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Thomas Jefferson’s Trinity

A strange, out of place feeling at Monticello

Sorry I’ve been away for most of the day. I did a breakfast interview with some sources for the Benedict Option book, then drove out to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s country estate. I had never been. It really was a remarkable thing to see, and I’m very glad I went. It’s much smaller than I imagined it would be. His library and office, though, were thrilling places to be. You really do get a sense of the greatness of the man’s intellect and character.

I had a very disconcerting moment, an unusual feeling, I think, for an American to have in a place like Mr. Jefferson’s house. We stood with the guide in the parlor, admiring the oil portraits Jefferson hung along the wall — most of them of historical figures he admired. On the southern wall were three portraits in a row: Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke — described by Jefferson as “my trinity of the three greatest men the world has ever produced.” That, plus the marble bust of Voltaire flanking one side of the door in the entrance hall, really brought home to me how much a man of the Enlightenment Jefferson was. All the Founding Fathers were, but ignorant as I am about colonial history, I had not realized how deeply Jefferson identified with the Enlightenment.

As someone who has been doing a lot of reading lately in European intellectual history, and who has very mixed feelings about the Enlightenment, I was startled by the feeling that Jefferson was, well, wrong about some important matters. Obviously this is contestable, and I expect that most Americans would disagree. The only reason I bring it up was because I felt a bit profane, even unpatriotic, having those thoughts there. It reminded me, in a small way, of how I felt when I visited the Panthéon in Paris — but only in a small way. I was frankly repulsed by that exhibit, stolen from the Church and made into a museum of Enlightenment and Progress. I felt nothing like that at Monticello, please be clear, but I had a faintly similar sense of alienation. I wondered: Had I been alive during the Revolution, would I have been a Loyalist to the Crown, for the same reasons that being in Jefferson’s house and being confronted in his art by his Enlightened sensibilities made me feel so surprisingly alien.

Mr. Jefferson’s Trinity: Bacon, Newton, Locke. And Voltaire standing guard by the door. I wish there were a Gothic cathedral nearby so I could go rebalance my chakras…

UPDATE: Yes, obviously I know Jefferson was a slaveowner. I didn’t think I had to mention here that I believe he was very wrong about the morality of slaveowning, because everybody knows that. What startled me was how out of kilter it felt to be confronted by how deeply he was a man of the Enlightenment. I should have known that, but somehow, I didn’t, and it didn’t hit me until I saw the art he had in his house.



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