The Levys Of Monticelo
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
Visitors to Monticello today, taking in its handsome lawns and flower beds, its beautifully finished and furnished rooms, its immaculate floors and woodwork, have no trouble picturing Thomas Jefferson entertaining such luminaries as Lafayette and Washington on these elegant premises. Yet if they could suddenly turn back the clock a hundred years, they would witness an astonishing and shocking transformation. In 1878 there were pigpens among a jungle of weeds on the front lawn; loose shutters banged in the wind before broken windows; bins of grain cluttered the otherwise empty drawing room; the back portico was so nearly buried beneath dirt and rubbish that horses and cattle could go right into the house; and clumps of grass sprouted among the splintered shingles of the leaky roof.
Monticello was saved from ignominious ruin because it had the good fortune to fall into the hands of men who believed that its builder, Thomas Jefferson, was the greatest of all Americans. To these owners—first, Uriah Phillips Levy, and later his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy-Monticello was a shrine.
“All my wishes end where I hope my days will end-at Monticello,” Jefferson had said. And there his days did end, on the Fourth of July, 1826, at the venerable age of eighty-three, as the nation celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He died believing that his most fervent wish for Monticello was assured of coming true: that his many debts would be paid and that his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, would live in the house. Unfortunately, while it was true that well-wishers had raised a fund to secure Monticello for her, there was too little money available to maintain it. The following year Mrs. Randolph sold many of the furnishings, and soon after put the place on the market. At first, the asking price was $70,000. But in Virginia most of the people who might have wanted it were land-poor; and among people of wealth, Jefferson, the egalitarian, was not a particular favorite. There was no clamor to own the great man’s house for reasons of sentiment.
Besides, Monticello as a family house was something of a white elephant. Jefferson had built it to his own, very personal taste. Not everyone would share his enthusiasm for two, narrow, cramped staircases instead of a single main one; or for a master bedroom where the bed was rather oddly wedged in an opening between bedroom and study, with a tiny clothes closet above it, reached by steep stairs. The kitchen was in the basement, far from the dining room; and on the second floor, the beds in all the bedrooms were recessed in alcoves-a pretty arrangement, but very hot in summer. Because the stairs were so narrow, all sizable objects, such as baggage, had to be hoisted to the second floor by way of the balcony that overlooked the entrance hall, or through the windows.
In the winter of 1830, while the house stood empty, the redoubtable Washington journalist, Anne Royall, passed through Charlottesville and hired a carriage to take her up to Monticello. It was a snowy Sunday. The house looked deserted, but Mrs. Royall was not the sort to be easily put off. Receiving no answer to her knock, she walked in and through the house until she found “a great coarse Irish woman” sitting by a fire. Although the Randolph family had left instructions that the house was to be shown free of charge, the woman refused to stir until she was paid fifty cents. Then Mrs. Royall was escorted through all the empty rooms, except Mr. Jefferson’s bedroom, which was kept closed.
“There was not what we would call a large room in the whole,” Anne Royall reported; “It was much plainer than I expected.” However, she did admire the marble mantelpieces. The only furniture she saw were two French mirrors (they are there still, never having left the house); a bust of Voltaire, by Houdon; various bedsteads, chairs, broken or cracked china and glass, and, in the attic, an old spinet that had belonged to Mrs. Jefferson.
Pausing at the graveyard on the road up “the little mountain,” she observed that there was no headstone on Jefferson’s grave.
The following year, one James Barclay, of Charlottesville, bought the house and a few hundred acres (of the original 5,682 acres) for $7,000, with the intention of turning the place into a silk farm. It could hardly have fallen into worse hands. Barclay destroyed Jefferson’s lawns and most of his poplars in order to plant mulberry orchards, which did not thrive. He threw the Voltaire bust into a field, declaring that Voltaire was an antichrist. He planted vegetables near the house, and kept his silkworms in the conservatory. The enterprise failed within five years, and Barclay then decided to become a missionary and go to the Holy Land. Once more Monticello was on the market.
Mrs. Randolph had gone to live with her daughter, Mrs. Coolidge, in Boston. Among patriotic citizens of that city an effort was made to raise money to buy Monticello back for her, and apparently there was a similar project in Philadelphia. An oft-repeated story is that a young emissary of one or the other of these fund-raising groups traveled to Charlottesville in the same stagecoach with another potential buyer, Uriah Levy, and that Levy got the young man so drunk that he did not sober up until Levy had bought the house for himself. No authentication has been found for this story, and it has the earmarks of an ill-natured invention.