Monday, April 1, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: My Favorite Patriot

You think politics today is polarized and confusing?  Consider the presidential election of 1800, when then Vice-President Thomas Jefferson crushed then sitting President, John Adams, 61% to 39% in the popular vote.  But, due to election rules of the time, Jefferson became absurdly tied in the Electoral College with his own Vice-President running mate, the amazing Aaron Burr.  The election was thrown into the House of Representatives and the House chose Jefferson to be our third President after 36 ballots, a contentious affair far closer than the popular vote.  This ridiculous circumstance led to the passage of the 12th Amendment to prevent it from happening again.

I just finished a book by Jon Meacham entitled Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012).  Meacham makes it clear that the election of 1800 was very much a referendum on two visions of government in America.  The Federalists had held the upper hand since the George Washington presidency.  Washington allowed for strong Federalist input and the government was Federalist in many, if not most, respects.  This accelerated with the John Adams presidency.  Adams was a New England Yankee and wanted to consolidate aspects of State Sovereignty into a Federal Authority (thus the term Federalist.  Though note that there is a distinction to be made between the Federalist Party and the principle of federalism).

Jefferson represented the majority of who were considered then as "southern" Americans.  At that time, the term "southern" applied to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, which would be considered battleground states today.  North of there the nation was decidedly abolitionist and mostly Federalist.  Jefferson and most southerners feared the Federalists would re-establish monarchical-like authority in the Federal government. The Jeffersonian political party was known (somewhat confusingly today) as the Democratic-Republican Party.  (It later became the Democratic Party while the Federalist Party vanished and was replaced by the Whig Party and ultimately by the Republican Party.)  Meacham thus understands that the fundamental tension within American politics has always been between State and Federal Power.

I have a small collection of books on Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson is my favorite patriot.  His appreciation for the finer aspects of the enlightenment period such as art, architecture, and literature, great cuisine, his bright articulate mind, his brilliant writing abilities, and his philosophy of government are all of superior calibre compared among his Founding Father peers.  Monticello itself is a small wonder.  Jennifer and I visited there many years ago.  Virginia is a wonderful state for tourism and Monticello is among its finest attractions.

I have a representative sampling of Jefferson's original writings and his most renown essays. I have his famous gardening books.  Meacham's biography makes my fourth now.  My oldest is from 1987.  My favorite of all four (yes I prefer this one to Meacham's) is Willard Sterne Randall's Jefferson: A Life from 1993.  Randall does not even get to Jefferson becoming Vice-President until page 523 of his 595 page bio.  He consequently has ample space to explore in detail Jefferson's interests in art and science and his political philosophy as they formed in his younger years.  For this reason Randall gives a very clear image of the Jeffersonian mindset, even if he fails to give Jefferson proper accountability in the matters of Sally Hemings or slavery.  (Here Meacham is contemporary and incorporates these new "evils" within his portrait of Jefferson.)  Previously, my most recent biography was American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis from 1996, it too is what might be termed a "positivist" look at Jefferson's life.

Meacham's approach is more complete at least in the respect of how it receives recent scholarship on Jefferson's treatment of his slaves and his extended sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave girl.  Meacham acknowledges these as historical facts, whereas the other three biographies either ignore or seek to deflect these matters.  In recent years scholars have become less forgiving of the contradiction between Jefferson's ideal of individual human freedom and his ownership of hundreds of slaves.

I have a copy of the October 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine which features an article entitled "Unmasking Thomas Jefferson."  The article attempts to describe an abusive Jefferson.  He hired a fierce overseer who frequently beat and punished his slaves.  Jefferson saw how he could profit from selling slave children, disrupting their families in the most callous way.  This is a record of behavior we would call brutal and racist today.  And that is the point of this scholarship; it is meant to show Jefferson as a racist and a rapist.

Meacham does not run from this.  An example: "The emotional content of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is a mystery.  He may have loved her, and she him.  It could have been, as some have argued, coercive, institutionalized rape.  She might have just been doing what she had to do to survive an evil system, accepting sexual duty as an element of her enslavement and using what leverage she had to improve the lot of her children.  Or each of these things may have been true at different times.

"Sex, Jefferson himself once remarked, was 'the strongest of the human passions,' and he was not a man to deny himself what he wanted.  Sally Hemings, for her part, was 'light colored and decidedly good-looking,' Jefferson grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph recalled.  In the following years Jefferson was always at Monticello at the times she was likely to have conceived the children she is known to have borne."  (Page 217)

Meacham does not delve into Jefferson's personal interests in science and architecture and the origins of his political philosophy with as much detail as Randall, which is why I prefer the 1993 biography.  (The writing of the Declaration of Independence is covered in a few paragraphs by Meacham, for example, while Randall devotes 8-9 pages to the reasoning and influences behind its initial drafts and edited revisions.). Meacham is worthy in that he incorporates Jefferson's slave-based warts into the overall portrait.  I must accept that Jefferson was a shrewd and harsh master as much as a gentle one.  I must accept that Jefferson was an erotic man.  Meacham importantly point out that Hemings was also the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife, Martha, who he loved and to whom he was completely faithful for the many years of their marriage.  This adds further entanglements to the complexity of the Jefferson-Hemings affair; in all likelihood Sally resembled Martha in some ways, sharing the same father.

Otherwise, the book is a solid review of Jefferson's life and achievements.  Little time is spent on his youth.  He always loved books and learning.  He always loved the outdoors, hunting, riding, and growing all manner of flora.  By page 85 Jefferson is already famous.  He becomes ambassador to France by page 178.  Vice-President by page 299.  President at 347.  By page 445 he is in his post-presidency period, a period of rest, reconciliation with former enemies like John Adams, horse riding (which he did daily, even while President and to which he attributed to his own good health), leisurely reading and writing, and overseeing the gardening of the grounds.  Even though this section of the book is only 50 pages Meacham provides a superior read to Randall in this regard.  The later biographer condenses this portion of Jefferson's life but to a single, short chapter.  Admittedly, this period is anti-climatic, but the man was still thinking and writing and fascinated with life.  To grasp the full man surely you have to look at his final 18 years of life with certain depth.

Jefferson founded the University of Virginia during this time.  "The making of the University of Virginia was Jefferson's last great effort and leadership.  It called on his political, intellectual, and architectural gifts.  As with so much in his life, there were compromises and problems (he spent too much money), but also as with so much else, Jefferson created something that endured.  The Declaration of Independence's words lived past him.  The nation built from the addition of Louisiana lived on past him.  His conception of the possibilities of a strong presidency lived on past him.  The university did, too.

"Education had been a perennial interest.  'I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that of the diffusion of knowledge among the people," Jefferson wrote George Wythe in the 1780's.  'No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.'" (Page 469)

Meacham is right to point this out but I think Jefferson was rather naive about the sophistication of "knowledge" of which "the people" were capable.  The average voter today is a pathetic, uninformed, victim of campaign finance and mass marketing.  Jefferson did not foresee this.  His vision of the voter, like his myth of a largely agrarian Jeffersonian America, was misguided and too idealistic.  People are stupid and the stupider the voter, the stupider the politics becomes.  That's my personal interpretation, it is certainly not Meacham's.  In this regard I am, of course, anti-Jeffersonian.

One of the best things about Meacham's book is the 174 pages of endnotes, many of which read on for pages by themselves.  This is a treasure trove of information about Jefferson that I have not read elsewhere.  It is a valuable inclusion and is another thing that makes this biography distinctive.

America did not turn out as Thomas Jefferson intended.  Yet he remains, for me, its most fascinating Founding Father.  Meacham summarizes: "Jefferson is the founding president who charms us most.  George Washington inspires awe;  John Adams respect.  With his grace and hospitality, his sense of taste and love of beautiful things - of silver and art and architecture and gardening and food and wine - Jefferson is more alive, more convivial....The real Jefferson was like so many of us: a bundle of contradictions, competing passions, flaws, sins, and virtues that can never be smoothed out into a tidy whole."  (Page 500)

Meacham is a great addition to my Jefferson biographies.  Taken together, the four of them provide many facts and perspectives on Thomas Jefferson.  His sex with Sally Hemings and his control of his slaves does not detract from the man of brilliant talents, enlightened interests, and capacity for expression.  Perhaps this makes me racist by today's standards.  I hope not.

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