Jefferson as a Model for American Classical Architecture

by C.W. Westfall

Note: This essay is a counterpart to “Vitruvius as the Model for Modernist Architects,” American Arts Quarterly, 32 (2: 2015) 32–43.


The nation that Thomas Jefferson helped bring into being was, as Lincoln said, a “new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” His architecture is the counterpart to the unique, American constitutional order. Jefferson’s buildings and that civil order are as old as the classical tradition that guided their founding and as new as the innovative institutions they served. Both the nation and his buildings occupy hallowed places within the classical tradition, in which the beauty of the buildings and the good in the civil order are achieved by imitating the order, harmony and proportionality of the cosmos, that is, of nature in the classical sense.

The Greeks taught us that our pursuit of happiness occurs within the political life, which the Romans renamed the civic life. Individuals who, by their human nature, are responsible for what they do participate in a community united by a common aspiration to achieve the fullness of their unique nature and reach the highest possible standards that nature sets for the good and the beautiful. While every civil order is guided by its unique tradition, at the heart of them all are the interdependence and unequal status between the civil order and its buildings, unequal because the civil order precedes architecture and determines what it seeks from the art of building.

In the classical tradition, the highest standard for a civil order’s acts is the good. To reach that standard, it establishes purposes, sanctions functions and builds what it believes will serve and express those good purposes. When the doctrine that form follows function assumes superiority in its buildings, beauty as the counterpart to the good is squeezed out. Functions, after all, are transient servants of purposes, while the beautiful is the enduring counterpart to the good. The categories for judgments about the good and the beautiful are different, which allows beauty to serve the diverse purposes that civil orders use to facilitate the pursuit of happiness.

From this we can formulate four propositions: 1. Beauty is timeless. 2. Form that serves purposes with beauty is superior to form that follows functions. 3. The criteria for judging the good are inapplicable to judging beauty. 4. Beauty offers universal appeal no matter what service it renders in particular civil orders. For proof, consider these examples: atheists perceive the beauty of a classic Gothic cathedral; people who recognize that absolute imperial authority is the enemy of the good nonetheless behold with awe and reverence the beauty of the Pantheon in Rome that was built to display imperial hegemony; Hitler used the beauty of classical architecture to mask his evil purposes; and Jefferson used an ancient temple built to honor a god in an ancient empire as the paradigmatic model for a legislative house of a new secular republic.

Thomas Jefferson, Capitol, Richmond, Virginia, 1786, with flanking wing, J. K. Peebles, H. C. Baskerville, et al 1903–05

Common to these examples is the role of beautiful buildings in expressing the purpose of any civil order, which is to exercise authority. This holds whether the authority belongs to an emperor or to a democratic republic.

Classical Architecture and the American Civil Order

The foundations of the American constitutional order reach deep into the classical tradition, and Jefferson and the other Founders understood two important things about that tradition. One is that people know that they cannot close the gap between the perfect model of the good and the beautiful in nature and what they do and build. As James Madison observed in Federalist#51, “what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The other is that only by constant tinkering and innovating can they lessen that gap.

Occasionally, people seek to lessen the gap by reaching far back into tradition for a more fruitful way forward, with a result that will always express both that earlier moment and its distinctly modern form. The Renaissance in Italy is a familiar example. Another is in Jefferson’s architecture, which earns him a place with Brunelleschi, Bramante and his revered Palladio as one of the greatest classical architects.

Born in 1746, Jefferson was involved in the world-important events of the American Founding for four decades after he took his first public office at age 23. His involvement in architecture was even longer. His many buildings, from residences to the nation’s capital, are more accessible than his thoughts about them, but his brief comments provide valuable insights into his place within the classical tradition. 

Maison Carrée, Nimes, France, first century,  Courtesy

Jefferson’s first major building, the Capitol of Virginia in Richmond, is also one of his best known. As Governor, he made drafts of buildings for the new state’s executive, judicial and legislative institutions. Construction of the Capitol was underway to a different design when he lived in Paris, but a year after arriving he was commissioned to provide a new design. His letters to James Madison explaining his intentions are well known.

I shall send them a plan taken from the best morsel of antient [sic] architecture now remaining. It has obtained the approbation of fifteen or sixteen centuries, and is, therefore, preferable to any design which might be newly contrived. It will give more room, be more convenient and cost less than the plan they sent me…It will be superior in beauty to anything in America, and not inferior to any thing in the world. It is very simple.1

That model was the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, “one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful and precious morsel of architecture left us by antiquity.”2 In the year since arriving in Paris, he had surely come to know the architecture scene, but found nothing “newly contrived” that improved on what antiquity offered, as we find in a letter that accompanied the dispatch of the building’s plans to Richmond.

[T]wo methods of proceeding presented themselves to my mind. The one was to leave to some architect to draw an external according to his fancy, in which way experience shows that about once in a thousand times a pleasing form is hit upon; the other was to take some model already devised and approved by the general suffrage of the world. I had no hesitation in deciding that the latter was best.3

We find a more profound explanation almost four decades later. The Capitol "is on the model of the temples of Erectheus at Athens, of Balbec and of the Maison quarrée of Nîmes. All of which are nearly of the same form and proportions, and are considered as the most perfect examples of Cubic architecture, as the Pantheon of Rome is of the Spherical."4

These buildings are “cubic” and “nearly of the same form and proportions” because they embody the cubic as their essential proportionality. The Capitol’s dimensions, he continued, will be “enlarged” and “their proportions rigorously preserved” in the interest of retaining that proportionality. Here we find the interaction between the perfect and the possible, and the assistance offered by actual models that tradition transmits. In the classical tradition, the perfect and the model exist outside time, and they guide the innovations made on the basis of new knowledge and changed circumstances.

Jefferson was always enthusiastic about new technologies and ideas. He cricked his neck while watching the construction of the Hôtel de Salm in Paris (architect, Pierre Rousseau), probably because of its unconventional one-story height and its dome built with a wood technology new to him but as old as Philibert de l’Orme’s sixteenth-century treatise; he would use it for his domes. It had recently been used to roof the Parisian Halle au Blé, which he would call, “The most superb thing on earth!” when he insisted that Benjamin Henry Latrobe use it for the House Chamber in the nation’s new Capitol; its webs had been glazed to flood the interior with light.5 He also incorporated French innovations that offered greater comfort in his residential buildings.

An “external” presented the building to the public, and for his “externals,” the more important the public institution, the greater the role of ancient models. He wrote the Capitol commissioners that the architecture in Paris is “far from chaste,” and in choosing a professional architect to assist him he had found Charles-Louis Clérisseau, whose “taste had been formed on a study of the ancient models of this art.”6 In 1778, Clérisseau had published the definitive book on the Maison Carrée, a building that Jefferson would not lay eyes on until two years after he had dispatched to Richmond the final drawing and plaster model of the building based on it.

Jefferson had purposes for the exterior appearance of Virginia’s Capitol, the nation’s first one to be built ex novo, that were quite independent from the functions it was to serve. Its “object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the respect of the world, and procure them its praise.”7 These purposes set up competitive comparison with other buildings. Virginians were to imitate it and not others that they might know, and in the world at large other people familiar with other buildings were to find it praiseworthy and, by extension, find the new nation worthy of respect. To win these accolades, it had to avoid mere fancy, his word for fashionable taste, and have an “external” in which the proportionality of its cubicity could be perceived. This required avoiding the clutter of ornament and decoration, instead presenting the beautiful imitation of nature’s order, harmony and proportionality through chaste simplicity, clean outlines and geometric clarity.

What Jefferson Learned From Britain

These formal qualities put it in the classical tradition in the modernized form that the British had given it. Aristotle and Cicero had transmitted the natural law basis for justice that takes different forms, always partial and  imperfect, in different civil laws that reason can amend and administer and has the beautiful serve as an attribute of the good. The good in acts and the beauty in things made came through imitating nature’s model. This doctrine merged easily with English common law, which held that every individual is, by nature, a free and lawful person and endowed by nature with the capacity to know right from wrong and truth from falsehood. These traditions had in common the acceptance of unchanging human nature, the universal distribution of reason and a moral and an aesthetic sense, and the unequal distribution of the gifts to apply those senses to practice. The Founders had alloyed this tradition with their thorough knowledge of the history of states and their own experience in governing. With its foundations on majority rule (with the protection of minority rights), the civil order was intended to use its authority, its “vigor,” to protect the liberty of each individual to pursue the fullness of his nature and find the happiness that the good and the beautiful offer.

Jefferson drew deeply on this modernized classical tradition. He was surely familiar with that tradition’s recent treatment in France that had reduced beauty to mere custom and individual taste. Taste lay beyond disputation with the final judgment residing in the senses, the same source as the “fancy” Jefferson abjured. Jefferson, a British colonial before he was an American, followed British, not French, developments. Sir Christopher Wren had observed that beauty is in figures with “Uniformity (that is Equality) and Proportion,” and that “all consent as to a Law of Nature” that “the Square and the Circle are most beautiful…”8 Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftsbury, allied the beautiful with the good, both of those with nature, and all with the “same fix’d Standard…Nature will not be mock’d.”9 John Locke’s follower Francis Hutcheson observed that all men possess an inner sense that allows them to receive “Ideas of Beauty from all Objects in which there is Uniformity amidst Variety.”10 A cylinder or prism has universal beauty, and columns with entasis please more because they answer “better the suppos’d Intentions of Stability.” The “Author of Nature,” Hutcheson asserts, equipped us with the “Sense of Beauty…[and] has given us a Moral Sense, to direct our Actions, and to give us still nobler Pleasures.” David Hume sagely added: “The general principles of taste are uniform in human nature: Where men vary in their judgment, some defect or perversion in the faculties may commonly be remarked; proceeding either from prejudice, from want of practice, or want of delicacy; and there is just reason for approving one taste and condemning another.”11

Taste, treated here as another word for beauty, is not beyond disputation. Finally, Henry Home, Lord Kames, noted that architecture lacks things to imitate and therefore “the timid hand is guided by rule and compass; and accordingly in architecture strict regularity and uniformity are studied, as far as consistent with utility.” Regularity, uniformity, proportion and congruity “are all equally essential.” He also raised the classical principle of decorum when he noted that because an aristocrat’s position carries authority he must be exemplary of the good in his acts, and his palace must please the eye.12

Thomas Jefferson, University of Virginia,  Charlottesville, Virginia Drawing by James Gil Cooper

Jefferson’s Virginia Capitol was intended to democratize this main-line aristocratic principle of the classical tradition. “[M]y countrymen” were those whose taste was “to improve” and whose “reputation” was to increase: they and not a king or emperor were the nation. This innovative role was broached in a previously unnoticed place, the treatise of the architect Leon Battista Alberti from the years around 1450. He radically modernized the sole surviving treatise from antiquity, that of Vitruvius, who dedicated it to his patron, the Emperor Augustus, explaining that the architect’s buildings are to express his patron’s imperial authority. Alberti’s architect was to use his special talents when working in coordination with others in defending republican liberty, the city and its citizens, and to use the beautiful as complement to the good. Nature was their common source, and imitating nature offered their fullest possible realization.

In the next century, with Florence’s liberty smothered by Medici dukes, Venice was left as the only major republic in Italy. Andrea Palladio, the favored archi-tect of Venice’s governing aristocrats, published a treatise on architecture whose text presented an epitome of Alberti’s theory; its attractive illustrations provided a catalogue of the classical apparatus of forms in ancient buildings and in chaste, proportionate villas and palaces. It instructed Britain about classical architecture in the early seventeenth century, and then, through several editions of translations and digests based on it, Palladianism dominated practice again well into the next century and even longer in America. In 1816, Jefferson was reported to have said that Palladio was his “‘bible’. …You should get it and stick close to it.”13 From early on, he owned several editions, but, alas, never the original one or even a good facsimile of it. In the “bible” Jefferson could read:

one cannot but curse that way of building which, departing from what the natural order of things teaches and from that simplicity which appears in the things created by her, generates, as it were, another version of nature and deviates from the true, good, and beautiful method of building…And though variety and novelty must please everybody, one should not, however, do anything that is contrary to the laws of this art and contrary to what reason makes obvious…14

Here the essential quality of beauty in architecture is proportionality, which Alberti called concinnity, between things men make and what, and how, nature makes. This doctrine, which was embedded in Palladianism, played well in England and wherever the ancient empire had planted deep and surviving roots. There, people could agree with what Jefferson had written in his last letter: “[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the Grace of God.”15 Earlier, while in France, he had written a complementary comment: “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the later, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”16 British philosophies would have this apply equally well to the aesthetic sense.

Similar ideas run all through the Federalist Papers that explicate the new constitutional order. In Federalist #14, James Madison alludes to the Declaration of Independence. “[T]he people of America…whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times, and other nations,” have brought about “numerous innovations displayed on the American theater in favor of private rights and public happiness.” In Federalist #9, Alexander Hamilton observes: “The science of politics…like most other sciences, has received great improvements [that] are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times.” In Federalist #78, he notes that the tests for the positive (statutory) law are in the higher standard of “the nature and the reason of the thing,” a central principle of the classical tradition that Alberti and Palladio enunciate for architecture. In his Federalist #31, he evokes natural law premises: “In disquisitions of every kind there are certain primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend.” In “ethics and politics” stand the principle “that the means ought to be proportioned to the end…” He adds inferences from maxims (a synonym for axioms) that are “so obvious in themselves, and so agreeable to the natural and unsophisticated dictates of common sense that…[they are] almost equally irresistible.” And so, Jefferson must have believed, is the beauty in buildings that are founded on the proportionality of the cube and sphere and are proportional to their civil purpose.

Thomas Jefferson, University of Virginia, Lawn with Pavilions and Library, 1816–25  Photo: Carroll William Westfall©

“Private rights and public happiness.” The government dedicated to those ends is the marvelous fruit of the discoveries in nature, both as displayed in the material cosmos and in humankind, that had recently been made by students of Bacon, Locke and Newton, whom Jefferson declared from France to be “the three greatest men that have ever lived.”17 They had modernized the classical tradition to retain concordance between the good civil order and the beautiful buildings serving it and their alliance with the reason and nature of the things people do and build. From this people of good will can discover the proportionality required of just acts and the beauty that cubic and spherical proportionality can make perceptible in architecture. Here is a Novus ordo seclorum, “A New Order of the Ages,” in governing and in building that serves and expresses the authority “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

A University and a Private Villa

Throughout his life, Jefferson sought reasoned proportionality that unites extremes to achieve the best possible good and closest approximation to the beautiful. As he approached his retirement from public office, he began constructing Poplar Forest, a retreat villa a two-day ride southwest of Monticello that he would tinker with down to his last days. Meanwhile, as “the Hobby of my old age,” he collaborated with others to bring into existence the University of Virginia, whose first students would arrive the year before his death. He wrote the memoir about the Capitol’s cubic and spherical architecture when he was midway in these two projects, both of them superb illustrations of proportionality at work.18

Rectangular geometry carefully controls the buildings, walls and gardens on the grounds that the University occupies. The library’s spherical body, joined by a cubic temple front, stands at the head of the long central common. Its ancient Pantheon-parentage is obvious. Its companions are ten pavilions with classrooms below and professors’ residences above, and with “externals” that exemplify ancient temples and Palladio’s modernization of them. They are disported in facing lines between series of student rooms set behind a continuous colonnade that stretches away down the terraced common. The whole illustrates unity in variety and instructive variations on the cubic in a catalogue of compositions and uses of the classical apparatus of forms. Abbreviations governed by decorum adapt these models to serve the other uses in this civil order that Jefferson referred to as an “academical village.”

The spherical and cubic found a more intimate union at Poplar Forest, where circles enmesh a cubic center.19 A fence tracing an irregular circle demarcates the rural land from the thirty-nine-acre garden whose outer circumambulation is a circular roadway 500 feet in diameter; its inner edge is marked by a fence on an octagonal plan with 200-foot sides. The east-west cardinal axis carries ancillary features, and the main axis holds the approach road where a temple front on a half-square plan greets visitors. The sloping ground lets the temple front’s mate be elevated to serve as a sun porch and offer a view across the landscape from above an arcade giving access to the basement. They bracket the octagonal villa house at the center of the geometry. Its perimeter walls, each fifty feet long, enclose four double-square rooms with half-octagon ends. Nestled in the center of the circles, octagonsThomas Jefferson, Poplar Forest, garden side, Bedford County, Virginia, 1808 Photo: Carroll William Westfall© and axe—as if centered in lineaments illustrating axioms of geometry—is the sky-lit inner sanctum cube, twenty feet on a side. When the project was nearing completion and he was preparing “to mix the faces and ox skulls” in this central room, Jefferson wrote that he would follow “a fancy which I can indulge in my own case, altho [sic] in a public work I feel bound to follow authority strictly.”20

This remark came toward the end of Jefferson’s life-long devotion to public duties, as he sought privacy away from the Monticello fishbowl. Its apologetic tone underlines architecture’s first commitment: not to a hegemon’s diktats or to a public display of an architect’s “fancy” but to the public good, which it serves by building beautiful settings, whether a country house, an “academical village” or a component in a state or national capital to serve a new nation’s people.

Jefferson’s long practice exemplifies the modern classical architecture that can serve the unique American constitutional order. Its imitation of nature seeks the beauty that is the visible expression and counterpart to the just exercise of authority, whose object is to protect the liberty of each individual to pursue his own happiness within a community dedicated to justice. The officials entrusted with authority have hewed closer to the principles of natural law embedded in the Constitution than has the culture of building that now enjoys authority over what is built. It neglects the central content of the classical tradition that runs from early Greece and well down into the American nation, which is the essential role of the imitation of nature. But tradition is an essential guide but a poor master. Jefferson wrote to his fourteen-year old daughter, Patsy: “If you always lean on your master, you will never be able to proceed without him.”21 To do its job, tradition must always collaborate with innovation.


1. Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, September 1, 1785, in Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed., Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 820–25. All subsequent letters are from this source except when noted otherwise.

2. Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, September 20, 1785.

3. Jefferson to Buchanan and Hay, Paris, January 26, 1786. The finished model was readied for shipment later, in June.

4. From 1821, “An Account of the Capitol in Virginia,” in Albert Ellery Bergh, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), 17: 353–54.

5. Jefferson to Latrobe, Monticello, April 22, 1807, in John C. Van Horne, ed., The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 3 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984–88), II:410–11.

6. Jefferson to Buchanan and Hay, Paris, August 13, 1785, quoted in Fiske Kimball, The Capitol of Virginia: A Landmark of American Architecture, revised and expanded from a 1989 republication, ed., Jon Kukla, with a new introduction by Charles Brownell (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001), 11–12.

7. Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, September 20, 1785.

8. Christopher Wren, “Tracts on Architecture: Tract I,” in Lydia M. Soo, Wren’s “Tracts” on Architecture and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 154, whose interpretation of the text is not followed here.

9. Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftsbury, “Soliloquy: or Advice to an Author,” in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (London, n. p.: 1723), 1: III, iii, 353–4; IV, v; II: I, viii, 99–100.

10. Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises, revised ed., ed., Wolfgang Leidhold (Indianapolis, Liberty Fund: 2008), I, VI, x, 67.

11. David Hume, Four Dissertations (London: Millar, 1757), 230, 232.

12. Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, sixth ed., 1785, ed. by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005), II: 706; 702.

13. Letter of Colonel Isaac C. Coles to General James Hartwell Cocke, 23 February 1816, University of Virginia, Special Collections, Cocke Papers, no. 640, box 21.

14. Andrea Palladio, I Quattro libri dell’architettura (Venice: Domenico de’Franceschi, 1570), I, Pro., 5; trans. from The Four Books on Architecture, trans. Robert Tavernor and Richard Schofield (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: MIT, 1997), 55–6. The Italian is vero, buono, e bel modo.

15. Jefferson to Roger C. Wrightman, Monticello, June 24, 1826.

16. Jefferson to Peter Carr, Paris, August 10, 1787. Kenneth Hafertepe, “An Inquiry into Thomas Jefferson’s Ideas of Beauty,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 59 (2000), 216–31.

17. Jefferson to John Trumbull, Paris, February 15, 1789.

18. Jefferson to A.C.V.C. Desutt de Tracy, Monticello, December 26, [18]20, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Paul Leicester Ford Paul, X: 174.

19. For the geometry, see C. Allan Brown, “Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest: The Mathematics of an Ideal Villa,” Journal of Garden History 10 (1990), 126, 129, fig. 13.

20. Jefferson to William Coffee, July 10, 1822, quoted in Timothy Trussell, “A Landscape for Mr. Jefferson’s Retreat,” in Barbara J. Heath and Jack Gary, eds., Jefferson’s Poplar Forest: Unearthing a Virginia Plantation (Gainesville et al.: University Press of Florida, 2012), 83.

21. Jefferson to Martha Jefferson, Aix-en-Provence, March 28, 1787, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed., Julian P. Bond (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955ff), XII: 250–52.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2016, Volume 36, Number 2