Admiring Some of Jefferson's Extensive Book Collection
Admiring Some of Jefferson’s Extensive Book Collection

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house, showcases all his passions and his role in American history. Despite what you think you know about this Father of America, you will meet the man here at the home he loved and worked on for decades. On the top of his “little mountain”, his home is surrounded by his extensive gardens including the specimens brought back to him by Lewis and Clark on their cross-country trip. Learn about his personal life including his controversial treatment of his slaves by touring their living quarters underneath his house. This site was truly the highlight of our Virginia trip and made Jefferson come to life for our family.

Where: Charlottesville, Virginia; an hour northwest of Richmond, 2.5 hours south of Washington, D.C.

Mom score: 5/5
Kid score: 5/5 
Cost: Adult $29, Kids 12-18 $10, Kids under 12 free
Time: 3 hours to all day

Who Was Thomas Jefferson?
Why Is Monticello Important?
Monticello Sights
Covid Changes
The Best of Times and the Worst of Times
Mom Tips 
Word of Warning
Pre-Adventure Learning and Book Recommendations
Deep Dives Back at Home

Who Was Thomas Jefferson?

When you hear of Jefferson, you automatically think of the American Revolution and his role as a founding father. New word for the kids: polymath. Aka – the man knew about everything. Mr. Jefferson continuously learned, voraciously read, and painstakingly recorded his life and thoughts. He wrote his nature and weather observations while conducting experiments and inventing throughout his life. He knew six languages and even taught himself Italian in order to learn architecture from a primary source.

In full admission of my ignorance, I knew very little about Thomas Jefferson until we started reading books and learning about him in preparation for our trip to Monticello. The more I learn about him, he becomes ever more fascinating and a great example to kids to continue lifelong learning and follow their passions. He is the adult friend we all wish our kids had in their life to learn from. Every place we explored during our time in Virginia seemed to link back to Jefferson.

But… At the same time, shouldn’t I be hesitant to talk about Jefferson with my kids regarding his views on slavery and the relationship with Sally Hemings? It’s sticky. I’m not denying that. My kids have been told what they need to know. They also know that slavery was a fact at that time, and it hasn’t been glossed over in our house. We’ve talked about how he inherited many slaves and debt from family members, the different racial views of the time, and that he does have children from his relationship. It was a different world.

The Many Flowers in the Garden at Monticello
The Many Flowers in the Garden at Monticello

Why Is Monticello Important?

After retiring from the presidency, Thomas Jefferson lived most of his time at Monticello, rarely even leaving Virginia. It’s where he truly wanted to be. If you want to know the man, you need to see his house and inventions and gardens. And the role of slavery in his life. 

Jefferson, during his five years as the minster to France, studied ancient architecture. Back in America, as an effort to further separate from British influence, he wanted the new buildings to have a different appearance, distinct from that which had been built previously in Jamestown and Williamsburg. Self-trained in architecture, the Jeffersonian style of architecture brought Greek revival architecture to Virginia. This is most evident in his own Monticello where he lived for more than fifty years. 

Monticello is the only presidential or private home designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO? According to their website, this indicates “the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.” There are only 23 UNESCO sites in the United States. That means we should see it. Also included in Monticello’s designation is Jefferson’s pride: the University of Virginia which is only 15 minutes away from his house.

Monticello Sights

There are two sections to the visit: the visitor center and the plantation. 

Allow for at least an hour at the visitor center before getting on the tram for the five-minute ride to Monticello. At the visitor center, there is a documentary-style, narrated video about Jefferson and his life which is easily understood. In contrast, the next-door museum shows a non-speaking, abstract video about Sally Hemmings which we left as none of us had the patience to read. 

Focusing on the architecture and structure of the actual building, the first floor of the visitor center museum has replicas and diagram to help show the layout of the house before seeing it in person. The museum’s second floor, which leads out to the tram, covers Jefferson’s intellectual pursuits. His tools and natural studies and inventions are on display and introduces those that can be seen in the house.

When it’s your turn to go to the house, you can ride the tram or walk. Just so you know, the walk will be uphill to the top of the mountain. Make your life easy. Take the five-minute tram and walk back downhill after a couple of hours up top. Walking back takes you past the family cemetery and Jefferson’s grave which you wouldn’t be able to get out and explore on the tram.

Covid Changes

The biggest obstacle is that the tram rides are timed with a limited number of people allowed. You are not allowed to walk up to the house before your assigned time. Go online at least several days before visiting to book your visit. There is no limit as to how early you show up to do the visitor center.

During Covid, an introduction to the house by a tour guide happens under a tent before the staggered entrance to Monticello, and there is a tour guide at the end to answer any questions. Each room has a sign with a QR code to scan which will give you more information about the room on your phone.

When we were there, two additional talks were done under outside tents covering Jefferson’s gardens and slavery on the plantation. Also available for exploration are the slave area under the house, some reconstructed slave quarters, and the gardens. The flower gardens and his 2- acre vegetable garden include specimens which Jefferson himself planted and experimented with. This was one of our favorite parts of the tour.

There is a well-stocked gift shop next to the visitor center downstairs. Grab a new book. Get the shirt. Kid souvenirs are there but also nice gifts. They even sell heritage seeds and plants from Monticello.

Jefferson's Loft Bed
Jefferson’s Loft Bed

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Best part? Experiencing the house and Jefferson’s gardens 

Worst part? You are unable to carry big bags up to the house. There was also not much about his role in history. I would have liked to see a third level of the museum about his role in the Revolution, France, and his presidency.

Mom Tips 

There is a Monticello app for your phone that gives more information. Additionally, there is a $10 book you can buy in the bookstore that shows colored pictures of the house and is a guide for each room. Our family has enjoyed looking over this at home as well.

The parking lot is very close to the visitor center and easy to go back before heading to the house to grab snacks or drop off bags. There is a nice bathroom at the visitor center.

Food and water bottles are allowed to go in the house. They simply ask that you don’t get them out in the house. Some people were even having a picnic on the lawn.

At the time of our visit, you could only have up to a gallon size bag to carry your stuff. They do sell some in the gift shop. Originally, I took a Ziploc into the visitor center. Unwilling to carry this around, I quickly returned to the car, carried the water bottle, and shoved the camera in my pocket.

Word of Warning

Slavery is talked about at Monticello as it was essential for its success. Sally was mentioned in our house orientation talk but not in details that made it child inappropriate. It is handled very tactfully at Monticello without being glossed over, and I believe if you want your kids to remain ignorant of these facts, it would be possible by avoiding the videos. However, it was a very obvious element in their slave quarters, building the house, and maintaining the garden. There are no graphic displays or pictures presented of slavery.

Walking Monticello's Two Acre Vegetable Garden
Walking Monticello’s Two Acre Vegetable Garden

Pre-Adventure Learning and Book Lists

The best preparation you can give yourself and your kids before the trip is to become familiar with Jefferson, his house, and his inventions. Because they knew what to look for in the house, my kids were excited to see his innovative bed, polygraph, instruments, and dumb waiter. The new inventions they discovered at the house were exciting for them to add to the list including the wind-vane seen in the ceiling of the porch which Jefferson used for his daily weather measurements and his cannon wall day calendar in the entrance hall.

Learning for Mom

  • The Women Thomas Jefferson Loved – nonfiction
  • America’s First Daughter­ – historical fiction
  • Jefferson’s Sons – technically young adult historical fiction, but there are mature themes including slavery and children born out of slavery
  • Jefferson’s Daughters
  • The Hemingses of Monticello

Websites

There is a lot of information online on the Monticello website including details about the house. It also has videos of their historical interpreters. https://www.monticello.org

Kid PIcture Books 

  • Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything
  • Thomas Jefferson and the Mammoth Hunt
  • My Name Is James Madison Hemings
  • Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library
  • John, Paul, George, and Ben (And Tom?)
  • Those Rebels, John and Tom
  • Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams…
  • Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation
  • Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography
  • A Picture Book of Thomas Jefferson
  • Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson’s Mammoth
  • Thomas Jefferson’s Feast

Books on Related Topics

The Journey of York – a story central around the slave who attended them

Deep Dives Back at Home

There is so much connected to Thomas Jefferson. His world, interests, and history could bring a full year of study.

  • inventions, other polymaths like daVinci and Benjamin Franklin
  • slavery, the Middle Passage, Jefferson’s abolition of the slave trade, tobacco plantation
  • architecture, Greek and Roman architecture, column types, Jeffersonian architecture
  • Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, Jefferson’s mammoth
  • Declaration of Independence, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, separation of church and state
  • The University of Virginia, William and Mary University, 
  • American Revolution, Presidency, Vice-Presidency, Secretary of State, minister to France, Governor, House of Burgesses, Library of Congress
  • Related people: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, King George III, George Washington, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Napoleon, Patrick Henry, James Madison, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, and so many more
  • Jefferson’s inventions: dumb waiter, polygraph, rotating book stand, macaroni and cheese!

Hope this information helps inspires and helps you plan your educational trip to learn and see the life of Jefferson at Monticello! I’d love to hear how it went!

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