Tag Archives: Jefferson

March-April 2016

As Spring gradually came to DC, R and I got the chance to explore more of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. First there was a conference in Asheville I just had to go to, and this time it was R to tag along. I wrote about this road trip, and the craft beer, at the time: Conference in Asheville? Roadtrip!

Then in April we finally made it to Great Falls Park, which is so close to DC that I don’t know why we didn’t go sooner.

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We walked along the Virginia side of the Potomac. The Billy Goat trail on the Maryland side is apparently the better hike, but from where we were standing it looked rather like a long, stationary queue of people, so we were pleased with our choice.

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Apart from the breath-taking scenery, there’s also a lot of interesting history in the park. It was the site of one of Washington’s pet projects – a canal to bypass the falls and make the Potomac navigable all the way to the Ohio River Valley, which began construction in 1785. The remains of a lockkeeper’s cottage and various earthworks can still be seen.

The Park is also home to an abandoned village, which was part of the reason I wanted to visit. I’d read an article on ghost towns in the US (there’s an idea for a road trip!) and discovered that were some close to home in Virginia (see http://www.onlyinyourstate.com/virginia/va-ghost-towns/ for a list). There’s not much left of this town, which declined in 1828 after the company building the canal went out of business. But the remains – foundations here, a hearthstone and chimney remnants there – as they appear in the undergrowth take you back to another time.

We also made it to Harpers Ferry in West Virginia – another town that was significant in Washington’s plan to use the Potomac to improve transport and trade with the more western parts of America (it was also connected to DC by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1833). We marvelled at the awesome natural beauty of this confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah river, which had in turn inspired Harper, Washington and Jefferson.

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This was also the place that Lewis and Clark kitted themselves out for their mission to map the United States; they bought weapons and had a collapsible iron boat constructed at the US Armory and Arsenal. And as if that wasn’t enough history for one little town, this was also the place that John Brown, the radical abolitionist, was captured and executed after his raid on the arsenal. The John Brown museum trod a careful line, posing the question, was John Brown a terrorist, but never really condemning him as such. There was also some interesting treatment of his daughter who accompanied him to Harpers Ferry and looked after him and his men as he planned his attack.

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Our visits in April were made even easier as it was National Parks Week, which meant that both weekends we benefited from free entry. So if you’re planning a trip to the States this year, you might like to aim for the weekends of 15-16 and 22-23 April.

Related posts: Asheville roadtrip

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

A Stroll Through American History: Washington Mall and the Smithsonian Museum of American History (Part I)

It’s hard to describe the experience of walking around the mall. There’s a feeling that it’s all been done before, and any awe you express might be taken as contrived. I’m also well aware that a British audience is automatically somewhat cynical, so any earnestness could lead to a reaction of embarrassment. Then of course, there’s the question of how one, as a non-American, is allowed to feel in the face of all this serious patriotism. And of course, as with holiday snaps, there’s always the fear that this is all terribly boring.

However, I’m going to try, and if you’ve read this far, maybe you’re willing to read a little further…

So on our first proper day in the US we walked around the west side of the mall, where most of the monuments and memorials are, and the tidal basin. But the mall is huge, so we had to wait for a dry weekend to complete the east side – where the Smithsonian and the government buildings are sited. As we began our walk in the direction of the Vietnam and Korean memorials I was somewhat anxious that I wouldn’t feel the requisite amount of awed respect simply because of my feeling that I’ve seen these memorials so many times before in films, documentaries and even cartoons. But, though they weren’t exactly new to me, they were pretty moving. The enormity of events that cause such a number of deaths can really be felt when the monuments tower over you, as the lists of names gradually do in the Vietnam memorial. It’s a similar impression as is achieved by the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, and just as effective. The Korean memorial is difficult to capture in pictures, mainly because I found most of its emotional power came from the etched faces of personnel on the black walls behind the statues of soldiers. There is also a sculpture memorialising the women who served in Vietnam and, though sentimental – it rather idealises women as symbols of hope, faith and charity – I found it quite striking nonetheless.

Then of course, we came to the monuments to presidents. We had already seen the Washington Monument – it’s difficult to miss that obelisk, especially from the hill that we’re staying on. In a way it’s a bit of an obvious monument, a lot of height, not a lot of soul, and in danger of appearing compensatory for something, but I’ve grown to be rather fond of the way it’s always there, popping up now and then on the skyline. We had also seen the memorial to the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, many of whom of course became presidents. This is a relatively new one I think, and situated on a duck island in Constitution Gardens. But the main monuments to see of course, are those to Lincoln and Jefferson.  

As we walked up the steep flights of marble steps to the Lincoln monument, I couldn’t help but feel that it was all terribly Roman. Far more than the ruins of the Mediterranean, these structures truly let you feel what it might have been like to live among a Roman cityscape. The Lincoln monument even calls itself a ‘Temple’, which must give rise to the question: what is it a temple to? Because obviously it’s secular – the Jefferson monument features writings and speeches of his that stress the separation of church and state in the new nation he was helping to build. And the Gettysburg Address, stressing the sacrifice of men for their human cause, is one of the main focuses of the Lincoln Monument (we had hoped to find some American family forcing their children to recite it, but were disappointed). So they’re temples to the ideals of America, though of course the Lincoln monument can’t help but remind us of how disputed these could be, with the text of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech on the wall opposite the Address. Because the civil war was raging during the election, Lincoln was re-elected only by the votes of the North, and his speech balances a rejection of triumphalism (they were winning) with a clear message of the evils of slavery. We particularly liked:

“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

So we stood, in impressed silence in both the presidential temples to read all the selected words of Lincoln and Jefferson engraved there. It seemed to us that others were less respectfully thoughtful as they went round their national treasures – the German for monument is Denkmal, which literally translates to ‘think for once’ or at this moment, and I always think this is the best way to experience monuments – but on the other hand, who are we to judge, especially as these monuments are not really ours: the American youths messing about in them are free to enjoy them however they want. After all, this is America.

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Less physically impressive, but thoroughly unexpected, was the FDR memorial. Thanks to our GCSE syllabus we knew all about the New Deal and the almost socialist values implied in the aim of full employment. However, I didn’t expect such values to be so celebrated in such a capitalist country. The memorial is like an outdoor museum: you wander through sculpted tableaux of his four terms, reading excerpts from his speeches inscribed on rocks above you, and in the summer you are presumably surrounded by the babbling of fountains, but these were dry when we visited. Fittingly for the only president with a physical disability, the place is completely accessible to wheelchairs and there are displays using braille for blind people.

The final monument to mention is the newest – the memorial to Martin Luther King. There has been some controversy over the inscription on the monument, which was a badly paraphrased quotation from one of King’s speeches. This has now, as far as we could see, been removed. It’s been placed in a lovely spot, on the tidal basin, looking across to the beautiful Jefferson monument. We wondered if this was some sort of comment on Jefferson being an owner of slaves… When you get to the Jefferson monument you can look over at Lincoln’s and see that King’s is in a direct line with it – the slave owner, the slave liberator and the black-rights activist.

So that’s the western side of the mall. We took a break at that point, deciding to come back another day to explore the other side and Capitol Hill.

To be continued… 

Meanwhile, when trying to think of films in which these monuments featured we came up with: Mr Smith Goes to Hollywood, Team America and Legally Blonde 2. Any others?