Sunday, November 25, 2018


The last time we'd been to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's self-designed masterpiece located just outside of Charlottesville, VA., was probably about 30 years ago.

We enjoyed it so much that Kim had been bugging me to go back for the past 29 1/2 years or so.

We finally gave ourselves the opportunity to return last weekend when we made our annual pilgrimage to Richmond to attend a Civil War artifacts show with another couple.

So we went. There were some changes from what I last remembered about our previous visit to Monticello. Imagine that.

First off, there is now a visitors' center. It's where you purchase your ticket ($23) and catch the shuttle to the premises. Then, as the visitors assemble, they are segmented into manageable tour groups of 20-25 people. Each tour group is separated by about 10 minutes from the other.

I'm never sure if this is the front or the back of Monticello...
 Considering that this was a cold, blustery Sunday morning in November, I was shocked by how many visitors were on hand. It was remarkable. Tour groups were everywhere.

What I remember from 30 years ago (It's amazing the things I remember that I don't remember. It's a real conundrum) is that we drove to the actual Monticello property, parked the car, purchased our tickets on site, then met a tour guide at the front door, where we waited patiently for 15 people to show up to form a tour group.

Anyway, our assigned tour guide was an African American gentleman who also happened to be a sophomore at nearby University of Virginia, where he was majoring, curiously enough, in poetry.

I mention our tour guide's ancestry because Monticello was designed as a working plantation that utilized the labor of about 150 slaves toiling for the author of the Declaration of Independence, a man who famously wrote that all men are created equal. Talk about conundrums.

Jamal was great. He pointed out things like the weathervane and cannonball clock that Jefferson designed, as well as elk antlers from the Lewis and Clark expedition that occurred during Jefferson's presidency. He showed us the bed in which Jefferson died, Jefferson's library, and Jefferson's self-taught architecture flourishes. All the while, he would insert African American history tidbits regarding Monticello that added fascinating perspective to the tour.

Monticello (correctly pronounced Mon-tee-CHEL-lo) is not part of the federal National Park Service, but rather sustained by donations, admission fees and probably the occasional grants. The place is a working archeological site where they are constantly discovering slave graves or peeling back the wallpaper to find the true color of paint on the walls. Neat stuff.

At one point on the tour Jamal mentioned that Jefferson thought the Constitution should be rewritten every 20 years to keep pace with changing times. When the tour was over I privately asked Jamal if amendments weren't the tools for changing the Constitution. I mean, what did Jefferson know? He was off in France when the Constitution was still in draft form. Jamal agreed that rewriting the Constitution now probably would never work, especially in these partisan times. But back in the nation's formative years, it might have been a workable concept.

I asked him if he thought writing the Constitution every 20 years might have brought an earlier end to slavery, and perhaps without a Civil War at that. He thought it over for a minute and agreed it could have been a possibility.

Our trip to Monticello was fruitful and enlightening. We're planning to go back again, perhaps in the spring when the weather is warmer and the gardens are in bloom.

I can't wait. Jefferson's an interesting guy, full of the arts, science, political theory, curiosity, and contradictions. I'll never look at a nickel the same way again.

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