Around the Institute

The Genius of Jefferson

November 24, 2015  • Carolyn Zelikow

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

As one of the most influential personalities of the Early Republic, Thomas Jefferson’s genius stands as an enduring inspiration to Americans, commensurate with his impact on the nation’s institutions and political parties. Author of the Declaration of Independence, third US president, first secretary of state, and founder of America’s first public university, Jefferson was also an avid oenophile, gardener, architect, and farmer, whose private life and occupations deeply informed his vision for the young Republic.

This past September, Aspen Across America hosted a weekend-long exploration of this complicated personality in Charlottesville, VA, site of Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and of his “retirement” project, the University of Virginia. The journey imparted a first-hand look into the culture and environment that shaped this pivotal figure.

Jefferson was, by birth and by choice, a farmer. As the Aspen Institute group saw while touring Jefferson’s laboriously terraced kitchen garden, Jefferson’s ongoing preoccupation with the land went hand in hand with his agrarian vision for the United States. Just as in his more public roles, Jefferson’s life as a farmer was suffused with experimentation, scholarship, and trade. Peter Hatch, retired director of gardens and grounds at Monticello and author of “A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello,” described how Jefferson saw his kitchen garden as a horticultural laboratory. As often disappointed as successful, Jefferson persisted in growing vegetables like peppers, sweet potato, and tomatoes that would thrive in the warmer temperatures of the New World. He traded seeds and advice with a cosmopolitan network of gardeners across the 13 states and globally, in accordance with his own pronouncement that “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

Sometimes referred to as a “Founding Foodie,” Jefferson saw a direct link between the land he cultivated and the nascent cultural identity of the United States. Aspen Across America guests explored Jefferson’s kitchen and table with Frank Stitt, winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast. Stitt’s own flagship restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, put Birmingham, Alabama, on the map as a home to world-class dining — making Stitt well suited to explain why Jefferson invested significant resources into forging an American cuisine to rival that of France. Within the Jefferson family, dinners at Monticello were called “Feasts of Reason,” for the quality of ideas nourished by Jefferson’s menu.

Aspen Institute guests enjoyed their own Feast of Reason prepared by Chef Stitt, using fresh okra, butter beans, and other herbs and vegetables from Jefferson’s own garden. Wine was a critical ingredient in this symposium, and Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s current director of gardens and grounds and father of the modern Virginia wine industry, was on hand to discuss Jefferson’s debt-inducing devotion to the vintages of France, as well as the Founding Father’s attempts to make wine the national beverage of the US.

Now turned into forest or development, Monticello once overlooked the 5,000 acres of farmland that constituted Jefferson’s plantation. Thomas Woltz, owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, brought this lost vista to life for the Aspen Institute group. Woltz has forged a body of work — including New York’s Hudson Yards, St. Louis’s Citygarden, and Houston’s Memorial Park — that integrates the beauty and function of built form with an understanding of complex biological systems and restoration ecology. Woltz revealed that his firm has been developing with Monticello to restore Jefferson’s original landscape, stitching together history and sustainability to forge a model of 21st century farming and stewardship.

Undercutting Jefferson’s accomplishments at Monticello, and his vision of a genteel agrarian society in the New World, was his reliance on the labor of enslaved people. Walking through the subterranean dependencies where the slaves of Monticello lived and worked, the Aspen Institute group observed the daily inconsistency that existed between Jefferson’s livelihood and his visionary axiom that “all men are created equal.”

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, author of “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832,” was with Aspen Institute guests to discuss the inextricable bond between Jefferson’s civilized lifestyle and the slavery that supported it. One of the sources of Taylor’s scholarship was Jefferson’s letters and papers. Jefferson kept seven simultaneous diaries, recording a bewildering variety of details including expenses, weather, and crop growth; he also wrote extensive letters. Jefferson even invented a device to transcribe his letters as he wrote them, so that he would always be able to keep a copy of what he sent to others.

Despite this keen, even obsessive, attention to detail, Jefferson was frequently in debt, and died deeply so. As his papers and correspondence with lenders reveal, Jefferson’s penchant for visionary projects and investments in culture coincided with an unsustainable use of credit. As a result, when Jefferson died, the enslaved people in his possession had to be sold, rather than freed. Aspen guests visited the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies to explore these documents with J. Jefferson Looney. Looney has served as editor-in-chief of the Jefferson Papers project since 2004, during which time his staff has published 11 volumes containing over 6,000 accurately transcribed and annotated documents from Jefferson’s retirement at Monticello (1809-1826) — over two-thirds of which are being published for the first time.

Aspen Across America’s visit to Monticello concluded with Jefferson’s last great public project, the University of Virginia. The group toured with Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth professor and chair of the Department of Architectural History, and Joshua Scott, Monticello’s director of development. An undertaking comparable to the Eerie Canal in terms of cost and difficulty, Jefferson built the world’s first state-sponsored university as a kind of utopia for learning. The campus features a carefully considered intermixture of faculty and student residences in the “Academical Village;” diverse gardens to incorporate nature’s tutelage; and a domed library in place of a chapel, a fixture of many 19th century college campuses.

In the first of the Lawn’s 10 Pavilions, Aspen guests discussed the future of higher education with Ian Baucom, Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and Jeff Legro, Taylor Professor of Politics and vice provost for global affairs. Throughout the tour, guests were asked to consider the value of a liberal education, the changing role of classrooms, and the balance of inclusion and academic excellence in the mission of a public university. As they left, visitors were left with a final question to contemplate: What would Thomas Jefferson think of his University — and Republic — if he saw it today?

Carolyn Zelikow is a program associate for national programs at the Aspen Institute.