These days, there is no shortage of discourse on the merits and shortcomings of founding father Thomas Jefferson. On the one hand, he was a champion of the rights of man; on the other, he had a complicated relationship with unpaid labor. Far be it from me to sally forth into an exegesis on Jefferson’s contradictions, but I do have this bone to pick with the author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States:
When it comes to the quintessential Jeffersonian architectural design element, the Chinese Chippendale woodwork that adorns the rooftops of Monticello, let me just ask this, “Why, TJ? Why?”
For a man so committed to commonsense and the laws of Nature, why in God’s green acre would you indulge in a labor-intensive decorative element that requires such excruciating attention to detail when it comes to painting and upkeep?
I am now entering my third week of fabrication on a 6-foot Chinese Chippendale gate and fence, to contain my dog in my small sliver of paradise. First there was the week of woodwork, with painstaking hours at the miter saw cutting precise 45° angles. Then came the weekend of installation, concrete posts and all that. Now I am onto the weekend of priming and painting. And priming and painting. Each angled piece of trim has six sides, all of which need to be primed and painted. Twice. It has been 100° in Nashville. With about 100 percent humidity. So I’m covered in sweat, Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3, and high-gloss exterior white, priming, painting, priming, painting, and working myself into a Zen meditation about that most American of houses, Monticello. Before I know it, I’m thinking about the unsung guys who labored under the Virginia sun to paint TJ’s iconic balustrade.
Admittedly, I have not delved into the payroll archives of Monticello, so I cannot say for sure whether the laborers who painted Jefferson’s rooftop railings were in fact paid or unpaid. For all I know Mr. Jefferson hired a bunch of UVA Hunks Hauling Junk to do the job on summer break. But that’s about as unlikely as the idea that Thos. himself lifted a brush to do the deed. So, for my sweaty thought experiment, I hypothesize that the folks whitewashing Jefferson’s rural rooftop were, in fact, uncompensated. And if that was the case, they must have been pissed.
Historians can go back-and-forth all day about whether Jefferson was a visionary patriot, a self-serving hypocrite, or a simply an intellectually conflicted product of his time. My humidity-addled meditations on carpentry won’t advance the intellectual debate on Jefferson’s perspectives on slavery.
But my weeks of painting 45° angles in the sun do make this truth to be self-evident: Rolling up my sleeves to do some manual labor certainly adds dimension to my understanding of American history.