My kids wanted to know: What exactly did Jefferson do at Monticello, anyway?

We built a vacation around a lyric from ‘Hamilton,’ and the history lesson kept my daughters’ imaginations alive

Outside Monticello.
Outside Monticello.Jenna Russell

The first time my children ever heard of Monticello, they were deep into the “Hamilton” soundtrack, well on their way to memorizing every lyric. And this line ranked right up there with our favorites:

“Welcome to the present. We’re running a real nation,” Alexander Hamilton taunts Thomas Jefferson. “Would you like to join us, or stay mellow, doing whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello?”

This was hilarious, irreverent provocation, and in my grade-school children, it fostered fascination. Where was this mythical Monticello, so roundly dismissed in the song, and what DID the future president do there?

“Well,” their father told them, “we can go there, if you want.”


“Wait,” they said, amazed. “You mean it still exists?”

And that was how, a few months later, we came to find ourselves in western Pennsylvania, binging on a late-night meal of fried appetizers. The first day of our road trip to Monticello had ended as days on the road often do: I demanded to stop for the night, in monsoon-like rain and fog that cut visibility to almost zero. My copilot (the guy who had proposed this trip to our children) ignored my demands as he pushed onward, hellbent on reaching Virginia. By the time he surrendered, the restaurants were closed, resigning us to mozzarella sticks in the bar of the roadside Holiday Inn.

We had launched our 1,700-mile trip with a straight shot west across Massachusetts, then a short, gorgeous ramble down the Taconic Parkway to Hyde Park, where we spent an afternoon at Springwood, Franklin Roosevelt’s estate beside the Hudson River. Born there in 1882, FDR lived there for much of his life, and was buried on the property in 1945. The sprawling old house is perfectly preserved, and the tours are rich with anecdotes and family lore. Our guide lingered with us upstairs and shared a few ghost stories (footsteps; doors closing on their own; an unexplained figure in the window at Eleanor Roosevelt’s nearby cottage getaway, Val-Kill, which is also open to the public).


James Madison's grave at Montpelier.
James Madison's grave at Montpelier.

We had dreamed of a sumptuous meal at the Culinary Institute of America, also in Hyde Park, but its restaurants were closed on Sundays. So we headed south, in the rain, to Pennsylvania. By noon the next day we had crossed into Virginia and found blue skies again. We cranked up the “Hamilton” soundtrack, and felt fresh momentum: we were really on our way to Monticello.

First, though, we paused for a detour underground — 160 feet below the surface of the earth, into the cool, dim, astonishing depths of the Luray Caverns. The network of caves, discovered in 1878, draws half a million visitors each year, and the hourlong tour did not disappoint, winding through an otherworldly realm of subterranean stone canyons and towering columns. Most mesmerizing was Dream Lake, a still, glassy, 20-inch-deep pool that so perfectly reflects the stalactites hanging above it, the brain is tricked into seeing stalagmites thrusting up beneath the water.

Back outside, we found a ropes course for the kids to climb on for just $10 apiece. They happily stretched their limbs after two days in the car, while I reclined at a picnic table in the sun. From there, it was just 90 more minutes to Charlottesville, a gorgeous stretch beside the Blue Ridge Mountains, crossing in and out of Shenandoah National Park. We had finally reached our destination, and our mood, like Jefferson’s, was mellow; in the morning, we would finally discover what (the hell) it was he did at Monticello.


We left the hotel early and arrived at the visitor center a few minutes after it opened. A shuttle carried us up to the mountaintop house and plantation. It felt like stepping into Thomas Jefferson’s mind. Every brick and tree, every flourish of landscape and architecture, was shaped by his expansive intellect, and the tour of the iconic mansion — designed by Jefferson, and featuring his library of 6,000 books and the room where he died on July 4, 1826 — was only the beginning.

The Lawn, the famous green space at the heart of the University of Virginia. Jefferson designed the grassy common and original neoclassical buildings around it, supervising construction by telescope from his mountaintop terrace at Monticello.
The Lawn, the famous green space at the heart of the University of Virginia. Jefferson designed the grassy common and original neoclassical buildings around it, supervising construction by telescope from his mountaintop terrace at Monticello.

Later that morning, our children were riveted by tales of the African-American families who lived and worked at Monticello, on Mulberry Row — those who stayed until Jefferson’s death, and those who risked everything to flee in search of freedom. They are not called slaves here, but enslaved people — a subtle but powerful way to reinstate their humanity. On the hourlong tour that explores their history, and their crucial role at the plantation, a visitor feels keenly the brutal underpinnings of our gloried past. By giving these long-forgotten people names, and a place of prominence on this peaceful mountaintop, the conservators of Monticello are mounting a quiet revolution of their own, one that trains a spotlight on history’s hidden truths.

Unsure how much history our kids could absorb, I was skeptical when their dad proposed joining our third tour of the day, this one circling the Monticello gardens as it detailed Jefferson’s enormous contributions to early American botany and agriculture. Imagine my delight, a few minutes in, when my fourth-grader scolded me for hanging too far back behind the group. “I can’t hear,” she whispered urgently, “and she’s saying really interesting things!”


The author's children at Springwood.
The author's children at Springwood.

And so she was. I loved the emphasis on Jefferson’s failures and disappointments — many of the crops he planted so eagerly simply would not grow here — and the spotlight on his constant record-keeping about everything he did, meticulous notes that became a lasting and essential base of knowledge.

It seemed laughable, as the day wound down, that we had not been sure if we would spend a full day there: How could anyone possibly spend any less? We made our way to Jefferson’s grave, in a pretty family cemetery encircled by trees, and walked down the mountain along a wooded trail. Only on the way to the car did we discover the excellent, engrossing children’s education center, where we happily whiled away another hour.

For dinner, we carried a takeout pizza to the Lawn, the famous green space at the heart of the University of Virginia. Jefferson designed the grassy common and original neoclassical buildings around it, supervising construction by telescope from his mountaintop terrace at Monticello. There seemed no more fitting place to end the day than there, tossing a baseball as the sky turned pink.


The Birth Room at Springwood, Franklin Roosevelt’s estate beside the Hudson River.
The Birth Room at Springwood, Franklin Roosevelt’s estate beside the Hudson River.Jenna Russell

In the morning we left town, bound for Mount Vernon, north along scenic Route 20, dotted with picturesque farms. Just 25 miles down the road, we spotted a sign up ahead for Montpelier, the one-time home of James and Dolly Madison, Jefferson’s friends and frequent guests at Monticello. We hadn’t gone looking for this one — three presidential homes in one week seemed enough — but then my daughter spoke up from the backseat: “We should stop!”

Maybe you can resist a 10-year-old falling for history, but we could not: We hit the brakes and turned off the road. The cafe in the visitor’s center had just opened, and a kind woman baker handed us a stack of complimentary kitchen-sink cookies warm from the oven, dense with coconut and melted chocolate. We ate them outside in the sun, where it felt like we had the entire plantation to ourselves; located between Monticello and Mount Vernon, Montpelier is far less heavily visited.

Too bad, because the tour of the historic house rivaled Monticello’s. Playful touches enchanted the children — cardboard cutouts of the guests at the formal dinner table, and a stuffed rat hiding in one corner of a bedroom — and this presidential gravesite, a remote and lonely spot, was the wildest and most melancholy of the four we saw, conjuring the harshness of the era, and its sorrows.

A window at Monitcello.
A window at Monitcello. Jenna Russell

That night we stayed in Washington, D.C. In the morning, after a walk around the National Mall, we were off to visit our fourth and final presidential estate, Mount Vernon. Our hopes were high; it seemed inevitable that the home of our first, most famous president would measure up. But, presumably because of its easy proximity to D.C. and resulting popularity — a million annual visitors, compared to 500,000 at Monticello, 200,000 at Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, and 125,000 at Montpelier — the Mount Vernon experience is different.

Had we visited this one first, we might have been less struck, and less disappointed, by the rushed, superficial feeling of the house tour, which never lets visitors pause for contemplation. The endless line keeps moving through, with guides offering a bland sentence or two in each room, compared to the colorful and detailed anecdotes generously served at each of the other sites. In a blink of an eye, it seemed, we were back outside, where a cold rain was now falling, with only the vaguest sense of having just seen a storied national landmark.

The author's daughter near Mount Vernon.
The author's daughter near Mount Vernon.

Back in the visitor’s center, there were more substantial pleasures to be found. We loved the 4-D movie about the Revolutionary War, where cannons shake the seats and “snow” flies through the air, and the interactive “Be Washington” exhibit is genius. Visitors are immersed in actual crises the president faced, and get to make their own decisions about what to do, consulting a video panel of real-life historical figures.

But in the days and months that followed, it was Monticello we thought of most. A word in a song had become a portal to history — a place as mesmerizing, real, and complicated as the people who rose up to make it famous.


FDR’s Springwood: www.nps.gov/hofr/index.htm

Jefferson’s Monticello: www.monticello.org

Madison’s Montpelier: www.montpelier.org

Washington’s Mount Vernon: www.mountvernon.org

Luray Caverns: luraycaverns.com

Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.