Margaret Bayard Smith’s Account of a Visit to Monticello in 1809, as published within A Winter In Washington: or, Memoirs of the Seymour Family, in 1824
During the hot months of July, August, and September, there is a kind of interregnum in society, when pleasure and happiness are equally suspended.
Mr. Seymour and his family generally passed this leisure season at Ballston Springs, or the sea-shore; but this year, wishing to vary the scene, they availed themselves of an invitation from the president, and determined to visit Monticello. Mr. Seymour wished to see this great man in the privacy of retirement, and the freedom of domestic life. He could have proposed no plan that could have more pleased Mrs. Seymour and Louisa; and even the little Emily had caught from him a portion of his enthusiastic esteem and veneration for their good president.
It was on the evening of the third day of their journey, that they reached the foot of the isolated mountain, on the top of which was the dwelling of the sage of Monticello.
But, like the temple of Fame, in which he had secured himself a place, his mansion was of most difficult access; a steep and rugged road, wound up this rocky and wooded mountain, where nature was left, untamed and unadorned by art. The whole party alighted, preferring an easy walk up the mountain-side, to the jolting of the carriage. Emily seemed to think they would never reach the top, and kept exclaiming—“But where is the house—where are the gardens? why, mamma, it looks as if nobody lived here.”
While Mrs. Seymour smiled at the child’s astonishment, she herself would have wondered at the wildness and solitude of the scene, had she not recollected, that during the last forty years of his life, the master of this uncultivated domain had devoted his whole time to the service of his country, at a distance from his home; and that, absorbed in these patriotic labours, he had totally neglected his private interest. She explained this to her children, and taught them to admire, as she did, this entire sacrifice of domestic improvement to the public welfare. At last they reached the summit, and exclamations of surprise, delight, and admiration, burst from every mouth.
On the levelled top of the mountain, arose a noble pile of buildings, crowned with a lofty dome; around extended a wide verdant lawn, over which were scattered trees of various kinds and growths.
The horizon was bounded by distant mountains, and the intervening country diversified with cultivated fields, forests, houses, and villages. They paused to contemplate this magnificent view, before they entered the noble portico, which opened into the hall. Here they were met by the hospitable master, surrounded by a group of charming children.
They found the house already crowded with guests—friends and relations, who had hastened immediately on his arrival to welcome him home. As he only visited this retreat once in the year, and then remained but a short period, he was seldom left alone a single day.
It would require a volume to describe all the intellectual pleasures they enjoyed, the affecting and interesting scenes they witnessed, during the delightful week Mr. Seymour and his family passed at Monticello. In contemplating this venerable patriarch in the midst of his children and grandchildren, they forgot the statesman in the father, the philosopher in the friend.
The house was in an unfinished state, and when Mr. Seymour observed it, Mr. Jefferson replied—“And I hope it will remain so during my life, as architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favourite amusements.”
Louisa frequently stole from the company, and retired to her room, to write to Theodore, to whom she had promised a minute description of Monticello and its interesting inhabitants; but her enthusiasm carried her far beyond the limits of a letter, and on her return to Seymour Cottage, she sent the following brief account to her young friend:
“In compliance, my dear Theodore, with my promise, and from a wish that you should participate in every pleasure which I enjoy, I send you the description you requested of Monticello. You have before this received my letter, giving you an account of our journey, and of the time we passed under the roof of our venerable president.
“I shall now, therefore, confine myself (if it is possible so to do) to the immediate objects, which, though they may amuse the mind, cannot affect the feelings, like the incidents and conversations I have already detailed to you. You begged me to be very minute in my account, and to give you the height, length, breadth, and number, of every object which surrounds the inhabitants of Monticello. This would require a volume; but I will do what I can, and you will perceive, without my pointing it out to you, the correcting and restraining hand of my dear father, who has been so good as to look over my imperfect description, and to prune some of its romantic and enthusiastic digressions.
“Monticello is a small mountain, rising six hundred feet above the surrounding country, on the summit of which is a large edifice, built in the modern style. The base of this small and isolated mountain, which is washed by the Revanna, exceeds a mile in diameter. It is encompassed by four parallel roads, that at equal distances sweep round it, and are so connected with each other by easy descents, as to afford, when completed, a level carriage-way of almost seven miles.
“At present, the whole, with the exception of the summit, is in wood; but it is the intention of the proprietor to blend cultivation and forest, in such a manner, as to present that variety most grateful to the eye of taste.
“On the top is a nearly level plain, of about ten acres, formed by art, in the shape of an ellipsis, with its longest diameter running east and west, corresponding to the two main fronts of the house.
“The mansion is a structure presenting a front in every direction of a hundred feet in length, and above sixty in depth.
“The principal front looks to the east, on an open country, and is adorned with a noble portico, with a corresponding one on the west. A lofty dome of twenty-eight feet in diameter, rises from the centre of the building. The north and south fronts present arcades, under which are cool recesses, that open in both cases on a floored terrace, projecting a hundred feet in a straight line, and then another hundred feet at right angles, until terminated by pavilions.
“Under the whole length of these terraces, are the various offices requisite for domestic purposes, and the lodgings of the household servants.
“The basement story is raised five or six feet above the ground, from which springs the principal story, above twenty feet in height, and that supports an attic of about eight feet.
“The level on which the house stands, is laid out in an extensive lawn, only broken by lofty weeping willows, poplars, acacias, catalpas, and other trees of foreign growth, distributed at such a distance from the house, as neither to obstruct its prospect, nor that of the surrounding country of which it commands the view. From this lawn you contemplate, without the obstruction of any intervening enclosure, the mountains above, and the country below, with frequent glimpses of the Revanna. This elevated spot commands a view of more than sixty miles, limited only by the horizon on one side, and the distant mountains on the other.
“On the declivities of the mountain are arranged the dwellings of the artificers and mechanics of every kind; it being the study of Mr. Jefferson to make himself perfectly independent. Of his success, some idea may be formed, by the circumstance of his workmen having made his carriage, and many articles of his furniture.
“The internal arrangement of the house is so peculiar, as to render a precise description difficult, though its general effect is imposing. You enter the hall through wide folding doors, which we never saw closed, and whose ever-open portals seemed indicative of the disposition of the master. Here a variety and multiplicity of objects offered themselves to our view, and so imposingly arranged as to excite surprise and admiration. After a momentary pause, we passed into the drawing-room, through doors so wide as scarcely to separate it from the hall, where, being seated, we had an opportunity more distinctly to notice the pervading elegance and singularity of these apartments, in which ornamental, instructive, and interesting objects were blended with furniture suitable to the dwelling and simple taste of the owner. Among these various articles, were statues, paintings, engravings, and a profusion of natural curiosities, the latter so blended with the others as to produce an ornamental effect, though if taken separately, they were by no means handsome in themselves, yet the arrangement was so admirable, as to produce the general impression of elegance and harmony. Among others, we particularly noticed a perfect model of the great pyramid of Egypt; the upper and lower jaw-bones and tusks of the mammoth, whose magnitude is advantageously exhibited by contrast with those of an elephant alongside of them; several maps, particularly one of the Missouri country, painted on buffalo hides by the American Indians; rough hewn stone images, or statues, likewise of their workmanship, which are supposed to be the idols they worshipped, and many other of the curiosities of our country.
“Here, too, we saw the busts of Alexander and Napoleon, placed on pedestals, each side of the door of entrance; and here, and in the other rooms, are portraits of Newton, Bacon, Locke; of Columbus, Vespucius, Cortez, Magellan, Raleigh; of Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison, Rittenhouse, Paine, Turgot, Voltaire, and many other distinguished persons.
“The whole of the southern wing is occupied by the library, and the cabinet and chamber of Mr. Jefferson. The library is divided into three rooms, opening into each other; the walls of which are covered with books and maps. This large collection of books is rendered more valuable, as containing many very scarce and ancient works, besides splendid editions of all those of the greatest merit, particularly whatever he could collect in Europe relative to America.
“They were not in the best order, for which he apologized, as arising from his long absence on public service. In one of the rooms, we remarked a carpenter’s workbench, with a vast assortment of tools of every kind and description. This, as being characteristic, is worthy of notice; the fabrication with his own hands of curious implements and models, being a favourite amusement.
“In his cabinet, he is surrounded by several hundred of his favourite authors, lying near at hand, and every luxury and accommodation a student could require. This apartment opens into a green-house, and he is seldom without some geranium, or other plant, beside him.
“This dwelling, and the whole surrounding scene, is eminently fitted to raise an interest beyond that which such objects ordinarily excite in the mind. Every thing, moral and physical, conspires to excite and sustain this sentiment. You stand on the summit of a mountain, on the east affording a view of an open country, presenting a most extensive and variegated prospect; on the west, north, and south, by the Allegany itself, which, rising from beyond the south mountain, rears its majestic head in awful grandeur. Here, in this wild and sequestered retirement, the eye dwells with delight on the triumph of art over nature, rendered the more impressive by the unreclaimed condition of all around.
“Here it contemplates a spacious and splendid structure, commensurate, in some degree, with the mountain on which it stands; but, above all, it beholds its architect and its owner! On this spot, one, the most illustrious citizen of the only free country on earth—one of the founders of its independence, the advocate of its rights—full of years and of glory, respected for his talents, venerated for his services, beloved for his virtues, withdrawing from accumulating honours, seeks repose in the bosom of his family. On this elevated spot, you behold him reaping the harvest of his virtues, contented, happy; as immoveable as the mountain on which he dwells, and serene as the atmosphere around its brow, while the storm rages at its foot.
“But I check my pen, for were I to transcribe all the objects which awakened interest and curiosity, my letter would have no end. Adieu, then, my dear brother, and as your tread the up-hill path to fame, keep your eyes fixed on this model of a great and good citizen, and remember that he attained his elevation by taking virtue and wisdom as his guides. May I one day see my Theodore, if not as great, at least as good a man! Again, farewell!”
Neither pain nor pleasure retarded the flight of time, and six more happy and interesting days passed with such rapidity, that Mrs. Seymour could scarcely convince Louisa they had been at Monticello half that time.
As they returned homewards, they stopped at Montpelier, the residence of the secretary of state, the fellow-labourer and beloved friend of the president. Under his roof were realized all their ideas of the comfort, abundance and hospitality of a Virginia planter, united to the elegance of fashion, and the polish of city life. Devoted to agricultural pursuits, he divides the time he passes at home between rural and scientific objects, and the social pleasures of good neighbourhood and hospitality.