—Thomas Jefferson, Letter, July 8, 1776, to Richard Henry Lee.
(Borrowed image source: Portrait Miniature of Jefferson by John Trumbull, Collection of Monticello. 1788)I have been living near the Chesapeake Bay now for quite a few years. I have come to think of Maryland as "home" on many levels. The number of years I have lived on the East Coast is growing equal to the number of years I spent growing up in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio.
I have loved American history since I was a child. I never did think I would become a scholar of American history at all, but I liked to read stories of America's War for Independence from Britain such as the ride of Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty who threw tea into Boston Harbor. When I was about 9 or 10, my parents took me on vacation to Colonial Williamsburg where I became entranced with the dirt streets, cobblestones, carriages, fine folks strolling the paths, and craftsmen inviting you to watch their works in progress. I could imagine all the important politicians rushing to meet the Governor or attend the House of Burgesses, while their pretty wives and daughters embroidered or played music in grand parlours. (Now, if you want to take an arm-chair tour of Colonial Williamsburg, you can just visit their "Tour the Town" link. If only I had Internet access as a child!)
I think it was that particular vacation, where my parents took me for the first time to visit the home of a man who I have come to admire among all the so-called "founding fathers," Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson's home, Monticello, situated on a green ridge-top in Albemarle County, Virginia, enchanted my young mind. The lush trees embrace the river winding through the valley, and you drive up a winding road towards the distant past. When I was young I thought it had been there for centuries.
I had never seen a house like Jefferson's. So stately was its octagonal form balanced right on top of the entrance hall. (I mean, who builds a house with an octagonal dome? How cool is that! ) Inside was a treasure trove, where maps hung on the walls and natural specimens from Lewis and Clark's journey were spread around the room. I was fond of Jefferson's inventions like the Great Clock that tells hours, minutes, seconds, and day of the week, using cannonballs as weights to drive the device. He also had beautiful writing instruments and nifty scientific instruments all over his office and library.
Over the years since that first trip my fascination for Jefferson has only grown more complex and deeper. I find the fact that he was a conflicted slave-owner interesting, but it becomes even more so when you learn that he had a long relationship with his wife's half-sister, the mulatto woman Sally Hemings. (Yes, I believe the DNA research.) He was truly a renaissance man, being a scholar, a traveler, a statesman, an architect, an inventor, a scientist, a amateur fiddle-player, and a lover of the finer things in life.
Yes, I must admit I have fallen under Jefferson's spell a very long time ago. He must have been a charismatic gentleman, if introverted. He strikes me as a man more apt to put pen to paper in response than to speak aloud in passion.
But to think of what he and his compatriots in Philadelphia risked in the two years leading to the Declaration of Independence is beyond me. They risked wealth, reputation, career, life-and-limb for their belief in freedom. True, they put parameters on who could be free in keeping with their own time, but I cannot hold that against them.
We each have to walk our own journey through time and space. What my "culture" is today, will become different with every passing day. That is what history is all about. Finding fragments of time standing still, but we all know time does not stand still.
Each year on Independence Day I celebrate the lives of men who were quite flawed and human, but who nonetheless changed their world, their culture, with a big idea: Liberty, that is, freedom from autocratic government.
How many countless people across this Earth have been caught up in their revolution ever since?
I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.
—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison (January 30, 1787); referring to Shays' Rebellion