The famous home of Thomas Jefferson was a work-in-progress during most of Jefferson’s lifetime, designed and redesigned, built and rebuilt over more than forty years. Jefferson described the house as his ‘essay in architecture.’ The final product is a monument to Enlightenment rationality and the cultivation of a refined and contemplative way of life. The home and grounds are now lovingly (that’s not too strong a word) maintained by the private Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. The waiting line for entrance to the house can be two or even three hours long during the summer. It’s worth it, but even a stroll around the grounds is rewarding if you don’t have the time to wait. The guides are very well informed, so ask lots of questions. Don’t ask about Sally Hemings, though (somebody will bring that up anyway). Ask about the contributions of slave labor to Jefferson’s way of life, and why he (unlike Washington and Madison) did not free all his slaves in his will.
Located in the Virginia Piedmont, Monticello is about two miles southeast of Charlottesville and approximately 125 miles from Washington, D.C.; 110 miles from Williamsburg, Virginia; and 70 miles from Richmond, Virginia. From Interstate 64, take exit 121 (if traveling westbound) or 121 A (eastbound) to Route 20 South (If traveling westbound, turn south, or left, on Route 20). To go to the Monticello Visitors Center, turn right at the first stoplight. To go to Monticello, turn left on Route 53, just after the first stoplight. The entrance to Monticello is located on the left, approximately one and a half miles from Route 20.
Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English colony in America, celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2007. The colony’s mere survival in its first years was a near-run thing: drought, disease, poor organization, and the hostility of the local Native Americans nearly brought Jamestown to the same fate as its short-lived predecessor at Roanoke. But mere survival was enough, and Virginia has been the fulcrum of American history ever since. Thomas Jefferson learned the philosophy that animated the Declaration of Independence at the College of William and Mary in nearby Williamsburg, and George Washington secured that independence across the peninsula at Yorktown. Jamestown settlers also bought “20 and odd Negroes” from a Dutch ship in 1619, and their Confederate descendants erected fortifications on the site of the old settlement during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. Changes to the landscape and the shoreline had long made the exact site of the Jamestown settlement uncertain, but four recent seasons of excavation have uncovered 170 feet of palisade line, the east bulwark, three large trash pits, and a building, all part of the original James Fort. Currently three institutions interpret Jamestown: the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, the National Park Service, and Jamestown Settlement. Check the Web site above for activities related to the newest archaeological discoveries.
Location Information and Directions
Jamestown Colonial National Historical Park
There is no better way to understand Appomattox than with the words of U. S. Grant: “What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassable face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.” Ulysses S. Grant Memoirs
Location Information and Directions
Links: Appomattox Court House National Historic Park
George Washington was not a great soldier. As a young man, the French forced him into a humiliating surrender after he built a stockade at an indefensible position in a Pennsylvania meadow. His advice to British General Braddock contributed to the disastrous defeat by the French and Indians near Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh). In the Revolutionary War, he had a bad habit of allowing his army to be outflanked. America’s French allies outnumbered his own troops at his one great victory, the siege of Yorktown. Washington’s great contribution to the country was not military but political: he set a precedent for the United States that still sets us apart from much of the world by peacefully and voluntarily relinquishing executive authority within a constitutional order. It is appropriate, then, that his most important memorial be the working plantation for which he yearned throughout his public service, and to which he returned after retiring from the presidency, Mount Vernon. The private Mount Vernon Association preserves George Washington’s plantation near Washington, D.C. Mount Vernon was the home of Washington and his wife, the former Martha Custis, for over 45 years. (Much of the time, of course, he was away on campaign or serving in office.) Washington inherited the property, which had been in his family since 1674, at the death of his brother’s widow in 1761. The home has been restored to its appearance in 1799, the year of Washington’s death. In recent years, archaeologist have been busy excavating near the mansion, at the communal slave quarters, the grist mill and other sites that were important parts of Washington’s working plantation.
Address: 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, VA 22309
Click here for a map of Historic Mount Vernon and surrounding areas.
The first and still the most spectacular of the large-scale historical reconstructions, Williamsburg offers a rich and textured experience. Williamsburg has been the subject of some controversy over the years. Some have criticized the reconstruction and reenactments for mixing architectural and clothing styles from different decades of the eighteenth century: as if flappers and hippies lived side-by-side in the twentieth century. At other times, complaints have been directed against excessive verisimilitude, as in the case of the all-too-real slave auctions that were reenacted at the site a few years ago. Still, it’s a fun and informative trip, the kids will love it, and anyone with an interest in history, especially early American history, probably ought to see it at least once.