Thomas Jefferson, My Hero
Ever since the Government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to cut down on Federal holidays and combine the birthdays of two of our most honored presidents–Lincoln and Washington–who just so happened to be born in the same month, the individual celebrations have been set aside in honor of “Presidents’ Day.”
To me, that means every president, not just the two who were born in February. And, if pushed to pick a favorite, it’d be Thomas Jefferson, hands down. You can point to any of our early presidents and make a similar case for each, since they helped shape this nation. But Jefferson, by authorizing the Louisiana purchase, really did shape the country in a physical sense.
The purchase was unexpected and unheard of, since James Monroe, who acted as Jefferson’s mouthpiece, was only expecting to be offered the territory of Louisiana. Instead, the French wanted to sell the entire area under its control. Jefferson knew he had only a short time to act on this purchase, so he ignored the legal interpretation of the Constitution, which called for an amendment to be made, and purchased the land–all 530,000,000 acres of it, from the French, for $15 million dollars. This action doubled the size of the United States. He was a visionary man of action, and his ideas and decisions were crucial in creating the America we know today.
In 1804, Jefferson commissioned Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to assemble a corps of men to explore this vast, uncharted territory. Not only were they to create a topographical map of the area, they were charged with finding a route from east to west for settlers to follow. In addition, they were to establish an American presence, to catch and send back unknown species of wildlife, and to document plant life. It took several years for Lewis & Clark to complete their journey and to return to the east.
I have visited Jefferson’s home, Monticello, near Charlottesville, VA, on several occasions. Monticello is Italian for ‘little mountain,’ which is a perfect name since that’s what it sits on. The estate always gets compared, in my mind, to Mount Vernon, which was George Washington’s plantation. George comes up woefully short, probably because I prefer mountains. To get to Monticello, you have to traverse a narrow, winding road to the top of the mountain where the estate spreads out over 3,000 acres. The home, with its red brick exterior and Doric columns, is breathtaking, as is the view from the mountaintop. The home was designed, and remodeled, over forty years by Jefferson himself. Local stonemasons crafted the bricks from Monticello land and much of the timber used in the construction of the home came from Jefferson’s land as well.
On my last visit, a docent greeted us at the east side entrance and led us into the central hallway, which was lined with benches. She said when Jefferson was in residence, people from all walks of life would make the trek up the mountain, by horseback, carriage, or by foot, to have an audience with the man. Lewis & Clark stood in the very hallway where I now stood, along with the first leaders of our country. The docent droned on, but I was caught up in the past. Some of the decorations on the walls were from the initial package Lewis & Clark had shipped home to Jefferson after their first year of exploration in the Louisiana territory. The docent mentioned a young boy who had some matter to discuss, and how he sat on these benches for three days before Jefferson could spare him an audience. The parlor, which was the center of Monticello’s social life, was straight ahead of us and opened onto the west entrance, a domed, columned portico, which is what one sees on the nickel coin.
In addition to being one of the foremost diplomats of early America, spending a great deal of time in France, being called upon to compose the Declaration of Independence and serving an eight-year stint as our third President, Jefferson was a prolific botanist. His gardens are as impressive as his house, and are a botanical showplace. The gift shop packages and sells seeds from Jefferson’s gardens for visitors to take home and plant in their own, less impressive gardens.
Jefferson often said he never felt as happy as when he was at Monticello, and got his wish to end his days at his beloved home. He died on July 4, 1826, in his bed, at his mountaintop estate.