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The Genius of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, attributed to John Trumbull

This watercolor image, attributed to John Trumbull, appears in his famous painting of the presentation to Congress of the Declaration of Independence by its five-man draft committee. (Virginia Historical Society, accession # 1978.22)

The special exhibition The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society is currently on view at the VHS. The Massachusetts collection was placed there in 1898 by the president’s great-grandson, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge of Boston.

We all know at least a little about the public Jefferson. To remind visitors of his service as governor of Virginia, congressman, minister to France, secretary of state under George Washington, vice president under John Adams, and third president of the United States, the VHS is presenting a complementary display of eighteen objects from its collection that point to the public Jefferson. These objects range from a 1785 printing of Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” and letters by him regarding the war between England and France to 1801 and 1814 editions of Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice (still partly in use in the House of Representatives) and Meriwether Lewis’s report of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

What do you know about the private Jefferson? Did you know that he was one of the greatest American architects or that he introduced hundreds of vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees to the United States? His genius in architecture, gardening, and agriculture was as extraordinary as were his writing skills (John Adams told him “you write ten times better than I can”) or his understanding of science and governing.

Jefferson was arguably the greatest American architect, because two of his creations—Monticello and the University of Virginia—are included on the United Nations World Heritage List, and no other American architect has been so honored. His Virginia Capitol had international influence and established monumental classicism (the architecture of the temples of ancient Greece and Rome) as the style to be used for the large public buildings of America.

Thomas Jefferson's plan of Poplar Forest

Thomas Jefferson’s original plan for Poplar Forest shows a rectangular building with an octagonal central room, but the plan evolved into one of his most interesting designs: a purely octagonal building with all of the challenges that its odd room layout entailed. (Original manuscript from The Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Jefferson was a member of America’s first great artistic generation, which included the painters John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, and Charles Willson Peale, all born in the 1740s. He was creative. He taught himself architecture by studying European pattern books (mostly out-of-date), which convinced him that the ancients had developed a perfect architecture based on the unchanging Laws of Nature (by that he meant the Greeks and Romans found the right proportions). Then Jefferson moved beyond the books and tradition. He innovated. He introduced octagons and the dome to American architecture, he took from contemporary France the flowing space and convenience of rooms on a single floor, he stretched out long decks and walkways along shallow rooms (at Monticello and the University of Virginia), and he incorporated his love of natural scenery by providing views from windows and doors and by building his house in the sky—all to achieve the “light and airy effect” that he described to friends as the goal. Today, that effect is what we want! Jefferson was ahead of his time. And so his buildings impact the viewer today, just as they always have.

Thomas Jefferson's plan of the Monticello mountaintop layout

Thomas Jefferson’s plan shows the general layout of the mountaintop, showing the lawn, garden, and roundabout for the first Monitcello. (Original manuscript from The Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Jefferson ranked his introduction to America of olive trees and upland rice from Italy as among his major contributions to the nation. He argued, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add [a] useful plant to its culture.” Jefferson the gardener stated, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth.” He built a 1,000-foot terrace into the side of the Monticello mountain so he could experiment there with vegetables and herbs—with 330 varieties of 99 species. He introduced 125 varieties of fruit trees. Having toured gardens in England with John Adams in the 1780s, Jefferson designed pavilions to serve as focal points for his gardens at Monticello (they were never built). Among the extensive farm records he kept are tables of crop rotations and lists of harvest times. Gardening and farming are wholesome, he concluded, “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural.”

If this information is not enough to lure you to visit The Private Jefferson, let me mention that the Massachusetts Historical Society has added to the show three stars drawn from its other collections: a copy handwritten by Jefferson of his first (and longer) draft of the Declaration of Independence; a copy of the Declaration handwritten by John Adams; and a printed copy of the Declaration that was issued in Philadelphia in 1776. Those three documents are among the most important in American history.

Want to learn more about Thomas Jefferson? Check out this blog that William Rasmussen contributed to the Virginia Repertory Theatre.

William M. S. Rasmussen is lead curator and Lora M. Robins curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

The Markham Book Collection: First Steps in a New Project


Perceptive patrons who regularly use the library’s online catalog will likely notice a new collection designation appearing in their searches—CMLS. The CMLS, or Confederate Memorial Literary Society, collections encompass manuscripts, rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, and other paper materials relating to the Civil War, its coming and its aftermath, from the Museum of the Confederacy’s Eleanor S. Brockenbrough library.


In 2014, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) entered into an agreement with the American Civil War Museum (ACWM)—the institution created by the merger in 2013 of the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy—to store, process, digitize and serve CMLS collections as part of the VHS’s Civil War Research Center. While it will be several years before all the targeted materials are available to researchers, as these collections are actively being transferred to the VHS they are being sequentially processed. Rather than holding back materials for several years until the project has been completed, the VHS is making materials available to researchers as they are processed.


The George F. Markham, Jr. book collection is the first set of materials that will be available to researchers. George F. Markham, Jr. (1916–2009) was a native of Wisconsin with a keen interest in the Civil War. He attended the University of Virginia and joined the Navy during World War II, where he served as a naval aviator in the Pacific, including at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. After retiring from the Navy, Markham lived in Wisconsin, where he collected Civil War books and artifacts. He amassed a respected private collection of more than 3,000 items, which he donated to the Museum of the Confederacy in 1992.

When the Markham collection first arrived at the VHS last year, the initial task was to get it on the shelves in the CMLS storage area and cross-check the inventory of contents. After validating the inventory, the volumes were organized using standard library protocols, and staff began the process of accessioning books into the VHS collections.

Over the past few months, staff has begun cataloging the collection, which involves creating a detailed catalog record for each book so that it is easily accessible for researchers. The condition of each book is also assessed and housing is created to store items in the best way possible to ensure that the collection will be maintained properly to be used for years to come.



The Markham collection is an exciting addition to the VHS’s Civil War Research Center as it expands the current VHS collections on the Civil War—Markham’s scope was not limited to Virginia so there are research materials relating to other states, especially Union states, which will supply researchers with resources for a well-rounded view of the Civil War.  Markham’s collection also includes rare Confederate Imprints, works signed by the actual Civil War veterans who authored them, foreign works on the Civil War, and even some artwork, including a set of original ink drawings Civil War artist Charles W. Reed created for John D. Billings’s best-selling memoir, Hardtack and Coffee.

While cataloging of the Markham collection is still underway, the VHS is adding newly described books from this collection to the library catalog weekly. In addition to the Markham collection, the VHS will eventually receive numerous rare books, broadsides, newspapers, and other published materials, as well as manuscript collections, from the Confederate Memorial Literary Society that will be cataloged and made available to researchers. The VHS is also conducting a digitization project on the images collection belonging to the American Civil War Museum, which will give researchers access to thousands of images of Civil War-related photographs and imagery once completed.

Until these additional materials are transferred to be made available through the VHS online catalog, questions related to the Confederate Memorial Literary Society collections should be directed to Robert Hancock, Director of the Collections Department at the American Civil War Museum, at

Amber Jones is the Project Cataloging/Digital Librarian at the Virginia Historical Society.

Meet the Staff: Caroline Legros


From answering phone inquiries to photographing new acquisitions, the staff at the VHS have a wide range of talents that help make our collections accessible to the world. Who are the talented men and women of the VHS? In a series of “Meet the Staff” blog posts, we will introduce you to the people who work behind the scenes to collect, preserve, and interpret Virginia history.

Meet the Staff - Caroline Legros, School Programs Coordinator

What is your name and job title?

Caroline Legros, School Programs Coordinator

When did you begin working at the VHS?

I first started at the VHS in 2001, as a work-study student. I transitioned to my current position in 2009.

What are your job duties?

Caroline Legros working with a group of students in the Story of Virginia exhibition.

Here I am working with a group of elementary school students in “The Story of Virginia” exhibition.

I wear a bunch of different hats in my position – most importantly, I coordinate all on-site educational programs at the VHS. Whether it’s organizing a field trip for a group of fourth grader students or making arrangements for a tour of our special exhibitions for a retirement home, I’m the person who helps visitors make the most of their visit to the VHS. I also develop and present educational programs for various audiences, and coordinate the Society’s Docent program. Lastly, I work with the Museum staff as a curator for exhibits like The Story of Virginia and Original Art. Read more…

What Is a Sublime Landscape? What Is a Picturesque Landscape? Where Are They Found in Virginia?


Thomas Jefferson wrote that Natural Bridge is “the most sublime of nature’s works”: “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here.” He purchased the bridge from King George III so that so potent a landmark would remain accessible to the public, and his exclamatory statements about the bridge’s intoxicating power were widely circulated when they appeared in his book Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). The future president made Natural Bridge so famous that it was remembered a half century later by Herman Melville when the author described the sublime whale he created, Moby Dick. He wrote, “The fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and… the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight.”

What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he reported “emotions arising from the sublime”? The explanation is that he had been reading Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), which led the future president to search the Virginia landscape to find evidence of sublimity.


Natural Bridge, 1882, Flavius Fisher, Lora Robins Collection of Virginia Art, 1995.98. A traveler wrote in 1852 of “staring upwards in stupid amazement at so grand a work of the Great Architect.”

The British statesman-to-be Edmund Burke offered a philosophy about the landscape that guided connoisseurs and artists in Europe and America for more than a century. He labeled “beautiful” those things that are smooth, varied in form, or delicate, and induce in us a sense of affection and tenderness—like a rose or the bend of a swan’s neck. More relevant to the painter were those powerful forces of nature and those elements visible in nature that threaten our self-preservation and make us aware of the futility of human arrangements.

Burke considered “sublime” the cataclysmic natural forces—tidal waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, conflagrations. Also “sublime” are extreme conditions that threaten our existence—such total stillness, total darkness, and death. Jefferson found that a human standing beneath the towering arch of Natural Bridge or peering down over its edge feels physically dwarfed and intellectually taken aback. He argued that such a landscape should be visited and it followed that it should be replicated in paint for those not able to see it on location. Read more…

The VHS Brings Out the Big Guns (Literally!) with Arming the Commonwealth


image of Arming the Commonwealth exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society. Photo by Jennifer Rohrbaugh Nesossis

From protecting yourself from enemy combatants to finding dinner for your family, weapons have played a significant role in Virginia history. Our newest exhibition, Arming the Commonwealth, made possible by the Cecil R. and Edna S. Hopkins Family Foundation, explores how the state became a hub for weapon manufacturing and how Virginians used them in their everyday lives.

Following the American Revolution, Virginia was the only state to arm its militia fully with locally manufactured weapons. In its short operational history, the Virginia Manufactory of Arms produced more than 58,000 muskets and bayonets, 10,000 swords, 4,000 pistols, and 200 artillery pieces for the state militia. Later, the U.S. Congress, recognizing the problem with relying on foreign countries for weapons, designated two sites for armories. One was Springfield, Massachusetts; the other was Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).

The average citizen used weapons for hunting or for personal protection. One of the pieces that always draws in crowds, and one of my personal favorites, is the English Long Fowler, known at the VHS as the “Woodson musket.” I have met several Woodson descendants (and there are a lot of them) wanting to see the musket on display. It’s 7 feet, 4 inches long and has a .80 caliber barrel. It’s huge! It may have been used to hunt stationary birds or in the military as a “wall gun.”

Image of WoodsonMusket (VHS accession number: 1929.8) on display in Arming the Commonwealth exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society

English Long Fowler (“Woodson” musket), mid 17th century, Barrel; about 1750, Lock; about 1800, Stock, VHS accession number: 1929.8 (On loan from Charles Granville Scott and conserved with gifts from Woodson descendants). By Woodson family tradition, the oldest part of the gun was used by Lt. Col. Thomas Ligon, who helped Sara Woodson defend her Prince George County home from an Indian attack on April 18, 1644.

Read more…

Beat the summer heat with football cards at the VHS this Saturday, July 16


When it was too hot to play sandlot baseball or football, I’d spend most of those hot summer days heading to the pool or going to the local sports card store. As my wife will tell you, I’m not much of a pool person, so the card shop was my choice. The card shop provoked my senses like a baseball game. There was the smell of the newly opened pack of cards, not the newly mowed grass. There was the sound of the chatter between a patron and the shop owner about a potential trade, not the sound of the crack of the bat. And there was the sight of the rare rookie card under the glass, not the sight of the home run going over the fence. These all stirred my senses. Whether I was searching for a Jerry Rice rookie card in a pack of Topps cards, trying to complete my set, or looking to trade a Yankees card for one of my favorite Braves players, I always had a wonderful time. Times have changed and card shops are fewer now that eBay has provided an online venue for card trading and sales.

This weekend I’ll get to rekindle my childhood journeys to the local sports card shop, when Bill Hall (former sports card shop owner) comes to the VHS and brings more than 800 cards from his collection to discuss the “History of Football Cards.”  The program takes place at 10:30 a.m. and is repeated at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 16. Tickets range from $4 to $12.

Bill Hall will cover more than 100 years of football card history including:

  • Tobacco cards
  • Rare cards (including error cards and chase cards)
  • Card rating systems
  • Modern era of Topps
  • eBay and card collecting

Bill Hall has been collecting for more than sixty years and has been featured in several newspaper articles and owned three sports card shops. In 1981, he presented a sports memorabilia exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Come to the VHS on Saturday, July 16, to revisit your childhood (or adult) hobby and see more than 800 football cards from the collection of Bill Hall.

Here’s a teaser of some of the rare cards you’ll get a chance to see:

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Event Information:

“History of Football Cards” takes place at 10:30 a.m. and is repeated at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 16. Tickets range from $4 to $12. Purchase your tickets now for the History of Football Cards.

This event is a special exhibition program related to the current exhibition, Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Why We Need to Talk About James Armistead Lafayette


The following blog was written by Sarah Wells, a senior at St. Catherine’s School, who just completed an internship in the public relations and marketing department at the Virginia Historical Society.


Lizzie Oglesby

I, like many other young people these days, am undeniably obsessed with the Broadway musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Not only did the beautiful music and incredible performance change my life when I saw the show, but so did the history. Because of the show, I want to learn all that I possibly can about the men and women who were influential during the American Revolution. Hamilton has encouraged me to go out and learn more about the interesting people that fought in the war. I know, it sounds crazy—a seventeen-year-old girl actually doing research on something that is not required for school? Madness! This miraculous occurrence just further proves how important Hamilton really is.

When listening to the musical, I heard about a lot of men whose names I had either never heard or had only seen mentioned off-hand in a section of a textbook. One of these men was the Marquis de Lafayette. I had heard of him, but while listening to the musical I found out how important he really was. I had seen a picture somewhere on the internet of an engraving of the Marquis de Lafayette standing with a horse and another man. The caption below the engraving only mentioned the name of the Frenchman, and I saw a series of comments questioning who the other man could be. I never thought I would learn the truth about that mysterious man, but then I saw a small plaque in the Story of Virginia exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society. This plaque told the story of James Armistead Lafayette.

Lafayette and Body Servant James, 1993.178

“Marquis de Lafayette and Body Servant James” Accession number: 1993.178. This is a late 18th century print of the painting I saw depicting the Marquis de Lafayette and James depicting the end of the Revolution.

James Armistead Lafayette was a slave during the Revolution who volunteered to join the Continental Army and served under the Marquis de Lafayette. He was a spy, reporting to Lafayette the actions of Benedict Arnold (after he turned to the British) and eventually Lord Cornwallis leading up to the battle of Yorktown. He informed the Continental Army of the British movements and strategies while also feeding the British false information to keep them at bay. Lafayette played a pivotal role in leading the British to the attack at Yorktown, yet he is very rarely mentioned in accounts of the war. The Marquis de Lafayette abhorred slavery and wanted James to be free more than anything. When James was granted his freedom after the war, he took the last name Lafayette because the general had helped him so much.

James Armistead Lafayette, 1993.215

An 1824 engraving of James Armistead Lafayette with the text of a testimonial written by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1784. Accession number: 1993.215.

Lafayette’s story is exactly the kind that should be told today—he served his country even though it didn’t consider him as a whole person, and he found strength in the friendship of others. Hamilton helps everyone relate to American history, and by talking about James Armistead Lafayette, we can take another step toward helping everyone find a place in America’s history. The VHS strives to connect people to American history through the story of Virginia, and to “inspire future generations,” and by showing the lives of underappreciated heroes like James Armistead Lafayette, the historical society achieves just that.

Periodically the Virginia Historical Society will post content created by guest writers. The opinions expressed are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Virginia Historical Society, its members, or its staff. The Virginia Historical Society encourages discussion; however, we reserve the right to remove posts that are offensive, threatening, or insulting.

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