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Wilkinson: Monticello event extends Jefferson's spirit of welcome

Wilkinson: Monticello event extends Jefferson's spirit of welcome

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  • Editor's note: The following is adapted from remarks Judge Wilkinson made at the 50th anniversary naturalization ceremony at Monticello, on the Fourth of July:

It is a pleasure to celebrate the 50th naturalization ceremony at Monticello, the most beautiful spot on earth.

It is important to remember on this 50th anniversary that Monticello was a place conceived in hospitality. A spirit of welcome has graced this mountaintop from its earliest years. The biographer R.B. Bernstein recalled this observation from a Monticello resident in the early 19th century: "After Mr. Jefferson returned from Washington, he was for years crowded with visitors, and they almost ate him out of house and home. They were there all times of the year . . . . There was no tavern in all that country that had so much company."

Joseph Ellis elaborates on this theme of hospitality in his book "American Sphinx": Monticello became "a virtual hotel for at least eight months of the year. . . . Martha's daughter, Ellen, recalled that her mother sometimes had to feed and entertain fifty overnight guests. Total strangers who were simply passing through seemed to believe that Monticello was a national shrine where they could declare sanctuary. They often peered through the windows when the family was seated at dinner, walked right into the front hallway, chipped off pieces of brick or wood as souvenirs, even joined the invited guests over tea or wine and struck up conversations with the patriarch himself, who was sometimes not sure whether he was addressing a guest or an interloper."

What did Jefferson do amidst all this visitation? Ellis tells us he would take his favorite horse, Eagle, "for two or three hours through the fields and woods around Monticello." When the stream of visitors became too heavy, he retreated to his residence in Bedford County known as Poplar Forest, where he was able to find more of the solitude he loved.

Should we blame Jefferson for escaping his guests? I hardly think so. If you had 50 people who just dropped in for dinner, wouldn't you want to get on your horse or bike or motorcycle or automobile and go where you were just a little harder to find? At any rate, when we walk the magnificent Monticello trail, we now know the woods are there for many reasons.

In truth, we have no record of Jefferson losing his temper and demanding that even uninvited guests get the heck out and leave him alone. He seems to have endured all this company with remarkable equanimity and good humor. One contemporary observer said that Jefferson was well aware that a stream of visitors was both physically and financially draining, "but he was so kind and polite that he received all his visitors with a smile, and made them welcome." In truth, it is clear that a part of him was quite pleased to see the countrymen he loved come to the house he so loved.

Jefferson's hospitality at Monticello is one of his last and greatest gifts to America. It is an overlooked part of his legacy. In his final years, he remained the quintessential "small-d" democrat. He presided over Monticello in a manner that welcomed not just the high and mighty — the Lafayettes and the Websters — but the ordinary citizen to his home. He continued to converse with those whom George III would never have suffered near his throne.

For all their greatness, the Founders left us a flawed and unfinished product, which succeeding generations have suffused with an inclusive spirit. Today — Independence Day — we continue the spirit of welcome that has blessed this spot from its birth. Monticello's earliest traditions of hospitality have now become a universal embrace of new Americans from every corner and quarter of the globe. We extend to our new citizens the warmest smiles and hugs. We are delighted that you are here. I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson would be happy to see you here, too.

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