Thomas Jefferson Papers

Account of a Visit to Monticello and Montpellier by “W.” (possibly George Watterston), [before 15 August 1820]

Account of a Visit to Monticello and Montpellier by “W.” (possibly George Watterston)

[before 15 Aug. 1820]

Dear Sir:

You request me to give you some account of my late excursion to Virginia.1 I comply with the request, but am sorry to observe, that the time occupied in making it was too short to enable me to take those views of the country through which I passed that are necessary to render any description pleasing or satisfactory. The observations, however, I had the power to make, in my rapid journey, I submit to your examination, with a hope that they may be found not entirely destitute of interest. The appearance of this state, towards its eastern boundary, is not the most beautiful, or the most promising; the soil is generally poor, and but little attended to; it is composed of sand and clay, interspersed with granite, quartz, and schist, at least in the direction I took. As you approach the mountains, however, the prospect is more inviting, and you advance through a region of beauty and magnificence that never fails to charm and delight. The peculiar color of the soil (a red argillaceous earth) found every where among the south-west mountains, is indeed the only object that can detract from the pleasure the rich and variegated aspect of the country around you is calculated to produce: groves of the most stately trees; vales of the richest verdure; slopes beautified with golden grain; and mountains, “blue fading into mist,” meet the eye on every eminence and through every vista you pass. “Ould Virginia” is not indeed now as it was in the time of the author from whom I make the following quotations:* “All over a naturall grove of oakes, pines, cedars, cipresse,2 chesnut, laurell, sassafrass, cherry, and plum trees,3 all of so delectable an aspect that the melanchollyest eye in the world cannot looke upon it without contentment, nor content himself without admiration.” But there is still but a small portion of it in cultivation, compared with the magnitude of that which is yet in a state of rude and native wildness: and that which is cultivated has not been much improved by the industry of man or the lights which modern agriculture has afforded.

The tributary streams which flow into the Rappahannock and James rivers are very beautiful and very picturesque. It is to situations like these that the muses delight to resort; and the time may not be very distant when they will be celebrated in the “wood notes wildof some native bard, fired by the enthusiasm of genius, and roused by the beauties of nature that surround him. The mountain cataract and the meandering rivulet, whose current glides silently and smoothly between its banks, shaded by the embrowned foliage of the lofty forest tree and the humble but aromatic shrub, are apt to predispose the mind to that state of melancholy feeling which is not unfrequently the parent of poetical inspiration. In the elegant and poetical mythology of the Greeks, you will recollect that every stream had its god, and every fountain its nymph, and that the favorite haunts of the muses themselves were by the far-famed Hippocrene, the fountain of Helicon. It is along those streams, too, and through the forests which are near them, that the botanist delights to stroll. Every step is beguiled by some new object in the vegetable kingdom, or some old acquaintance to which his eye has before been familiarized. I regretted you were not with me, in the little rambles I took, to participate in the rich banquet that nature presented to my senses. Your botanical enthusiasm would have been gratified, and your knowledge enlarged, by the variety and beauty of the specimens occasionally to be met with among the “wilds and melancholy glooms” through which I wandered. The sumach is every where seen along the road; but I have often been surprised that the poet Moore should have selected, amidst the great variety of beautiful plants every where abounding in this country, this shrub—the rhus coccineum of the fields—to introduce into one of the finest lyrical effusions he wrote while in the United States:

By the shade of yon sumach, whose red berry dips

In the gush of the fountain, how sweet to recline.”

There is, you know, scarcely any plant less worthy a place in poetry than this, from its absolute want of any thing like beauty; and, as it is a shrub which, I believe, very rarely exceeds the height of six feet, it affords too little shade to repose under, and it never bends sufficiently to dip its berries in the gush of any fountain. But I am wandering.

I must now take you with me to the residence of the sage of Monticello, whom I felt it my duty to visit, and whom I could not pass by without paying my respects. The approach to his house was by a gradual ascent from the road which leads to Charlottesville. The friend who accompanied me was equally desirous to see the venerable patriarch, whose fame has been so widely extended, and whose patriotism and usefulness his country will never cease to remember. We ascended the eastern side of the mountain on which he resides, and it seemed as if we should never reach its summit, from its lofty but gradual elevation. The morning was beautiful; the sun beamed forth in all his majesty; the birds warbled sweetly around us; the air was pure, balmy, and elastic; and, when within sight of the house, we paused for some time to contemplate the sublime scene that burst upon our view. To the right, the eye ranged over an expanse of forty miles, and was limited by the verge of the horizon, which resembled that of the ocean; behind us, “Alps on Alps arose,” and bounded the prospect; to the left could be seen the Sugar Loaf Mountain, in Maryland, a distance of 110 miles, and, not far below us, the village of Charlottesville and the University now building, with the rich and cultivated country around. Monticello, the name of Mr. Jefferson’s dwelling, is situated on a conical hill, about 600 feet high. This modest title (in English, little mountain) was given to it to distinguish it from the more lofty elevations behind. “It was a debt,” says a traveller who visited Mr. Jefferson about forty years ago, “nature owed to a philosopher and a man of taste, that in his own possessions he should find a spot where he might better study and enjoy her;” and it would indeed seem that scarcely any region was better calculated for such a purpose than the one he has selected for his residence. The sublimity and grandeur of the objects of nature which surround him, the mountain scenery and elastic atmosphere he enjoys, must have had the effect of producing a corresponding elevation and greatness of soul; and “it should seem,” to use the language of the traveller quoted, “as if Mr. Jefferson, from his youth, had placed his mind, as he has done his house, on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the universe.” I saw near his house a great quantity of Scotch broom, (spartium,) ranged on either side of the road, a large field of elephantopos, and a great number of beautiful plants, resembling the Ixia, which I had not time to examine.

Mr. Jefferson is now near eighty years of age; his person is tall and stately; his countenance mild and agreeable; his step, though at so advanced an age, is firm and springy; and his whole appearance is that of a philosopher and a well-bred gentleman. I could perceive no marks of the imbecility of age in any thing he said or did; he indeed complained of the decay of his memory, but his memory seemed to be stored with the treasures of learning, and with all that was useful and agreeable. In his manner he is dignified without being haughty, and easy without being familiar. What he says has the weight of authority and the impressiveness of wisdom, and he never tires by detailing events that have passed, a propensity so common with those whose energies have been weakened by the decay of age. Mr. Jefferson’s constitution has always been, as it still is, vigorous and healthy, and it is not likely, from the regularity and temperance he observes, and the exercise he takes, that he will be immediately sensible of that gradual waste of body and intellect which accompanies our progress to the grave from old age. He is now surrounded by his family, and seems to experience all that happiness that flows from a long life of usefulness and virtue; but, though abstracted from the cares and miseries of state, and buried in the shades of retirement, the same eagerness to be useful, & the same desire to promote the welfare of his country and his native state which always distinguished him, still accompanies him; and the attention he bestows, and the time he devotes to the Charlottesville University, evince his former vigor of mind, and display the native and prominent virtues of his heart. His house is an elegant octagonal building, with a large doric portico in front; the entrance, or hall, contains a considerable collection of curiosities in nature and art, such as statues, busts, paintings by Raphael, Reubens, Pouisson, &c., and many other curiosities of nature, more complete, interesting, and valuable, than can be found in any other private collection, perhaps, in the world. The conversation of Mr. Jefferson is replete with amusement and edification, and is never withheld by any feeling of reserve from those who desire it. It is a pity some of his relations or friends do not endeavor to form, from their close intimacy with him, an ana, for the gratification and instruction of those who survive him, and who must and will feel the deepest interest in all that concerns a man who has been so distinguished and useful in every walk of life.

Having visited this illustrious patriarch, we could not resist the inclination to call upon his friend, and the friend of his country, Mr. Madison. The natural scenery around this gentleman’s residence is also rich and magnificent. The building is of brick, ornamented in front with a Roman portico, and opening, from a saloon behind, into a beautiful lawn, from which, through an artificial vista, you have a view of the range of mountains, called, from their appearance, the Blue Ridge. Groves of forest trees, extensive spots in cultivation, and the waving line of stupendous mountains, are constantly presented to the eye from this elegant retreat.

Montpelier, the residence of Mr. Madison, is about 25 miles from Monticello, situated in Orange county, so called from the Prince of Orange and about 5 miles from the Court House and the little village in which it stands. His farm is extensive and well improved; the soil, though of a deep orange, is4 rich and productive; and he seems to want no convenience that might contribute to his comfort or add to his happiness.

It is amidst those isolated mountain habitations that the social affections of our nature become more durable and vigorous, because, being less liable to distraction, they are more concentrated. It is in situations like these that man feels the dignity of his nature, and the happiness of which he has been made susceptible. Nature spreads before him her beauties; masses of verdure surround him; his foot softly presses the green lawn that has been furnished as his carpet; his eye plays over the ever-varying landscape; his ear is regaled by the melody of the grove; and he breathes an air as pure as his heart, and as gentle as the current of his feelings.

Oh, rus! quando te aspiciam?

In such sequestered retirements the heart acquires a purity and innocence that nothing can destroy, and the happy inhabitant contemplates the objects around him with a pleasure that it would be difficult to describe. He beholds in the rising sun the grand epoch of creation, and sees in his descent, when he paints the clouds with a thousand colors, and gilds the summit of the trees that veil his retreat, the last scene of life, in which the projects of ambition and the pomp and trophies of greatness are “ingulphed in an abyss that never restores its prey.”

We found Mr. Madison in good health, very cheerful, and very happy. His person, you know, is small, and his countenance grave; but it is soon illuminated when he enters into conversation, and the ease and fluency with which he speaks, gives to what he says a charm that cannot be resisted. His deportment has the same ease and dignity in private, as it had in public, life, and the former politeness of his manners, and hospitality of his heart, are still recognized and felt by all who have the happiness to visit him in his delightful retirement. In this retirement he devotes himself to the innocent pursuits of agriculture, and, like the patriarch of Monticello, he5 seems to manifest a degree of delight at the idea of having honorably freed himself from the cares, the burdens, and the miseries of government. It is certainly a spectacle of no ordinary grandeur to see those who have revolved in the highest spheres of life sinking down into the bosom of society, without a sigh of regret, or an effort to “cast one longing, lingering look behind.” The relinquishment of power is not often attended with the enjoyment of happiness. The splendor which surrounds the head of him who wields the destinies of a nation has been considered too alluring and attractive to be abandoned without reluctance and regret; but in the instances this country has furnished, it may be safely averred, that pleasure, rather than pain, has been felt by those who have yielded up the “rod of empire.”

“It is seldom (says Gibbon) that minds long exercised in business, have formed any habits of conversing with themselves; and, in the loss of power, they principally regret the want of occupation.” But, like Dioclesian, both Mr. Madison and Mr. Jefferson have preserved their taste for the most innocent, as well as natural pleasures, and their hours, like those of that Roman emperor in retirement, are sufficiently employed in reading, planting and cultivating their farms, to exclude the miseries of indolence, and the horrors of ennui. The residence of both Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison, is the residence of taste and elegance, and to both may be applied, with peculiar aptitude, the lines of the poet of nature;

An elegant sufficiency—content,

Retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books,

Ease and alternate labor—useful life,

Progressive virtue, and approving Heaven.”


Printed in Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 15 Aug. 1820, Charlottesville Central Gazette, 25 Aug. 1820, and elsewhere; undated; with faint punctuation in National Intelligencer supplied from Central Gazette; at head of text: “MONTICELLO AND MONTPELIER.”

Watterston’s possible identity as “W.” is inferred from his surname’s initial and from his having briefly visited TJ at Monticello on 25 July 1820, accompanied by a Dr. Hamilton (TJ to Watterston, 27 July 1820; Watterston to TJ, 4 Aug. 1820).

virginia, by e. w. gent. 1650 was Edward Williams, Virginia: More especially the South part thereof, Richly and truly valued (2d ed., London, 1650; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4008), quote on p. 1. wood notes wild is from line 134 of John Milton’s poem L’Allegro. wilds and melancholy glooms appears in Regina Maria Roche, The Monastery of St. Columb; or, the Atonement (London, 1813), 1:17. by the shade of yon sumach … how sweet to recline is from lines 13–4 of “Ballad Stanzas,” a short poem in Thomas Moore, Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems (4th ed., London, 1814), 2:108.

alps on alps arose is a variant of “Alps on Alps arise!” from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism (London, 1711), 15. The Marquis de chastelleux’s quotes come from his Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782 (Paris, 1786; English trans. London, 1787; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends nos. 4021, 4023), 2:41, 46. reubens and pouisson were the painters Peter Paul Rubens and Nicolas Poussin, respectively. oh, rus! quando te aspiciam? (“o rus, quando ego te aspiciam!”): “O rural home: when shall I behold you!” (Horace, Satires, 2.6.60, in Fairclough, Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica description begins Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library, 1926, repr. 2005 description ends , 214–5).

ingulphed in an abyss that never restores its prey, with most of the paragraph preceding it, is a free translation from Ferdinand Marie Bayard’s Voyage dans l’intérieur des États-Unis, a Bath, Winchester, dans La Vallée de Shenandoha, etc. etc. etc. Pendant l’Été de 1791 (Paris, 1797), 32–3, quote on p. 33. cast one longing, lingering look behind and rod of empire are from lines 88 and 47, respectively, of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (Roger Lonsdale, ed., The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith [1969], 126, 133).

The passage concerning minds long exercised in business is from Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1776–88; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 101), 1:394. an elegant sufficiency … and approving heaven is from lines 1157–60 of the poem “Spring” in James Thomson’s The Seasons (London, 1744, and other eds.; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4392), 49.

1Omitted period editorially supplied.

2Wiliams, Virginia, here adds “Mulberry.”

3Wiliams, Virginia, here adds “and Vines.”

4National Intelligencer: “orange,is.” Central Gazette: “orange, is.”

5National Intelligencer: “Monticello,he.” Central Gazette: “Monticello, he.”

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.]

 Chastelleux’s Travels.

Index Entries

  • Bayard, Ferdinand Marie; quoted search
  • Blue Ridge Mountains; visible from Montpellier search
  • botany; study of search
  • Chastellux, François Jean, marquis de; Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782 search
  • clay; mentioned search
  • Diocletian (Roman emperor); retirement of search
  • elephantopus (plant) search
  • exercise, physical; and health search
  • Gibbon, Edward; quoted search
  • granite search
  • Gray, Thomas; quoted search
  • health; and exercise search
  • Horace; quoted by “W.” search
  • ixia (plant) search
  • James River; mentioned search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; appearance search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; by “W.” search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; conversation search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; aging search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; good health of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; memory loss search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); described search
  • Milton, John; quoted search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); altitude of search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); approach to search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); described search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); East Portico search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Entrance Hall search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); plants growing at search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); portraits and paintings at search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); statues at search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); view from search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Visitors to; Watterston, George search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Visitors to; “W.” search
  • Montpellier (Montpelier; J. Madison’s Orange Co. estate); described search
  • Montpellier (Montpelier; J. Madison’s Orange Co. estate); distance from Monticello search
  • Montpellier (Montpelier; J. Madison’s Orange Co. estate); visitors to search
  • Moore, Thomas (1779–1852); quoted search
  • Mount Helicon; fountain on search
  • paintings; at Monticello search
  • Pope, Alexander; quoted search
  • Poussin, Nicolas search
  • quartz; mentioned search
  • Raphael; paintings by search
  • Rappahannock River search
  • Roche, Regina Maria; quoted search
  • Rubens, Peter Paul search
  • sand search
  • schist; mentioned search
  • scotch broom (plant) search
  • Southwest Mountains; soil of search
  • Sugarloaf Mountain (Md.) search
  • sumac (plant) search
  • The Seasons (J. Thomson) search
  • Thomson, James; quoted search
  • Thomson, James; The Seasons search
  • Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782 (Chastellux) search
  • Virginia, University of; Establishment; TJ as founder of search
  • Virginia; described search
  • Virginia; plants of search
  • Virginia; soil of search
  • Virginia: More especially the South part thereof, Richly and truly valued (E. Williams) search
  • Watterston, George; possible author of Account of a Visit to Monticello and Montpellier by “W.” search
  • William IV, stadtholder of the Netherlands; Orange Co. named for search
  • Williams, Edward (author); Virginia: More especially the South part thereof, Richly and truly valued search