Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia in the 21st Century: the Person and Places to Know


University of Virginia panorama, Library of Congress.


In anticipation of the release of her new book, A Guide to Thomas Jefferson's Virginia, Laura Macaluso has kindly contributed a guest post discussing the people and places of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia that everyone should know. Read on for an for a deeper look into the inspiration behind the book...


By: Laura Macaluso


Last month, a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson on the campus of the University of Virginia was vandalized with red spray paint. This happened on Friday, April 13—called “Founder’s Day” at UVA, because the annual event celebrates Jefferson as the Founding Father of the university. It is not the first time that a bronze monument to Jefferson was used to make a political and social statement, and it won’t be the last.


UVA and the town in which it is located is the center of so-called “Jefferson Country:” an expanse of thousands of acres of Virginia landscape, located at the eastern base of the Blue Ridge Mountains called the Piedmont. This landscape today, from Jefferson’s home and plantation Monticello, to his retreat home and plantation Poplar Forest, supports a splendid vision of agricultural bounty. In between the hustle and bustle of the urban centers of Charlottesville and Lynchburg are small towns in large counties, where farms, vineyards, and orchards managed by, in Jefferson’s words, “cultivators of the earth,” produce not only agricultural goods, but who also provide the foundation of a Virginia lifestyle. Thomas Jefferson exemplifies this lifestyle—he shaped it continuously in word and action, and made it permanent in brick and stone in his architectural designs.


I wrote the book A Guide to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia to gather up all of the places in and around the Commonwealth which influenced his thinking and experiences, and to share what I have learned in these past five years. Jefferson’s life is a paradox, but he is a distinctly American paradox. You can’t mistake Jefferson for a European (even though he was greatly influenced by Enlightenment thinking) because he was so adamantly American: in his style of dress, in the design of his homes, in the foods he ate, and so many words over such a long, privileged life. Hundreds of books have been written about him from every angle, but with the passage of time comes new ways of addressing old data, and the practice of archaeology continues to add new bits and pieces every day. There will never be an end to those with an interest in Thomas Jefferson and his time, and I think this is rightfully so. To continue to study Jefferson is to continually examine ourselves as Americans: what have we got right in the past, what have we got wrong, and what can we do to move in a better direction?


As an art historian, it is hard to always be critical of the man because the places he inhabited are magical. Monticello is simply stunning; the Virginia State Capitol is an ancient revival for a new world government, and the extra-large windows of Poplar Forest which capture light and the greenery from trees make my heart sing. Further, because I enjoy spending time in nature, regular visits to iconic places such as the Peaks of Otter and Natural Bridge—places Thomas Jefferson also knew well—make living in the Piedmont special. But, my enthusiasm for the places of Jefferson described in my book are always, and must always be, tempered by the knowledge that much of what I enjoy today was built directly on a foundation physically laid by others who had no say in the matter. The campus of the University of Virginia is but one example of this. Dreamed up by Jefferson and funded by the Virginia legislature, enslaved men and women built the core of the campus we know today and serviced the first faculty and students—right up to the year 1865.


Jefferson’s life and legacy is the best of the best, and the worst of the worst. Jefferson gave Americans words for the separation of church and state: the idea for a public college without interference from religion. More importantly, he gave Americans a mission statement in the Declaration of Independence, a document which rippled throughout the world and changed the course of history. Secondary to these, perhaps, his architectural designs for both private and public spaces certainly influenced Virginia and well beyond. He did all this while keeping hundreds of men, women, and children enslaved, and while fathering a second family with a woman who likely had no say in the matter. Some say Jefferson was a man of his time, and thus, should not be held to such anachronistic standards. But, the fact is, he knew from the beginning that slavery was a “perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other” (1782). But like many of us, Jefferson instead chose financial and cultural self-preservation. By now, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, we know that Jefferson’s vision of American agricultural bounty came at a steep price, a price that continues to be paid today.


I don’t think that in 2018, Americans and others should know less about history—I think we should all know more. I research and write books because there is so much to learn, and this is one way to do it. I am privileged to do so—to visit these iconic historic sites which have had roles to play in the progression of American history and identity. I think because I was born in the 20th century, unlike the youngest of today’s “born digital” generation, I get great reward in visiting real places and meeting people. One can read about Jefferson’s visit to the Warm Springs in Bath County, but, imagine sitting there in the mineral waters, just as so many others have done for hundreds of years. Or walking the streets of Williamsburg, where Jefferson heard the latest news from across the British Empire and learned the latest dances as a student. I hope this book inspires your own travels up and over mountains, or perhaps a canoe ride down the James River, or a meal of corncakes with syrup. There is much to discover in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia—the whole history, which is our duty to care for and expand, embracing all aspects of his life and legacy.
 
Re-enactment of the British Invasion of Virginia and Monticello, 2017. Photograph by Laura A. Macaluso. 
 Re-enactment of the British Invasion of Virginia and Monticello, 2017. Photograph by Laura A. Macaluso.



Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1823, Oil on paper, 9 3/4 x 7 in., Lelia A. and John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, LL.B. 1896, M.A. (Hon.) 1929, Collection, Yale University Art Gallery, 1943.70.
 Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1823, Oil on paper, 9 3/4 x 7 in., Lelia A. and John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, LL.B. 1896, M.A. (Hon.) 1929, Collection, Yale University Art Gallery, 1943.70.


The “young” Thomas Jefferson as played by Kurt Smith, and the “mature” Thomas Jefferson, as played by Bill Barker, examine the original carriage turn-around at Poplar Forest, April 2018. Both Smith and Barker appear courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg. Photograph by Laura A. Macaluso.
The “young” Thomas Jefferson as played by Kurt Smith, and the “mature” Thomas Jefferson, as played by Bill Barker, examine the original carriage turn-around at Poplar Forest, April 2018. Both Smith and Barker appear courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg. Photograph by Laura A. Macaluso.


Click the link to learn more about A Guide To Thomas Jefferson's Virginia 


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Originally a Connecticut Yankee, Laura A. Macaluso has been living in Jefferson Country, Virginia for the past five and a half years. This is her third book for The History Press. In 2018, her dissertation will be published as The Public Artscape of New Haven: Themes in the Creation of a City Image (McFarland) as well Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World (AASLH Series/Rowman & Littlefield) for which she is the editor. She is a grants writer for arts organizations in Virginia, New York and Connecticut. You can reach her at MonumentCulture@gmail.com or @HistoricLore.