Jefferson Society plans annual pilgrimage to Monticello

The society will lay flowers on Jefferson’s grave in honor of the 275th anniversary of his birth

Members of the Jefferson Society go to Monticello early April 13 to place a wreath on Thomas Jefferson's grave. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Members of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society will travel to Monticello Friday to lay flowers at Thomas Jefferson’s grave and take photographs in front of the house before the sunrise, as part of an annual tradition in honor of the anniversary of Jefferson’s birth. 

The Jefferson Society was founded in 1825, the same year the University opened. The organization is a literary and debating society, where members meet weekly primarily to discuss literature and political issues.

The society has a number of traditions, including the annual pilgrimage to Monticello on Jefferson’s birthday. Daniel Durgavich, a third-year College student and president of the Jefferson Society, said the group goes to Monticello before the general public each April 13.

“We’ll caravan our way up to Monticello sometime between 5 or 5:30 in the morning, and then we’re granted special access to be able to go up to the Jefferson plot,” Durgavich said. “We’re one of the first organizations that gets the chance to leave a set of flowers … in front of his grave. And then we have the privilege to be able to walk up and take pictures in front of Monticello and watch the sunrise on Mr. Jefferson’s birthday in front of Mr. Jefferson’s pride and joy.”

Durgavich said that the Jefferson Society is able to access Monticello because of the society’s historic relationship with the University and its founder. 

“When this was started, and even throughout the early 20th century, mid-20th century, was and still is a very important organization on grounds with deep historical connections to the University and to even Mr. Jefferson,” Durgavich said. “So I think we have access to this because of the organization’s historical status as well as its deep connections to the University and to Mr. Jefferson himself.” 

Durgavich added that the pilgrimage to Monticello on Jefferson’s birthday has been around for decades — it started in the 1980s, if not earlier, he believes.

The pilgrimage to Monticello is not the only tradition that the Jefferson Society has to commemorate Jefferson’s birth. Maddie Shaw, a third-year College student and historian of the Jefferson Society, said members of the society will gather on the evening of April 12 to read the Declaration of Independence. 

“We also, on the night leading up to his birthday, read the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson Hall at midnight as a way to sort of remember one of his really big accomplishments that he left behind,” Shaw said. 

The eve of Founders Day is also the time when the Sons and Daughters of Liberty, a semi-secret society on Grounds, post its annual list of “Rebels and Tyrants.” The Jefferson Society usually appears on the list of “Tyrants,” with its president listed as “Head Court Jester.” 

Durgavich added that another aspect of the Founders Day Eve tradition involves the defense of Jefferson Hall against the Sons and Daughters of Liberty, who arrive around midnight to throw things at the members of the Jefferson Society. 

“They don’t necessarily have the highest regard for this organization, but as ‘Head Court Jester,’ I will say that I find it very fun to be able to contest them,” Durgavich said. “They’ll come and throw stuff at us and we’ll throw water balloons and the like back at them, and it’s a raucous time. But it represents — I think — a more raucous age that we’re both harkening back to.” 

In addition, the society will host a black tie dinner in the Dome Room of the Rotunda for its members on Saturday night. Shaw said the event will have a slightly different emphasis than in previous years, with a greater focus on Thomas Jefferson’s complex legacy as a prominent historical figure and slaveholder. 

“I’m the one that plans the dinner we hold, and it used to be very much a celebration of Jefferson and everything that he did, but this year our speaker is going to be talking about the complications with that legacy,” Shaw said. “It’s something that we’re very aware of, and that’s why I’ve changed the language of this event from an event in honor of Thomas Jefferson to an event in remembrance of Thomas Jefferson that accepts there are maybe some things about him that we should not be honoring.” 

Mia Magruder, the Marketing and Communications Officer for Monticello, said in an email that the Jefferson Society is one of several organizations that donate wreaths in honor of Jefferson’s birthday. 

“The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society is among the organizations that generously donate a wreath for Jefferson’s birthday celebration,” Magruder said. “An annual tradition, the wreaths help mark the occasion during the public event on the [Monticello] West Lawn.” 

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