Thomas Jefferson Papers

Francis Hall’s Account of a Visit to Monticello, [7–8 January 1817]

Francis Hall’s Account of a Visit to Monticello

[7–8 Jan. 1817]


Having an introduction to Mr. Jefferson, I ascended his little mountain on a fine morning, which gave the situation its due effect. The whole of the sides and base are covered with forest, through which roads have been cut circularly, so that the winding may be shortened or prolonged at pleasure: the summit is an open lawn, near to the south side of which, the house is built, with its garden just descending the brow: the saloon, or central hall, is ornamented with several pieces of antique sculpture, Indian arms, Mammoth bones, and other curiosities collected from various parts of the Union. I found Mr. Jefferson tall in person, but stooping and lean with old age, thus exhibiting that fortunate mode of bodily decay, which strips the frame of its most cumbersome parts, leaving it still strength of muscle and activity of limb. His deportment was exactly such as the Marquis de Chastellux describes it, above thirty years ago: “At first serious, nay even cold,” but in a very short time relaxing into a most agreeable amenity; with an unabated flow of conversation on the most interesting topics, discussed in the most gentlemanly, and philosophical manner. I walked with him round his grounds, to visit his pet trees, and improvements of various kinds: during the walk, he pointed out to my observation a conical mountain, rising singly at the edge of the southern horizon of the landscape: its distance he said, was 40 miles, and its dimensions those of the greater Egyptian pyramid; so that it accurately represents the appearance of the pyramid at the same distance; there is a small cleft visible on its summit, through which, the true meridian of Monticello exactly passes: its most singular property, however, is, that on different occasions it looms, or alters its appearance, becoming sometimes cylindrical, sometimes square, and sometimes assuming the form of an inverted cone. Mr. Jefferson had not been able to connect this phenomenon with any particular season, or state of the atmosphere, except, that it most commonly occurred in the forenoon. He observed, that it was not only wholly unaccounted for by the laws of vision, but that it had not as yet engaged the attention of philosophers so far as to acquire a name; that of looming, being in fact, a term applied by sailors, to appearances of a similar kind at sea. The Blue Mountains are also observed to loom, though not in so remarkable a degree.*

It must be interesting to recall and preserve the political sentiments of a man who has held so distinguished a station in public life as Mr. Jefferson. He seemed to consider much of the freedom and happiness of America, to arise from local circumstances. “Our population,” he observed, “has an elasticity, by which it would fly off from oppressive taxation.” He instanced the beneficial effects of a free government, in the case of New Orleans, where many proprietors who were in a state of indigence under the dominion of Spain, have risen to sudden wealth, solely by the rise in the value of land, which followed a change of government. Their ingenuity in mechanical inventions, agricultural improvements, and that mass of general information to be found among Americans of all ranks and conditions, he ascribed to that ease of circumstances, which afforded them leisure to cultivate their minds, after the cultivation of their lands was completed.—In fact, I have frequently been surprised to find mathematical and other useful works in houses which seemed to have little pretension to the luxury of learning. Another cause, Mr. Jefferson observed, might be discovered in the many court and county meetings, which brought men frequently together on public business, and thus gave them habits, both of thinking and of expressing their thoughts on subjects, which in other countries are confined to the consideration of the privileged few. Mr. Jefferson has not the reputation of being very friendly to England: we should, however, be aware, that a partiality in this respect, is not absolutely the duty of an American citizen; neither is it to be expected that the policy of our government should be regarded in foreign countries, with the same complacency with which it is looked upon by ourselves: but whatever may be his sentiments in this respect, politeness naturally repressed any offensive expression of them: he talked of our affairs with candour, and apparent good-will, though leaning, perhaps, to the gloomier side of the picture. He did not perceive by what means we could be extricated from our present financial embarrassments, without some kind of revolution in our government: on my replying, that our habits were remarkably steady, and that great sacrifices would be made to prevent a violent catastrophe, he acceded to the observation, but demanded, if those who made the sacrifices, would not require some political reformation in return. His repugnance was strongly marked to the despotic principles of Bonaparte, and he seemed to consider France under Louis XVI. as scarcely capable of a republican form of government; but added, that the present generation of Frenchmen had grown up with sounder notions, which would probably lead to their emancipation. Relative to the light in which he views the conduct of the Allied Sovereigns, I cannot do better than insert a letter of his to Dr. Logan, dated 18th October, 1815, and published in the American Newspapers:

[Here follows a faithful transcription of TJ’s letter to George Logan of 15 (not 18) Oct. 1815, printed above at that date and accordingly omitted here.]

The same anxiety for his country’s independence seems to have led him to a change of opinion on the relative importance of manufactories in America. He thus expresses himself, in answer to an address from the American society for the encouragement of manufactories: “I have read with great satisfaction, the eloquent pamphlet you were so kind as to send me, and sympathise with every line of it. I was once a doubter, whether the labour of the cultivator, aided by the creative powers of the earth itself, would not produce more value than that of the manufacturer alone, and unassisted by the dead subject on which he acted; in other words, whether the more we could bring into action of the energies of our boundless territory, in addition to the labour of our citizens, the more would not be our gain. But the inventions of the latter times, by labour-saving machines, do as much now for the manufacturer, as the earth for the cultivator. Experience too, has proved that mine was but half the question; the other half is, whether dollars and cents are to be weighed in the scale against real independence. The question is then solved, at least so far as respects our own wants. I much fear the effect on our infant establishment, of the policy avowed by Mr. Brougham, and quoted in the pamphlet. Individual British merchants may lose by the late immense importations; but British commerce and manufactories, in the mass will gain, by beating down the competition of ours in our own markets, &c.”

The conversation turning on American history, Mr. Jefferson related an anecdote of the Abbé Raynal, which serves to shew how history, even when it calls itself philosophical, is written. The Abbé was in company with Dr. Franklin, and several Americans at Paris, when mention chanced to be made of his anecdote of Polly Baker, related in his sixth volume, upon which one of the company observed, that no such law as that alluded to in the story, existed in New England: the Abbé stoutly maintained the authenticity of his tale, when Dr. Franklin, who had hitherto remained silent, said, “I can account for all this; you took the anecdote from a newspaper, of which I was at that time editor, and, happening to be very short of news, I composed and inserted the whole story.” “Ah! Doctor,” said the Abbé making a true French retreat, “I had rather have your stories, than other men’s truths.”

Mr. Jefferson preferred Botta’s Italian History of the American Revolution, to any that had yet appeared, remarking, however, the inaccuracy of the speeches. Indeed, the true history of that period seems to be generally considered as lost: A remarkable letter on this point, lately appeared in print, from the venerable Mr. John Adams, to a Mr. Niles, who had solicited his aid to collect and publish a body of revolutionary speeches. He says, “of all the speeches made in Congress, from 1774 to 1777, inclusive, of both years, not one sentence remains, except a few periods of Dr. Witherspoon, printed in his works.” His concluding sentence is very strong. “In plain English, and in a few words, Mr. Niles, I consider the true history of the American revolution, and the establishment of our present constitutions, as lost for ever; and nothing but misrepresentations, or partial accounts of it, will ever be recovered.”

I slept a night at Monticello, and left it in the morning, with such a feeling as the traveller quits the mouldering remains of a Grecian temple, or the pilgrim a fountain in the desert. It would indeed argue great torpor, both of understanding and heart, to have looked without veneration and interest, on the man who drew up the declaration of American independence; who shared in the councils by which her freedom was established; whom the unbought voice of his fellow-citizens called to the exercise of a dignity, from which his own moderation impelled him, when such example was most salutary, to withdraw; and who, while he dedicates the evening of his glorious days to the pursuits of science and literature, shuns none of the humbler duties of private life; but, having filled a seat higher than that of kings, succeeds with graceful dignity to that of the good neighbour, and becomes the friendly adviser, lawyer, physician, and even gardener of his vicinity. This is the “still small voice” of philosophy, deeper and holier than the lightnings and earthquakes which have preceded it. What monarch would venture thus to exhibit himself in the nakedness of his humanity? On what royal brow would the laurel replace the diadem? But they who are born and educated to be kings, are not expected to be philosophers. This is a just answer, though no great compliment either to the governors or the governed.

My travels had nearly terminated at the Rivannah, which flows at the foot of Monticello: in trying to ford it, my horse and waggon were carried down the stream: I escaped with my servant, and by the aid of Mr. Jefferson’s domestics, we finally succeeded in extricating my equipage from a watery grave. The road to Richmond follows the James River, and has few features to attract notice. There are no towns, and very few villages.

Printed in Hall, Travels in Canada, and the United States, in 1816 and 1817 (London, 1818), 374–86; date supplied from an itinerary on p. 340. Reprinted in Boston the same year.

Francis Hall (d. 1833), soldier and author, was educated at Winchester College, 1802–07, and Trinity College, Cambridge University, 1807–10. He joined the British army as a cornet in the 14th Light Dragoons in 1810 and was promoted to lieutenant the following year. After campaigning against the French in the Iberian Peninsula, 1811–12, Hall was invalided home and did not return to the service until after the Battle of Waterloo. Appointed a military secretary to General John Wilson in October 1815, he accompanied him to Canada a year later. Hall retired from active duty in the British army in September 1817 and subsequently published accounts of his travels through Canada, the United States, and France. In 1819 he joined Simon Bolívar’s attempt to end Spanish rule in South America. Having attained the rank of colonel in the newly formed nation of Colombia, Hall settled there and made his living as a writer, journalist, hydrographer, and as the head of the government’s topographical department. He was killed during a later revolutionary upheaval in Quito, Ecuador (Chambers’s Journal, 7th ser. [1917–18], 8:303–4; A List of the Officers of the Army and Royal Marines, on full and half-pay [London, 1821], 508; Hall, Travels in France, in 1818 [London, 1819]; London Morning Chronicle, 22 Aug. 1822; Hall, Colombia: Its Present State [London, 1824]; Mark J. Van Aken, King of the Night: Juan José Flores and Ecuador, 1824–1864 [1989], 68–9, 78, 88–9; Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 1 Jan. 1834).

The Marquis de Chastellux described TJ as being at first serious, nay even cold in his Travels in North-America, in the years 1780, 1781, and 1782 (London, 1787; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4023), 2:44 (see also PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 39 vols. description ends , 7:585–6n). The conical mountain was Willis’s Mountain in Buckingham County, TJ’s drawing of which is reproduced elsewhere in this volume. For TJ’s answer to an address from the american society for the encouragement of manufactories, of which Hall provides an accurate excerpt, see TJ to William Sampson, 26 Jan. 1817.

“The Speech of Miss polly baker, before a Court of Judicature, at Connecticut near Boston in New-England; where she was prosecuted the Fifth Time, for having a Bastard Child: Which influenced the Court to dispense with her Punishment, and induced one of her Judges to marry her the next Day,” is printed in Leonard W. Labaree and others, eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (1959– ), 3:123–5. Guillaume Thomas François (Abbé) Raynal printed the story in book 17 of his Histoire Philosophique et Politique Des établissemens & du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (Amsterdam, 1770, and other eds.; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 466), 6:257–62.

A lengthy extract from John Adams’s letter to Hezekiah Niles of 3 Jan. 1817 on revolutionary speeches (MHi: Adams Papers) was printed in the Baltimore Niles’ Weekly Register on 18 Jan. 1817. The biblical reference to a still small voice is in 1 Kings 19.12.

Prior to his journey to Monticello, Hall visited Natural Bridge. He quoted from TJ’s description in Notes on the State of Virginia and commented on Chastellux’s and TJ’s hypotheses about its origins. Hall also indicated that TJ owned the property and “commonly makes a visit once in the year, ‘to look upon its beauty’” (Hall, Travels in Canada and the United States, 369–72).

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

* *Vide for a more detailed account of this phenomenon in Notes on Virginia, p. 122.

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; and speeches of the American Revolution search
  • Address of the American Society for the encouragement of Domestic Manufactures (W. Sampson) search
  • American Revolution; books on search
  • American Revolution; speeches delivered during search
  • American Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Manufactures; addresses of search
  • Baker, Polly (fictional character) search
  • Bible; 1 Kings referenced search
  • books; of speeches search
  • books; on American Revolution search
  • books; on history search
  • books; on mathematics search
  • Botta, Carlo Giuseppe Guglielmo; Storia della Guerra dell’ Independenza degli Stati Uniti d’America search
  • Brougham, Henry Peter, Baron Brougham and Vaux; and British commercial policy search
  • Chastellux, Marquis de; describes TJ search
  • Chastellux, Marquis de; on Natural Bridge search
  • Continental Congress, U.S.; speeches given in search
  • Declaration of Independence; TJ as author of search
  • France; TJ on search
  • Franklin, Benjamin; anecdotes about search
  • gardens; at Monticello search
  • Great Britain; commercial policies of search
  • Great Britain; political reform in search
  • Great Britain; TJ on financial policies of search
  • Hall, Francis; Account of a Visit to Monticello search
  • Hall, Francis; identified search
  • Hall, Francis; introduced to TJ search
  • Hall, Francis; visits Monticello search
  • Hall, Francis; visits Natural Bridge search
  • Histoire Philosophique et Politique (G. T. F. Raynal) search
  • horses; mentioned search
  • Indians, American; artifacts of, at Monticello search
  • inventions; TJ on American search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; letters of introduction to search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; publication of papers search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; appearance search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; by Chastellux search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; by F. Hall search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; conversation search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; agricultural improvements search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; C. G. G. Botta’sStoria della Guerra dell’ Independenza search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; domestic manufacturing search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; France search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Great Britain search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; inventions by Americans search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Napoleon search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; phenomenon of looming search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; U.S. as free society search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Travels; to Natural Bridge search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Declaration of Independence search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes on the State of Virginia search
  • Logan, George; TJ’s correspondence with published search
  • looming, phenomenon of search
  • Louis XVI, king of France; TJ on search
  • manufacturing; TJ on search
  • mastodon (mammoth, Ohio); in Entrance Hall at Monticello search
  • mathematics; books on search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); Entrance Hall search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); gardens search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); roads at search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); slaves at search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); Visitors to; Hall, Francis search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; TJ on search
  • Natural Bridge, Va.; TJ on search
  • Natural Bridge, Va.; TJ visits search
  • Natural Bridge, Va.; visitors to search
  • New Orleans; economic conditions in search
  • Niles, Hezekiah; and speeches of the American Revolution search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); description of Natural Bridge in search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); phenomenon of looming discussed in search
  • Raynal, Guillaume Thomas François; and anecdote of “Polly Baker” search
  • Raynal, Guillaume Thomas François; Histoire Philosophique et Politique search
  • Rodgers, John, Rev.; editsThe Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon (J. Witherspoon) search
  • Sampson, William; Address of the American Society for the encouragement of Domestic Manufactures search
  • slaves; at Monticello search
  • Storia della Guerra dell’ Independenza degli Stati Uniti d’America (C. G. G. Botta) search
  • The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon (J. Witherspoon; ed. J. Rodgers) search
  • wagons; mentioned search
  • Willis’s Mountain; and phenomenon of looming search
  • Witherspoon, John; The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon (ed. J. Rodgers) search