Thomas Jefferson was a greatly gifted teacher, but he failed to bring about the social transformation he laid before his nation of students as their great opportunity. He proclaimed two revolutions, one political and the other social. He had little to do with achieving the first and drew back from the second. He could start things but had difficulty finishing them.
He lived in a real place, in a real time, amid real people. He was not completely free to do what he liked. It is possible to determine how much freedom of action he had, and at the same time to begin assessing the effects of his action and inaction, by taking him home to Monticello. We know a great deal about the daily realities of his situation from his notebooks, and more from the accounts of a parade of visitors. Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton was one of the most acute of those observers. Coming to the scene with eyes trained as the wife of an architect and plantation owner, she was conscious of both house and land. As Jefferson's friend, she knew that when he was at home he was amid circumstances he could manage, unlike the ebullient and contentious nation he sought to lead.
The house at Monticello was his own creation, and so, to a remarkable extent, was its setting. He had shaped the mountaintop on which he situated it. In the next few pages we will follow the account in Mrs. Thornton's diary of a visit in 1802, seeking to get as close as we can to the man and the ground— in the rain. Rain is important in this story.
September is a hot month in Charlottesville, though the grip of the summer heat is being loosened by afternoon rains, some of them ferocious. When an especially severe storm is gathering power, giant clouds rear up on the horizon, sending forth red-gold flashes of lightning. The atmosphere becomes thicker and heavier, as if an invisible advance guard of those giants were stalking about pressing down their hands on human shoulders.
On one such afternoon in September 1802, Mrs. Dolley Madison, the wife of Secretary of State James Madison, and Dr. and Mrs. William Thornton drove from Mrs. Madison's plantation at Montpelier to visit President