Margaret Bayard Smith’s Account of a Visit to Monticello in 1809, as published within The First Forty Years of Washington Society, in 1906

In a visit Mr. J. made our little cottage last autumn, we were speaking of all the various charms of nature, storms of winter, “But,” said he, “you can here form no idea of a snow storm, No, to see it in all its grandeur you should stand at my back door; there we see its progress—rising over the distant Allegany, come sweeping and roaring on, mountain after mountain, till it reaches us, and then when its blast is felt, to turn to our fire side, and while we hear it pelting against the window to enjoy the cheering blaze, and the comforts of a beloved family.” Well, I have seen those distant mountains over which the winter storm has swept, now rearing their blue and misty heads to the clouds, and forming a sublime and beautiful horrison round one of the finest and most extended scenes the eye ever rested on.—I have seen that beloved family, whose virtues and affections are the best reward and the best treasure of their parent and their country’s parent—I have seen, I have listened to, one of the greatest and best of men. He has passed through the tempestuous sea of political life, has been enveloped in clouds of calumny, the storms of faction, assailed by foreign and domestic foes, and often threatened with a wreck, of happiness and fame. But these things are now all passed away, and like the mountain on which he stands, fogs and mists and storms, gather and rage below, while he enjoys unclouded sunshine. How simple and majestic is his character, my affection for him is weighed with much veneration, that, meek, humble, gentle and kind, as he is in his manners, I cannot converse with him, with ease. My mind is busied in thinking of what he is, rather than listening to what he says. After a very delightful journey of three days, we reached Monticello on the morning of the fourth. When I crossed the Ravanna, a wild and romantic little river, which flows at the foot of the mountain, my heart beat,—I thought I had entered, as it were the threshhold of his dwelling, and I looked around everywhere expecting to meet with some trace of his superintending care. In this I was disappointed, for no vestige of the labour of man appeared; nature seemed to hold an undisturbed dominion. We began to ascend this mountain, still as we rose I cast my eyes around, but could discern nothing but untamed woodland, after a mile’s winding upwards, we saw a field of corn, but the road was still wild and uncultivated. I every moment expected to reach the summit, and felt as if it was an endless road; my impatience lengthened it, for it is not two miles from the outer gate on the river to the house. At last we reached the summit, and I shall never forget the emotion the first view of this sublime scenery excited. Below me extended for above 60 miles round, a country covered with woods, plantations and houses; beyond, arose the blue mountains, in all their grandeur. Monticello rising 500 feet above the river, of a conical form and standing by itself, commands on all sides an unobstructed and I suppose one of the most extensive views any spot the globe affords. The sides of the mountain covered with wood, with scarcely a speck of cultivation, present a fine contrast to its summit, crowned with a noble pile of buildings, surounded by an immense lawn, and shaded here and there with some fine trees. Before we reached the house, we met Mr. J. on horseback, he had just returned from his morning ride, and when, on approaching, he recognized us, he received us with one of those benignant smiles, and cordial tones of voice that convey an undoubted welcome to the heart. He dismounted and assisted me from the carriage, led us to the hall thro’ a noble portico, where he again bade us welcome. I was so struck with the appearance of this Hall, that I lingered to look around, but he led me forward, smiling as he said, “You shall look bye and bye, but you must now rest.” Leading me to a sopha in a drawing room as singular and beautiful as the Hall, he rang and sent word to Mrs. Randolph that we were there, and then ordered some refreshments. “We have quite a sick family,” said he; “My daughter has been confined to the sick bed of her little son; my grand-daughter has lost her’s and still keeps to her room and several of the younger children are indisposed. For a fortnight Mr. and Mrs. Randolph have sat up every night, until they are almost worn out.” This information clouded my satisfaction and cast a gloom over our visit,—but Mrs. R. soon entered, and with a smiling face, most affectionately welcomed us. Her kind and cheerful manners soon dispersed my gloom and after a little chat, I begged her not to let me detain her from her nursery, but to allow me to follow her to it; she assented and I sat with her until dinner time. Anne, (Mrs. Bankhead) who had been confined 3 weeks before and had lost her child looked delicate and interesting; Ellen, my old favorite, I found improved as well as grown. At five o’clock the bell summoned us to dinner. Mr. Randolph, Mr. Bankhead, and Jefferson R. were there. They are 12 in family, and as Mr. J. sat in the midst of his children and grand-children, I looked on him with emotions of tenderness and respect. The table was plainly, but genteely and plentifully spread, and his immense and costly variety of French and Italian wines, gave place to Madeira and a sweet ladies’ wine. We sat till near sun down at the table, where the desert was succeeded by agreeable and instructive conversation in which every one seemed to wish and expect Mr. J. to take the chief part. As it is his custom after breakfast to withdraw to his own apartments and pursuits and not to join the family again until dinner, he prolongs that meal, or rather the time after that meal, and seems to relish his wine the better for being accompanied with conversation, and during the 4 days I spent there these were the most social hours. When we rose from table, a walk was proposed and he accompanied us. He took us first to the garden he has commenced since his retirement. It is on the south side of the mountain and commands a most noble view. Little is as yet done. A terrace of 70 or 80 feet long and about 40 wide is already made and in cultivation. A broad grass walk leads along the outer edge; the inner part is laid off in beds for vegetables. This terrace is to be extended in length and another to be made below it. The view it commands, is at present its greatest beauty. We afterwards walked round the first circuit. There are 4 roads about 15 or 20 feet wide, cut round the mountain from 100 to 200 feet apart. These circuits are connected by a great many roads and paths and when completed will afford a beautiful shady ride or walk of seven miles. The first circuit is not quite a mile round, as it is very near the top. It is in general shady, with openings through the trees for distant views. We passed the outhouses for the slaves and workmen. They are all much better than I have seen on any other plantation, but to an eye unaccustomed to such sights, they appear poor and their cabins form a most unpleasant contrast with the palace that rises so near them. Mr. J. has carpenters, cabinet-makers, painters, and blacksmiths and several other trades all within himself, and finds these slaves excellent workmen. As we walked, he explained his future designs. “My long absence from this place, has left a wilderness around me.” “But you have returned,” said I, “and the wilderness shall blossom like the rose and you, I hope, will long sit beneath your own vine and your own fig-tree.” It was near dark when we reached the house; he led us into a little tea room which opened on the terrace and as Mrs. R. was still in her nursery he sat with us and conversed till tea time. We never drank tea until near nine, afterwards there was fruit, which he seldom staid to partake of, as he always retired immediately after tea. I never sat above an hour afterwards, as I supposed Mrs. R. must wish to be in her nursery. I rose the morning after my arrival very early and went out on the terrace, to contemplate scenery, which to me was so novel. The space between Monticello and the Allegany, from sixty to eighty miles, was covered with a thick fog, which had the appearance of the ocean and was unbroken except when wood covered hills rose above the plain and looked like islands. As the sun rose, the fog was broken and exhibited the most various and fantastic forms, lakes, rivers, bays, and as it ascended, it hung in white fleecy clouds on the sides of the mountains; an hour afterwards you would scarcely believe it was the same scene you looked on. In spite of the cold air from the mountains, I staid here until the first breakfast bell rang. Our breakfast table was as large as our dinner table; instead of a cloth, a folded napkin lay under each plate; we had tea, coffee, excellent muffins, hot wheat and corn bread, cold ham and butter. It was not exactly the Virginian breakfast I expected. Here indeed was the mode of living in general that of a Virginian planter. At breakfast the family all assembled, all Mrs. R’s. children eat at the family table, but are in such excellent order, that you would not know, if you did not see them, that a child was present. After breakfast, I soon learned that it was the habit of the family each separately to pursue their occupations. Mr. J. went to his apartments, the door of which is never opened but by himself and his retirement seems so sacred that I told him it was his sanctum sanctorum. Mr. Randolph rides over to his farm and seldom returns until night; Mr. Bankhead who is reading law to his study; a small building at the end of the east terrace, opposite to Mr. Randolph’s which terminates the west terrace; these buildings are called pavilions. Jefferson R. went to survey a tract of woodland, afterwards make his report to his grand father. Mrs. Randolph withdrew to her nursery and excepting the hours housekeeping requires she devotes the rest to her children, whom she instructs. As for them, they seem never to leave her for an instant, but are always beside her or on her lap.

Visitors generally retire to their own rooms, or walk about the place; those who are fond of reading can never be at a loss, those who are not will some times feel wearied in the long interval between breakfast and dinner. The dinner bell rings twice, the first collects the family in time to enter the room by the time the second announces dinner to be on table, which while I was there was between 4 and 5 oclock. In summer the interval between rising from table and tea (9 oclock) may be agreeably passed in walking. But to return to my journal. After breakfast on Sunday morning, I asked Ellen to go with me on the top of the house; Mr. J. heard me and went along with us and pointed out those spots in the landscape most remarkable. The morning was show’ry, the clouds had a fine effect, throwing large masses of shade on the mountain sides, which finely contrasted with the sunshine of other spots. He afterwards took us to the drawing room, 26 or 7 feet diameter, in the dome. It is a noble and beautiful apartment, with 8 circular windows and a sky-light. It was not furnished and being in the attic story is not used, which I thought a great pity, as it might be made the most beautiful room in the house. The attic chambers are comfortable and neatly finished but no elegance. When we descended to the hall, he asked us to pass into the Library, or as I called it his sanctum sanctorum, where any other feet than his own seldom intrude. This suit of apartments opens from the Hall to the south. It consists of 3 rooms for the library, one for his cabinet, one for his chamber, and a green house divided from the other by glass compartments and doors; so that the view of the plants it contains, is unobstructed. He has not yet made his collection, having but just finished the room, which opens on one of the terraces. He showed us everything he thought would please or interest us. His most valuable and curious books—those which contained fine prints etc.—among these I thought the most curious were the original letters of Cortez to the King of Spain, a vol of fine views of ancient villas around Rome, with maps of the grounds, and minute descriptions of the buildings and grounds, an old poem written by Piers Plowman and printed 250 years ago; he read near a page, which was almost as unintelligible as if it was Hebrew; and some Greek romances. He took pains to find one that was translated into French, as most of them were translated in Latin and Italian. More than two hours passed most charmingly away. The library consists of books in all languages, and contains about twenty thousand vols, but so disposed that they do not give the idea of a great library. I own I was much disappointed in its appearance, and I do not think with its numerous divisions and arches it is as impressive as one large room would have been. His cabinet and chamber contained every convenience and comfort, but were plain. His bed is built in the wall which divides his chamber and cabinet. He opened a little closet which contains all his garden seeds. They are all in little phials, labled and hung on little hooks. Seeds such as peas, beans, etc. were in tin cannisters, but everything labeled and in the neatest order. He bade us take whatever books we wished, which we did, and then retired to our own room. Here we amused ourselves until dinner time excepting an hour I sat with Mrs. R. by her sick baby, but as she was reading I did not sit long. After dinner Ellen and Mr. Bankhead accompanied us in a long ramble in the mountain walks. At dark when we returned, the tea room was still vacant; I called Virgina and Mary (the age of my Julia and Susan) amused myself with them until their grand papa entered, with whom I had a long and interesting conversation; in which he described with enthusiasm his retirement from public life and the pleasures he found in domestic.

Monday morning. I again rose early in order to observe the scenes around me and was again repaid for the loss of sleep, by the various appearances the landscape assumed as the fog was rising. But the blue and misty mountains, now lighted up with sunshine, now thrown into deep shadow, presented objects on which I gaze each morning with new pleasure. After breakfast Mr. J. sent E. to ask me if I would take a ride with him round the mountain; I willing assented and in a little while I was summoned; the carriage was a kind of chair, which his own workmen had made under his direction, and it was with difficulty that he, Ellen and I found room in it, and might well be called the sociable. The first circuit, the road was good, and I enjoyed the views it afforded and the familiar and easy conversation, which our sociable gave rise to; but when we descended to the second and third circuit, fear took from me the power of listening to him, or observing the scene, nor could I forbear expressing my alarm, as we went along a rough road which had only been laid out, and on driving over fallen trees, and great rocks, which threatened an overset to our sociable and a roll down the mountains to us. “My dear madam,” said Mr. J., “you are not to be afraid, or if you are you are not to show it; trust yourself implicitly to me, I will answer for your safety; I came every foot of this road yesterday, on purpose to see if a carriage could come safely; I know every step I take, so banish all fear.” This I tried to do, but in vain, till coming to a road over which one wheel must pass I jumped out, while the servant who attended on horseback rode forward and held up the carriage as Mr. J. passed. Poor Ellen did not dare to get out. Notwithstanding the terror I suffered I would not have lost this ride; as Mr. J. explained to me all his plans for improvement, where the roads, the walks, the seats, the little temples were to be placed. There are two springs gushing from the mountain side; he took me to one which might be made very picturesque. As we passed the graveyard, which is about half way down the mountain, in a sequestered spot, he told me he there meant to place a small gothic building,—higher up, where a beautiful little mound was covered with a grove of trees, he meant to place a monument to his friend Wythe. We returned home by a road which did not wind round the mountain but carried us to the summit by a gentle ascent. It was a good road, and my terror vanished and I enjoyed conversation. I found Mrs. R. deeply engaged in the Wild Irish Boy sitting by the side of her little patient; I did not stay long to interrupt her, but finding Mrs. Bankhead likewise engaged with a book, I withdrew to my own room to read my Grecian romance. At dinner Mrs. Randolph sent an apology, she hurt her eye so badly, that it produced excessive inflamation and pain, which obliged her to go to bed. After dinner I went up to sit by her, Mr. J. came up soon after and I was delighted by his tender attentions to their dear daughter. As he sat by her and held her hand, for above an hour, we had a long social conversation in which Mrs. R. joined occasionally. After he had gone, finding her disposed to sleep, I went down. It was now quite dark and too late to walk, so I took my seat in the tea room with my little girls and told them stories till the tea bell again collected the family.

Tuesday. After breakfast I went up and sat all the morning by Mrs. Randolph; she was too unwell to rise; part of the time I read, but when we were alone, conversed. Our conversation turned chiefly on her father, and on her mentioning their correspondence, I begged her to show me some of his letters. This she willingly assented to and it was a rich repast to mind and heart. Some of them were written when he was minister in France and she in a convent. These are filled with the best advice in the best language. His letters come down to the last days of his political life; in every one he expresses his longings after retirement. She was so good as to give me one of these precious letters. When I went down stairs I found Mr. J. in the hall and Mr. S., and we had a long conversation on a variety of topics. He took us a charming walk round the edge of the lawn and showed us the spots from which the house appeared to most advantage. I looked upon him as he walked, the top of this mountain, as a being elevated above the mass of mankind, as much in character as he was in local situation. I reflected on the long career of public duties and stations through which he had passed, and that after forty years spent on the tempestuous sea of political life, he had now reached the haven of domestic life. Here while the storm roared at a distance, he could hear its roaring and be at peace. He had been a faithful labourer in the harvest field of life, his labours were crowned with success, and he had reaped a rich harvest of fame and wealth and honor. All that in this, his winter of life he may enjoy the harvest he has reaped. In him I perceive no decay of mind or debility of frame and to all the wisdom and experience of age, he adds the enthusiasm and ardour of youth. I looked on him with wonder as I heard him describe the improvements he designed in his grounds, they seemed to require a whole life to carry into effect, and a young man might doubt of ever completing or enjoying them. But he seems to have transposed his hopes and anticipations into the existence of his children. It is in them he lives, and I believe he finds as much delight in the idea that they will enjoy the fruit of his present labours, as if he hoped it for himself. If full occupation of mind, heart and hands, is happiness, surely he is happy. The sun never sees him in bed, and his mind designs more than the day can fulfil, even his long day. The conversation of the morning, the letters I had read, and the idea that this was the last day I was to spend in his society, the last time I was ever to see him, filled my heart with sadness. I could scarcely look at or speak to him without tears. After dinner he went to the carpenter’s shop, to give directions for a walking seat he had ordered made for us, and I did not see him again until after sun-set. I spent the interval in walking with Mr. Smith round the lawn and grave, and had just parted from him to join the children to whom I had promised another story, when as I passed the terrace, Mr. J. came out and joined us. The children ran to him and immediately proposed a race; we seated ourselves on the steps of the Portico, and he after placing the children according to their size one before the other, gave the word for starting and away they flew; the course round this back lawn was a qr. of a mile, the little girls were much tired by the time they returned to the spot from which they started and came panting and out of breath to throw themselves into their grandfather’s arms, which were opened to receive them; he pressed them to his bosom and rewarded them with a kiss; he was sitting on the grass and they sat down by him, untill they were rested; then they again wished to set off; he thought it too long a course for little Mary and proposed running on the terrace. Thither we went, and seating ourselves at one end, they ran from us to the pavillion and back again; “What an amusement,” said I, “do these little creatures afford us.” “Yes,” replied he, “it is only with them that a grave man can play the fool.” They now called on him to run with them, he did not long resist and seemed delighted in delighting them. Oh ye whose envenomed calumny has painted him as the slave of the vilest passions, come here and contemplate this scene! The simplicity, the gaiety, the modesty and gentleness of a child, united to all that is great and venerable in the human character. His life is the best refutation of the calumnies that have been heaped upon him and it seems to me impossible, for any one personally to know him and remain his enemy. It was dark by the time we entered the tea-room. I was glad to close the windows and shut out the keen air from the mountains. The mornings and evenings are here always cool and indeed Mrs. Randolph says it is never hot. As it was the last evening we were to pass here, Mr. J. sat longer than usual after tea. All the family except Mrs. Randolph were at tea. I gazed upon Mr. J. in the midst of this interesting circle and thought of the following lines, which I copied from one of his letters.

“When I look to the ineffable pleasures of my family society, I become more and more disgusted with the jealousies, the hatred, the rancourous and malignant passions of this scene, and lament my having ever again been drawn into public view. Tranquility is now my object; I have seen enough of political honors, to know they are but splendid torments; and however one might be disposed to render services on which many of their fellow citizens might set a value, yet when as many would deprecate them as a public calamity, one may well entertain a modest doubt of their real importance and feel the impulse of duty to be very weak,” and again, in another of a later date, 1797 he says,

“Worn down here with pursuits in which I take no delight, surrounded by enemies and spies, catching and perverting every word which falls from my lips, or flows from my pen, and inventing where facts fail them, I pant for that society, where all is peace and harmony, where we love and are beloved by every object we see. And to have that intercourse of soft affections, hushed and suppressed by the eternal presence of strangers, goes very hard indeed, and the harder when we see that the candle of life is burning out and the pleasures we lose are lost forever. I long to see the time approach when I can be returning to you, tho’ it be for a short time only—these are the only times existence is of any value to me, continue then to love me my ever dear daughter, and to be assured, that to yourself, your sister and those dear to you every thing in my life is directed, ambition has no hold upon me but through you, my personal affections would fix me forever with you. Kiss the dear little objects of our mutual love,” etc. etc.

By these dear objects, I saw him now surounded. I saw him in the scenes for which his heart had panted, at the time when others looked upon his elevated station with envy, and did not know that these honors which his country lavished on him and which they envied, were splendid torments, to his unambitious spirit and affectionate heart. But why then it will be asked, did he not withdraw from public life? A satisfactory answer is often found in his letters; in one he says (it was while secretary) that he had made up his mind to retire, that he had arranged his affairs for it, but contrary to all his wishes he was persuaded by his friends of the necessity of remaining, that a retreat at that time would be attributed to timidity or fear of the attacks made by the papers and might ruin the party of which he was the head. In one of his letters he says—“The real difficulty is that once being delivered into the hands of others, where feelings are friendly to the individual and warm to the public cause; how to withdraw from them, without leaving a dissatisfaction in their minds and impressions of pusilanimity with the public.” From many other passages of his letters, it is evident that his own wishes were subordinated to the remonstrances of his friends and to the wish of supporting the republican cause,—on which he sincerely and honestly believed the happiness of his country to depend.

After tea, fruit as usual was brought, of which he staid to partake; the figs were very fine and I eat them with greater pleasure from their having been planted rear’d and attended by him with peculiar care, which this year was rewarded with an abundant crop, and of which we every day enjoyed the produce.

Wednesday morning. Mrs. Randolph was not able to come down to breakfast, and I felt too sad to join in the conversation. I looked on every object around me, all was examined with that attention a last look inspires; the breakfast ended, our carriage was at the door, and I rose to bid farewell to this interesting family. Mrs. R. came down to spend the last minutes with us, As I stood for a moment in the Hall, Mr. J. approached and in the most cordial manner urged me to make another visit the ensuing summer, I told him with a voice almost choked with tears, “that I had no hope of such a pleasure—this,” said I, raising my eyes to him, “is the last time I fear in this world at least, that I shall ever see you—But there is another world.” I felt so affected by the idea of this last sight of this good and great man, that I turned away and hastily repeating my farewell to the family, gave him my hand, he pressed it affectionately as he put me in the carriage saying, “God bless you, dear madam. God bless you.” “And God bless you,” said I, from the very bottom of my heart.

Mr. Smith got in, the door shut and we drove from the habitation of philosophy and virtue. How rapidly did we seem to descend that mountain which had seemed so tedious in its ascent, and the quick pulsations I then felt were now changed to a heavy oppression.

Yes, he is truly a philosopher, and truly a good man, and eminently a great one. Then there is a tranquility about him, which an inward peace could alone bestow. As a ship long tossed by the storms of the ocean, casts anchor and lies at rest in a peaceful harbour, he is retired from an active and restless scene to this tranquil spot. Voluntarily and gladly has he resigned honors which he never sought, and unwillingly accepted. His actions, not his words, preach the emptiness and dissatisfaction attendant on a great office. His tall and slender figure is not impaired by age, tho’ bent by care and labour. His white locks announce an age his activity, strength, health, enthusiasm, ardour and gaiety contradict. His face owes all its charm to its expression and intelligence; his features are not good and his complexion bad, but his countenance is so full of soul and beams with such benignity, that when the eye rests on his face, it is too busy in perusing its expression, to think of its features or complexion. His low and mild voice, harmonizes with his countenance rather than his figure. But his manners,—how gentle, how humble, how kind. His meanest slave must feel as if it were a father instead of a master who addressed him, when he speaks. To a disposition ardent, affectionate and communicative, he joins manners timid, even to bashfulness and reserved even to coldness. If his life had not proved to the contrary I should have pronounced him rather a man of imagination and taste, than a man of judgement, a literary rather than a scientific man, and least of all a politician, A character for which nature never seemed to have intended him, and for which the natural turn of mind, and his disposition, taste, and feeling equally unfit him. I should have been sure that this was the case, even had he not told me so. In an interesting conversation I had one evening—speaking of his past public and present domestic life—“The whole of my life,” said he, “has been a war with my natural taste, feelings and wishes. Domestic life and literary pursuits, were my first and my latest inclinations, circumstances and not my desires lead me to the path I have trod. And like a bow tho long bent, which when unstrung flies back to its natural state, I resume with delight the character and pursuits for which nature designed me.

“The circumstances of our country,” continued he, “at my entrance into life, were such that every honest man felt himself compelled to take a part, and to act up to the best of his abilities.”

Printed in Gaillard Hunt, ed., The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith [1906], 65–81. Printed in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, 1:386–401.

When I look to the ineffable pleasures of my family society ... impulse of duty to be very weak, is taken from TJ to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 8 June 1797 (RC [NNPM]. PrC [MHi]. Published in PTJ, 29:424).

Worn down here with pursuits ... little objects of our mutual love, is taken from TJ to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 5 Feb. 1801 (RC [DLC]. PrC [ViU: TJP-ER]. Published in PTJ, 32:556–7).

The real difficulty ... pusilanimity with the public, with the word “where” appearing in place of TJ’s “whose,” is taken from TJ to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 8 June 1797 (RC [NNPM]. PrC [MHi]. Published in PTJ, 29:424).

Author
Margaret Bayard Smith
Date Range
Date
July 29, 1809
Repository
Gaillard Hunt, ed., The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith [1906]