a place for reflection on freedom and slavery here at the end of Mulberry Row,” said Leslie Green Bowman, President & CEO of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

You’ll find 40,000 volumes detailing Jefferson’s life and early American history inside the 15,000 square-foot space.

“We have a library, which was the first presidential library to one of the founders. We edit the Jefferson papers, which is his retirement period. We put on conferences here and abroad and have visiting scholars,” O’Shaughnessy said.

“…this is not part of the presidential library system. It’s entirely independent based on private fundraising. We are a private nonprofit foundation and World Heritage Site.”

At the Jefferson Library, researchers pour over recently discovered letters. Working with Princeton University, a new volume of Jefferson’s is appearing or being published every year.

“About 18 years ago, it was realized it would be another two generations before we publish all of Jefferson’s letters. He wrote 90,000 letters that we’re aware of,” O’Shaughnessy said.

So expect new insights into the mind of the third president and new books about him published through the year 2026.

The man might be gone from the mountaintop, but not his thoughts and the stories from Monticello.

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