The Great American History Tour: Monticello to Vicksburg

by Derrick G. Jeter

Sunday, 6 July 2008


Thomas Jefferson was an enigma. Joseph Ellis, in his fine biography, called him the American Sphinx. And just like the Sphinx, Jefferson endures, for obvious reasons, but no one is really sure what lies behind the façade of stone. One thing does seem certain: he was a mass of contradiction.


If I’d lived in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s I not sure whether I would have liked Jefferson, personally. But that wouldn’t have prevented me from inviting him to dinner and conversation. He was a profoundly interesting and original man—a master stylist with the pen, an expansive thinker, and curious tinker.


As a writer, I’m intrigued by where writers write. Their offices or libraries—the physical spaces in which they create out of their imaginations—and the objects they surround themselves with provides a window into their spiritual spaces, into what inspires and motivates them. Most writers have one or two rooms that reflect their personalities, for they live with others who have different personalities and interests. But when you visit Monticello, Jefferson’s mountain top home in Virginia, you are immediately impressed that the whole house, not just a library, is a window into Jefferson’s heart and mind.


It is a house both simple and profound, and logical. The house is built on top of a hill with a central passageway leading under the house that includes the kitchen, the beer and wine cellar, an ice pit, and storage. This passage was a beehive of activity in Jefferson’s day, with slaves coming and going in performance of their duties, but completely out of sight and sound of Jefferson and his guests inside the house. From the passage way, food, beer, and wine were sent up to the house through a system of dumbwaiters.


It seems nothing, in the house or outside the house, no matter how small, escaped Jefferson’s intense interest and attention. Everything, from furniture, to clocks, to decorative items, to doors, to the placement of stairs, to the planting of gardens, had Jefferson’s fingerprint.


After having visited Jefferson’s Monticello I have a new appreciation for John Kennedy’s words when he welcomed Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” [1]


Monday, 7 July 2008


After two weeks of exploring the history of America’s founding, we ended our trip at the beginnings of what became America.


At Jamestown, established 400 hundred years ago, we were reminded, as we walked the walls of the old fort and spoke with archeologists who continue to dig and make discoveries, that the promise of America did not come about without sacrifice and hardship. At Yorktown we were reminded that independence was, and is, only a word on paper parchment without the cost of blood and suffering by those who are willing to lay down their lives so it might become more than a mere sentiment, but a reality.


And at Colonial Williamsburg we were reminded that a free and independent people can live their lives in peace, and with a measure of fun, as we learned by listening to wonderful stories on our ghost tour.


Thursday, 10 July 2008


Before returning home we stopped at Vicksburg and drove through the battleground. Reading some of the markers scattered throughout, I was struck that all we had seen and learned—Boston’s importance as the cradle of liberty, New York’s monument to liberty, Philadelphia’s clarion call to liberty, Washington D.C.’s promise of ordered liberty, and Yorktown’s security of liberty—would have all been in vain if it were not for Vicksburg and Gettysburg and Shiloh and Antietam and Appomattox. Perhaps the hardest thing is not securing liberty or ordering liberty, but maintaining liberty.


Thus, we ended our great American history tour.


[1] John F. Kennedy, remarks at dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere, April 29, 1962, (accessed 13 July 2008).