On a recent Saturday, 20 University of Richmond undergraduates stood on the front lawn of Monticello, gazing up at the home’s signature white dome. They had traveled to Charlottesville, Va., to join University of Richmond President Emeritus Edward L. Ayers and his wife, Abby, for a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s home and a discussion of his legacy.
A docent led the group through Monticello, an architectural masterpiece Jefferson designed and modified throughout a 40-year period. Students marveled at the countless items that bespoke the depth and breadth of Jefferson’s intellect and vision, including a map of the Louisiana Purchase, artifacts from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, mechanical gadgetry Jefferson designed (such as clocks, a dumb waiter, and an automatic door), and an extensive library.
A refresher in American history for the five domestic students who participated, the tour served as an introduction to an American icon for many of the 15 international students.
The Monticello trip was the first of several field trips that will be offered this year through Passport to American History, a joint initiative of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) and the Office of International Education (OIE).
“The program aims to view American history through a new lens and to reflect on current civil society,” said Diana Trinh, international student advisor for OIE. “UR history faculty travel with domestic and international students to historical sites in Virginia and surrounding regions for group tours and discussions. The result is a new, deeper understanding of the past and present through multiple sets of diverse eyes.”
Ayers, a renowned American historian, helped provide that new, deeper understanding of history when he gathered students on Monticello’s West Lawn for a discussion following the house tour.
“The greatest contradictions in American history are embodied in Monticello, where the most idealistic principles of democratic government coexisted with slavery,” Ayers said. “Jefferson wrote ‘All men are created equal,’ yet he owned 600 slaves in his lifetime. The shadow of slavery haunts Monticello.”
Ayers noted another Monticello contradiction: “Ironically, this is an iconic American place, but it is based on European thought. Jefferson viewed the United States as a clean slate to assemble and adopt the best ideas the world had come up with.”
After the discussion led by Ayers, students wandered through the extensive herb and vegetable garden and snapped photos of the vistas of colorful fall foliage viewed from Monticello’s mountaintop perch.
They pondered the dynamic nature of history as they read historical plaques chronicling the lives of Monticello’s enslaved people, including Sally Hemings’ family—a part of Monticello’s history that has gained recognition only in recent years.
Finally, they paused at Jefferson’s tombstone, bearing a simple epitaph: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
Students shared their reflections on the bus ride back to campus.
“I was struck by the simplicity of the way Jefferson lived his life,” international student Gargi Vyas, ’16, said. “In India, there is so much grandeur.”
Hannah Soine, a German exchange student, agreed. “The house was very simple, not as big as I expected. I didn’t know Jefferson was a scientist.”
Asked about her favorite part of the day, domestic student Jenci Hawthorne, ’17, didn’t hesitate: “Definitely Dr. Ayers. I love listening to his perspective on things.”