The Dumbwaiter and Free Speech: Vertical Transportation at Monticello

by Hanno van der Bijl


Thomas Jefferson spent a great deal of time, money and energy designing, building and cultivating his dream home, Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. You can see it proudly depicted on the nickel. If you’ve ever visited what the third president of the U.S. called home, you will remember seeing all kinds of inventions and little tweaks he made or used for the sake of convenience. For example, he was extremely impressed with his polygraph, a machine that would transcribe an exact copy of whatever he was writing at the time. Since he kept up a lively correspondence with friends and colleagues, this invention enabled him to check what he had written in a previous letter when he received a response. Were he alive today, Jefferson would probably be one of the first to adopt every — and maybe invent some — Internet of Things technology that comes along.

Monticello - Dining Room with dumbwaiter in the Fireplace to Wine Cellar

Another invention that this Virginian relished was a dumbwaiter installed in the side of the fireplace in the dining room. The wine cellar lay directly below. A family member or Burwell Colbert, the slave butler, would place a wine bottle in the dumbwaiter at dinner time and hoist it up to the dining room.

Now, it is common knowledge that while Jefferson, the principle architect and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was against slavery per se, he himself had about 600 slaves over the course of his lifetime and fathered a number of children with his slave, Sally Hemings. So, why install a dumbwaiter in his plantation home? For one, Jefferson enjoyed good company and the life of the mind. Food and wine helped encourage conversation beyond the trivial to the bliss of literature and philosophy. One of the three major accomplishments he had engraved on his tombstone was that he was the “Father of the University of Virginia.” So, he did not want anything to hinder the free flow of ideas at the dinner table. The other reason was to protect his own freedom of speech. While waiters are “dumb,” Jefferson knew they are not deaf.

Remarking on her experiences at Monticello, Margaret Bayard Smith wrote that instead of slaves, Jefferson used the wine-cellar dumbwaiter and portable dumbwaiters for each guest, because he believed:

“that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation at dinner tables, by these mute but not inattentive listeners.”

Perhaps Mitt Romney should have given his May 17, 2012 fundraising speech at Monticello.

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