September 20: a letter from Mr. Jefferson

2012/09/20 § 4 Comments

On this day in 1785 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison.

Jefferson wrote from Paris, where he was serving a term as the American ambassador.  But he did not send any garden-variety postcard-appropriate greetings to his politician-pal back home.  He and Madison were working long-distance on the design of a new state house for Virginia.  Jefferson had seen enough crummy American architecture used for such purposes, like the old state house at Williamsburg and sensed the opportunity to establish a model of good architecture, as he explained to Madison:

But how is a taste in this beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation?

Jefferson encouraged the expenditure of “the public money for something honourable” that would result in “an object and proof of national good taste” rather than continuing the present practice that lead to the “mortification of erecting a monument of our barbarism which will be loaded with execrations as long as it shall endure.”  To achieve these ends, Jefferson sought the assistance of architect-archaeologist-draughtsman extraordinaire Charles-Louis Clérisseau, author of the recent study, Antiquités de la France, Prèmiere partie: Monumens de Nismes (1778).  It featured many fine drawings of the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple that Jefferson had named one of the “the most perfect examples of cubic architecture,” and which he would adopt, and adapt, as a model of good taste and indicator of promise for the new government housed within it.  Jefferson completed a series of drawings and directed Clérisseau to build a model; all were shipped to Richmond to begin construction on one of the first Neo-Classical monuments for the US government.

The project achieved the specific ends of raising a good building in Virginia, but also met the broader goal that Jefferson had in mind to infuse America, at every opportunity, with examples of proven, justified architecture.  Not merely to quench his own artsy thirst, nor as a vanity exercise, Jefferson had specific political goals in mind.  Toward the end of his apologia to Madison, Jefferson concluded with the words:

You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise.

You, dear reader, see the Muse is an enthusiast on the subject of Mr. Jefferson. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen (and my students), to increase their reputation (and carreers dedicated to designing future monuments for the country), to reconcile them to the rest of the world (and the longstanding traditions of good architecture it has to offer), and procure them its praise (and mine, too).

Image: the Virginia State Capitol (Clio’s)

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