For more than four decades, Thomas Jefferson designed and redesigned, built and rebuilt, imagined and reimagined his Monticello estate. The Founding Father who drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also drafted the blueprints for Monticello without any formal training, relying on his extensive reading on architecture, particularly from ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance eras.
In 1789, shortly after returning from a few years stay in France where one Paris home particularly inspired him, he renovated Monticello to add an entrance hall that doubled as a museum, showcasing artifacts representing his interests and inspirations. It was the only space in Monticello that guests were guaranteed to see, and the 30 gold-trim Windsor chairs in the Monticello Entrance Hall suggest that Jefferson hoped visitors would linger with the great minds that were so influential in shaping his own. Along with artwork, maps, animal hides and heads, Jefferson exhibited his collection of statues.
The two most prominent in the room were busts of Voltaire and Turgot, the two French thinkers who guided his ideas about subjects like freedom, religion, law, economics, and government. It was in Europe that Jefferson once wrote, “The truth of Voltaire’s observation offers itself perpetually, that every man here must be either the hammer or the anvil… I have endeavored to examine more nearly the condition of the great… that degree of happiness which is enjoyed in America, by every class of people.”
Jefferson’s library included all of Voltaire’s and Turgot’s works. So why purchase busts as well? Because he understood the power of statues. They aren’t just works of art. They aren’t just blocks of stone that remind us that someone lived and died—that’s a tombstone. Statues are guides. They represent a person who lived a life worthy of emulation. They inspire, they inform, they encourage. They stand for who we want to be.
Don’t agree? Go stand in front of the Jefferson Monument in D.C. on an early morning, watch the sun rise through the columns and shining on those words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” and try not to feel anything. Go stand in front of the Marcus Aurelius statue in Rome (or the replica at Brown University) and not feel as if you are a little bit closer to the man, and the incredible legacy of courage, moderation, justice, and wisdom for which he had lived.
We should always be seeking out moments of this kind of association, reflection, and inspiration. When we see greatness, we should memorialize it. We should put it up on display. On our desk. On the wall. In ink on our skin. On the home screen of our phones.
However you decide to honor the people whose example you love, put it somewhere you are guaranteed to see it every day, just as Jefferson did, and ask: am I living by the example they stand for?
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