The Cloister Walk, XII: Shadwell
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
I don’t remember ever encountering the name ‘Shadwell’ till I saw it in our Cloister Walk. I had to look it up. Did you have to look it up? You probably knew what Shadwell was, but I had to look it up. When I think of Thomas Jefferson, I think of Monticello, but of course he was born at Shadwell, a 2,700-acre plantation near Charlottesville, in 1743, spent much of his childhood there, inherited it from his deceased father when he turned 21, and even returned to live there after college as a young lawyer and bachelor. With his mother. Until he was 27 years old.
Yes, if you are a young adult with a good job who is still living with your parents long after your college graduation, and your parents are beginning to grumble about it, just tell them that Thomas Jefferson failed to launch too, and lived with his mother until he was 27, and only left then because the house burned down.
A thousand acres of the Shadwell Plantation became the first 1,000 acres of Monticello’s eventual 5,000 acres.
Last Saturday I officiated at the wedding of my friend Victoria, who grew up with me in my Connecticut Church; I’ve known her since she was about nine years old. She’s a lawyer in New York City now, but she attended the University of Virginia Law School and met the love of her life there, so she wanted to get married in the Chapel at the University of Virginia, so, providentially, that’s where I was last weekend. The rehearsal dinner was at Monticello. I did some research while I was there and learned many things.
One thing I found out is that our New Testament Lesson is inscribed over the entrance to Cabell Hall, at the south end of The UVa Lawn, the nucleus of the entire campus. The inscription is in Greek, of course—Thomas Jefferson was proud of his mastery of the Classics—and I was pleased to discover that I remembered just enough of my seminary Greek to make my own rough translation. John 8:32: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Thomas Jefferson was not a fan of all of the New Testament—he’d famously taken scissors and paste to the Bible he got in third-grade Sunday School, snipped out all the miracles and other texts that offended him, and carved it up into a slim version more to his liking—Thomas Jefferson was not a fan of the whole New Testament, but are you surprised to learn that this was one of his favorite texts? “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
“This institution,” he’d said when he created the University in his own image—“this institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, for here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it might lead.”
That sounds like a fairly straightforward mission statement, but actually it was quite novel at the time. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had all come before the University of Virginia, but they were created to train Protestant clergymen, so they didn’t always follow the truth wherever it might lead. They followed THE BIBLE wherever it might lead, but sometimes Bible and truth diverged down separate paths.
He loved that university; it was like his seventh child. Did you know he had a telescope installed at Monticello so he could keep an eye on its construction from his mountaintop?
Here was a guy who’d been Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams, and the third President of the United States.
He’d authored The Declaration of Independence, engineered the Louisiana Purchase, dreamed up and expedited the Lewis and Clark Expedition, imagined Monticello, and created West Point—I’d forgotten that even The United States Military Academy is a Jeffersonian creation—all these accomplishments, but he was proudest of his University.
If you’ve been to Monticello, you know that there are three of his extraordinary accomplishments carved into the obelisk above his grave. “Here lies Thomas Jefferson,” it says, “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Father of the University of Virginia, and…” do you know what the third accomplishment is? I’ll tell you in a minute.
No one remembers why our forbears from 1958 chose precisely these 12 stones to mortar into our Cloister Walk for posterity, but I’ve been suggesting that the common theme I find in these 12 places is The Mind Unfettered, or, The Spirit Unshackled.
These are places where slaves are freed or revolutions begin or movements are born: the Christian Revolution or the Protestant Revolution or the American Revolution. These are places where brave but lonely pioneers stand up to prevailing authority and forge a new path. These are places where imposed doctrine and required ritual go to die.
My friend Marty said to me, “I have a piece of the Berlin Wall. Do you want it for your Cloister Walk?” Marty understands what those stones are trying to say collectively. And so of course we need a Shadwell stone in our Cloister Walk.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he’d written at Philadelphia in late June, 1776, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Jefferson’s revolution, or revelation, was so successful down the years that we just take it for granted. We Americans are Jeffersonian to the marrow of our bones and the ventricles of our hearts and the neocortex of our brains, so we don’t even notice how radical it was in 1776.
Human beings weren’t equal in Europe. Human society was not flat; it was stacked; it was a pyramid. At the apex were the royals; just beneath them, the haughty nobles of inherited wealth; just beneath them the professions—lawyers and priests and professors; beneath them the entrepreneurs and business owners; beneath them the guilds—the skilled craftsman, the carpenters and bakers and shoemakers; beneath them the common laborers—the ditch-diggers and street-sweepers and waitresses; beneath them the household servants–Downton Abbey; and at the bottom of the whole pile, the slaves.
Even Jefferson’s friend and fellow Philadelphia patriot John Adams thought this whole idea of human equality was ridiculous. Adams thought Jefferson had fallen off the left edge of the world.
I can gather up his central conviction in a single story. While he was Vice-President, Jefferson obviously had to make many trips back and forth from his home near Charlottesville to the national capital in Philadelphia, and on one such trip he stopped for the night at Baltimore’s fanciest hotel. He had no entourage, no bodyguards, he was by himself at the end of a long day on horseback, dusty and dirty in his favorite farmer clothes; Jefferson, of course, was famously slovenly; people were always shocked by what he was willing to wear in public.
Anyway, looking like a common laborer, he goes to the front desk and asks for a room. The landlord looks him up and down scornfully and says, “We have no room for you, Sir.” Jefferson walks out without comment or complaint, gets back on his horse, and finds himself a room at a cheap Best Western down the road.
As Jefferson is leaving the lobby of Baltimore’s fanciest hotel, a hotel guest recognizes him, and goes to the front desk to tell the landlord, “That was Thomas Jefferson, Vice-President of the United States and the greatest man alive.”
The hotel landlord is mortified and sends his servant to track down Jefferson and offer him the finest suite in Baltimore’s fanciest hotel, and when the servant finally locates him at the cheap Best Western, Jefferson says to the hotel messenger, “Tell your boss I have engaged a room here. Tell him that I value his good intentions highly, but if he has no room for a dirty farmer, he shall have none for the Vice-President.” No room for a dirty farmer, no room then for the Vice-President, because God is no respecter of persons.
Back to the inscription on Jefferson’s grave: “Here lies Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Father of the University of Virginia, and…” What was the third thing he was proudest about during a lifetime of extraordinary achievement? The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. It forbade a state-established church, and prevented government from interfering with religious freedom. It is precursor and Granddaddy to the First Amendment of the American Constitution.
Here’s why he thought that was so important. The Anglican Church was the established religion of the Commonwealth of Virginia in Jefferson’s day. It was mandatory to baptize your babies in an Anglican church. If you refused, they would take your babies away from you. Non-Anglicans could not hold public office. Presbyterians and Quakers paid the salaries of Anglican clergy via taxation. Baptists were thrown in jail. Roman Catholics could be banished from the Commonwealth for believing in transubstantiation, and Jews for denying that Jesus was the Messiah.
And for Jefferson, this was just an intolerable constriction of religious freedom. “Jesus never forced anyone to believe a certain way,” he pointed out. “Jesus never shared his Good News by coercion. Why should we?” As he famously put it, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to believe there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
And so, because of Thomas Jefferson, you can’t block a person from public office for her religious beliefs, and when a Presidential candidate in 2015 says he doesn’t think a Muslim should ever be President of the United States, we respond, with good Jeffersonian conviction, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion, Dr. Carson, but you’re kind of wrestling with the Constitution.”
So that Shadwell Stone is in our Cloister Walk because it represents The Mind Unfettered, and the Spirit Unshackled. It is among those places where slaves are freed or revolutions begin. No? It’s not? Some of you are shaking your heads. Because you know the truth about Shadwell and Monticello.
Monticello is such a wonderful American shrine. For many Americans, it’s like Mecca; they have to make at least one pilgrimage there during their lifetimes, along with Mount Rushmore, Independence Hall, Mount Vernon, and the Memorials in the District of Columbia.
But the first thing that hits you when you visit there is that Monticello would be impossible without Mulberry Row. It was 5,000 acres; you cannot have Monticello in any sense if you have to pay a livable wage to the people who make it happen: the people who clear the forests and terrace the hillsides and plant the seeds and gather the harvest and milk the cows and then butcher them and cook the meals and empty the chamber pots and nanny the babies. No slaves, no Monticello; it’s as simple as that.
During Jefferson’s lifetime, there might have been 125 slaves at Monticello at any one time. Over the course of his lifetime, he owned about 600 different human beings. During his lifetime, he freed two; and a few more at his death in his will.
More than once, he would give enslaved children away to his friends as wedding gifts, which meant of course that five-year-old children would be separated from their mothers.
He kept a concubine for 40 years and fathered six children with her, which meant of course that Sally Hemings was human enough and beautiful enough to have sex with, but not human enough and beautiful enough to breathe free.
He knew slavery was wrong. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that God’s justice cannot sleep forever.” He just could never cross the yawning gap between “what he knew to be right, and what he could not live without.”
So maybe one thing we can learn from this Shadwell stone in our Cloister Walk is that we are all, like Thomas Jefferson, enigmas and contradictions. We all have these beautiful ideals, these inalienable rights, and these infrangible convictions. And we all, in our daily lives, fall far short of our ambitions. Our actions inevitably betray our convictions. So, we will be ever vigilant about that gap between our convictions and our actions. And we will keep striving to ensure that action mimic conviction.
We will never forget that in the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” And that in the Old Testament, God, over and over again, introduces Godself as…a Freedom Fighter, a Revolutionary, a Che Guevara, a Martin Luther King, a Thomas Jefferson. God says, “I am the Lord your God, who…what? Who created the heavens and the earth?” No, not creation, but liberation. The central creed of the Jewish faith is, “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” That is God’s repeated self-introduction in the Hebrew Scriptures: I am the God who sets you free. I am the God who liberates. I am the God who drowns Pharaohs in the Red Sea and sends the Cornwallis’ and the Hitlers of this world to their ignoble defeats. I am always on the side of the enslaved. If you are a despot, you will find no ally in the Almighty.
One last observation and then I will quit. You know, Thomas Jefferson was so far in debt at his death that his children and grandchildren couldn’t hang onto Monticello. It fell into the hands of creditors. Eight years after Jefferson’s death, a Naval Officer named Uriah Levy came upon a dilapidated house and overgrown fields and he was so dismayed that he bought it for $2,700. Why was it so important for him to restore Monticello to something approaching its former glory? You might be able to tell from Uriah Levy’s name that he is Jewish. It was Thomas Jefferson who made Jewish life possible in the United States, and Mr. Levy wanted to honor Mr. Jefferson’s memory.
Well, here we are at the end of our journey through Judeo-Christian history. Three thousand years with twelve stones, in twelve weeks. We started at Sinai—the Place of the Ten Commandments, the Ten Restrictions, the Ten No’s, the Ten Nots—and we ended at Shadwell, the place of the unfettered human mind, at least theoretically. I hope we have learned something about who we are, how we got that way, and what we hope yet to become, because, as with Mr. Jefferson, God is not yet finished with us.
Ken Burns, Thomas Jefferson (a film for PBS).
Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Knopf, 1997).
Edwin S. Gaustad, Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Eerdmans, 1996).
Jon Meachum, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012).
From a letter to William Roscoe, December 27, 1820, quoted by Jon Meachum in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012), 469.
Paul F. Boller, Jr., Presidential Anecdotes (New York: Oxford, 1981), 40.
Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Knopf, 1997), 145.