Review of: Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin
It was my great good fortune to happen upon a copy of Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin, at a used book store some months prior to my scheduled “Behind the Scenes” tour of Monticello. I had read about half of the book by the day of the tour, and when I mentioned it to the outstanding docent who led us through the unique architecture of Jefferson’s lifetime building project – including steep staircases to upstairs bedrooms and the iconic dome not part of the standard tour – he nodded approvingly and exclaimed that it is a “great book.” I read the second half in the days that followed the tour, and upon completion I have to agree with my guide: it is a truly great book on every level! And while I did not plan to read it in two installments, with the Monticello visit sandwiched in, in fact it certainly enriched the experience.
Perhaps my favorite comment about Thomas Jefferson was the one made by President John F. Kennedy at a 1962 White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize recipients: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” JFK’s remarks were hardly glib: Jefferson was a remarkably brilliant man who mastered seven languages, possessed an encyclopedic mind, had a highly intuitive, analytic intellect and brought innovation to virtually everything he touched or encountered.
Jefferson was also a polymath extraordinaire: author, thinker, political philosopher, statesman, inventor, musician, wine connoisseur, farmer, scientist, meteorologist, equestrian, politician – the list goes on and on. And that catalog usually includes architect and builder, but what is eminently clear from visiting his mansion and reading McLaughlin’s fine work is that for Jefferson Monticello – it means “little mountain” – was not simply another of his multifarious projects and obsessions, but rather it was part of his DNA. Jefferson spent his lifetime building, tearing down, rebuilding and adding to Monticello. The “museum” visitors tour today was only structurally completed (with the installment of the Doric columns on the West Portico) in 1823, some three years before Jefferson’s death; it probably never looked exactly the way it does today at any actual moment of Jefferson’s lifetime. It was always, like the man himself, a work in progress. In his provocative work The Phenomenon of Man, philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advocated for turning each new day into a process of “becoming” a new person based upon the insight and experience gleaned from the days that have gone before. While the latter was written more than a century after he was gone, in a way it seems that Jefferson lived his life in just this fashion and that Monticello was the structural reflection of his own unique evolution of “becoming.” It remains his most tangible physical legacy. Thus the subtitle of McLaughlin’s wonderful book — The Biography of a Builder – is especially apt. The author helps the reader to understand that Jefferson and Monticello were in a sense twin manifestations of a single soul.
While there are breaks to explore specific themes, Jefferson and Monticello generally traces Jefferson’s life and the construction of Monticello in parallel. Jefferson’s design of Monticello was inspired by the influential sixteenth century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who was himself deeply influenced by classical Greek and Roman forms. But the genius of Jefferson was ever his ability to innovate and transform, so while Palladio’s work remained a significant model, Monticello took shape as nothing less than a true iconic Jefferson structure. Along the way, McLaughlin teaches the uninitiated much about architecture and building techniques in the eighteenth century and the kinds of compromises requisite when under construction in the relative wilds of Virginia in those days. I never knew, for instance, that the reason why brick buildings of that era varied so markedly in color across regions was because brick was typically fired on-site with local clays mixed with water. Jefferson added an additional challenge by choosing to build on a mountain top, something almost unheard of at the time, which meant there were issues with accessibility to resources – and especially to water, which is the other essential ingredient to brickmaking. In the end, rather than attempt to transport tens of thousands of bricks to the mountaintop, Jefferson opted to source water and build kilns on the site. Nails were also made there. McLaughlin, somewhat of a polymath himself, was not only professor of English and Humanities at Clemson University, but he also built his own home. His passion for both history and construction is evident in his prose, which is almost poetic at times. He relates a fascinating story with some pregnant detail, yet the narrative never grows dull.
With all of his talents, Jefferson also had a paradoxical side, as showcased superbly in Joseph Ellis’ masterwork, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had an uncanny ability to hold two almost diametrically opposed notions in mind simultaneously without the sort of cognitive dissonance this would provoke for most people. The dark side of this contradiction is tragically underscored as he famously decried the great evil of chattel slavery yet throughout his lifetime owned some two hundred human beings and likely fathered a half-dozen children by one of them. Despite his obvious admiration for his subject, McLaughlin hardly gives Jefferson a pass in this regard, devoting an exceptional chapter entitled “To Possess Living Souls,” to this great incongruity. As McLaughlin and the tour guides these days at Monticello make incontrovertibly clear, it was primarily the labor of African-American slaves that built Monticello, and their master was the great statesman who wrote that “All men are created equal.” The author makes clear that while Jefferson was not a cruel master, and that he seemed to genuinely care for the welfare of his “property,” human slavery in itself is a cruelty. Moreover, slaves were whipped at Monticello, as on other plantations, and those who did not fall into line were sold away from their families to distant lands. Although this book was published in 1988, before DNA evidence seems to have settled the argument about rumors of the long liaison between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, McLaughlin implies that he takes this for fact and repeatedly points to the special treatment members of the Hemings family received at Monticello. On her deathbed, Jefferson promised his wife Martha (“Patty”) that he would never again wed, but this pledge did not stop him apparently from begetting some six children with (ironically!) Martha’s much younger mulatto half-sister, Sally. For all of his accomplishments, this paradox of Jefferson as slave-owner will forever leave an indelible stain on the great man’s reputation.
Jefferson and Monticello, which was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, is one of the finest books I have read in some time on a variety of levels. Sadly, Jack McLaughlin died very recently (in November 2015, at eighty-nine years old) so I could not share my praise of this wonderful volume with him. Still, his work lives on. I highly recommend this book to all who seek a greater understanding of Jefferson, of American history, and of architecture. And be sure to visit Monticello, because in that ancient homestead a part of Thomas Jefferson still thrives.