One of U.S. history’s most eminent figures, Thomas Jefferson is as elusive as he is revered. This online exhibit opens a window onto the third president’s inner life by digging into the single largest collection of Thomas Jefferson’s private papers, which are held at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
This construction begins even before the front door: the work spaces, or “dependencies”, where slaves performed much of the household labor were pushed out of sight, mostly depressed below ground to keep their intrusion to a minimum. This construction underscored one of the greatest conundrums of Jefferson’s legacy- the fact that he both owned slaves and ardently criticized slavery as an institution of “unremitting despotism.”
When Jefferson lived in France as American minister (1785-1789), his rather limited architectural vocabulary was expanded in two areas: the principles of ancient Roman architecture and the comfort and convenience of modern French architecture that emphasized the value of flowing space and practical convenience. He gained access to a much larger array of books, including works that contained carefully measured drawings of Roman buildings.
He was particularly attracted to the how the French arranged rooms in a fluid sequence. This utility of placing all the principle rooms on a single floor allowed the space to function as a cohesive unit. On his return to Virginia in 1793, those influences prompted Jefferson to radically revise his earlier plan for Monticello. The revised building still contains a second floor, but it is much reduced, providing space only for bedrooms, with a lower ceiling.
The complexity of what Jefferson sought to achieve gives his architecture an interesting quality of emotional vibrancy and creative tension. He valued symmetry and regularity, he believed in the strength that rules could confer, but he knew the flexibility had to be there to accommodate innovation and practicality-as well as the whimsy that imparts so much pleasure. For Jefferson, who regarded “the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental human right, the wise pursuit of pleasure provided a pathway to virtue.
Despite the breadth of his political contributions, it was perhaps his farm work that provided him with the most pleasure and satisfaction. Of his efforts towards agricultural self-sufficiency Jefferson wrote, if “one species in an hundred is found useful and succeeds [it] is worth more…than all the victories of the most splendid pages of…history.” (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Alexandre Giroud, 22 May, 1797, in Jefferson Papers, 29:387)
The Massachusetts Historical Society is a center of research and learning dedicated to a deeper understanding of the American experience. Through its collections, scholarly pursuits, and public programs, the Society seeks to nurture a greater appreciation for American history and for the ideas, values, successes, and failures that bind us together as a nation.
The Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts held by the Massachusetts Historical Society is made up mostly of Jefferson's private papers, and is second only in size to the Jefferson Collection at the Library of Congress, which holds his official papers.
Much of the text for this online exhibit comes from The Private Jefferson: Perspectives from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, with essays by Henry Adams, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrea Wulf. The book was published as a companion to a 2016 exhibit and is distributed by the University of Virginia Press.