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Francis W. Gilmer’s Description of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello, [ca. February 1815]

Francis W. Gilmer’s Description of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello

[ca. Feb. 1815]

… For first of our state and second only to Washington of our nation is a venerable Patriot & statesman, whose evening ray still gilds the summit of our mountains. His greatness has not the dazzling luster of military glory and we must pause & consider it with calmness & attention.

In his person he is above the ordinary height, with large bones & prominent muscles. His face bears an expression of benevolence mixed with an air of contemplation, dignity & elevation which is captivating & imposing in its effect. His motions are not graceful, but an universal, habitual politeness & delicate, nay even flattering attention to all around him impart an amenity to his manners beyond the graces of courts. His conversation is light & attic, having sometimes the agreable levity of the French, at others the graver instruction of a philosopher, but always the simplicity & pleasantry which are among the characteristics of greatness. His mind must have been by nature one of uncommon capaciousness and retention, of wonderful clearness, and as rapid as is consistent with accurate thought. His application from very early youth has not only been intense but unremitted. When young he adopted a system, perhaps an entire plan of life from which neither the exigencies of business nor the allurements of pleasure could drive or seduce him. Much of his success is to be ascribed to methodical industry. Even when at school he used to be seen with his Greek Grammar in his hand while his comrades were enjoying relaxation in the interval of school hours. He had constant access to the most extensive libraries, & the best informed society of our country. you may imagine then how rich, how vast, how accurately arranged, how carefully digested, the knowledge of such a mind so aided, must be after 60 years application. Tho’ now in his 73d year age appears neither to have “dimd the discernment, nor enfeebled the fancy nor narrowed the range of his mind.” on a very recent occasion when the public thought he had retired for ever to that repose which they imagined to be most grateful to a very old man grown gray in public service, he buckled on his armour & burst forth like a Giant joyful for the field. He appears to have done more nearly every thing which his natural advantages enabled him to do than any man I have known or of whom after Cicero I have even heard. He has enjoyed every honor his country could confer upon him. He has directed the course of its future policy as a nation. He is ranked amongst the learned of most of the polite nations of Europe. His agreable manners & personal address have always secured him the esteem & admiration of those with whom he is in any way connected. and with a good share of health1 remaining he adorns the evening of his life with communion with books and philosophers, & the yet sweeter society of his descendants who look up to him with the reverence & love which the children of our primitive parents felt towards the patriarchs of those simple times. at his beautiful residence called monticello.

This place is itself a monument of his taste, & will in after times be identified with his glory. It stands on a mountain elevated to the height of 500 feet. at its base flows the Rivanna river. The prospect to the north, north east & West, is bounded by the blue ridge. The manner in which the view terminates to the North East is singularly beautiful. The mountains which are no where entirely interrupted become more and more dim as they recede from the eye, until finally the struggling vision doubts whether they have sunk beneath the horizon or faded before the sight. they mingle their azure summits with the clouds or sky & disappear. The tumult of this stormy scene whose awful2 sublimity & grandeur is softened by distance into the beautiful, is finely contrasted with the opposite horizon. There a uniform plane, ‘a boundless contiguity of shade’ stills the agitation into which the chaos of mountains has thrown you; and the eye is relieved by its level hardly broken by the small mountain to the S. West which has been often mentioned as exhibiting the phenomenon known to sailors by the name of looming. The difficulty which mr. Jefferson3 finds in accounting for this natural appearance on any principles of refraction does not really exist. He considers the different densities of the atmosphere at different heights as the only irregularity which occurs. But besides this there are many inequalities of density4 at the same height arising from moisture temperature &c. It is some of these which produces the phenomenon of looming as an uneven piece of glass will distort the images of things into every variety of form.

The prospect from Monticello is most interesting5 on a summers night. The elevation prevents or at least very much diminishes the descent of dews, & you walk with impunity at all hours on the lawn or terrace. The distant summits reflecting the silvery light, the moon beams floating on the mists below, the pale clouds hanging lightly on the declivities of the mountains, the motionless leaf, the softly murmuring wave, the glittering tapers in the surrounding vale, altogether remind one of that beautiful description of night in the Iliad.

  as when the moon, refulgent lamp of night:
o’er heaven’s clear azure spreads her sacred light,
when not a breath disturbs the deep serene
and not a cloud o’ercasts the solemn scene;
around her throne the vivid planets roll
and stars unnumbered gild the glowing pole.
o’er the dark trees a yellower verdure shed
and tipt with silver ev’ry mountains head
Then, shine the vales, the rocks in prospect rise
a flood of glory bursts from all the skies

His universal learning refutes the general opinion that excellence in many things is unattainable6 In this brief sketch I have forborn to say any thing of the political life of mr. J—n. which will constitute his chief claim to the admiration of posterity. Upon that we are not likely to agree.


[Extract from section on James Monroe, which follows a discussion of James Madison:]

“Mr Jefferson … in his practice of law, his diplomatic correspondence, his character as secretary of state was perpetually required to decide correctly & to fortify his opinions with all the muniments of reason & logic. He had also drunk deeper of the fountain of science & learning and acquired a passion for reading in his youth, which he indulged in his closet without the interruptions of the camp.”


[Extract from conclusion of section on Monroe:]

mr. Jeffersons mind is the most capacious, madisons the most rapid, monroes the most sure. One has most learning, another most brilliancy, a third most judjement. Mr. Jefferson surpasses in the management of bodies of men, & monroe of individuals. We adore Mr Jefferson, admire Mr. Madison & esteem Mr Monroe.

MS (ViU: Gilmer Notebook, 1815); entirely in Gilmer’s hand; containing the manuscript of his anonymously published Sketches of American Orators (Baltimore, 1816), which was “written in Washington Feb. 1815,” followed by an unpaginated, undated, and ultimately unpublished essay entitled “Sketches of American Statesmen,” from which the above extracts are taken.

The assertion that age had neither dimd the discernment, nor enfeebled the fancy nor narrowed the range of his mind is adapted from James Mackintosh, Vindiciæ Gallicæ. Defence of the French Revolution and its English admirers against the accusations of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke (London, 1791; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 2545), iv. In a much-publicized letter to Samuel H. Smith of 21 Sept. 1814, TJ buckled on his armour by castigating the British for their destruction of the public buildings at Washington, D.C., and offering to sell his personal library to the nation. William Cowper used the phrase a boundless contiguity of shade in The Task, a Poem (London, 1785), book 2, line 2. The small mountain to the s. west was Willis’s Mountain. TJ discusses the phenomenon of looming at some length in his Notes on the State of Virginia (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, 1955 description ends , 80–1). The quote from Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s iliad is from book 8, lines 687–96 (The Iliad of Homer [London, 1759, and other eds.; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4264], 2:152).

1Gilmer here either reworked or canceled the word “still.”

2Word interlined.

3Gilmer here canceled “mentions.”

4Gilmer here canceled “even.”

5Word interlined in place of “beautiful.”

6Gilmer here adds a bracketed note to himself to “expand this idea.”

Index Entries

  • Blue Ridge Mountains; visible from Monticello search
  • Cicero; mentioned search
  • Cowper, William; quoted search
  • education; of TJ search
  • Gilmer, Francis Walker; and phenomenon of looming search
  • Gilmer, Francis Walker; Description of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello search
  • Gilmer, Francis Walker; on J. Madison search
  • Gilmer, Francis Walker; on J. Monroe search
  • Gilmer, Francis Walker; on TJ search
  • Greek language; study of search
  • Homer; The Iliad of Homer (trans. A. Pope) search
  • Iliad (Homer); cited search
  • Iliad (Homer); The Iliad of Homer (trans. A. Pope) search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; appearance search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; by F. W. Gilmer search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; conversation search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Family & Friends; relations with grandchildren search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Family & Friends; relations with M. J. Randolph search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; good health of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; phenomenon of looming search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as secretary of state search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes on the State of Virginia search
  • looming, phenomenon of search
  • Mackintosh, James; quoted search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); F. W. Gilmer on search
  • Monroe, James; F. W. Gilmer on search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); described search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); view from search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); phenomenon of looming discussed in search
  • Pope, Alexander; translator of The Iliad of Homer search
  • Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Patsy; TJ’s daughter; Thomas Mann Randolph’s wife); mentioned search
  • Washington, George; mentioned search
  • Willis’s Mountain; and phenomenon of looming search