Citizens (and others) can “Meet Thomas Jefferson” at Monticello most Tuesdays through Saturdays, at eleven, twelve, two, and three o’clock. In a month or so the mountaintop will be a riot of springtime color, with trees in bloom and tulips bright against the azure panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the gentle sprawl of Charlottesville. Jefferson will talk with his guests, who come from all over the United States and the world, under the sugar maple, near the fish pond. In February, however, the light is gray and the grass is dry and the trees are mostly bare. Jefferson greets guests inside the visitor center auditorium and the museum. The Declaration program is new, and he is still working out the timing.
“We’ve had a failure of what they call technology,” Jefferson explains to the handful of people still in the Declaration exhibit room after his first presentation. He has just returned from the visitor center, where the largest and most elaborate magic lantern show he has ever seen won’t stop running scenes from his life, narrated by an invisible woman. Back in the center, his assistant for the day was trying to stop Thomas Jefferson’s World, a 2009 film created for the site and updated in 2020, so far to no avail. “I’ll be too overpowered and mesmerized,” Jefferson told the gathered viewers. Who in 1823 could imagine such a lifelike illusion? Then, he invited them to follow him to the exhibit room.
There, a woman asks what he was thinking when he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
He was thinking about Thinking. “Without honoring man’s ability to think, we force hypocrisy,” he says. Before the Statute, Virginians were required to pay taxes to support the Anglican Church and to attend services regularly. Jefferson opposed mandatory observance and religious tests for civil liberties. He wrote of his bill that equal protection was due “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
Along with his authoring of the Declaration of Independence and founding of the University of Virginia, the Statute was the proudest accomplishment of his life; he chose to have this trifecta engraved on his tombstone, which lies partway down the mountain behind an ornate wrought-iron fence enclosing the family cemetery.
These actions are highlighted in the show that wouldn’t stop playing. But if Thomas Jefferson had lingered in amazement, he would be forced to see some of his greatest shames exposed too. One of the hundreds of people he enslaved was Sally Hemings, who was his late wife’s half-sister and the mother of at least six of his children. The four who survived babyhood were forced to labor on his plantation while their white siblings lived in luxury.