Birthday Road Trip: Charlottesville

This was our first time in Charlottesville. (I wrote about our second time there, and one of its really great restaurants, here).

We arrived in Charlottesville late afternoon, just in time to have a wander around the University of Virginia campus as the sun set. The university was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who believed strongly that America should have a public system of higher education and – radically – that this education should not be linked to religion. Rather than being centred around a church or chapel, UVA was designed around a rotunda, which housed the library.

The university campus is very open to the public, and we enjoyed walking in the cloisters, and peeking into the little rooms where presumably students used to live and work, and some where it looked like they still do.

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I wasn’t sure what Jefferson would make of the Greek life aspects of UVA. We walked around the streets that house the large fraternity houses, wondering if Jefferson had intended to create such a patrician class within the new republic. It’s an aspect of US higher education that’s completely foreign to me, and I tend to regard it with the suspicion with which I regard secret societies. They certainly looked rather creepy as dusk fell…

A positive result of Charlottesville being a university town, is that it has a good town centre – plenty of restaurants along the main road, a nice old cinema, a theatre in a complex near the station, and a downtown mall – or as we in the UK would call it, a pedestrianised shopping street. We loved the atmosphere here, and wished we hadn’t overindulged so much over Christmas and on our way. Interestingly, as the mainstreets in Charlottesville are thriving, it’s the out of town shopping malls that are declining. We went to one the next morning, in search of breakfast on the road, and found it almost deserted, despite it being prime sales season.

We were on the road because we were on our way to see Jefferson’s Monticello – one of the prime objects of this trip. Unfortunately it wasn’t great weather, and we walked up the hill from the carpark through a dripping mist, and on reaching the top could barely see the house at the other end of the lawn. Apparently there are amazing views of the surrounding mountains normally, but we didn’t see any of that on the day we visited…

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However the house was fascinating, and we thoroughly enjoyed our tour. Jefferson was a great experimenter – and inventor – as well as a thorough bibliophile. There were so many little touches in the house that interested me, that I’m not sure I can do it justice.

For example, there was the clock, that worked with a system of weights and for which the lobby wasn’t quite tall enough – so Jefferson cut holes in the floor for the weights to descend into the basement.

There were the French style beds, either snugly fitted into the walls of the bedrooms, or between two rooms as in Jefferson’s suite. We were told that every morning Jefferson put his feet into a bowl of cold water, to ward off colds (apparently this was successful). Next to the bed you could see where splashed water had worn away at the floor boards.

And there was the French-style dining room, designed to hide the slaves as much as possible, as they went about producing dishes for the guests.

Because it was out of season, we weren’t able to go on the special tour of the slave quarters, and Mulberry Row (the principal plantation street), but we were able to walk around ourselves and read the information provided about them. The guides were rather coy about discussing Jefferson’s liaison with his slave Sally Hemings, with whom he is believed to have fathered six children. In fact, the guides seemed incredibly uncomfortable to be talking about this in Jefferson’s house. I couldn’t help but think that if Monticello was run by the National Parks Service we would have had a far better discussion of this. Instead, it’s run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a nonprofit corporation.

I was interested to learn about Jefferson’s relationship with his daughters, though. Although they were destined to become plantation wives – like their mother, who gave birth to six children in ten years – Jefferson was intent that they should have a solid education. This was because he recognised that they would be largely responsible for the education of their children – not because he thought women should do anything else with their lives. I was also struck by the fact that he took it upon himself to name a number of his grandchildren; his daughter Martha had twelve children, including ‘Thomas Jefferson Randolph’, ‘James Madison Randolph’, ‘Benjamin Franklin Randolph’, and ‘Meriwether Lewis Randolph’!

So it was with a lot to think about and discuss that we left Monticello and headed up to Sperryville.

Read on

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3 thoughts on “Birthday Road Trip: Charlottesville

  1. I’ve never been to Monticello, but it sounds like Jefferson had a really interesting life! Agreed though, maybe the national park service would do a better job handling the less flattering aspects of his life.

    Liked by 1 person

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