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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.

The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society is sponsored by Altria with additional support from The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and The Elmon T. Gray Fund for Virginia History.

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

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