Monday, February 24, 2014

"Saving Monticello" by Marc Leepson

The story of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home in Charlottesville Virginia is undoubtedly a tale of which most people have never heard.  It is an unfortunate number I must, sadly, confess myself as an ignorant member.   I knew nothing beyond Monticello being our third president's home.  Prior to my own initial visit, I could not even claim to know Thomas Jefferson did not reside at Monticello Virginia.  Monticello was his home at Charlottesville Virginia, as Monticello Virginia does not exist - at least in no incorporated form my eyes have yet to discover.

Now, having visited on two occasions, and having read the story of the Levy family and how they ultimately saved Mr. Jefferson's home from certain desolation, I can say I have received an education of which I hope to pass along a piece of in this attempt at a review.

I say "attempt" merely from the sublime nature of the story.  Its importance ranks far ahead of merely retaining the home of some historical figure, or maintaining Monticello as a work of art for its architectural wonder, or even honoring Jefferson for his role as one of the country's Founding Fathers.  All are true points appearing at some juncture in the narrative of this tale.  Yet the importance which lifts this story to a higher place is the response of Jefferson's fellow Americans to the existence of Monticello.  How does its presence, still upon the landscape of the country's terrain, transform each individual American heart?  Do people care about the foundation of the land in which they live?  Or is its relevance of no more relevance to us, a near two centuries after Jefferson's death, as such appeared to be the case amongst those of Jefferson's own era?

I pose this question, as a thought to consider, simply on the basis of the people introduced, both en masse and individually, who throughout the intervening years, either contributed to the gradual desolation or strove to preserve the home and the grounds as a memorial to the man - most falling into the former category, causing one to truly wonder if the importance of an individual and his accomplishments can be appreciated by the people of his own time.

The book begins with the end of Thomas Jefferson.  He was broke.  He spent his life in service to his country; but unlike the politicians of today, who accrue wealth through their illimitable years entrenched in position and power, Jefferson accumulated debt, rather than dollars, for which there was no means to pay.  He fostered an idea for a state lottery, in which Monticello would serve as the ultimate prize, even printing tickets for sale; but the great man passed away before plans could proceed any further.  His family earnestly desired to retain possession of the estate; but after a time, it still presented too much of a burden.  The debt, coupled with the costs of maintenance, were expenses impossible to meet.  Though it served as the family hearth, where Jefferson's children and grandchildren matured, no other recourse could be met but Monticello's sale into the hands of another owner.

The primary owner of the property, between the initial sale by the family and when The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation assumed control nearly a hundred years later, was the Levy Family: Naval officer Uriah Levy, followed by his nephew Jefferson.  Absent their involvement, it is certain Monticello would not exist beyond a memory today, or, at best, ruins akin to an American Pantheon or Parthenon.

There was no thought to preservation of historical sites; there was no importance placed upon retaining a foundation of the Revolution.  The country was expanding west.  Riches were being sought; treasure was being pursued.  Thus, ownership of Monticello, between the ownership of the Levys, became little more than possession of the property; and scavengers could run rampant, doing as they pleased and taking as they sought.

It was a carelessness to the property that makes one wonder if the people of that time, the people who had no means to tend to it, spoke out against the ruin they saw taking place.  Did anyone stand up and say that Mr. Jefferson's land should be shown respect?  Was there anyone who declared his importance to the founding of the nation deserves to be remembered and recounted?

Uriah Levy, a lieutenant in the Navy at the time, with a life story that stands well enough on its own, was a bold individual who often moved against the flow of the crowd, working against the grain to pursue and act upon what was right.  He was possibly just the man needed, at just the right time.

He came from New York in response to an advertisement announcing the sale of the celebrated property, sale by the owner who originally purchased it from the Randolphs, Jefferson's family.  His stewardship and obvious respect for Thomas Jefferson (he commissioned a well known French sculptor for a statue Levy donated to the government) clearly inspired his nephew Jefferson, an astute businessman with even greater means at hand, to assume ownership following the Civil War.

It was Jefferson Levy who ultimately sold Monticello to The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation shortly before his own passing; and this is where the story becomes even more compelling.

A woman, by the name of Maud Littleton, made a visit to Monticello in the early part of the 1900s.  She was enamored with Mr. Jefferson, highly anticipating her visit to see his celebrated home; yet when she arrived, her expectations were dashed when she found Monticello more of an homage to Jefferson and Uriah Levy (with Levy family portraits and Levy family possessions occupying the house and grounds) than to the man who placed the ground onto America's historical map.  What ensued became a lengthy battle, years upon years upon years, to wrest control away from Jefferson Levy, through the government or through private hands, and restore Monticello as a memorial to the man who erected it.

This was a fascinating episode of American history to read, as there truly was no villain for one to loathe.  Maud Littleton sought the best for Monticello, as did Jefferson Levy - proven by his years of well-managed stewardship, maintaining for the generations to come the home of the man who placed into words American's desire to be free.  Though, at first glance, it would appear the two fought to achieve differing ends; in the purview of history, considering all these events from the distance of contemporary times, one can see Maud Littleton's efforts inspiring the formation of The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, whom Jefferson Levy relinquished ownership of Monticello to, following the impetus to attain it was impressed upon him by the example of his uncle, who clearly saw Jefferson as a kindred revolutionary spirit, whose efforts towards promoting the freedom of mankind was worthy of being perpetuated through succeeding generations.  One man's efforts benefit the lives of those who are to follow.  The question now stands as to what we, time's current generation of souls, will do with what has been left to us by those who set the stage.