Thursday, January 3, 2019

January 2019

Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 1                                                         January 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner

‘TO CONSIDERABLE EXPENSE’: Twenty years ago when I was doing research for Saving Monticello, my main goal was to find as much primary-source material as I could to show as conclusively as possible that both Uriah Levy and his nephew Jefferson M. Levy did, indeed, “save” Jefferson’s house and grounds from ruin.

I wound up digging up plenty of letters, newspaper articles, journal entries, official documents and photographs, and other credible evidence to confirm the premise of the book, that the Levys did save Monticello—Uriah during his 1834-62 ownership, and J.M. Levy during his time starting in 1879 when he bought out his uncle’s other heirs and took control of the place, to 1923, when he sold Monticello to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation), which owns and operates Monticello today.

One piece of confirming evidence I didn’t come across back then was a short article that appeared in The Washington Post on June 2, 1886. I’m guessing it hadn’t been scanned till recently when I found it on the Proquest Historical Newspapers site, which I often check.

The article talks about Jefferson Levy coming to Monticello and having Jefferson’s grave decorated “in a thoroughly satisfactory manner.”

 It ends with a final sentence that nicely jibes with all the other evidence I found. To wit: Levy “has been to considerable expense in repairing Jefferson’s mansion and the house and grounds to-day are almost exactly as they were in Jefferson’s time.”  

Also in that vein, I recently came across an 1888 WP article describing that year’s Fourth of July celebration at Monticello. I had read several accounts of what JML did to commemorate the Fourth at Monticello. Here’s how I put it in the book:

“Nearly every Fourth of July Jefferson Levy made a point of appearing at Monticello and hosting Independence Day ceremonies. He would assemble the farm employees and guests and read the Declaration of Independence from Jefferson’s music stand on Monticello’s front steps.* After 1889, [his overseer] Frederick Rhodes built catapults and scaffolds for displays of fireworks. Often, a band came from Charlottesville to play patriotic tunes.”

This 1888 article, which I hadn’t seen till late last year, includes some details I hadn’t known. First, that Jefferson Levy had Thomas Jefferson’s grave “covered with elaborate floral decorations.” And that on this occasion Levy read the Declaration of Independence at “the hour of noon” to a “large and distinguished party of guests”—not from outside on the steps, but inside “in the main hall of the mansion.”

*THE FRONT STEPS: When I wrote those words I missed the fact that in Jeffersonian architectural terms, there are no “front steps” or “back steps” at Monticello since neither of the two entrances is the house’s “front.” Instead, Monticello has an East Front and a West Front.
Here’s a good explanation of the no-front-or-back entrance nomenclature situation from the good folks at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation:

“When most people think of Monticello, they envision the dome and west-facing, columned portico shown on the nickel (photo below). But the dome and West Portico are not, strictly speaking, the ‘front’ of the house. In fact, Jefferson never spoke of a single ‘front.’ Instead he spoke of both an ‘East Front’ and a ‘West Front.’

“As in Jefferson’s day, visitors today enter through the columned portico of the East Front into the Entrance Hall. Presumably only the family and their guests ever used the door on the West Front, which opens into the Parlor.

EVENTS: No events in January as I continue researching my next book, a house history of historic Huntland, here in Middleburg, Virginia. The pub date will be early in 2020.

Meanwhile, there may be a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at
If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including Ballad of the Green Beret—please email me.

For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books: Flag: An American Biography; Desperate Engagement; What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life; and Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.