Matthew B. Gilmore
Jefferson’s White House: Monticello on the Potomac October 2019.
Jefferson’s White House: Monticello on the Potomac is the first book devoted to the President’s House in 1801-1809 and the rustic village in which it stood — the great white house on a broken field of weeds enclosed by a split rail fence; the fascinating men and women who passed through it, friend and foe, high and low, white, black, and Native American; the “heap of human abodes calling itself a city,” as a scornful British resident described Washington in 1804 (“It is a sepulcher, this hole”); and Jefferson’s brilliant creation and use of an Enlightenment salon in a wide spot in the wilderness to help heal the country in a deeply divided time like our own.
The book is my third exploration of American history, a prequel, of sorts, to my second book, Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime, which won the Abraham Lincoln Association’s annual book award in 2017 and shared the Gilder-Lehrman Institute’s Lincoln Prize for the best book of the year on Lincoln, a Civil War soldier, or the Civil War period
Simply put, Jefferson used the White House as a tool to save democracy. Defeating John Adams in “The Revolution of 1800” when powerful men in the Federalist Party were promoting an American plutocracy, a crackdown on “disrespect” toward the president, and an army built to subdue it, Jefferson was loved by half the country as a champion of the common man and despised by the other half as a godless friend of “excessive democracy.” To help reverse a drift toward oligarchy, he stripped the regal trappings from the President’s House and oversaw the infant capital’s development on a simple, human, “republican” scale. Washington and Adams had dressed like lords, rolling through the streets in a regal coach with a mounted retinue, receiving ladies and gentlemen in the manner of George III. Jefferson dressed plainly and rode horseback alone. An appalled British diplomat complained that he opened his door to “every blackguard, and at one time the dirtier the better received.”
With a French mâitre d’ and a chef of French cuisine, he hosted several dinners a week for a dozen members of Congress, bonding with his fellow Republicans, disarming his Federalist foes, restoring civility to the American body politic with a brilliant sort of charm. He called them his “campaigns.” Along with the two Parisians, he staffed the house with white and free black servants and enslaved men and women who worked and lived together in the servants’ hall and earned a modest wage, a conscious model for a gradual transition from slavery. He caused a sensation hosting “Indian dinners” honoring chiefs sent back from the Plains by Lewis & Clark, dining at the President’s House in tribal dress and paint 1,800 miles from home, and made the mansion’s entrance hall an “Indian Museum” promoting the exotic West, the only museum in town.
As the Author’s Note says, what his visitors to the President’s House “saw and heard from Thomas Jefferson as a friend, an enemy, a leader, a host, an architect, a father, a grandfather, an employer, and an owner of human beings sheds light on him and his time and more than a bit on ours.”
Like its predecessor on Lincoln’s White House, Jefferson’s White House avoids dry recitations of facts and figures like the sleep-inducing bores they can be and focuses instead on giving life to the President’s House in its earliest years, its strikingly rustic setting, and the people who lived and worked there, speaking freely for themselves without 21st century correction. Carefully researched and scrupulously accurate, the books are often said to read like novels with character-driven plots.
Despite his essential contributions to America’s democratic principles, which are second to none, Jefferson is out of favor today, based on misconceptions about his views on slavery, which he described as “a hideous blot” on American society and a “moral and political depravity.” Having fought it in his youth in the legislature and the courts and repeatedly failed, he gave up in middle age, convinced that its demise would come in time but not in his generation, and focused instead on the internal threats to democracy itself that followed the Revolution. In the President’s House he built a transitional zone between slavery and free labor and hoped for a salutary effect.
I’m afraid there are none. No other book is devoted to the White House in Jefferson’s time, and the few that have focused on Washington City in the first decade of the 19th century tend to be informative but dry, which is why this one was written.
A wealth of primary sources includes all of Jefferson’s outbound correspondence, every letter he received in the President’s House, and many other letters, diaries, newspapers, and memoirs. The challenge is to winnow them out exhaustively, extract the most informative and entertaining bits and pieces, and weave them together in a novelistic style that brings the house and its occupants to life.
Jefferson was a talented, prolific letter writer, and all of his incoming and outgoing correspondence is available on line at www.Founders.archives.gov.
Jefferson kept no diary, which would have been a priceless source of his innermost thoughts. It would also be fascinating to read the reflections and observations of the enslaved men and women who served him and his guests at the President’s House. Regrettably, there are only a handful of such letters, all of which are quoted in the book.
Though leading Jefferson scholars have praised the book as “an ambitious, enlightening, and brilliantly realized project” (Peter S. Onuf), “a significant contribution to Jefferson scholarship” (John Boles), and a “compelling story of Jefferson and his use of the presidential mansion to promote his ideas of true republicanism” (Gaye Wilson), I write for bright general readers, formally educated or self-taught, who are interested in American history.
After a Washington career as a speechwriter and press secretary on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, I have been a trial lawyer in Boston for 38 years. Now almost fully retired from the law, I found my true calling in 2014 with the publication of Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865, a finalist for the Lincoln Prize and the first book devoted to Lincoln’s little known peace negotiations on a riverboat in Virginia with three senior officers of the Confederate government toward the end of the Civil War. I have a blog here: www.jamesbconroy.com
I have always been drawn to the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson and the bizarre wilderness capital in which he became president in 1801.
Having worked for nine years in Washington as a political practitioner, I believe I bring to the table an informed point of view.
I am very much enjoying The Georgetown Set, about the elite opinion leaders and practitioners who shaped Washington society and its politics during the Cold War.
“I’m afraid that’s highly classified information,” he said with a snarky wink.
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