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Monticello Neighborhood

Thomas Jefferson’s five-year appointment in Paris as Minister to France, not to mention his exposure to the pleasures of cosmopolitan life in Williamsburg and Philadelphia, convinced him that one of the most valuable gratifications in life was "rational society."1 His attempt to fashion the Monticello neighborhood from this ideal was almost as tenacious as his effort to mold the ideal republic.

Jefferson was remarkably persistent in his efforts to consolidate a "society of friends and neighbors" near Monticello. As early as the 1760s, he tried to convince friends of the necessity of proximity for the enjoyment of "philosophical evenings."2 To render such evenings more palatable, Jefferson helped introduce Italian wines and vegetables to the neighborhood in 1773 by giving Philip Mazzei 193 acres of land contiguous to Monticello and by subscribing to Mazzei's "Wine Company."3 Mazzei named his farm Colle, and purchased about 700 more acres by 1778. Francis Alberti, Jefferson's violin teacher in Williamsburg, also moved to Albemarle County at Jefferson's urging and taught music as well as dancing to family members and local youth, including James Madison.4

Ever mindful of the "spies and sycophants" of the political world,5 Jefferson took further action to surround himself with friends in the 1780s by launching a correspondence campaign to woo friends and political allies to join him in Albemarle County.6 Responding to Jefferson's encouragement, James Monroe moved to Charlottesville in 1789, purchased land just three miles from Monticello, built a cottage on a farm he called Highland, and finally moved to the neighborhood in 1799; James Madison took up residence in his family's Orange County home, Montpelier, in 1794. These friends and native Virginians, who would one day serve as the third, fourth, and fifth presidents of the United States, established a presidential neighborhood in central Virginia. Other friends and acquaintances, including Benjamin Franklin's grandson Dr. William Bache, Hore Browse Triste, a future in-law to Jefferson, and William Short also bought land in or moved to the region.

The results of Jefferson's efforts to cultivate a "rational society" varied. The Revolution interfered with the agricultural prospects at Colle and Mazzei returned to Italy; financial considerations prevented Madison from moving to Albemarle County; and Monroe moved to Loudon County and sold Highland in 1826. Triste and Bache went bankrupt and had to make their livings elsewhere, while Short opted to live in Philadelphia.

Undaunted by these setbacks, Jefferson continued to persuade others to act on his recommendations.7 The University of Virginia served as the centripetal force that allowed him to add the quality of "scientific" to the "independent, hospitable, correct and neighborly" society around the "pleasant & respectable village" of Charlottesville.8 At the beginning of his retirement to Monticello in 1810, Jefferson wrote that he took pleasure in directing the studies of young men who moved to the area to seek his counsel, use his library, and generally "make a part" of his society.9

Jefferson's penchant for frequent society with friends had a definitive impact on the household. His daughter and hostess Martha Randolph at times expressed resentment toward having "a house constantly filled with visitors to be entertained in the day and accommodated at night."10 But isolation confounded Jefferson. Sensing his daughter Maria's own desire to withdraw from society, he wrote in 1802: "[F]rom 1793. to 1797. I remained closely at home, saw none but those who came there .... I felt enough of the effect of withdrawing from the world then, to see that it led to an antisocial & misanthropic state of mind, which severely punishes him who gives into it."11

In the end, no one seems to have regretted the exposure to "rational society." In 1825, Jefferson's granddaughter Cornelia commented that the neighborhood had indeed become more "sociable."12

Septimia, another granddaughter, recorded how Jefferson's ideal became a part of everyday life at Monticello: "The establishment at Monticello was regulated very much on the European plan. Amusements of various kinds such as hunting, fishing, driving, and riding on horseback were furnished the guests, who generally dispersed after breakfast. Mr. Jefferson retired to his library, and Mrs. Randolph to her private apartment, where she gave her orders for housekeeping, taught her children, and occupied herself in her domestic affairs all the morning ...."13

- Rebecca Bowman, 1997. Originally published as "Fashioning Rational Society," in Monticello Newsletter vol. 8, no. 2 (Winter 1997-1998).

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