Thomas Jefferson: More Than Just a Politician
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, died 190 years ago this month, on July 4, 1826. If you grew up in Virginia, you probably know that Jefferson was born here and that his home near Charlottesville, Monticello, is a major tourist attraction. But do you know anything else about Jefferson? That he was not only a politician, but also had an avid interest in gardening, farming, and viticulture (the study of grapes)? Read on for a few resources you may want to check out.
There are so many biographies of Jefferson, on so many aspects of his life, that I’m only going to list a few from the library’s collection:
- Thomas Jefferson: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall
- A President in the Family: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemmings, and Thomas Woodson by Byron W. Woodson, Sr.
- American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
- Flight From Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War by Michael Kranish
The aspect of Jefferson’s life that I find most interesting is his love of farming and gardening. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a successful planter and surveyor. Jefferson inherited quite a bit of land from his father; he began building Monticello when he was only 26 years old. The land on all of his estates (Monticello, Poplar Forest and others) was worked by slaves, many of whom he inherited from his father and father-in-law.
At Monticello, the 1,000 foot long, terraced vegetable garden was unique for its time, and revolutionary for combining cold weather and warm weather crops. Jefferson loved vegetables, and was able to grow such diverse crops as sweet potatoes, lima beans, peanuts, okra, celery and cauliflower. Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, containing writings (1766-1824) by him that pertain to gardening, shows what he was planting at all his estates. Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book is a memorandum book from 1774-1826 which shows Jefferson as a plantation manager.
Jefferson’s flower gardens at Monticello disappeared after his death in 1826, but were restored by The Garden Club of Virginia between 1939 and 1941 by using some of Jefferson’s original sketches. There is documentary evidence that Jefferson grew at least 105 different species of herbaceous flowers at different times during the year, including Sweet William, larkspur, calendula, zinnias, marigolds, and many, many others. For more information on the gardens, check out the book Thomas Jefferson’s Flower Garden at Monticello, by Edwin M. Betts and Hazlehurst Bolton Perkins, which discusses the garden restoration and includes a plant list of over 100 species cultivated in the garden. The book Jefferson’s Garden, by Peter Loewer, profiles Jefferson as a planter and landscape architect.
If you’re interested in the history of Monticello after Jefferson’s death, check out the book Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House That Jefferson Built by Marc Leepson.
I hope this has inspired you to visit Monticello!
∼ Vicky, Reference Librarian, Warrenton central library