MONTICELLO In the course of human events, it's time to celebrate Jefferson's 250th birthday

April 18, 1993|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Contributing Writer

When President-elect Bill Clinton stopped off at Thomas Jefferson's beloved Monticello estate during his inaugural bus trip to Washington in January, a youngster who had won a "Dear Mr. President" essay contest asked him what governmental job he would give to the great American statesman and patriot today.

"If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, I would appoint him secretary of state, and then I would suggest to Sen. [Al] Gore that he and I resign so [Jefferson] could become president," Mr. Clinton replied.

What a fitting tribute to the nation's third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence on the 250th anniversary of his birth.

Mr. Clinton's ceremonial visit to Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., marked the official beginning of a yearlong celebration of Jefferson's life. A national coordinating committee has developed a calendar of events for this landmark birthday year that includes Jefferson-related lectures and exhibitions at locations nationwide. Planning is also under way for a Jefferson symposium to be held in the fall in cities around the world.

(The Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore plans an exhibition, tentatively scheduled for November, that will focus on Jefferson's relationship to Maryland.)

But the heart of the celebration will be in Charlottesville, a collegiate town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This was where Jefferson made his home for most of his 83 years -- when he wasn't practicing law in Williamsburg, writing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, serving as minister to France or tending to presidential matters in Washington.

His official birthday last Tuesday was remembered in Charlottesville with music, speeches, dedications, readings and fireworks. There were commemorative ceremonies at his birthplace at Shadwell -- the Jefferson family farm near Monticello -- and at the University of Virginia, which Jefferson designed and founded.

There were also festivities on the West Lawn at Monticello, where an exhibition has transformed the house to more closely resemble its original appearance -- down to the color of the walls and floors.

Jefferson, born in 1743, began building Monticello in 1769. It's a neoclassical home on a 5,000-acre plantation in the middle of a wilderness where all other homes of the time were log cabins. Throughout his life, Jefferson continued to redesign and remodel the home.

He retired in 1809 after decades of public service and died, perhaps fittingly, July 4, 1826, in his bed at Monticello -- the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson is buried in the family graveyard at Monticello.

Today, the famous residence depicted on the American nickel is a popular tourist destination that welcomes more than 500,000 visitors each year.

Set on a mountaintop with a breathtaking view of the rolling countryside around Charlottesville, Monticello is often described as one of the nation's architectural masterpieces. The stately home captures the spirit, personality and interests of Jefferson: diplomat, political thinker, founder of the Democratic party, architect, public servant, scientific farmer, inventor, avid reader, book collector and musician.

"Monticello is Thomas Jefferson's living biography," said Daniel Jordan, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello. "Every object, every architectural detail and every piece of furniture tells us something about Thomas Jefferson. His personality is revealed in all aspects of the place."

As such, Monticello will be the focus of much of the yearlong celebration. And one of the highlights will certainly be the exhibition that opened there Tuesday.

The rooms are now filled with 150 original Jefferson possessions that have been away from Monticello for more than a century. Most of these items were auctioned after Jefferson's death to repay large personal debts.

Researchers worked for several years to locate the furniture, paintings, engravings, American-Indian artifacts, natural history specimens, books, maps, personal effects and scientific instruments that are on loan to Monticello for what is being called a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit.

Among the items on display through the end of the year are the mahogany lap desk and revolving Windsor armchair which Jefferson used while writing the Declaration of Independence.

The entrance hall at Monticello is noted for the great clock, which hangs on permanent display above the front door. It was built to Jefferson's specifications with cannonball-like weights that descend past markers on the wall to indicate the day of the week.

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