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.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote those lines to James Madison in September, 1785, the two were communicating long-distance about a new project underway: the State Capitol for Jefferson’s (and Madison’s) home state of Virginia. Jefferson was in France, where he had served for six months as US Minister Plenipotentiary. Although exposure to practices of the French crown left him cold (or, actually, revolted) he was warmed by the glories of architecture, both ancient and modern, available to him in France. Jefferson had gone to Europe feeling pretty enthusiastic about the arts, but became an even stronger proponent of architecture as a symbol of national health and strength. In the next decades he turned the three major architectural projects of his life to fulfill the ideas he shared with Madison, designing in a way that not only delighted his own taste, but that promised to provide “models for study and imitation” by other American builders. For the Virginia State Capitol he drew from the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple that he beheld in Nîmes, where he “gazed [at it] whole hours . . . like a lover at his mistress.” By 1819 he had realized the “academical village” that he had theorized for at least fifteen years, crowning his plan for the University of Virginia with the Pantheon-inspired Rotunda. With these two public buildings, Jefferson presented America with fully realized studies of the “most perfect examples” of what he called “cubic” and “spherical” architecture from antiquity. In the meantime, he had continued to tinker with his own home at Monticello. Originally designed as a fine but unexceptional Palladian villa, it was imaginatively redesigned after the Hôtel de Salm (with which Jefferson admitted being “violently smitten”), recreating très moderne Parisian elegance as best he could in Albemarle County.
Of all the Founding Fathers, Jefferson is perhaps the most foundational: author of two of the country’s signature documents (this one and that one) and provider of the core of the Library of Congress collection. Elevating architecture among those political, religious, and intellectual endeavors, Jefferson penned the clearest articulation in a president’s hand of the value of architecture to a country. He put theory into practice by providing “proof of national good taste” and by seeking opportunities to develop that taste among his fellow citizens in the first place.
Read more of Jefferson on architecture here.