I most liked James Madison’s Montpelier of the presidential homes we visited in Virginia. By that I mean it is the one I would favor living in, if such a thing were possible. It has the best proportions, both inside and out, and it has sweeping views over undulating fields to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The DuPont family certainly liked the house, too. They bought it at the beginning of the twentieth century and deeded it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1980s. They added on to it during those years, but the additions fit well with what was already there, and no doubt the Madisons, if they had had DuPont money and still owned the home, would have remodeled the house during the years, as they did while they lived there.
The first portion of the structure was built by Madison’s father in 1764. Madison added to the house shortly before 1800, and then further enlarged it a decade later.
It was hard for me to picture what the fields were like back then. The thousands of acres and gardens were a working plantation. Now the fields seem dedicated to horse racing, and that is a legacy of the DuPonts. Apparently, annually in the fall steeplechase races are still held at Montpelier, drawing large crowds.
The most distinctive and most famous of the homes, with its dome and gadgets, is Monticello, but something about it made me uncomfortable. Monticello is seen, more than the other houses, as a personal statement by its creator, and while Jefferson was truly remarkable, something about him is off-putting and that carried over for me to his house.
My discomfort does not come from what can be seen as his hypocrisy about slavery or his relationship with Sally Hemings. Through our present-day lens, all those first Virginia Presidents were hypocritical about slavery. And this discomfort does not come because Jefferson did not do important, even great, things.
Perhaps we do overrate the Declaration of Independence. We esteem that document, but, of course, the truly important event was that the Second Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain. No matter what was written on that parchment, we would have headed towards a new country because of how the delegates voted. But rhetoric can matter, and the Declaration drafted by Jefferson has rung in our ears through the centuries often prodding this country towards its better self. Perhaps the Declaration’s importance is best symbolized by the fact that we celebrate Independence Day on July 4, when the Declaration was adopted, not on July 2 when the Continental Congress voted for independence.
I am one who loves the Declaration of Independence. I have had the ritual, now sometimes lapsed, of reading that document on the Fourth of July. I love the phrases and the rhythms. I think English students should not just study the poets and novelists, but also the Declaration, as well as Lincoln’s words, for a better understanding of the power and beauty of our language.
The first part of the Declaration of Independence contains the soaring phrases that are familiar. The second part contains specific complaints that were given as the reasons for the separation from Great Britain. They are less read or remembered than the opening paragraphs, but they are still worth contemplating. The King, the Declaration maintained “has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither. . . .” In other words, one of the reasons for a revolt was restrictions on immigration. Another complaint was that the King impeded international trade: “For cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World.”
Jefferson can be praised not just for the Declaration but also for advancing individual rights that form part of the foundation of this country. His most famous effort in this regard may be his drafting of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 1779 when Jefferson was governor. It was enacted in 1786 shepherded by James Madison. The Statute disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion to all faiths. This legislation was an important forerunner of both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment in our Bill of Rights. Jefferson saw the Statute for Religious Freedom as so important that it was one of only three accomplishments that he wanted as an epitaph.
Jefferson was also a leader in preventing the formation of a formal aristocracy in our country by working after the Revolution to remove primogeniture laws, where estates had to be passed on to the firstborn son. We seem to take for granted today the absence of the laws that made for a landed aristocracy in England and other European countries, but repealing the laws was a radical shift away from English law that helped make the United States a more egalitarian society.
Jefferson also molded the country we now have through the Louisiana Purchase. This doubled United States land and gave us what is now the central part of our nation. Can you imagine the United States without all the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and more. (Ok, I can imagine the United States without Kansas.) What if those 826,000 square miles had stayed under French control? Or what if that land had later been sold to Britain or Spain? The country we know would simply not exist.
The Louisiana Purchase also irrevocably changed our constitutional path. The Constitution supposedly set forth a government that was limited to enumerated powers, and nothing in our fundamental charter gave the president the authority to make such a purchase. Even so, Jefferson who had been a voice for states’ rights and limited federal power, (yes, again, as with slavery, we can see Jefferson as a hypocrite) bought the land, and it stayed bought, which brought us to the path of ever-increasing executive power. (Today we don’t even seem to wonder how the president has the authority to impose tariffs or sanctions on Iran, even though such powers are not in Article II of the Constitution.) The Louisiana Purchase could be the most important presidential action taken in our country’s first generation.
(Concluded on June 29.)