This is the home of America’s aspirations and its deepest contradictions.
Monticello is home renovation run amok. Thomas Jefferson was as passionate about building his house as he was about founding the United States; he designed Monticello to the fraction of an inch and never stopped changing it. Yet Monticello was also a plantation worked by slaves, some of them Jefferson’s own children. Today his white and black descendants still battle over who can be buried at Monticello. It was trashed by college students, saved by a Jewish family, and celebrated by FDR. With Stephen Colbert, filmmaker James Ivory, and artist Maira Kalman.
Monticello was produced by Amanda Aronczyk. The Jefferson family graveyard story was produced by Ann Heppermann. The actor David Strathairn was the voice of Thomas Jefferson. David Krasnow edited the show.
Music was provided by David Prior, with John Matthias for Small Design Firm, and can also be heard at Monticello's interactive exhibition, Boisterous Sea of Liberty.
Video: Studio 360 Visits Monticello
Kurt Andersen tours Monticello with Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds, and learns just how fitting the name “little mountain” is.
AMERICAN ICONS: MONTICELLO
Seg A Script
IKA. In this hour Studio 360’s “American Icons” we're looking at a house.
A single story or it appears to be a single story villa Virginia brick and white trim.
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia. He spent his whole adult life designing and building and redesigning and rebuilding it.
People that visited Jefferson felt like they were camping out because there wasn’t a ceiling there or the wall hadn’t been constructed yet.
It's as complex and singular and fraught as Jefferson himself.
Everything centered around that one man.
And as the nation he helped create.
If you want to understand this country and what it means to be optimistic and tragic and wrong and courageous you need to go to Monticello.
KA: I'm Kurt Andersen join me along with Maira Kalman David Strathern and Steven Colbert for American Icon's Monticello that ahead in Studio 360 from PRI and WNYC.
PRI's Studio 360 is made possible in part by a grant from the national endowment for humanities. Studio 360 is supported by Scion. Dedicated to freedom of expression nurturing creativity and encouraging originality. Individualism reigns at Scion.com.
I'm Kurt Andersen. Today in Studio 360's American Icons. Monticello.
LUCIAN TRUSCOTT IV: I’m probably one of the few people you’ll ever meet who’s actually jumped on Thomas Jefferson’s bed.
KA: Lucian Truscott is a fifth-generation grandson of Thomas Jefferson. And back in the early 1950s, Monticello, which had been Jefferson's home, was not the perfectly appoint tourist destination that it's become since. Lucian and his brother pretty much had the run of the place.
LUCIAN TRUSCOTT IV: So we just took off like a shot and went up in the upstairs bedrooms, and the attic and out on the roof and drop pebbles down on various tourists that were wandering around.
LUCIAN TRUSCOTT IV: When I was little, I used to go visit my great-grandmother and my great aunts in Charlottesville.
KA: After a few days, Lucian and his brother would start to drive the old ladies nuts, so they would be put the boys in the car, and drive up the dirt roads to the top of the mountain…
LUCIAN TRUSCOTT IV: They would drive up to the house and drive right on to the lawn, right up next to the front steps. And all the windows were down, of course it was in July or something, and it was probably 103 in Virginia, it was just like being in a steam bath. They’d honk the horn and my great aunt, would get out and cup her hands and go “Walker… Walker!”. And then she would sit back down in the Buick and my great-aunts would fan themselves furiously and finally around the corner of the house would come this old black guy who was about, I guess he was in his 50s, he seemed like he was the oldest thing in the world to us but. And he’d walk up and lean on the door of the Buick and say “Wow you look very nice today Miss Moo, how are you doing? How are you Miss Aggie?” And he called them by their nicknames.
KA: They were so familiar…like family who hadn’t seen eachother in a while.
LUCIAN TRUSCOTT IV: And so here was this, you know, old black guy working up on Monticello and he called them by the same names we called them. They must have grown up together.
KA: He didn’t think much of it at the time, but looking back now, there was something…odd about it.
LUCIAN TRUSCOTT IV: His name was Walker, and my great-grandmother’s name was Mary Walker-Randolph. So somewhere back in there some Walker-Randolph owned some Walker.
KA: Lucian realized that his family, a few generations back, had probably owned this man Walker’s family.
KA: For years, Thomas Jefferson’s home has symbolized America’s aspirations, and its original sins. Like Walker and Lucian, they are deeply and permanently entangled. They are all descendants of Monticello.
MAIRA’S NYT COLUMN: If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello.
KA: That’s the illustrator and artist, Maira Kalman. Her book And the Pursuit of Happiness is a very personal look at American Democracy.
She chronicles President Obama’s inauguration, walked through the halls of Congress…and visited Monticello.
MAIRA KALMA: Visiting places, visiting sites is the strongest way to relate to history. Going to Mount Vernon, all of these homes, I mean you miss that Ben Franklin doesn’t have a home, and it’s felt, the loss of that is felt, because you need the center of gravity for somebody’s life and then you can input all of your feelings and questions about somebody’s life in their home.
KA: Philosopher, Astronomer, Musician, Legislator. After visiting Monticello, a contemporary of Jefferson’s listed some of the great man’s occupations. And he also remarked that he quote “had placed his mind, as he has done his house, on an elevated situation from which he might contemplate the universe."
JOSEPH ELLIS: Jefferson is not like ordinary people that are, you know, Dead White Males.
KA: Pulitzer-prize winning historian Joseph Ellis wrote American Sphinx, a biography of Jefferson.
JOSEPH ELLIS: Ordinary Americans have opinions about Jefferson. Um, my furnace repairman told me as he saw my books of Jefferson on my desk, “You better know that Jefferson is an evangelical Christian!” and a little old lady in Richmond told me that I was all wrong about Jefferson. And she knew I was wrong because he came and spoke to her in her bedroom the night before. Jefferson’s body seems to come to life for people, they still think he’s with us in some sense and going to Monticello is a way of communing with that spirit.
(SFX of TOUR)
If you can picture Monticello in your mind's eye, describe what you're seeing.
Monticello sits on a hill top.
So during the day you can see forever.
Majestic vistas and to the blue ridge.
They're soft. They roll, they're literally blue.
You drive up the mountain.
There is a garden as you drive up to the front.
A single story or it appears to be a single story villa.
Virginia brick and white trim portacots with pediments, it has a dome.
It isn’t that grand and certainly not ostentatious.
It's kind of smaller than you think it is when you see it for the first time I think.
In fact when the queen visited she supposedly said," Mr. Jefferson had a nice little cottage."
Compared to Winsor it is.
Everything centered around that one man.
Every room is part of Jefferson's 3-Demensional autobiography.
It feels like him.
I mean he designed it, so you have to imagine this is an expression of his own personality.
Your home is you.
And so he was domed and collonated.
If you want to understand Thomas Jefferson you have to understand Monticello.
(Tour guide: Alright now your house tour is going to be at 1:15)
MAIRA KALMAN: Between food and where you live, those are the two most intimate things that you can find out about people. (SFX of TOUR) So there's no reason not to be snoopy about it. (SFX of TOUR)
KA IN TAPE: So this bed right here was not just a bed to rest after you had a hard day, this is actually where he slept.
SUSAN STEIN: That’s actually Jefferson’s bed.
KA: Monticello’s Senior Curator Susan Stein.
KA IN TAPE: Wow. It’s an odd bed.
SUSAN STEIN: It is… and in all of the other bed chambers they’re enclosed. But here it’s open on both sides.
MAIRA KALMAN: So he could get out on either side of the bed and either get dressed or pop over to his desk and, I don’t know what, read Spinoza.
JAMES IVORY: I’ve made several trips there during my life…
KA: Film director James Ivory visited Monticello in the 1990s while he was researching his Merchant Ivory film, “Jefferson in Paris”…
JAMES IVORY: They were having a big exhibition of personal possessions of Jefferson’s and in one of the rooms his riding boots were just standing there.
MAIRA KALMA: They were black boots with that little brown rim on top, they were gorgeous boots.
JAMES IVORY: I remember slipping my hand down inside one of those boots, I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t help it it was like I had some feeling of the living leg almost, of Jefferson being there. And I haven’t been back since.
SUSAN STEIN: Those are his actual boots.
KA IN TAPE: They’re very handsome in their two-tonedness.
SUSAN STEIN: What does James Ivory say?
KA IN TAPE: He said how happy he was to reach into one of them.
SUSAN STEIN: We wouldn’t of let him do that (laugh) let me assure you that we didn’t let him do that.
MAIRA KALMAN: It’s that… “I'm going to touch, now I’m going to touch something that was on his body”. And it’s not reverential, it’s just fascinating that he actually existed, that they were alive, that we didn’t make them up.
KA: The house that stands today is not the house Jefferson first built. The first Monticello, which he started when he was 25, was based almost entirely on his studies of Andrea Palladio, an architect from the Italian renaissance 200 years earlier. Young Jefferson did not want his new house to blend in with its neighbors.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781. The private buildings [in Virginia] are very rarely constructed of stone or brick, much the greater portion being of scantling and boards, plastered with lime. It is impossible to devise things more ugly, uncomfortable, and happily more perishable.
KA: Just three years later, after the death of his wife at 33, and with the American Revolution won, Jefferson escapes Monticello for Paris, as our first ambassador to France. But his free time he spends on an architectural site-seeing tour. And even there when it comes to building, he…can’t help himself. He's got a gorgeous Parisian home -- but he breaks open the walls and renovates. And it’s a rental! When he returns to America and his hilltop in Virginia he’s filled with dreams of modern architectural wonders -- domes and skylights and beds in alcoves.
JOSEPH ELLIS: Over the ensuing years, Jefferson kept adding and then renovating, kept tearing down and building up.
JOSEPH ELLIS: A lot of people that visited Jefferson felt like they were camping out because there wasn’t a ceiling there or the wall hadn’t been constructed yet.
MAIRA KALMAN: He was striving for something and when you’re that kind of person, then that’s what you do. You don’t compromise.
JOSEPH ELLIS: So it’s a construction site with people hammering away and Irish artisans doing this and that and slaves doing other forms of labor. And so the kind of serenity of Monticello as we see it now is misleading. It was very busy, almost a kind of circus. So that there’s a contrast between the real Monticello and the kind of, it’s almost elegiac thing that people see now.
JAQUE ROBERTSON: Jefferson is not a professional, that’s why he’s such a great architect; he doesn’t have to worry about the styles.
KA: Award-winning architect, Jaque Robertson, a fellow Virginian.
JAQUE ROBERTSON: He goes to every architect who’s known, and asks them “what do you think?” and they send him detailed drawings, he says “thank you so much, it’s been helpful” and then he goes off and does his own thing.
KA IN TAPE: Such a person couldn’t exist today, could they?
JAQUE ROBERTSON: No.
KA IN TAPE: This sort of skillful, curious amateur.
JAQUE ROBERTSON: He’s his own client. And he doesn’t have to be written about by the critics, and he doesn’t have to keep up with fashion. KA IN TAPE: What if Thomas Jefferson had not designed this, and you simply showed up as an architect, would you think it’s extraordinary?
JAQUE ROBERTSON: Yeah, oh sure.
KA IN TAPE: It’s not because Thomas Jefferson did it.
JAQUE ROBERTSON: No, no, no if you look at the plans. Which are brilliant. It’s profoundly intelligent. And practical. The more you think read about the son of a bitch you think goddammit it is the mind, and it’s a mind that is so ordered and focused and obsessed, but with everything that has to do with making the settings of life of more pleasurable.
KA IN TAPE: Did it work well as a house for him? Was he pleased with what he had wrought?
JOSEPH ELLIS: He’s never pleased with it.
Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis.
JOSEPH ELLIS: It’s an eccentric house. It’s designed to look the way he wants it to look in a way that at times is not very functional. The staircases to the top floor..
KA IN TAPE: Tiny!
JOSEPH ELLIS: Are really.. You can barely… It’s very difficult to get up and down them.
KA IN TAPE: These are the tiny little stairs.. this is it, huh?
SUSAN STEIN: This is it.
KA IN TAPE: Wow.
SUSAN STEIN: There’s one on the other passage.
KA IN TAPE: This is what? 2-feet wide?
SUSAN STEIN: 2-feet wide and it’s a very…
KA: It’s very Stairmaster operation to get up there.
SUSAN STEIN: It is. So shall we? (SFX OF CLIMBING)
KA: Jefferson had a thing about stairs – he didn’t want some grand “now we present Mr. Jefferson!” kind of staircase. He thought they were a waste of space.
KA IN TAPE: You’re very conscious of climbing
SUSAN STEIN: Yes, it’s very climbing.
KA: The stairway up to the top of the house is so narrow that it’s not normally open to visitors. But of course, exceptions are made. Dan Jordan (pron: JER-din) and his wife, Lou, ran Monticello for many years, and they took up Presidents, ambassadors…Mick Jagger…
LOU JORDAN: Yes, we are so fond of those memories of Mick Jagger!
(MUSIC – Shake Your Hips off Exile on Main Street)
LOU JORDAN: Of course his agility and athletic abilities are something that make all of us, um, (MUSIC HIT) stare. And so he started up the steps, I’ve been up those steps with hundreds of people, he’s the only person I’ve seen climb without holding on to either the banister or touching the wall. He absolutely flew up the steps. So we couldn’t have been more impressed by that.
KA: (laughs) I don’t blame you.
DAN JORDAN: He was very well mannered also, and engaging from the minute he arrived.
KA: And no hard feelings on a British/American basis either I guess?
DAN JORDAN: Never came up. We certainly weren’t going to bring it up.
KA IN TAPE: Now, this is a very austere space up here.
SUSAN STEIN: It is.
KA IN TAPE: Do we believe more or less as it was?
SUSAN STEIN: Yes. Here is…
KA IN TAPE: Wow, we’re in the dome.
SUSAN STEIN: And it took a great deal of calculation to do this in fact his involvement with every aspect of this is mind-boggling. He calculated the dimensions often to the thousandth of an inch, which no workman could ever hope to achieve.
KA: Now, banks and libraries and churches have domes – but not private houses. And to this day we don’t know precisely what Jefferson intended his for.
SUSAN STEIN: It’s an architectural conceit; it’s having the Dome, and being able to look at it from the outside that mattered.
KA IN TAPE: With these six big oculi you can see in any direction.
SUSAN STEIN: Yes.
KA: Susan Stein is certain that Jefferson’s intention was just aesthetic -- it looked cool. But her colleague at Monticello, Senior Research Historian Cinder Stanton, has a darker take.
CINDER STANTON: I often think of Monticello as a Panopticon with Jefferson the all seeing at the top. He could see everything that was going on.
KA: Jefferson had a copy of Jeremy Bentham’s 18th Century book “Panopticon” in his collection. A Panopticon was a new kind of “enlightened” prison design, with a circular stack of cells surrounding a central watch-tower. The inmates never know if they are being watched or not.
CINDER STANTON: At least two former slaves talk about Jefferson with his telescope, watching enslaved people at work. So this whole concept of surveillance from his central place on the apex of the mountain came through the oral tradition. He could see out but nobody could see in.
KA: Up next… the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder, remains troubling, and -- even controversial.
LUCIAN TRUSCOTT: One guy sent me a picture of the barrel of the pistol, looking right at me, and underneath that it said “Die race traitor.”
KA: This is Studio 360 and I’m Kurt Andersen. Stay tuned this hour for American Icons: Monticello.
((PUT THE GRACELAND COMMENT IN THE BB)
KA: And Monticello was Jefferson’s beloved home. It’s one of the country’s most celebrated pieces of architecture. And with almost half a million visitors a year, it’s become the Graceland of Founding Fathers.
AMERICAN ICONS: MONTICELLO
Seg B Script
KA: This is Studio 360, and I’m Kurt Andersen. In this hour of Studio 360’s American Icons, we’re looking at the extraordinary home that Thomas Jefferson designed for himself: Monticello.
KA IN TAPE: This first level of garden, right here, down this hill, were what? What are we looking at?
PETER HATCH: This was Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden.
KA: These days Peter Hatch takes care of Monticello’s gardens today.
HATCH: Jefferson documented in this garden itself and the orchard below it 350 varieties of varieties vegetables and 170 varieties of fruit. And one wonders if any man before had grown so many different kinds of vegetables in one place before Thomas Jefferson did it here at Monticello.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Monticello, 1794. Objects for the garden this year. Snap, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, carrots…
KA: Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Indian potato, beet, horseradish….
KA: An incredibly meticulous record of his gardens that he kept for almost 60 years.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Parsley, spinach, nasturtiums, shallots, leeks, garlic, onions…
(NEED TO FIX MUSIC FADE OUT – HAVE A HARD END?)
JAMAICA KINCAID: For me, walking around Monticello is complicated.
KA in Tape: Where were the flower gardens?
Peter Hatch: Flower Gardens were around the house.
KA in Tape: Should we go look?
Peter Hatch: Sure.
Jamaica Kincaid: For me walking around Monticello is complicated.
KA: The novelist Jamaica Kincaid has written extensively about gardens and gardening.
JAMAICA KINCAID: On the one hand, I completely, and this will sound very peculiar, I do identify with him, in the way I identify with writers. On the other hand, so much of his life would have involved a great deal of cruelty directled at someone who looks like me.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Lettuce, garlic, cabbage, cucumbers…
JAMAICA KINCAID: The garden book has details of the things he planted, the food he planted, but it looks as if it just fall magically at the table. So he’ll say peas were planted…
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Peas of March 6th come to table.
JAMAICA KINCAID: Six weeks later peas appear at the table. There’s no involvement of labor, there’s no soiling of,.. there’s no soil at all. It’s as if it’s Eden. It doesn’t have any evil in it.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Roll of the Negroes taken in 1783.
JAMAICA KINCAID: The Farm Book on the other hand, is all evil.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Betty Hemings. Martin. Born 1755. Bob. 1762. (FADES UNDER) Jame. 1765. Thenia. 1767. Critta. 1769. Peter. August 1770….
KA: The Farm Book is very much like the Garden Book – a scrupulous record of Jefferson’s life at Monticello. But instead of the plants and vegetables he keeps, he lists the human beings he owns.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Sally. 1773. Johnny. April 24 1776, Daniel. 1772. Molly. March 1777.….
CINDER STANTON: We’re walking down what Jefferson called Mulberry Row. It’s lined with Mulberry trees.
KA: Unlike the historians who spend their days in the utterly charming worlds of Jefferson’s book collection or his vegetable gardens, Cinder Stanton is working on the history of slavery at Monticello.
CINDER STANTON: If you think too hard to think about what happened to people here, it is difficult. I mean here, at the home of one of the most enlightened men in the country.
KA: Stanton showed us around Mulberry Row, where forty or fifty slaves lived and worked at any one time. But aside from the horse stables, there’s only one building that remains. The rest were cheap made of wood and have disappeared.
CINDER STANTON: It seems very empty today. And I once was standing here, just about where we are now, back in the 1990s and began talking to an African American woman who was looking down the row. And then she looked at up at the house, with the beautiful white, newly-painted balustrade and the pointed brick work. And said “it’s as if we’ve been erased”.
KA: Over the course of his life Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves. From here, a bit downhill from the house, you can’t help but notice the “Upstairs, Downstairs” geography of Monticello.
DAN JORDAN: Even when we arrived, slavery was the “S” word, they had every euphemism you could imagine about Jefferson’s servants or his family or this sort of thing…
KA: Dan Jordan (pron: JER-din) was president of Monticello from 1985 until 2008.
DAN JORDAN: I think it’s a much more nuanced and enriched experience today than it was 30 years ago. But that’s the way it aught to be, I mean things evolved.
KA IN TAPE: That’s amazing, they didn’t say slavery?
DAN JORDAN: No, it was the “s” word.
KA: That was not so long ago, the early 1980s. Have our perceptions of the Founding Fathers changed so much that we can now accept them, slaves and all? I took my question to one of today’s most important American commentators.
KA IN TAPE: Monticello was built and operated mainly by slaves…
COLBERT: That’s such an ugly word.
KA IN TAPE: Slaves?
KA: Stephen Colbert.
COLBERT: The nice thing that the founders have is status. You know what I mean? And so, so few things have status to us anymore, everything can be torn down. But they’re stuck like a fly in amber. The constitution being the great amber of their status. So they’re always good for a laugh because all you have to do is undercut this statue-like quality of them.
COLBERT REPORT CLIP: Of course the big get for any interviewer would be our third President, Thomas Jefferson. Who just happens to be the subject of the second part in our continuing series “Better Know A Founder.”
COLBERT: One of our greatest presidents, our greatest Founding Father is also the one we’ve got the goods on in terms of being a jerk.
COLBERT REPORT CLIP: In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson declared all men’s inalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sally Hemings’ sweet apple-cheeked booty.
COLBERT: I don’t think there’s anything sort of sacred about his relationship with Sally Hemings, it still seems like an abusive power relationship, especially when he talks so much about power relationships in what he wrote about whether it was about power of the state to the church, or one state to another state or the government over man.
KA IN TAPE: The thing about Sally Hemings as well, is that she was his late wife’s half sister.
KA IN TAPE: Yes!
COLBERT: Oh, so it runs in the family? Because his wife’s father also had sex with the slaves.
KA IN TAPE: Correct.
COLBERT: Wow. Oh that’s very interesting. Well, that’s almost a sweet story then.
KA IN TAPE: There you go.
COLBERT: You’ve really opened my eyes to how a master having sex with a slave really can be a very lovely story
KA IN TAPE: It's much more complicated than you think.
COLBERT: Thank-you. Uh-huh.
JOSEPH ELLIS: I think most of the scholarly community now regards it pretty much of a clear thing.
KA: Again, Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis.
JOSEPH ELLIS: What kind of relationship Jefferson had with Hemings - was it love, was it lust, was it rape- impossible to know that, and people that want to write about that going to have to write fiction.
KA on tape: Right.
CLIP: (Sally Hemings: An American Scandal) I was born Sarah Sally Hemings in the year of our lord, 1773.
KA: And there has been a lot of fiction. Including the inevitable made for TV movie.
CLIP: I was born to slavery, but destined to scandal.
JOSEPH ELLIS: If you think about it, Jefferson argued that one of the reasons that he couldn’t free his slaves, was that once freed the blacks would intermarry with the whites and would dilute the pure Anglo-Saxon race. Well…
KA in tape: (laugh)
JOSEPH ELLIS: He’s fathering children by Sally Hemings, and some of them look almost purely white and, again, you get a Faulknerian scene he’s eating dinner and he’s being served by a slave who happens to be his own son!
KA: And very much like in a Faulkner novel, the scandal over Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings still haunts his descendants – all of them.
(SOME GRAVEYARD/FEET AMBI) If you walk about a quarter mile from the house down the hill toward the woods, you’ll come across THE family graveyard.
John: When I go the graveyard it takes my breath away.
Ambi: Unlocking the graveyard…
John: The graveyard’s surrounded by a tall cast iron fence.
Ambi: So now we can get in…
John: There’s a creaky gate, I think it still is even with all the upkeep we’ve had.
KA: John Works will be buried here someday. He’s a former president of the Monticello Association – a group of Jefferson’s recognized descendants. They actually control this parcel of land just down from the house.
John: We spend most of our time discussing how to maintain the graveyard, cutting the lawn, trimming the trees, helping with new burials. I mean we’re frankly a relatively boring sleepy organization.
Ambie: See if we can find the Truscott Family…
Lucian: We have a row there. Right along the fence.
KA: Lucian Truscott the Fourth is a writer, and also a member of the Monticello Association.
Lucian: You know my mother and father are buried there my brother is buried there of course my great aunts, great grandparents and my great uncles and so forth and one day I guess I’ll be buried there.
Ambie: There’s ample space to bring more people here to rest.
Lucian: I hope not too soon.
Ambie: Now one thing about this graveyard is that the Hemings descendants are not buried here.
OPRAH MUSIC OPEN
KA: No one paid much attention to the graveyard until about 10 years ago when the science journal Nature published a one-page article called “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.” It showed through DNA evidence that it was highly likely that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings… Sally’s youngest son, born when the long- widowed Jefferson was 65.
Lucian: When the DNA evidence came out, that was when the Oprah show called and said, Would you like to be on the show and meet your Hemings cousins and I said, ‘Sure!”
Oprah Ambie: Today for the very first time, Thomas Jefferson’s white relatives are going to meet his black relatives, isn’t that interesting? (applause)
Shay: My name is Shay Banks Young and I am a descendant of the slave Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson through their second youngest son Madison Hemings.
Oprah: Come on out!
KA: Shay knew about her tie to Jefferson through old family stories.
Shay: And my mother would talk all the time about how her great grandmother, they called her Grandma Spears. And she said Grandma Spears looked like a little shriveled up white lady.
Oprah Ambie: So no one questioned who Grandma Spears was, they knew her life.
Oprah: So no one questioned who grandma Spears was, they knew her life.
Lucian on Oprah: And it’s time to stop testing all that stuff and just open up the Monticello Association …
Oprah Ambie: First thing I hear about this group is that they take care of the cemetery amd they don't like us.
Lucian on Oprah: I mean this is all about blood and land.
Shay: I asked Lucian at one of those breaks, “Well what are you going to do from here?”
Lucian: And I thought well that’s a good question, and then I thought how about everybody go to the Monticello reunion.
Lucian on Oprah: Go with us to the Monticello Association meeting in May.
Oprah: How do you know I'm not from the family.
KA: Sure, the Oprah show brought together long-lost black and white cousins like Shay, and Lucian Truscott. But it also set up a fight. And so the next time the Association met, instead of a sleepy meeting about trimming trees and fixing fences, there were reporters there from all over the world. Shay Banks-Young and John Works remember it well.
Shay: And that first meeting was awful, it was absolutely awful.
John: The pressure was enormous. I mean just imagine if the Jeffersons and the Hemings could get along. Wouldn’t that make a good example to start healing race relations in this country?” Well you know that sounds wonderful, it really really does. But we have our own rules.
Shay: They let us know that we were not welcome to be there. And in fact before we got our dessert they got up and asked us to leave. (laughs) So, which we didn’t leave.
John: I didn’t mean to offend anyone. It was purely to try to make a distinction between a social gathering and the start of a business meeting. But it did draw a line in the sand.
Shay: I was really disgusted that someone would invite me to something and then turn around and act like I crashed their party.
John: I think the Hemings had the impression that they were going simply bulldoze their way into the Monticello Association without any resistance whatsoever and I stood up to them.
Shay: And so the battle began.
KA: From 1999 until 2001, the Monticello Association debated whether to accept the Hemings’ as family. If they are in fact “cousins” then they’re entitled to be buried in the family graveyard at Monticello.
Lucian: You know in the south the idea of mixing white and black graves is still a very, very sensitive and very controversial thing.
KA: There was so much publicity, that people outside the family targeted Lucian Truscott, who had put himself right in the center of the fight.
Lucian: The first couple of years that I took the Hemings to Monticello, I got well in excess of a hundred death threats. Some of them were really creative. One guy had a Jefferson nickel embedded into the wooden grip of a 45 caliber pistol. He sent me a picture the barrel of the, facing right, looking right at me and underneath that it said, die race traitor.
KA: In 2001, the Monticello Association published its own report, declaring it unlikely that Thomas Jefferson had been the father of any of Sally’s children.
Lucian: One refrain that you heard all the time from these guys was, “Well Jefferson wasn’t that kind of man.”
Shay: Now I can tell you a funny story about that if you want me to. There was one man that stood up at one of the meetings and he said that he had definite proof that that Eston Hemings could not have been a child of Thomas Jefferson and he said the reason I know that is because is at the time that he would have been born Thomas Jefferson’s youngest daughter was very sick and dying. And he said “and everyone knows that a man would not want to have sex during that time.” (PAUSE) And it’s like…hello?
John: None of us that I know of are racists. All of us want to do the right thing.
KA: Again, the former Association president, John Works.
John: If you believe the allegations, Sally Hemings was a third his age, and in addition was a slave who didn’t have the ability or right to consent it just seems completely contrary to Jefferson’s character, and it makes him look like a liar, fraud, and hypocrite.
Kurt: In 2002, the Monticello Association voted 67 to 5 against admitting the Hemings descendants into their club.
(bring in ambi more slowly)
Ambi: So here’s what’s written on the gravestone. It says: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.
(NOTE: FADE MUSIC under earlier and a BEAT here)
Shay: If someone in my family wanted to be buried at Monticello I think they should have that right. However, please know for the record that I have my own plot next to my own mother that I would plan to get buried in. You know I have no desire to be buried at the plantation. I mean to me why would I want to do something like that. And I even told my son, if they ever get permission and I’m dead and gone don’t dig me up and take me back there either because I really would have a problem with that when the great getting up day that I don’t see my mother come up and have to see Thomas Jefferson.
Shay: To me, I have to treat him as a true ancestor and as a slave holder and Monticello breathes of that.
Ambie: Is that Jefferson’s grave there? Sorry guys it’s actually not public in here, we’re doing a special taping for the radio and we left the gate open, yeah, no it’s OK.
(NOTE: make fade up more gradual, slow swell)
KA: Since 2002, there have been no requests from Hemings descendants to be buried in the Jefferson family graveyard.
KA: Up next in this hour: Monticello's caretaker lets the house fall on hard times.
MARC LEEPSON: He stabled cattle in the basement in the winter, he stored grain on those beautiful parquet floors in the parlors, and worst of all, he allowed UVa students to have parties there.
KA: From party house to American Icon. That’s just ahead in Studio 360 today. Stay with us.
AMERICAN ICONS: MONTICELLO
Seg C Script
KA: This is Studio 360, and I’m Kurt Andersen.
AMBI Naturalization Ceremony, July 4th, 2008: All rise, (cheering)
KA: In this hour of Studio 360’s American Icons, we’re looking at Monticello, the home designed and built by Thomas Jefferson.
AMBI Naturalization Ceremony, July 4th, 2008: oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, this is United State District Court for the Western District of Virginia…
KA: Every Fourth of July, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation hosts naturalization ceremonies for new citizens…
AMBI Naturalization Ceremony, July 4th, 2008: Please be seated and come to order.
KA: At Monticello, one of the places where America itself was dreamed up, it’s a tear-jerker.
Naturalization Ceremony, July 4th, 2008: My name is Mary McFayden when I first came to the United States.. My name is Senia Diaz and I was from El Salvador... I spent half of my life in Korea and half of it here... I’m especially thankful for the wonderful friends and neighbors who befriended me and my children when we needed friends the most. thank you fellow Americans, and God Bless America.
KA: The question of who’s American and who’s not was at the center of a strange and little-known chapter in the history of Monticello – but we’ll get to that in a few minutes.
(AMBI FADES OUT)
KA: We take for granted today that a great historical site like Monticello is preserved and treated with respect. But in the years after Thomas Jefferson lived there, his home was a mess.
HUGH HOWARD: Well Jefferson was a great little record keeper.
KA: Historian Hugh Howard is the author of “Thomas Jefferson, Architect”
HUGH HOWARD: He knew he’d spent 25 cents for this, and two dollars for that. So he had these great big long columns of figures. But he never did add them up. He never totaled.
JOSEPH ELLIS: Like when he’s building UVA it’s down to the last dollar exactly how much it’s going to cost to build the rotunda.
KA: Jefferson biographer, Joseph Ellis.
JOSEPH ELLIS: You know it’s going to be $7525.36 and you say “man, this guy has this thing under control!” except there’s no relationship between those numbers and what it really costs! To be adept at accounting is almost beneath him.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: A letter to former secretary, William Short. I now enclose to you a statement of my account with you. The result of this has astonished me beyond anything which has ever happened in my life, for tho’ I kept such exact entries in my daily memorandum book as would enable me, or anybody else, to state the account accurately in a day, yet I had never collected the items, or formed them into an account, till within these few days.
KA: It’s not too hard to relate to Jefferson’s willful denial of his financial situation… if you’ve ever maxed out your credit cards or taken a 2nd mortgage to do home renovations. There’s a point at which debt becomes almost too abstract to deal with sensibly.
JOSEPH ELLIS: And I would say he never faces the degree to which he's spending himself into bankruptcy until the very end of his life. And at that time he realizes that he's going to pass on to his heirs in modern terms several million dollars worth of debt.
KA: Jefferson died knowing that he was leaving a remarkable legacy. As former Monticello caretaker Lou Jordan (JER-din) recounts, even the timing of his death was like some piece of implausible fiction.
LOU JORDAN: He truly willed himself to stay alive until July the 4th, and it was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Of course John Adams also expired the same day, the two great patriots and two that we look up to, forever.
KA: Jefferson died at home, at Monticello. He was 83 – a very ripe old age for the time – and he had lost everyone over the course of his life: his best friend, his wife, all but one of his children. His daughter Martha remained his constant companion to the end. And in 1826, after he died, she and her family were saddled with the full legacy of his financial neglect. Again, historian Hugh Howard.
HUGH HOWARD: They have an auction, and they sell much of the contents of the house, which don’t go for a lot of money. They sell the slaves, which do go for a certain amount of money. And they begin to think about selling the house.
JOSEPH ELLIS: It turns out that they became wards of the state! They were impoverished. I mean it’s a tragedy.
JOSEPH ELLIS:. Eventually in 1834 it’s purchased by a Jewish man named Uriah Levy…
KA: Uriah Levy was a fifth generation Jewish-American, a Commodore in the Navy and a descendant of one of the first families to settle Savannah, Georgia, back in the 1730s. He bought Monticello for a mere $2,700….the equivalent of maybe $300,000 today
MARC LEEPSON: Although we think of it in reverential terms, back then it was just different.
KA: Marc Leepson is the author of a book about this period in the history of the house, called Saving Monticello.
MARC LEEPSON: When Uriah Levy purchased the place, it was falling apart. He repaired, preserved and restored Monticello.
KA: Uriah used the house for almost thirty years. When he dies, at the beginning of the Civil War, there’s a family battle over the estate. And while that went on the house was entrusted to a not very trustworthy caretaker…
MARC LEEPSON: He stabled cattle in the basement in the winter, he stored grain on those beautiful parquet floors in the parlors, and you know worst of all, he allowed UVA students to have parties there.
KA: The students would hold keggers, essentially, and write their names inside Monticello’s precious Dome. When Jefferson Levy, a nephew, finally took over his uncle’s house, he counted a thousand signatures.
HARLEY LEWIS: [ambi page turn] This is Jefferson Monroe Levy, this is my grandfather, Lewis Napoleon Levy… [go under]
KA: Harley Lewis is a descendent of Jefferson Levy.
HARLEY LEWIS: My youngest child, who, you know my children are now grown with children, I have grandchildren, I remember that in school they were studying Thomas Jefferson and I once said to him, well, did you mention something about Monticello? Mother, he said who would believe me? No they didn’t say a word. They never even mentioned it. It’s sort of incredible.
KA: Harley did not spend her summers there. By the time she was born, the house had become the site of a very public, very mean-spirited battle.
MARC LEEPSON: And that movement was led by a woman, whose name was Maude Littleton.
HARLEY LEWIS: I can barely say the name. She was a congressman’s wife.
MARC LEEPSON: And her husband was a congressman from New York, as was Jefferson Levy.
KA: And so, being a hospitable guy, one New York Democratic congressman to another, Jefferson Levy invited the Littletons out to his country place in Virginia.
MARC LEEPSON: And then Mrs. Littleton later said that she was appalled by what she saw there, that this was not right…
HARLEY LEWIS: She didn’t call them Jews, she called them aliens.
MARC LEEPSON: Aliens and outsiders, I mean Uriah Levy was a fifth generation American, Jefferson Levy was a sixth generation American, they couldn’t have been be any less of outsiders.
KA: Maude Littleton then fired up a campaign to confiscate Monticello from the Levys. It made it all the way to Congress. There were hearings in both the house and the senate…
MARC LEEPSON: These hearings were bombastic, they made the front pages of the NYT and the WP and other newspapers… some people called it the War of 1912.
KA: This was the peak moment of the immigrant tide to America from eastern and southern Europe…
(“Old Uncle Sam has always welcomed them in,
Now its time to begin,
To stop this immigration to our glorious Nation…”)
KA: “To stop this immigration to our glorious nation” – catchy, huh?
(SOUND OF A STAGE COACH – proper SFX coming, this train is just a placeholder)
KA: Littleton’s allies made up stories about how the Levys came to own Monticello. And one had Uriah Levy on a stage-coach…
SHYLOCK: Pardon me, Excuse me, pardon me…
MARC LEEPSON: In some versions, they have Uriah Levy speaking in this kind of Shylocky german accent.
SHYLOCK: Is this seat taken?
MARC LEEPSON: Just sitting next to him happened to be a man who was going to purchase Monticello for the Randolph family.
KA: A Randolph. A good, honest to God descendant of Martha Jefferson Randolph out to buy Monticello back for the family…
MARC LEEPSON: Supposedly Uriah Levy found this out, got the guy drunk…
SHYLOCK: Would you like a drink?
MARC LEEPSON: And the next morning, bought the house out from under this man.
SYLOCK: You're a very clever fellow but you talk too much.
MARC LEEPSON: Which couldn’t be more anti-Semitic if they’d called him a dirty Jew.
(STAGE-COACH SOUND DISAPPEARS)
MARC LEEPSON: You know, it’s completely made up, um, but that story circulated and circulated and circulated.
HARLEY LEWIS: Hundreds and hundreds and thousands of letters protesting and wanting this property to come back to the people.
KA: The bill was narrowly defeated in Congress. Jefferson Levy had finally won the battle, but he was to soon lose the war. In the years that afterward, he, like Thomas Jefferson before him, ran into money trouble.
MARC LEEPSON: He put Monticello on the market. You know you can see the brochure. I held it in my hands it’s amazing. First page on the inside there’s all these quotes about how wonderful this place is, from people like the Marquis de Lafayette and Teddy Roosevelt and on the next page it says “and this property can be yours for $500,000.”
KA: The house didn’t sell for a decade. Then in 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation raised the capital, and Jefferson Levy sold.
MARC LEEPSON: This was a very emotional scene and he burst out crying. He said that he never dreamt that he would ever part with the property.
KA: Monticello had been owned by members of the Levy family for 89 years – longer than Thomas Jefferson himself had owned it. But this surprising fact was ignored at the historic site for decades . . .
AMBI: We are standing at the grave of Rachel Phillips Levy, and she was the mother of Uriah Phillips Levy… (fades under)
KA: Until 1985, when Harley Lewis was invited to return to Monticello and rededicate her ancestor’s grave…
HARLEY LEWIS: We were standing by the graveyard and listening to people, I didn’t know a Jew lived here and so forth. And they wanted to take a picture of us.
KA: Franklin Roosevelt visited Jefferson’s home many times, including this July 4th visit in 1936.
FDR (July 4th, 1936, Monticello): I have come here today to renew my homage to the sage of Monticello…
KA: FDR revered Jefferson, whom he called the sage of Monticello. He claimed Jefferson as the original Democrat. He built the Jefferson Memorial on the mall in Washington, and put his face -- and his home -- on the nickel.
KA IN TAPE: When you approach that house, do you think oh it’s the nickel!?
NICKEL VOX:No, I never thought that.
KA IN TAPE: I’ve got one here actually, I’ve got a couple…
NICKEL VOX: If I see a nickel I think oh it’s the house!
On the front of course is Jefferson’s portrait, but on the back we have Monticello.
It’s really funny, it doesn’t look like Monticello.
And that would make it one of the most easily recognizable buildings in this country.
It's much smaller than I remember it on this nickel.
Can I keep this? Oh two nickels!
This doesn’t approximate the experience of going to Monticello. I say you can look at your nickel, but you should go there.
JOSEPH ELLIS: When you tour Monticello… you need to realize that you’re talking about a beautiful piece of architecture in the midst of an enslaved African-American population. And that that’s, that’s what Monticello really is.
KA: Today Monticello is not just a historic home but an archeological site as well. Researchers working with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation are combing the estate for physical traces of slave life, toward the goal of bringing Mulberry Row back to life. So while the house on your nickel is frozen in time, the real Monticello is still under construction.
FDR (July 4th, 1936, Monticello): When we read of the patriots of 1776 and the fathers of the Constitution, we are taken into the presence of men who caught the fire of greatness from one another…
KA: FDR understood that that’s what makes Monticello iconic. It isn’t just “a beautiful piece of architecture.” It is deeply flawed, but aspires to greatness. Speaking of the Founding Fathers, and of Jefferson above all, FDR said:
FDR (July 4th, 1936, Monticello): Theirs were not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to be.
KA: (repeating FDR) “Theirs were not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to be.” Because even Thomas Jefferson himself knew that he was not the man he ought to be.
JOSEPH ELLIS: I think it represents a kind of utopian streak in Jefferson’s mentality; he never quite gets there…
KA: So that sense of being a work in progress?
JOSEPH ELLIS: Yes, yes, very much, always a work in progress. It's sort of if you think of the magic words of the Declaration “We hold these truths…” It’s an ideal towards that we’ll never reach. And Monticello was an architectural version of the same principle.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776.
(ENDS @ 18:52)
MUSIC FOR CREDITS
KA: This hour of Studio 360’s American Icons was produced by Amanda Aronczyk, and edited by David Krasnow. Our production team includes Leital Molad, David Krasnow, Michel Siegel, Derek John, Jenny Lawton, Pejk Malinokvski, and Michael Guerriero. Our Thomas Jefferson was performed by David Strathairn.
(THIS CODA IS @ 19:33)
STEPHEN COLBERT: I thought those nickels were mine!
KA IN TAPE: They are!
STEPHEN COLBERT: Give me those nickels! No, you can have them. It’s my donation…
KA IN TAPE: They’re hers actually.
STEPHEN COLBERT: Here you go. This is part of the pledge drive this year. Here’s my two nickels.
KA IN TAPE: Listeners like you…