Travel date: June 17, 2016
At Monticello, they like to talk a lot about “the paradox of Jefferson,” which is to say, how could the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, including that bit about how all men are created equal, own slaves? I give the people running things at Monticello a lot of credit for this; they don’t gloss over slavery or make excuses for it. Dave and I both commented that we bet Monticello tours were a lot different 25 or 30 years ago (in fact, I was just doing a bit of reading before writing this entry and one source says that slavery wasn’t mentioned in tours until the mid 80’s….which is (paradoxically, you could say) both shocking and totally unsurprising).
But honestly I don’t think the “paradox” is that hard to comes to terms with. When people have money and power, they have a hard time giving them up, even when they know it’s the right thing to do. They’ll go to extraordinary lengths to hold on to power and they’ll rationalize away anything internal or external that tells them they shouldn’t. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant guy who had a lot of great ideas and was a persuasive writer….but he wasn’t a strong enough or a moral enough person to overcome his baser inclinations toward greed and keeping himself comfortable at the great expense of hundreds of other people.
Today Monticello is a beautiful and captivating place, haunted though it is by the specter of slavery, and Jefferson is a fascinating mass of contradictions and complications in all sorts of ways. Kind of a microcosm of America that way, I guess.
There are several different specialty tours available at Monticello, but the basic day pass and house tour ($20-25 for adults, depending the time of year/$9 for kids 5-11) will definitely be enough to fill your day. It includes a tour of the first floor of the house, access to the grounds and to the guided Slavery at Monticello and Gardens and Grounds tours, and all the exhibits at the visitor center.
If you have young kids with you, you might also opt for the Family Friendly tour for the same price. It’s targeted at ages 5-11, which meant Gus, at 10, was the only kid we had in the recommended age range (and he would likely be insulted by the idea of taking the kid tour), so we opted to do the regular tour and divide up into two groups so that someone could explore the grounds with Abe and then switch off later. We bought our tickets online a day or two before our visit and picked a time for our house tour then, but when we got there we were told that earlier tours were available and given the option to switch times.
Physically, the setup at Monticello is that you park at the (very nice) Visitor Center, where there is a short film you can watch, several exhibits, a kids’ area, and a large gift shop. Then you can either walk or take a shuttle up the hill to the house and grounds.
Our tour was set to start shortly after we arrived, so we went straight to the shuttle. The shuttle bus, I should say, was absolutely, without a doubt, Abe’s very favorite thing at Monticello. But if you’re not 3, it’s just a regular old bus ride. While you’re waiting for it, you can get a photo with Thomas Jefferson. Ari’s almost as tall as Thomas Jefferson now!
When you get off the shuttle, someone is waiting to direct you (if your tour is coming up) to a waiting area. I went here with Ari to wait for our tour while Dave and the other kids went off to explore the grounds. The guided tour through the house lasts about 40 minutes, and it’s utterly fascinating. I would go on it 20 times, I think, because I’m sure the stories you hear vary greatly depending on which guide you have (ours was very knowledgeable and entertaining) and because I could hang out in that house looking at all the things Jefferson collected and invented for pretty much forever. But it costs $25 every time you go through, so there’s that. I think we definitely made the right call not taking Abe through. It’s possible we could have kept him from destroying priceless works of art, but we probably wouldn’t have been able to keep him from distracting other people on the tour, and we definitely wouldn’t have been able to listen and absorb as much ourselves.
After we’d all done our house tour, we went down the road for lunch at Michie Tavern, an 18th century tavern that offers a lunchtime buffet as well as tours of the historic grounds. The food (fried chicken and biscuits featured prominently) was very good (though pricey) and afterwards we picked up some local wine in the gift shop.
Back at Monticello, we took the shuttle back up the mountain and spent some time exploring the “Crossroads” exhibit, focused on domestic life, in the cellar level of the house. This is a newer exhibit and very well done; I learned a lot, and it also managed to hold Abe’s attention pretty well. Largely because there were tunnels:
Then we headed over for the “Slavery at Monticello” tour, which is offered daily at various times, depending on the season. I was absolutely determined that we were NOT going to come to Monticello without going on this tour; we weren’t going to just go gawk at how awesome Monticello is and all the cool stuff Jefferson collected without also devoting plenty of our time and attention to the darker side.
But it turns out three year olds can really interfere with highly principled, well-intentioned plans.
I thought maybe Abe would be fine, since the tour was outdoors and I figured he’d have plenty of room to roam around while the rest of us listened to our tour guide. But it was late in the day and late in our trip, and there was an awful lot of talking, and Abe just wasn’t up for it. So. The older kids, at least, got to hear what sounded like a thoughtful and thorough and interesting guided tour about slavery at Monticello, but it was a pretty frustrating experience for Dave, Abe, and me. In retrospect, we should have taken turns with this one, too, and let Abe spend some more time running through the tunnels. But you know what they say about hindsight.
After this, we headed back down the mountain. We took the walking path this time, which takes you past the family cemetery where Jefferson is buried.
And then we spent a little time at the Visitor Center. We watched the movie and spent some time in the Griffin Discovery Room, a hands on space for kids, before calling it a day:
As with pretty much every stop on this trip, I wouldn’t have minded an extra day in the area. I think one full day is plenty for Monticello, particularly if you don’t have a preschooler with you slowing you down, but I would have loved to get to James Monroe and James Madison’s houses, too, which are both nearby. Although three president’s houses in two days might not have been the best idea with Abe. The bitter irony of having a kid named after a president who doesn’t even love touring president’s houses at 3 1/2!