Introduction: Jefferson’s House

On July 4, 1776, the day the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence marking the beginning of the end of the British empire, King George III wrote in his diary: "Nothing of importance happened today."

On July 4, 1826, as people across the United States joyously celebrated the young nation's Independence Day Jubilee, several matters of great importance took place. Early that afternoon, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, died in his bed at Monticello, his beloved home in Central Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The nation's third president was eighty-three years old.

Later that day, in one of the more remarkable coincidences of history, Jefferson's fellow founding father John Adams died in Massachusetts. The nation's second president's last words were: "Thomas Jefferson still survives."

Thomas Jefferson rarely was sick during his long, productive life. But in the spring of 1825 he had developed dysuria, a painful discharge of urine, probably caused by an enlarged prostate gland. The condition weakened him considerably and he was under a physician's care all that summer.

"My own health is very low, not having been able to leave the house for three months," Jefferson wrote on August 7. "At the age of 82, with one foot in the grave, and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises."

Jefferson suffered greatly until his death the following summer. His physical suffering was made worse by mental anguish. In his last year, Jefferson was tormented by thoughts about the fate of his only surviving daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who was then fifty-three, and her children after his death.

"It is agony to leave her in the situation she is now in," Jefferson said to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph (Martha's oldest son) two weeks before he died. "She is sinking every day under the suffering she now endures; she is literally dying before my eyes."

Plagued by large debts, failed farming and other business ventures, constant extended visits from friends and family, and by his own often profligate spending habits, Jefferson knew that Martha would inherit only debts. He also knew that she would be forced to sell all of his property -- including Monticello, the neoclassical mansion Jefferson called his "essay in architecture" -- to satisfy his creditors.

On June 24, 1826, Jefferson called for his physician, the British-born Dr. Robley Dunglison of Charlottesville, who came up to Monticello and stayed there, attending the dying Jefferson during the last weeks of his life. Martha sat at her father's bedside during the day. Her oldest son (known to the family as "Jeff"), then thirty-three, and Nicholas Trist, her son-in-law, took over at night, aided by several household slaves, including Burwell Culbert, Joe Fossett, and John Hemings.

Jefferson seemed to become calmer as death drew near. He lost consciousness on the night of July 2. He awoke briefly on the morning of Monday, July 3. At least once that day he asked if the Fourth of July had come. Dr. Dunglison told him the day would soon be upon them. Nicholas Trist nodded in assent. He and his brother-in-law Jeff sweated out the last hours of July 3, staring at Jefferson's bedside clock as midnight approached, silently hoping he would keep breathing until the Fourth of July. He did.

Jefferson awoke around 4:00 in the morning on July 4 and called to his slaves -- whom Jefferson referred to as "servants" -- in what those around him said was a clear voice. He then lapsed into unconsciousness for the last time. Jefferson died in his sleep at 12:50 in the afternoon.

Church bells began tolling soon thereafter in Charlottesville. The next day was a day of mourning in that university town. The fifty-year-old nation began grieving soon thereafter. Jefferson was buried at Monticello on July 5.

When Jefferson died, Monticello, his idyllic mountaintop home, was in the early stages of physical decay. Due to his fiscal troubles, from the time Jefferson stepped down from the presidency in 1809 and retired to Monticello, he could not afford the upkeep on the mansion he had lovingly designed and created.

Monticello was an unbearable burden for Martha Randolph and her son, who was named executor of Jefferson's estate. They were forced to put Monticello on the market to try to raise cash to pay off Jefferson's $100,000-plus debts. The Randolphs soon discovered, however, that no one wanted Monticello, which today is recognized worldwide as a priceless architectural masterpiece. No one wanted what today has become an iconic structure revered by millions -- a house whose image has graced the back of the Jefferson-head nickel since 1938 and was engraved on the back of the two-dollar bill for a half century.

In 1827, at Monticello the Randolphs auctioned off Thomas Jefferson's slaves, household furniture and furnishings, supplies, grain, and farm equipment. Then they sold or gave to relatives nearly all of his priceless collection of artwork, along with thousands of acres of land he owned in Virginia.

That left Monticello bereft of furniture and furnishings. Martha Randolph fled the decaying, almost-empty mansion. When the Randolphs put the house itself and its surrounding acreage on the market, there were no takers for years. The house sat virtually neglected until 1831 when James Turner Barclay, a Charlottesville druggist, bought Monticello and 552 acres for $7,000.

Barclay and his family lasted less than three years in the house before they sold Monticello to a most unlikely buyer: U.S. Navy Lieutenant Uriah Phillips Levy, a colorful, brash, controversial man who was an ardent Jefferson admirer. Levy, the first Jewish American to make a career as a U.S. naval officer, had amassed a fortune in real estate. He immediately set about making much-needed repairs at Monticello.

Uriah Levy, by all accounts, saved Monticello from physical ruin. Although he did not live there, Levy opened Jefferson's mountaintop home to visitors who showed up to pay homage to his memory. Later, during the Civil War when the South seized Monticello because it was owned by a Northerner, another period of physical decline set in.

Uriah Levy died childless in 1862. He left a strange, convoluted will that did not sit well with his family heirs, who challenged it in court. Seventeen years of legal wrangling ensued, during which time Monticello again fell into near ruin.

In 1879, Uriah Levy's nephew -- the strangely but aptly named Jefferson Monroe Levy -- gained title to Monticello. Jefferson Levy was a big-time New York City lawyer, flamboyant stock speculator, real estate wheeler-dealer, and three-term U.S. congressman. When the lifelong bachelor took title to Monticello the building was falling apart. He immediately began spending what soon amounted to a small fortune to repair and restore Monticello and its grounds.

Like his uncle, J. M. Levy was a New York City resident, although he spent many summer weekends at Monticello. He allowed visitors to roam the grounds and permitted some to tour the house. Like his uncle, he was a great admirer of Jefferson. He served as host to one president (Theodore Roosevelt), countless members of Congress, ambassadors, and other officials and dignitaries who flocked to Monticello out of respect and admiration for Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson Levy's proud ownership of Monticello came under attack in 1911. A national movement to wrest control of the estate from him was led by Maud Littleton, a New York socialite. The goal of her well-organized and well-funded effort was to turn the house over to the federal government to be used as a shrine to Jefferson.

In 1912, Congressman Jefferson Levy had the singular misfortune of having to defend his ownership of Monticello in the House of Representatives as Congress debated legislation aimed at confiscating the mansion. That legislation was defeated, but in 1914 Jefferson Levy -- who once vowed that he never would sell the place -- bowed to public pressure and offered to sell Monticello to the government. His asking price was $500,000, about half the amount he estimated he had put into the property.

Congress balked at Levy's asking price. In 1919, in the throes of a deep personal financial crisis, Levy put Monticello on the market. There were no takers until 1923 when the newly formed private, nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation agreed to Levy's price. In December of that year the foundation purchased the property. Levy died less than three months later.

The Levy family owned Monticello for eighty-nine years -- far longer than the Jefferson family owned it. Uriah Levy and Jefferson Levy (who pronounced the name "Leh-vee," rhyming with "bevy") took control of Monticello at critical periods in the history of that historic house; in each case it was on the verge of physical ruin. A case can be made that Uriah Levy was the first American to act upon the idea of preserving a historic dwelling. His restoration of Monticello took place two decades before the first efforts to preserve George Washington's Virginia home, Mount Vernon.

This book offers the first close look at the post-Jefferson history of Monticello and the crucial roles played by Uriah Phillips Levy and Jefferson Monroe Levy in saving and restoring Monticello. The story is filled with memorable, larger-than-life characters, beginning with Jefferson himself and including James Turner Barclay, a messianic visionary; Uriah Phillips Levy -- six times court-martialed -- and his teen-aged wife; the colorful Confederate colonel Benjamin Franklin Ficklin who owned Monticello during the Civil War; the eccentric, high-living, deal-making egoist, Jefferson Monroe Levy; and the single-minded Mrs. Littleton.

The story is filled with mysteries and controversies. What happened at Monticello from 1826 to 1923 has been one of best-kept secrets in the history of American preservation.

Until now.

Copyright © 2001 by Marc Leepson