Skip to main content

The Relevance of Mr. Jefferson


ISSUE:  Summer 2000

Mr. Jefferson was a tall strait-bodied man as ever you see, right square-shouldered: nary man in this town walked so straight as my old master: neat a built man as ever was seen in Vaginny, I reckon or any place—a straight-up man: long face, high nose. . . .

Old master was never seen to come out before breakfast—about 8 o’clock. If it was warm he wouldn’t ride out till evening: studied upstairs till bell rang for dinner. When writing he had a copy in machine: while he was a-writin he wouldn’t suffer nobody to come into his room: he had a dumbwaiter: When he wanted anything he had nothing to do but turn a crank and the dumb-waiter would bring him water or fruit on a plate or anything he wanted. Old master had abundance of books; sometimes would have twenty of’em down on the floor at once; read first one, then tother. Isaac has often wondered how old master came to have such a mighty head; read so many of them books: and when they go to him to ax him anything, he go right straight to the book and tell you all about it. He talked French and Italian. . . .

Mr. Jefferson always singing when ridin or walkin: hardly see him anywhar out doors but what he was a-singin: had a fine clear voice, sung minnits (minuets) and sich; fiddled in the parlor. Old master very kind to servants.

Such was the portrait left by Isaac, his slave, of Thomas Jefferson, key figure of the first generation of Americans. He was both a man of reason and a man of paradoxes. Even in his own day, he was everything to all men; seen with condescension, by Sir Augustua Foster; with panic, by Timothy Dwight of Yale (“Shall our sons become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat; or our daughters the concubines of the Illuminati?”); with a flutter of excitement, by Margaret Bayard Smith (“And is this,” said I, “the violent democrat, the vulgar demagogue, the bold atheist and profligate man I have so often heard denounced by the federalists? . . . I felt my cheeks burn and my heart throb, and not a word more could I speak while he remained”). The coolest-minded of the Revolutionary generation seemed to generate controversy then, as he has done ever since; the least heroic of leaders has proved the most seminal of minds, the most contradictory of Founding Fathers has been the most invoked.

By birth, Jefferson was both aristocrat and frontiersman. His mother was a Randolph—one of the oldest and most important families in a state where kinship counted. Through her, Jefferson was cousin to the Randolphs of Tuckahoe, one of whom presided over the Revolutionary Congress, another of whom stayed—and died—loyal to his King. His father, Peter Jefferson, less well-born but with literary tastes, was a land surveyor with substantial property in Albemarle County, in the foot-hills of the Blue Ridge—and with greater impact than had the mother on the son. Thomas Jefferson was given a good education; not the best, the education at schools in England that was the preserve of the wealthiest in Virginia, but a good training in philosophy and law at the little College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, the second oldest in the 13 colonies. Williamsburg, the colonial capital, was a social as well as a political center, and Jefferson was taught not only by William Small of Aberdeen (in philosophy) and George Wythe (in law) but by the social graces that he learnt from Governor Fauquier. The frontiers-man was much at ease, if not with the “fair Belinda” of the Williamsburg dances, at least with the parties quarrees of a royal Governor.

The habits he acquired were scholarly. He became a linguist, familiar with French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, and German; he was interested later in Anglo-Saxon and in the vocabulary of the Indians as he came to see in philology an index to the problem of the origin of man. The advice on reading that he gave to his young friend Bernard Moore indicates something of his power of concentration. The student, he argued, should divide his time: from rising until eight in the morning, physical studies; from eight to twelve, read law; from twelve to one, read politics; in the afternoon, read history; from dark to bedtime, belles lettres, criticism, rhetoric, and oratory.

Yet even when he was studying and practicing law—in the years before the Revolution—his interests were catholic, and in the best sense amateur. When he married the widow Mrs. Skelton on New Year’s Day 1772, the home to which he took her was one he was building himself, to his own design atop his little mountain in Albemarle. In its grace and proportion, Monticello remains a lovely example of Palladian Georgian. Jefferson’s interest in architecture— awakened, apparently, by Dr. John Morgan on a visit to Philadelphia in 1766 to secure inoculation against smallpox—remained with him for life. During his ambassadorship to France (1784—89) he filled his travel notebooks with observations and measurements of houses and public buildings in France, Italy, Germany, and Holland—and with designs for home furniture and decoration, with the details of landscape gardening, and even with recipes for macaroni. The great interest of his last years was the building of the University of Virginia, and he could follow the progress of the erection of its serpentine walls and its beautiful pavilions by telescope from his mountain top. He filled his home with books: his library was sold, to become the nucleus of the Library of Congress after the Capitol was burnt by the British in 1814.Equally impressive were his notebooks, immaculately filed and catalogued. From 1783 until his death 43 years later he kept an “Epistolary Record” in which he recorded in parallel columns virtually every letter that he wrote or received. It runs to 656 pages. His correspondence is estimated to include more than fifty thousand separate items.

Nor was Jefferson a man of books only: he was an ingenious inventor of gadgets and they still abound at Monticello: a swivel chair, a bed that could be hoisted to the ceiling, a polygraph device for copying his letters; there were 80 designs for a mouldboard plough, for a leather buggy top, for a hemp-beater. The target was not pedantry but useful knowledge. And there was taste too: a taste for music, for color and texture, and a palate for wine; a cellar that astonished Daniel Webster; and a French chef who persuaded him to feed his guests on something other than his “native victuals,” as Patrick Henry called them, of hog, hoe-cake, and hominy grits.

This does not exhaust the catalogue: experimental farmer, student of the classics and of the Bible, naturalist, horticulturist and palaeontologist, surveyor and builder, lawyer and administrator, Jefferson in fact was one of the last of the universal men, in the last century that could produce them. There is a Renaissance quality, an emphasis on the complete man, on the need for physical as well as mental development, on the value of literary learning and of the practical wisdom of the classics. His was not only a pre-industrial, but also a pre-specialist age.

The many-sidedness, however impressive, carried political liabilities, as it always does. To his Federalist opponents, especially their editors, he was not a Leonardo but a Devil, Tom the Magician, Tom Conundrum. And they found an even more piquant item against his reputation; her name was Sally Hemings, “mighty near white and very handsome,” said his servant Issac, and one of his own slaves. But Sally Hemings in fact was brought to Monticello by Jefferson’s wife Martha after their marriage. She was Martha’s personal attendant, and indeed her half-sister, since she was the product of a liason of Martha’s father, John Wayles, with one of his own slaves. Both women were very alike in appearance, and when Martha died in 1782—a death which shattered Jefferson—Sally acted as mother and escort to the two daughters of Martha, not only at Monticello but when Jefferson went to Paris as Benjamin Franklin’s successor as envoy in 1784.For years rumors persisted that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ children, and a DNA test in 1998 seemed to confirm that at least one of those children was fathered by the master of Monticello. After conducting its own research, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation concluded in January 2000 that the “weight of evidence,” though circumstantial, suggested that Jefferson was the father of one or all of Sally Hemings’ children.

Whatever Jefferson’s relationship with “dusky Sal,” historians, as well as contemporaries, have been bewildered by his paradoxes. Henry Adams, who should have been able to sympathize with him, but was in fact a hostile witness, wrote of him as “a martyr to the disease of omniscience.” With all his gifts for words and style—and perhaps his most decisive contribution to the beginnings of the Revolution was his “pen-manship”—he was shy in speech. He discontinued the practice of giving his Report to Congress in person; at his Inaugural in 1801 he walked from Conrad’s boarding house to the still unfinished Capitol to take the oath (Washington had used a coach-and-six in 1789); he abolished the presidential levee and the rule of precedence at receptions—to the discomfort of visiting British diplomats, and the greater discomfort of their wives. There was little physical magnetism, little of that surging, almost tangible, vitality that marked Hamilton. There was a sensitiveness that some called womanish, and others feline—the wild despair when his wife died, the timidity as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War.

The cast of mind was speculative—but it was not unambitious. There is preserved in the University of Virginia Library Jefferson’s personal scrap-book, indicating a human pre-occupation with his own success. Monticello was remote and on the frontier; in 1801 in the more than 100 miles between it and Washington eight rivers had to be crossed, and five of them had neither bridges nor boats. Philadelphia was still more distant, a journey of some seven to 10 days. Yet Monticello was no ivory tower. The shy man among his books and gadgets was a skilled party organizer, as gifted in intrigue as any more orthodox politician, the friend, for a time, of Genet, the abettor of editor Freneau, the colleague of Madison; and he was thought of by his Federalist opponents with a certain uneasy fear. He rarely intervened in controversy himself, and when attacked he remained maddeningly aloof—but not unhurt. His main instrument was correspondence, but he could hide his political maneuvers equally dexterously behind a “botanizing excursion” up the Hudson in 1791, or by doing deals with Hamilton himself, or by acting as adviser to Layafette and his group of would-be liberal reformers in Paris in 1789.The fondness for expediency and at times for the role of the trimmer lay deep in the man’s character, the sophistication was rooted in sophistry.

That sophistication was marred by an occasional indiscretion—the reference for instance to “the Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council” who “had had their heads shorn by the harlot England, “which he claimed was a reference to the Cincinnati but which Washington took personally; and the sparkling but unfortunate epigrams—”The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants, it is its natural manure.” “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” To use the language of John Adams, who lacked his finesse; Washington’s was a character of Convention, but in Jefferson there was something of the Chameleon. The fascination of Jefferson recalls that of Milton and of Michelangelo, of Locke and Burke, of Lamartine and Hugo: the mixture of artist and man of affairs, the tension between political philosopher and political tactician, the search for truth alongside the lie in the cave.

The simple solutions to the puzzle are the explanations offered by orthodox Jeffersonians—that foreign affairs intruded (“Jefferson’s presidency co-incided,” says Herbert Agar, “with the years from Marengo to Wagram”); or by practical politicians—that once in power an opposition must accept much of what has gone before as an obligation to ensure continuous and orderly government. Jefferson’s was a long life in an age of revolutions, and he learnt to be pliable. “Forty years experience in government,” he said, “is worth a century of book-reading.” By 1816 he was ready to accept that “moderate imperfections had better be borne with.” These explanations certainly go part of the way. Yet in 1800 the die was not cast; a social revolution was still possible in a society in flux, with a Constitution widely debated and challenged, and with 10 amendments added as soon as it was declared fundamental law. Why then the failure to act? Was it timidity, as in 1781, and, as it seemed again, in 1805-6, when he was aware of Burr’s intrigues in the West, but was slow to act? Was it that the pre-eminent Revolutionary writer, author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), of the Declaration of Independence of 1776, of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, of the Ordinance of 1784, of the Bill of Rights and of the Kentucky Resolutions, was at ease in his study but ineffective as executive and organizer? Was it his quietness, his faith in peace (“Peace is our passion”), his non-belligerence? Yet he founded West Point, ruled Congress with a firm hand for many of his years as president, went to war with the Barbary corsairs in North Africa, purchased Louisiana without any constitutional “right” to do so, and prepared the way both for the annexation of West Florida and for the War of 1812.Was it, as later with Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, that the quest for success, and the adulation that followed its attainment, produced not only inconsistency but began a subtle destruction of the original ideals? Or was it that, in fact, by 1800 the Revolution had been accomplished?

The quest for party origins and for continuity in American history, and the effort to associate with one or other political party the hallowed names of the Founding Fathers, have tended to hide the assumptions that were shared by all the native leaders of the Revolutionary generation, and the sharpness of the break that came with their deaths and as a result of the War of 1812.To read Jefferson’s First Inaugural (March 4, 1801) is to realize the continuity of his policy with Washington’s—and with Adams’s. His phrase, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” was more than a form of words.”We have,” he said, “called by different names brethren of the same principle.” His declaration in the address—expressed, it is true, with an optimism neither Washington’s nor Adams’s temperament would have allowed them to share—was nevertheless a declaration that Federalists could hardly have challenged.

Jeffersonians and Federalists shared a common front against monarchy, against the dangers of an Established Church, and against the threat of foreign intervention in American domestic affairs. Jefferson had dropped Genet seven years before when he found him to be the advocate of a French rather than an American policy. No more than Adams did Jefferson trust financiers, traders, or industrialists; when he spoke of the moral worth and the intelligence of “the people,” he too meant only the farming element. He did as president abolish the hated excise taxes, and he tried hard to discipline the federal judiciary, but the rest of the Federalist structure was left alone. It was Jefferson’s own party, to Adams’s displeasure and Federalist irony, that re-established the National Bank and passed the first protective tariffs. No attempt was made to curb the abuses consequent on speculation in public lands—the Louisiana Purchase in fact encouraged them further. The critic of Hamilton’s loose construction of the Constitution here acted with decision himself, doubling the area of the United States without consulting Congress— but acquiring a vast empire peaceably, and without taxation. Limitations on the suffrage continued. Four years later, in his Second Inaugural, Jefferson listed, among the obligations resting on a government, the maintenance of “that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of his fathers.”

Jefferson, it is true, offered apologies for the mildness of the changes.”It mortifies me,” he wrote to Dupont de Nemours, “to be strengthening principles which I deem radically vicious, but this vice is entailed on us by the first error. . . . What is practicable must often control what is pure theory.” But what he deplored here was the Hamiltonian rather than the Federalist system—”the contracted, English, half-lettered ideas of Hamilton.” To Jefferson, as to many Federalists, it was Hamilton who was exotic, the outsider, as his feud with Adams indicated. The differences between the two camps concerned the extent to which the new national government should take precedence over the state governments, and the extent to which the people could be trusted to govern themselves. As Jefferson put it, again in 1800, “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

The difference was less of principle than of mood and emphasis. Where Washington, Hamilton and Adams were gloomy, the Jeffersonians were optimistic—about the American present and future, about its government and its resources. When Adams looked to history, Jefferson deplored “the Gothic idea” of looking backward rather than forward “for the improvement of the human mind.” “I steer my bark with Hope in the head,” he wrote in 1816, “leaving Fear astern.”

The first generation in American history, then, was not so much Revolutionary as optimistic; less rationalist than empiricist; concerned rather with problems of moral than of political philosophy; more nationalist and isolationist than internationalist or ideologic; and surprisingly united in the experiment it undertook. To it, as to Franklin, the ground for hope was the chance that opened out in America for a new world to produce “new men.” Jefferson has none of the simplicity that is the appealing trait—and symbolic richness of Washington, little of Hamilton’s directness, none of Adams’s genial self-importance, none of the Plain Man attributes—so carefully contrived—of Franklin. But of all the “new men” he remains the most significant figure.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading