Episode #1307

American Icons: Monticello

Originally aired: October 22, 2010

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Friday, February 17, 2012


Monticello feature new

This is the home of America’s aspirations and its deepest contradictions.

Monticello is home renovation run amok. Thomas Jefferson was as passionate about building his house as he was about founding the United States; he designed Monticello to the fraction of an inch and never stopped changing it. Yet Monticello was also a plantation worked by slaves, some of them Jefferson’s own children. Today his white and black descendants still battle over who can be buried at Monticello. It was trashed by college students, saved by a Jewish family, and celebrated by FDR. With Stephen Colbert, filmmaker James Ivory, and artist Maira Kalman.

Monticello Update: 
Since this story was reported, the staff at Monticello have been working on how to best convey life on Mulberry Row and the complex lost plantation to their visitors. And this month the first part of their work - an outdoor exhibition - is being made available to the public.  Re-creations of lost buildings and roads are planned next. 

Monticello was produced by Amanda Aronczyk. The Jefferson family graveyard story was produced by Ann Heppermann. The actor David Strathairn was the voice of Thomas Jefferson. David Krasnow edited the show.

Music was provided by David Prior, with John Matthias for Small Design Firm, and can also be heard at Monticello's interactive exhibition, Boisterous Sea of Liberty.


Video: Studio 360 Visits Monticello
Kurt Andersen tours Monticello with Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds, and learns just how fitting the name “little mountain” is.

Courtesy of Monticello, photograph by Geoff Kilmer

Monticello at its most iconic: the West Front of the building.

Courtesy of Monticello, photograph by Leonard G. Phillips

The name Monticello means “little mountain.”  It’s a fitting description – the building sits on the first wave of hills to rise from the Virginia piedmont and offers spectacular views in almost all directions.

Courtesy of Monticello, photograph by Mary Porter

The somewhat less iconic East Front of Monticello still displays the building’s carefully constructed sense of order.

Amanda Aronczyk

Senior Curator Susan Stein says Jefferson often calculated the dimensions in his plans for Monticello to the thousandth of an inch – a level of precision which no workman could ever hope to achieve.

Courtesy of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

Monticello: the dollhouse. Jefferson’s home has also entered America’s pockets – even if most never realize it – as the image on the back of the nickel.

Amanda Aronczyk

The design of Monticello may be beautiful, but it’s not always functional.  This staircase to the top floor is too steep and narrow for most tours.

Courtesy of Monticello, photograph by Leah Stearns

Monticello wasn’t always carefully maintained.  The Dome Room – now restored – was once used for parties by University of Virginia students, who scrawled their names on the wall.

Courtesy of Monticello, photograph by Leah Stearns

The six large occuli in the dome allowed Jefferson to see for miles in any direction.

Amanda Aronczyk

Kurt Andersen examines the inside of Monticello’s dome.

Amanda Aronczyk

Monticello at sunset is idyllic…

Amanda Aronczyk

…but downhill from the house you’ll find Mulberry Row, where up to 50 slaves lived and worked at a time.

Amanda Aronczyk

Susan Stein shows Kurt the Jefferson family graveyard at Monticello.

Amanda Aronczyk

The Jefferson family graveyard has been the site of a recent controversy over who should be allowed burial there.  In 2002, the Monticello Association voted against admitting descendents of Sally Hemings, a slave with whom Jefferson is believed to have had children.

Amanda Aronczyk

The inscription on Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone: “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.”


Stephen Colbert, Joseph Ellis, James Ivory, Maira Kalman, Jamaica Kincaid, Marc Leepson and Susan Stein

Produced by:

Amanda Aronczyk


David Krasnow


Ann Heppermann

Comments [25]

Charles Merten

I think your program was very good except for two VERY important factoids:

1) Since your script featured Jefferson's "slave relationship", how could you say that Monticello was 'designed and built' by Jefferson? He designed it (with help).
BUT, slaves built it!!

2) You spoke of his unique bed (did you mention he died there?), but you didn't quote some of his last words (framed on the wall nearby)m that he said in response to his friend and Anglican priest who was trying to administer the Last Rites. Priest: "Do you renounce the Devil and all of his deeds on Earth? Jefferson: "I don't think this is the time to alienate anyone!"

Feb. 24 2012 09:53 PM
Martha Craig from Kirkland, WA

To anyone who believes that Thomas Jefferson was a person of unimpeachable integrity who could not possibly have fathered a child from a woman of color (whom he happened to own), I would suggest you read David McCullough's outstanding biography of John Adams. Jefferson was, without a doubt, one of the brightest, most creative and accomplished men in our history, but he was a man, with the usual complement of flaws that brilliant, ambitious men fall prey to: he was ego-centric, ruthless, vain, disloyal, manipulative and decidedly unconcerned with the suffering of others. Such a man would have had no qualms about satisfying his sexual needs with someone, conveniently nearby, who did not have the power to refuse him. Apparently, the DNA evidence bears this out. So why do his white descendants have such a hard time accepting that their god was, in fact, a man? Do they think they're somehow ennobled by carrying his DNA? Pretty vain and silly, if you ask me. They had no part in any of his accomplishments. On the other hand, they can be relieved that they are not responsible for any of his moral failings. And they might want to extend an olive branch to their black cousins.

Feb. 21 2012 06:40 PM
April from Manhattan

Just once I'd like Black History month travel back to Slavery in New York. If you missed the show, you can buy the catalogue at the NY Historical Society. In New England, where I used to walk through a Congregational Church that had a separate balcony for slaves, in the Plantation State, Or when studying transportation and African Americans, not inevitably go to Atlanta, but to Detroit, the most segregated city in the country, to see how the "help" get from the economically decimated center city to white suburbs. In Atlanta you could have noted that some African Americans in the suburbs were new arrivals from the North in the reverse migration, caused in NYC mainly by racist policing. Study The Hate Map on The Southern Poverty Law Center site. Or interview white southerners who were in the Civil Rights Movement in the south at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC. Or cover redlining and the racism that still blights this country's promise, including during this economic crisis for African Americans countrywide.

Feb. 18 2012 05:06 PM
Jenny from Studio 360

@Tracey -- That's Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon.”

Feb. 18 2012 11:24 AM
Tracey from Philadelphia

Hi -

What was the name of the book mentioned by the woman who spoke of Monticello being up on the hill looking down at the slaves quarters'? (She mentioned Jefferson watched them via telescope.) It was written by Jeremy-somebody and the book began with a "P" - I think. Thanks!

Feb. 18 2012 09:47 AM
BETTY Carino

The expression is " I couldn't care less". "I could care less" means that you do care to some extent. I don't think that is what you meant to say.

Nov. 13 2011 12:08 PM

@ Mike from New York City. Sorry it's taken so long to get back to you. We had to do a bit of digging to locate the song! Our producer first found it through WNYC's Archives Department, and we'll be in touch with you soon about how you might be able to find a copy for yourself.

Jul. 25 2011 01:33 PM

This was a great show, certainly well researched, and one that gave many people that wanted a forum the opportunity to be be heard.
Most importantly, at least to me, was the whole idea that the history of Monticello, Jefferson, his descendants, and the efforts to hold and restore the property demonstrate how profoundly Monticello is the embodiment of the American story, in our most lofty and most ugly state. Even the segment about Jefferson's debt should be a glaring take away for all of us.
I will say this to those that still feel that Jefferson did not/ could not have fathered the Hemminges: DNA results only put a finer point on what is common knowledge in Charlottesville. I know personally of a professor at UMich, who did informal research while at UVA. Historic accounts that are easier to swallow for some have become part of our lexicon with less evidence (interviews, original documents, and the like). That Jefferson said one thing and did another would not be an anomaly for any politician. As it stands, having sex with ones enslaved people was regarded as a right, but was never spoken of in polite company. The evidence of such couplings can be found throughout this country in most families that can count more than 3 generations on this land. The DNA evidence of this is also easily obtained. The fact that the acknowledged descendants of Jefferson will not accept this is another demonstration of who we are when we count ourselves American. But we can take heart in striving toward things the way they ought to be...

Jul. 14 2011 04:46 PM
Mike from New York City

This episode featured a recording of "The Immigrant", sung to the tune of the Red Rose Rag. In part, it's lyrics read:

"Here to America, the foreigners come, If they are on the bum, Tired of other lands, here they come in bands, Then they start to make the booze and rum, Old Uncle Sam has always welcomed them in, Now its time to begin, To stop this immigration to our glorious Nation, And the Ku Klux Klan are the Men, To keep these gates shut tight, both day and night, It‟s only right, for it we‟ll fight. Lock up that open gate, make all those hunkies wait, Till we have cleaned up our land"

Does anyone know where to find a recording of this? It would be very appreciated if you could please post a reply if you do.

Jul. 10 2011 05:52 PM

While it may be "likely" that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemmings, it is at least worth mentioning that Jefferson's brother and 2 nephews also could have fathered a child or children by Sally Hemmings. Most popular historians, such as Joseph Ellis quoted in this story, describe it as a settled fact that Jefferson was the father, instead of stating that that is their considered opinion.

I believe that only descendants of Eston Hemmings were compared to legitimate Jefferson descendants, so the second issue is that whoever fathered him did not necessarily father any other children by Hemmings. Too many people today believed that DNA testing has proved the Sally Hemmings story entirely. The DNA testing indicates that it is "likely" that Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemmings, but other biographers or historians may conclude based on Jefferson's writing and what his neighbors and family members said about him that this is an unlikely possibility.

Jul. 10 2011 02:03 PM
Richard Johnston from Manhattan upper west side

From Monticello Jefferson could watch the construction of what he called the "academical village" of his University of Virginia, and in 1976 a poll by the AIA declared that that ensemble to be the single most significant American architectural achiement since 1776.

Jul. 10 2011 12:39 PM
SteVeNO! from 'merica

The quote from FDR, as he grapples with Jefferson and his cohorts as both idealists, and as flawed humans, "Theirs were not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to be," leads to a funny place.
If you search it, you'll be led to Billiken, the "god of things as they ought to be," a good-luck charm born in a dream in 1908. It enjoyed widespread popularity in St. Louis, Alaska, and the rest of America, as well as Japan before fading into obscurity. I remember gifts from eccentric relatives of something like him, worry warts?, worry beads?, as a youth in the late 50s.

Jan. 27 2011 04:18 PM
Melinda from Peekskill, NY

This is possibly be the best show I have heard on public radio.

Jan. 27 2011 03:42 PM
Joseph Hervan

There is no proof that Thomas Jefferson had children with Sally. The only proof is that a Jefferson did.Never assume

Dec. 06 2010 12:17 PM
Majora Carter from the South Bronx

Thanks so much for illuminating a very hard-to-acknowledge subject with such great skill and sensitivity to everyone!

Amazing show!

Nov. 28 2010 02:25 PM
LR from USA

It is possible for the alleged claims of the source of a Jefferson lineage from Eston Hemings's descendants to have become somewhat distorted, specifically if the history involves ancestry from a black heritage passing or transforming into a white one. Such allegations do not nullify the results of the DNA test which indicate that Thomas Jefferson may have been the father.

Based on the patterns of conception corresponding to the times that Jefferson was at or around Monticello, and the inability to prove that Jefferson and Sally Hemings were apart during the times of conception, it seems more likely than not that Thomas Jefferson was the father than Randolph or any other Jefferson. Sally Hemings did not conceive children during the confirmed times that Randolph was known to be at Monticello. Within the window of Eston's conception, he was invited to Monticello, but there was no confirmation of his visit as there were doing the other times. She also did not conceive children during the times that Jefferson was away and if she was an ordinary slave woman, any one could have had access to her.

The Carr brother accusation is only an attempt to promote the idea of Sally Hemings having multiple sexual abusers. The attempt to place blame on the Carr brothers seems to be a very weak claim when all one has to do is take a look at the online images of Madison's grandchildren. As stated previously, Madison's grandchildren have an incredible resemblance to Thomas Jefferson which I think Mr. Barger and others like him simply refuse to acknowledge. The resemblance seems to place serious doubt on the lineage being any other than Thomas Jefferson's.

I wonder why some of his defenders go through such efforts to spread and sow the seed of honor for Jefferson's moral character when more and more people seem to realize that Jefferson did have character flaws and based on his past history of having been known for many years to make inappropriate advances towards one of his best friend's wife, during the time he was married to his own, and to later maintain an illicit liaison with another married woman, it was within the realm of possibilities for him either to have abused a slave woman for many years, or to have loved her.

It seems as though it would be so much more meaningful to his honor to sow seeds for the many things he did right. For all the criticism that certain people want to give the people at Monticello in charge of maintaining his household for acknowledging Thomas Jefferson's faults, alleged or factual, it seems there is no focus given to this organization for the positive things they promote that Jefferson did in life, and one has to leave there impressed with his contributions to the country.

Nov. 28 2010 01:22 PM
Allegra from Harlem

A simply phenomenal program!!!! Mega thanks for the astonishing teaching! Brilliantly done!

Nov. 28 2010 12:22 PM
Topiary from Brooklyn

I loved this show! Bravo, well done!

Nov. 02 2010 11:07 PM
shadeed ahmad from New York, New York

Just because something is in print doesn't make it true. Also, just because a person is an icon doesn't mean they were perfect human beings. Thomas Jefferson in all his greatness was not perfect, nor the rest of his family. That's the human condition. It is also the human condition to be more often than not perturbed when a family member or one's hero/heroine is allegedly scandalized.

America has a mixed bag of history that has a lot of actual and alleged closeted skeletons that will continue to have certain people in an uproar as to their being brought out to the light of day.

History is a dimension of life that always carries the baggage of being questionable because of the special interests of some who may have the desire to taint it.

The fathers of this country were noble men that also in times of special need have been found to have indulged in carnally foundling the "products" of Africa they possessed.

There is not going to stop being claims and investigations about the alleged sexual escapades of fathers of this country. Whether some of the the allegations about these great men are true or not, it must be realized in all authenticity of truth that they were only human.

History, as always, is what it is according to the intentions of the writer.

People will always make statements or have thoughts about others that if known by the one they are directed at can cause a lot of consternation. Excessive worrying about what others think and say is a nervous breakdown in the making.

Thomas Jefferson was a fantastic human being. His private life I could care less about when weighed against the humongous impact and benefits The United States Constitution has had on Americans and the world.

We should all try to be as human and a tremendous benefit to humanity as we can be. We must remember tongues will always wag, but greatness and exalted benefit to humanity can't be denied when witnessed by the world.

Oct. 30 2010 08:02 AM
Herbert Barger from Ft. Washington, Md.

Your reference to some slaves being fathered by Thomas Jefferson is a complete inaccurate injustice. Proove it! This is irresponsible reporting and you should correct it immediately.

I assisted Dr Foster who tested a known carrier of both Hemings and Jefferson DNA. He did not tell Nature of this as I had suggested. The test could not fail to show a match, which it did. The Eston Hemings family had always claimed descent from "a Jefferson uncle or nephew", a reference to Randolph Jefferson and sons.
Why all this agenda by Monticello, Peter Onuf, Annette Gordon-Reed, and others to "nail" TJ?? Read the suggested books on the web pages and write the above to correct their false claims.

Herb Barger

Oct. 29 2010 03:08 PM
darby from Pleasant, CA

I enjoyed your lively history of Monticello, but I do not understand why no mention was made of the distinct possibility that another Jefferson, not Thomas, was the father of Sally Heming’s youngest child, Eston.

A presentation of this idea can be found in “In Defense of Thomas Jefferson”, By William G. Hyland Jr.

Oct. 26 2010 01:51 AM
Holly Snyder from Providence, RI

As a historian of early America, I would like to thank you for your program on Monticello. You deftly tackled the complicated history of this monument with depth and aplomb. I quite enjoyed this program and will recommend it to others.

Holly Snyder, Ph.D.

Oct. 24 2010 01:06 PM
shadeed ahmad from New York, New York

During my childhood (from about seven years old to about eighteen years old) I would be mesmerized by pictures that I encountered of Monticello. I felt it was the most beautiful building in the world. It was not until many years later at a family reunion that I was told by family members on my father's side that we were allegedly descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. This hit me like a ton of bricks. Life sometimes is a weird trip, indeed. And I still feel it is one of the most beautiful buildings in existence, though I have never been there. I'm almost scared to go there. Believe it or not.

Oct. 21 2010 04:05 PM
Studio 360

Hi Frank! We'll have the audio up on the site by the end of the day. Once it's up, you'll be able to listen to it as a stream or download it.

Oct. 21 2010 12:09 PM
frank sellgren from detroit, MI

trying to figure out how to listen/download the podcast to my ipod.

Oct. 21 2010 11:49 AM

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