MONTICELLO, Va. – Standing behind Thomas Jefferson’s asparagus bed, looking out over Virginia’s hills, I remember what a wise man once said to me about this unruly country.
The man said America was too big, physically, and too diverse, ethnically, and too divided, philosophically, ever to be governed efficiently.
Maybe. But there’s also the problem of a leadership void. You feel that missing link here at Monticello, home of a born and brilliant leader. He didn’t have the speaking skills and public charisma that are required for so-called leadership in today’s world, which spins itself on clever sound bytes.
And yet he thought and wrote, and those thoughts and words were original and beautiful and, as it turns out, for the ages.
Jefferson was a leader.
As they herd us from room to room in the house that Thomas built, I look into wavy old mirrors and survey the other tourists surrounding me. There are a couple of elderly snowbirds in their Bermuda shorts and black socks, a fellow in his Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt with a ponytail and a need to be noticed; he asks the guide incessant questions. A woman with a cane takes her time and carefully surveys the books on the shelves. A young couple makes whispered promises to their child, who is restless and keeps touching things.
A door away, just behind us, there’s another group, like us but different, and so it will go all day until the guides are exhausted and the doors are closed. Thousands will tour Monticello this summer, and all of us will take something from the visit.
But how many of us, among the thousands, will give something back, will make a difference here, much less the kind of difference Thomas Jefferson made?
He helped forge a new country, declared its independence in reasoned and well-crafted sentences, took his turn at governing it, farmed its hillsides and made an indelible mark.
So significant were his achievements, Jefferson didn’t put “president” on the list he drew up for his tombstone. He was prouder of what he did for public education and freedom of religion.
He was a man among men, one in a trillion, a genius who, like all geniuses, was flawed. He owned other human beings and died in debt.
But his essays – including his “essay in architecture,” as he called Monticello – still hold us spellbound, enlighten us, entertain us and separate him from most of us.
I leave Monticello with an urge to add a room to my house, plant a flower garden by my driveway, work harder at my words and leave some kind of footprint behind. I’ll more likely get home, unpack my suitcase and forget about it. But maybe that restless child who meandered through the rooms of Monticello will be another Jefferson, another leader, some rare being up to the challenge of steering a country as unwieldy as ours.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson