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November 7, 2012

Celebrating a president

By now you either know who won the election or you are savoring the spectacle of a constitutional crisis of chad-hanging proportions. Whether you are basking in the glow of democracy at its finest or shaking your fist at a failed system, we can, at long last, get back to the important business of the day, such as basketball and french fries.

But either way, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the radicals who brought us a way to choose our leaders without killing each other in the streets. (At least I hope so; I’m writing this before Nov. 6.)

When two of our friends moved to Charlottesville, Va., earlier this year, my wife Mary and I knew we had the excuse to finally nerd out on Monticello, the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s most brilliantly fanatical founder. So a couple of weeks ago, we took a break from 2012 politics and made the journey to 1776.

Monticello, we were told repeatedly by the tour guides, means “little mountain,” and Jefferson’s Monticello is built on a beautiful little mountain in central Virginia, about 500 miles east of Louisville. Today the plantation is a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offering tours of the house, gardens and grounds.

The home is chock full of the material remnants (some are replicas) of Jefferson’s fabulously OCD mind, including his labor-saving devices, books, maps and artifacts brought back by Lewis and Clark. Ever since I became a Jefferson fanboy a few years ago, I’ve wanted to visit the house, which is brought to life in “American Sphinx” by Joseph J. Ellis, among other great books.

The house does not disappoint, but it is the breathtaking mountainside “kitchen garden” and the ghosts of its slaves that make Monticello so moving. Jefferson’s 1,000-foot garden terrace included 330 vegetable varieties and an adjoining 8-acre fruit garden with 170 fruit varieties.

It’s safe to speculate that if Jefferson were alive today, he would be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He calculated measurements to five decimal places, even though no carpenter could cut so precisely. He counted the number of various varieties of peas it took to fill a pint jar. He recorded the weather every day for 40 years. He painstakingly measured wind direction, distances and time of labor. He left behind 21,000 personal letters. Just imagine how awesome he would have been at Twitter!

And imagine what it would have been like to be a slave on such a plantation. While that is impossible to do, you can try by touring Mulberry Row, the center of plantation life, which includes the ruins of slaves’ homes and other remnants of life in bondage at Monticello. Indeed, the man who became nascent America’s greatest proponent of liberty also owned 600 people in his lifetime, including Sally Hemmings, with whom he fathered six children.

All of which reminds us that Jefferson was crazy, duplicitous and frustratingly human. But he fascinates us today because he was also an utter genius. He was an architect and a musician who spoke five languages fluently. He redacted the New Testament, removing the supernatural bits. He was a scientist and a philosopher. We don’t get a lot of that in our presidents these days.

Unlike the defenders of the status quo we elect nowadays, Jefferson was a radical. Today’s politicians try to snuggle up to his legacy, but he was neither a liberal nor a conservative. He was a radical who helped overthrow a government and accepted violence as a means to that end. He stood firmly for not just American but worldwide revolution until, as Ellis writes, “… the last vestiges of feudalism and monarchy were destroyed and swept into the dustbin of history.” Today our presidents exhaust their intellects on Medicare Part B and interest-rate derivatives.

Even though he was governor of Virginia, minister to France, America’s first secretary of state, second vice president and third president, Jefferson chose to list none of these achievements on his tombstone in Monticello’s cemetery. Instead, it reads, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.” Despite the incredible gifts of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” freedom of religion; and higher education, Jefferson’s epitaph is modesty at its most sublime.

So if you can’t get behind the politician who won on Tuesday, at least you can celebrate a fascinating one at Monticello.