Imagining America from Rural Virginia

By Frank Harmon

How ironic that Jefferson’s architecture, in its day so radical, is now revered in Virginia for its traditional appearance. How sadly ironic, too, that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence had his fields plowed and his kitchen tended by enslaved people. His grand vision for America did not include the intimate lives of his slaves 

The construction of Poplar Forest took nearly twenty years, both during and after Jefferson’s presidency. Like many a handyman today, he liked to change and improvise. He is reported to have announced to a cabinet meeting in Washington that he had to leave immediately to attend to the layout of the octagonal foundations at Poplar Forest, which may be the only time in history a U.S. president has left the White House to lay a foundation. 

For Jefferson, the journey from Monticello to Poplar Forest took three days, a trip we make today in less than two hours. Jefferson enjoyed staying in modest inns along the way, but how delighted he must have been when he arrived at his cool and silent retreat. Traveling in a closed carriage with his daughters and grandchildren, he would have first seen Poplar Forest on the brow of a hill, surrounded by fields of corn and tobacco. They would alight at an elegant portico on the north side of the house. A French nobleman observed that he had placed his house and his mind “on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the Universe.”

I imagine Jefferson sitting on his portico overlooking his fields, which rolled out to the mountains beyond, imagining the promise of a new nation in the sweet morning air. He imagined an America of self-sufficient farmers, ready to defend their freedom as the Minutemen did at Concord. He could not have foretold that America would become an industrial nation, rather than agrarian one; or that the patrician villas he imagined civilizing the wilderness would be superseded by the egalitarian ranch houses that now crowd his estate.

At Poplar Forest he left us a building based on principle, not expediency, and his love of light and air and the delight of living in the midst of nature have endured. I like to think he would be pleased to see what is possible today, and that we share his unflagging optimism in the United States of America.

Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826.

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