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Friday, 13 January 2017 18:17

Monticello Trip

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What do politics, the English language, foreign languages, architecture, farming, engineering, diplomacy, philosophy and religion have in common?

Thomas Jefferson!


Thomas Jefferson is what we call today a "Renaissance Man." The Renaissance was the time from the 14th to 17th centuries, between the Medieval period and modern period, and a time of great growth of learning, science, and exploration. So, a Renaissance Man is a person who has deep knowledge over a wide range of interests and subjects.  Jefferson was such a person. There is a true story about a minister who was traveling by horseback through Western Virginia between Charlottesville and Lynchburg in the 1770's and stayed for the night at an inn. While there, he met a fellow traveler and struck up a conversation. At first they discussed farming, and the minister thought his new friend was a farmer, because he was so knowledgeable about agriculture.  Then they discussed engineering and factories, and the minister believed the man was an engineer. Then when the minister identified his profession, his new friend discussed Christianity with him, and he thought he was a pastor. The next morning, the other traveler left very early. When the minister was leaving the lodge, he asked the innkeeper about the identity of the previous night's guest. "Don't you know?" the innkeeper asked. "That was Thomas Jefferson!"


I love that little story demonstrates the broad breadth of Jefferson's knowledge.


Jefferson has long been seen as a genius in many fields. Consider this joke by President Kennedy at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere, at the White House in 1962: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." --President John Kennedy,  




Jefferson's life

Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia. As a teenager he attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Founded in 1693, this is the second-oldest college in the USA (second only to Harvard), and it is the university that my two brothers, sister, sister-in-law, a nephew, and I all attended. Even as a young man, Jefferson was distinguished by his brilliant mind and insatiable curiosity. If you tour the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, residence of the British governor of Virginia when that was a British colony, you will learn that Jefferson even as a young college student was often invited to dine with the governor and some William and Mary professors to discuss the great ideas of the day. Imagine that: a teenager, among all the college students, invited to dine with the royal governor and other colonial leaders. That fact alone shows that Jefferson was remarkable, even as a youth.

As a young man Jefferson inherited a farm of thousands of acres (and enslaved persons) when his father died. He was in his early thirties in the mid 1770's when the American colonies were embroiled in a massive dilemma: do we stay with the English crown as a colony, or break away? Since Britain was the world's main superpower of that day and had the largest navy, talk of independence was not only treason (punishable by death), but also highly unlikely to come true, as no colony had ever successfully broken away from England before. Looking back at that time now, most Americans believe many or all the colonists then would have supported independence, but that is not so. Today we believe only about one-third of the American colonists favored independence; we call them "patriots." About another third (called "loyalists") favored remaining under British rule. The remaining third was undecided or just did not care. (It seems American political apathy is not entirely new!) Jefferson, a voracious reader, thinker, and fan of European philosophers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Montesquieu, Jefferson took their ideas such as liberty and the right of people to choose their own leader and establish their own government and sought to put them into practice by setting up an independent country. This just goes to show: ideas have consequences!


At age 33, he was selected as one of only six delegates to represent the colony of Virginia at the Second Continental Congress that met at what we now call Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (a site my family enjoyed visiting when our children were young). That he was selected to join that exclusive, small group of men from the thirteen colonies to discuss possible independence was a huge honor and sign of how well-regarded he was. But then, as a member of that group, he was selected to join an even smaller circle of five that would author a tentative Declaration of Independence. Of those five, he was asked to be the main author, because everyone knew him to be a brilliant and clear writer. (In contrast, he was a rather reluctant, weak public speaker with a soft voice.  (This shows how different people have different gifts.  Have you identified your gifts?) Thanks to his role as main author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson is nicknamed "the pen of the Revolution." During the War of Independence he served as Governor of Virginia (thus living in the mansion he had visited as a college student), after the war he was Minister to France and the first Secretary of State under President George Washington, was later third US president, and as an older man he established the now world-famous University of Virginia.


Our trip


The week after Easter is spring break for many schools in the US, including the school that our Chinese guest students attend. So, to do something fun for the Easter break and help our students learn more about US history, I took our two guest students and a third Chinese student of mine to Monticello, Jefferson's famous home. From the headquarters of in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia, we drove east on Route 460 through Bedford (site of the D-Day Memorial), past Jefferson's summer home Poplar Forest (reportedly the first octagonal home in North America), then north on Route 29 to Charlottesville. By driving in late March, I was impressed by the countless wild redbud trees we saw by the roadsides, all in full bloom. In some places, it was like driving through a purple tunnel--just breathtaking. 


Some things we saw and learned

One of the main reasons I took these three Chinese students to Monticello was to let them learn more about an important person and place in American history, and I was not disappointed. In fact, I have visited Monticello probably six or more times, and each time I come away with a new understanding. Here is a small sampling of some of the tidbits we picked up.


  • Books-- An omnivorous reader, Jefferson reportedly had the largest collection of books on the continent of North America during his lifetime. After the British burned Washington DC and the newly-established US Library of Congress in the War of 1812, cash-strapped Jefferson offered his library for sale as a replacement, and so the US government bought his 6,487 books for $23,950, thus forming the core of the current Library of Congress. (source).
  • The nickel-- America's five-cent piece, the nickel, bears an image of Jefferson on the front and the rear (west) view of Monticello on the back. This alone shows how famous this home is.
  • Tours-- We took the two tours included with the admission ticket: one was about slavery on the Monticello plantation and the other was the garden tour. Both lasted about 45 minutes and were informative. Jefferson was a master gardener and brought over many plant and tree species from Europe, especially with the hope that he could introduce new cash crops to help American farmers make a living. Whereas some American Founding Fathers wanted the US to become an urbanized, industrial culture, Jefferson believed America would be freest and most prosperous if we remained a nation of small farmers. We saw some short, red tulips blooming behind the house, and the tour guide said that early tulips were so expensive in America, that the cost of three tulip bulbs could be used to buy a small house at the time! 
  • We met a German couple that had bought "round the world" airplane tickets and had been traveling for 10 months! It's always fun to meet interesting people when you go places!
  • Inventions--  A creative genius, Jefferson invented a clock that now hangs over the inside of the front door. He wound it up once a week and it rang a bell every hour on the hour that could be heard on the grounds, it had two faces so it could be seen from both inside and outside the house, and it has cannonballs on weights that also told the day of the week! He also bought a machine that let him write a letter with one hand and an attached mechanical arm made an exact copy. That way, when he wrote a letter to a friend that might take months or years to hear back from, he could keep a record of what he had first asked about!
  • His death-- Jefferson's life was full of irony: the man who wrote "all men are created equal" kept hundreds of slaves to run his plantation. His passing was also ironic. He died on July 4, 1826. Not only is July 4th the US's birthday, when Jefferson's Declaration of Independence made history, but that particular July 4th was the US's 50th anniversary. A triple irony: his fellow founder and second president, John Adams, died that very same day. Jefferson and Adams had been friends during the Revolution. In fact, they worked on the Declaration of Independence together. Then later, when the US was a new country, they both ran against each other to be president, in 1796 (Adams won) and again in 1800 (when Jefferson won). At that time, not only were they political rivals, but bitter enemies. However, as old men, they buried the hatchet and became good friends again. Adams too had irony. As he lay dying near Boston at age 90, his last words were "Jefferson lives," not knowing that Jefferson had died five hours earlier, at age 82, in Virginia.
  • His tombstone-- Many visitors to Monticello stop by his tomb to view it, and are shocked by what it says...and what it does NOT say. Before his death, Jefferson described his grave marker: "...on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia"because by these," he explained, "as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered." (source)

Many are shocked to see that the tomb marker does NOT mention this little nugget: that he was a US president! 


You can visit too!

Do you want to visit the USA for a summer or winter vacation? Language program? High school or college? We here at can help you arrange the experience of a lifetime that includes English classes, living "life in America," and visiting famous sites like Monticello. Unlike many programs that take people to California or only the West Coast, is headquartered in the US state of Virginia, a birthplace of American culture and close to the nation's capital Washington DC.  Contact us today to find out how you can improve your English right at home or office with our online classes or visit the USA!  


Build your reading skills:

  1. A profession is another word for a job or career. What are three professions that Thomas Jefferson was skilled at?
  2. What is a "Renaissance man"?
  3. Why is Jefferson often called a Renaissance man?
  4. What is the main idea of the story about Jefferson meeting a minister at an inn one night in western Virginia?
  5. Who made a joke that Jefferson alone was smarter than many Nobel Prize winners put together?
  6. What college did Jefferson attend?
  7. What fact from his college life shows that, even as a young man, he had a remarkable mind and character?
  8. True or False. In 1776, almost all people living in the colony of British North America wanted to break away from England and become a free country.
  9. What is Jefferson's nickname, and how did he get it?
  10. Jefferson is most famous for writing what document?
  11. What is most unusual about Jefferson's home, Poplar Forest?
  12. What wild tree in Virginia has pretty purple flowers in the spring?
  13. What US coin shows Jefferson's importance, and how?
  14. What is ironic about the date of Jefferson's death?
  15. What is ironic about the inscription on his tombstone?


Reading: Answer key:

  1. architect, farmer, engineer, diplomat, philosopher
  2. a person with deep knowledge in a wide range of fields
  3. Jefferson had deep knowledge and experience from a wide range of fields
  4. It shows that Jefferson knew much about many different kinds of subjects and professions
  5. President John F. Kennedy
  6. William and Mary
  7. He was often invited to dine at the Governor's Mansion with some William and Mary professors and even the British governor of the Virginia colony
  8. False. Only about one-third wanted independence
  9. "The pen of the Revolution," because he was a gifted writer who wrote most of the Declaration of Independence
  10. The Declaration of Independence
  11. We believe it was the first eight-sided home built in North America
  12. the redbud
  13. the US nickel, because it has Jefferson's image on the front and Monticello on the back
  14. He died on July 4, American's birthday, and it was July 4, 1826, the US's 50th birthday. Plus, he died the same day that John Adams died.
  15. It mentions three main accomplishments that Jefferson wanted to be remembered for, but which did NOT include his being a US president!


Check out this video about Thomas Jefferson and his legendary home, Monticello. Watch it here



Read 6366 times Last modified on Friday, 20 April 2018 15:11
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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