Monthly Archives: April 2014

Monticello reflected

There are few homes in the world that more exactly describe the minds and personalities of their owners than Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The most contradictory personality of America’s early years created for himself a building of contradictions. It is a tiny mansion; it is Spartanly Baroque; and it is a slave-run plantation that verily sings of the dignity of the free man. Jefferson, himself, recognized much of the tumult of his mind.

He was an uncomfortable cross between the 18th-century man of the enlightenment and the emerging 19th-century man of sentiment. So he built a measured, proportioned Palladian home and filled it with moose antlers.

There was in Jefferson both the love of order and reason and the love of wild nature. It is perhaps these warring sentiments that give his home such a special place in the American imagination.


His home, of course, is Monticello, a 5,000-acre estate near Charlottesville, Va. You probably have a picture of it in your pocket right now — on the back of a nickel. Take a look at it: a classic Greek portico, complete with Doric columns, under a Roman dome and extended on both sides by Renaissance windows. It has a refined symmetry as you see it from the front, or rather from its more familiar west front, for Jefferson gave it two fronts, one in the west, facing his lawn and flower garden, and a second in the east facing its carriage road. It was the east front that visitors first saw on arriving.

Either front is perfectly ordered.

But seen from either of its intervening sides, Monticello loses that symmetry and becomes oddly unbalanced. The famous dome is no longer in the center of the building but lopped over to the one side.

And it becomes apparent that the house, divided into thirds, has its middle third slipped like a rock fault, to the West. Like its owner, you look at it one way and you see one thing, but look at it another way and a second aspect, less easily understood, appears.

monticello side viewJefferson built his home on a mountaintop so he could see the Blue Ridge in the distance. He designed it combining his love of geometry and gadgetry with the French details he had seen as an emissary to France in the 1780s. In its combination of influences and the idiosyncratic overlay of Jefferson’s mind, Monticello may lay claim to being the first truly American house of any importance built in the newly created nation. It is part classical, part crackpot.

The classical side can be found in the columns and friezes; the crackpot in the way he used each of the classical orders in different rooms, here a Corinthian column, here an Ionic, so that you get an uplifting art-history education as you take the house tour.

There are other oddities. There are only two closets in the whole house: one in the guest bedroom and a second hidden in a second-story loft above his bedroom, where he stored his out-of-season clothes. That closet is open to three oblong ”portholes” that hang in the air above Jefferson’s bed. The bed, too, is odd. It is built into the wall between his bedroom and study, or ”cabinet,” as he called it.

Monticello Entrance HallHe loved gadgetry and built dumbwaiters into the molding of one of his fireplaces. He has a revolving-door Lazy Susan for delivering food to the dining room quietly and efficiently. There is a weather vane with an arrow that rotates on the ceiling of his porch and a seven-day clock that doesn’t quite fit into the space he wanted, so he had to cut holes in the floor to make room for the clock weights.

There are no windows in the third floor; all its illumination comes through skylights. And Jefferson hated to waste space with stairs, so he had them shunted off to the recesses of the house, and further saved space by making the stairways barely wide enough for one person to climb at a time. One has to wonder how he ever managed to get the mattresses up to the second-floor bedrooms. The narrow treads and high risers mean that modern-day visitors cannot visit the upstairs; they don’t meet code.

On the third floor, there are a few unheated bedrooms and the great octagonal Dome Room, which was a favorite inspiration to Jefferson but which proved so inconvenient it was relegated to storage.

One shouldn’t make too much of the bedrooms being unheated. Jefferson, in the Franklinesque practical half of his personality, rarely heated any room until the temperature was officially below the freezing point. ”Waste not, want not” — you can hear the line from Poor Richard’s Almanac.

But neither should one make too much of the oddity of the building. As with its creator, the building’s overwhelming impression is one of nobility, of something made with a higher purpose in mind. It is as if the house is the embodiment of the Spartan virtues necessary to create a new nation, a new political system, a new national sensibility out of whole cloth.

Jefferson wrote intensely if ambiguously of his own bifurcated personality in a famous love letter that he penned as a widower to the married Maria Cosway. It is a fierce debate, written in dialogue between his head and heart in 4,000 words and in which neither side can achieve victory.

But in that letter, written in France to the Italian wife of an English painter, he finds time to talk of his beloved American home. It is not head but heart that speaks:

”Dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye? Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we ride above the storms. How sublime snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet. And the glorious sun, when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains and giving life to all nature.”


I want to put in a good word for hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is so universally denounced — and no more so than by the hypocrites themselves — that we can forget that hypocrisy serves a useful function in the civilized world. Indeed, without it, civilization would hardly be possible.

To say one thing when you believe another is the lubrication of civilized life. It is, in another set of clothes, diplomacy. It is the avoidance of the unpleasant truth when the unpleasant truth will produce no results. A substituted fiction — hypocrisy — will allow action to proceed.

While the crassest forms of hypocrisy only solicit groans and outrage — when the televangelist is caught with his pants down or the anti-pornography crusader is discovered to be a swindler — more subtle forms serve several important purposes.

First, they produce a kind of national mythology, a set of beliefs, both high-minded and vague, that we can all buy into, even when individually we hold specific and opposing views. Everyone wants justice, for instance, but everyone defines it differently. The hypocrite invokes justice, knowing that more people will rally round the word than will rally round his particular policy direction.

Both opponents and proponents of affirmative action call on justice. Both pro- and anti-abortion activists call on it too.

Without the idealistic words to rally around, everyone dashes off in a hundred different directions.

The politician uses his hypocrisy to achieve ends. It works as a kind of legal fiction. Hypocrisy also helps us define what we truly believe in as a people. It doesn’t matter that George W. Bush executed more people than any other governor or that his state is near the bottom educationally: He ran as the compassionate conservative and touted education reform. His words, in this case, are more important than his actions.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich acknowledged the same in a column in American Prospect magazine when he compared the exorbitant hypocrisy of both sides in the 2000 presidential campaign and recognized the good that might come of it.

“If George W. wants to base his campaign on compassion, tolerance and educational opportunities for poor kids, let him. This is the best stuff I’ve heard coming out of the Republican Party since before Nelson Rockefeller was hooted down. If Al Gore wants to run on getting money out of politics and reining in powerful corporations, let’s cheer him on.”

And what is more, he said, their exhortations will produce voter expectations that they will have to satisfy in office. Their hypocrisy has pushed them into corners, and we will benefit.

At least, that was the theory. We’ll never really know, because Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything.

Slave-holding Thomas Jefferson was necessarily hypocritical when he wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. But that phrase has come to be a goal, and we have tried for more than 200 years to rise above our national hypocrisy. Can we say the nation would have been better off without that hypocrisy?

In other words, as Rochefoucauld said, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”

Hypocrisy has other roles in our civic life. We also want to present our side with the best appearance, which is why we hire lawyers. We are paying them money to be hypocrites, to argue passionately for a cause that we may be passionate about but likely the lawyer isn’t. Yet, we would still happy to have that lawyer — and his hypocrisy — on our side if we were in the dock.

Yes, it is galling when a public figure gets elected on a pro-family platform and then is discovered in a love nest with his tootsie. Yes, it is irritating when with one hand a politician proposes election-funding reform and with the other hand accepts huge donations from corporations. And it is no pleasant thing to see both candidates hypocritically claim the high motives of democracy when all they really want is the advantage in the election — and are willing to change sides on the issues when the outcome seems in jeopardy.

But it isn’t hypocrisy itself on trial. Hypocrisy is neither good nor bad. It is just a tool, to be used for good or ill.