Friday, July 04, 2008

Freedom

Washington's Mount Vernon and Jefferson's Monticello were must stops on my recent trip to Virginia. This was especially so after viewing the HBO John Adams miniseries where each was portrayed in such greatness.

Both men had a real love for their estates and great interest in their gardens, farming and horticulture. It was said that in his mind Washington was a farmer first, a General second, and a President third.

This is the view of the Potomac from the portico of the Mt. Vernon mansion (click the images to enlarge these panorama).



The vegetable garden and a panoramic view at Monticello.



The opulence of their mansions is impressive by today's standards, but in the 18th Century, the vastness of their homes and lands was perhaps beyond the comprehension of most Americans. Jefferson's plantation was eventually 5,000 acres and the Mount Vernon plantation was expanded by Washington to 8,000 acres.

I tried to imagine the amount of labor needed to maintain these homes and to farm these lands in a time before steam engines, internal combustion, and electricity. Over 125 slaves were needed to run and farm Monticello.

Despite today's rationalizations, the treatment of these slaves by Jefferson was anything but enlightened.
Monticello's enslaved laborers worked from dawn to dusk, six days a week. Every week adults received a peck of cornmeal, a half-pound of meat, some salted herring, and occasionally salt and milk. They received a set of clothing every summer and winter, and a blanket every three years.
The wealth of Washington and Jefferson was produced on the backs of their hundreds of slaves. This wealth, in part, allowed these and other free men to dream of independence from Great Britain. On this day of our celebration of independence, give thought to the thousands of Africans who were brought to America and enslaved, and whose labor contributed so much to our freedom.


Postscript:



Within a week of my visit to Monticello, I learned that the tree on the right of Jefferson's mansion would be removed.

Hollowed and withering, one of Monticello’s most famous trees will be taken down.

The towering tulip poplar – revered both because of its size and the common misconception that Thomas Jefferson planted it – has been in decline for years.

Despite numerous efforts to save the poplar on the south side of Jefferson’s house, workers this evening will begin a two-day removal process.

[...]

Its exact age can’t be determined because the trunk is mostly hollow, but estimates put the tree’s age at at least 150 years.

The earliest photos of Monticello, taken around 1870, show a young tree in the spot where the tulip poplar now stands. That could be the existing tree.

If Jefferson had planted the existing tree in 1807, however, it would have appeared more mature in those photos, Mogielnicki said.

President Bush will make an Independence Day address at Monticello today.