A visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop Virginia home, is an intensive course in the French influence on America’s third president and the United States.
With that in mind, President Barack Obama made the Charlottesville landmark the first stop for French President Francois Hollande after he arrived in the U.S. today, to see the architecture, the art and furnishings as well as the wine cellar and a kitchen stocked with copper French pots.
“Jefferson is arguably our greatest Francophile, and France, of course, is our first ally and critical to winning our independence,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, the chief executive officer of Monticello.
“If you want to understand the United States, you really have to understand Thomas Jefferson. And if you really want to understand Thomas Jefferson, you have to experience Monticello.”
With the alliance rejuvenated following a rift over the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hollande is the guest of honor for the first state visit by a French president in 18 years. Obama is hosting a formal White House dinner tomorrow night for him.
“A decade ago, few would have imagined our two countries working so closely together,” Obama and Hollande wrote in a commentary published today in the Washington Post and Le Monde. “Now we are meeting our responsibilities not just to each other -- but to a world that is more secure because our enduring alliance is being made new again.”
In their meetings and joint news conference tomorrow, Obama and Hollande will discuss current issues, dealing with the civil war in Syria, blocking Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, negotiating a trans-Atlantic trade agreement and fostering development in Africa.
The jaunt to the Virginia countryside was intended to provide a longer view, from France’s role in the Battle of Yorktown during the American Revolution to the U.S roles in World War I and World War II.
Jefferson represented “what’s best in America” and “the incredible bond and the incredible gifts that France gave to the United States,” Obama said in the grand foyer of the house after he and Hollande finished their tour.
Obama said Monticello and Jefferson also reflect “the complicated history of the United States,” where “slaves helped to build this magnificent structure.”
Hollande, speaking through an interpreter, said the two nations “will remain friends forever.”
Today’s visit by the two leaders marked the first time a sitting U.S. president has accompanied a sitting foreign leader of any country to Monticello -- and the first time a French president has made the visit, according to Monticello’s records.
Every president since Ronald Reagan, and several presidents before, has visited Monticello. This was Obama’s first trip there as president. While Hollande spent the summer of 1974 in the U.S. as a university student, this also was his first visit to Monticello, according to a Hollande aide, who said the idea for the visit was initiated by the White House.
Jefferson, who was widowed in 1782, went to France in 1784 to help negotiate treaties for the new American nation, and the next year he was named minister to France to succeed Benjamin Franklin. He stayed through 1789 and the climax of the French revolution.
Jefferson in France
“He had front-row seats for the storming of the Bastille,” said Andrew Burstein, a scholar of Jefferson and history professor at Louisiana State University. “Jefferson was on the scene and plugged in.”
Jefferson also brought with him a young slave, James Hemings, 19, and sent him for lessons to learn to cook French food. James’ younger sister, Sally, with whom Jefferson is believed to have fathered several children, was sent to France to attend to Jefferson’s daughter.
It was in France that Jefferson developed his passion for wine, which he brought back with him to America. The first cellar he dug at Monticello was a wine cellar, Bowman said, with annual consumption at the estate about 400 bottles, swelling to 600 bottles a year once Jefferson entered the White House.
“He takes the art of culture and refinement and learns how that is in the service of politics,” Bowman said.
Jefferson advised President George Washington on importing French wines, and when Jefferson himself was president he was known for serving French wine at dinner.
Burstein said while Jefferson’s French connection would be on display on today’s visit, Jefferson’s domestic legacy two centuries later also holds lessons for Obama, who faces a stalled agenda in his second term.
“The right sees him as a champion of small government,” Burstein said of Jefferson. “The left sees him as a liberal humanist who cares deeply about the sympathetic dimension of the American identity -- that we care about people, that spreading democracy is a moral enterprise that starts with individual rights.”
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