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The Real Jefferson


ISSUE:  Spring 1997
The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist. By Andrew Burstein. University Press of Virginia.$37.50 cloth, $14.95 paper.

In 1993 M. L. Burstein, an eminent American economist who teaches in Canada, published a book in Great Britain entitled Understanding Thomas Jefferson.In the preface he asked, “What was Thomas Jefferson really like?” And he confessed, “I do not know; nobody does.”

Professor Burstein, meet Dr. Andrew Burstein, independent scholar, who more than any other historian, economist, or biographer knows what Thomas Jefferson was really like. His book, The Inner Jefferson, is a series of extended analytical essays that present a portrait of Jefferson as a man of the heart to complement the massive literature that focuses on his head, making him the public man of reason, the apostle of liberty, the Renaissance Man, a cultural icon who became the Sage of Monticello.

Starting with the assumption that it is impossible to know the public Jefferson without first understanding the private man, Burstein tries to “get under his skin” in order to discover “Jefferson’s sense of self, his self-fashioning.” To recreate the mental world Jefferson knew, Burstein explores what he read and how he responded to it, what he wrote privately in his familiar letters, and what meaning he found in 18th-century words that made him “a man of his time, not ours.”

Like Jack McLaughlin, who described Monticello as a dwelling that mirrored Jefferson, Burstein views Monticello as “the mirror of Jefferson’s inner life.” But since Monticello was carefully planned before it was built, Burstein explores Jefferson’s early interest in architecture, finding there the beginning of his “head and heart” dialogue, with his rational Head dreaming up architectural diagrams to lull his sensitive Heart and restive mind to sleep.

Since the first Monticello was built for his bride, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, and since Jefferson destroyed their correspondence after her death in 1782, Burstein approaches the marriage of Thomas and Patty Jefferson by associating it with the construction of Monticello where they would live with their children. During the intoxicating months of courtship, Jefferson received Robert Skipwith’s request for a list of classical books suitable for one who had neither the leisure nor the inclination “for any intricate or tedious study.” Skipwith, who was married to Patty’s half-sister, enclosed the letter to Patty for delivery to Jefferson, who confessed to his future brother-in-law his devotion to Patty: “In every scheme of happiness she is placed in the foreground of the picture, as the principal figure.”

When the marquis de Chastellux visited Monticello in 1782, he praised Mrs. Jefferson as “a gentle and amiable wife” and Jefferson as “the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.” Jefferson’s heart was devoted to his wife and family, his head to the construction of their home on the little mountain.

Early in their marriage, Jefferson copied into his Commonplace Book a tender and romantic verse from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy that would ultimately summarize his “ten years of unchequered happiness” with Patty: “Time wastes too fast! every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days & hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return more! everything presses on: and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!”

The Jeffersons’ marriage was cut short by Patty’s death in 1782. But shortly before she died, she recalled this passage from Sterne. Writing the first part in a clear hand, she then passed the pen to her husband, who finished the quotation. Jefferson kept this romantic note until his death 44 years later, when it was discovered by his daughter “in the most secret drawer of a private cabinet which he constantly resorted to.”

Jefferson praised Sterne as “the best course of morality,” and Burstein carefully analyzes the writer’s influence on Jefferson in a brilliant chapter entitled “Sensitivity and Sterne,” arguing that Sterne’s writings gave Jefferson “first an imaginative counterweight to the workaday requirements of his law practice, then a pleasing format for the acquisition of moral lessons, and finally a precedent to draw on in expressing sentiment.”

After Patty’s death, Jefferson gave up his hope of retiring to Monticello to pursue “domestic and literary objects.” Instead he returned to Congress for two years before sailing for France. Between Patty’s death and his return from Europe, Jefferson was at Monticello, the scene of his irreparable loss, for only five months in seven years.

It was in France that Jefferson composed his famous “My Head and My Heart” letter to Maria Cosway, which Burstein analyzes as a key to finding the inner Jefferson. Four years after being widowed, Jefferson was smitten with the captivating Maria and began a flirtation that culminated in his writing what Burstein calls “Jefferson’s most self-revealing letter.” Filled with tender sentiment, the letter depicts the conflict between his Head, which warns against his “warmth and precipitation” in describing Maria’s “qualities and accomplishments . . . such as music, modesty, beauty, and . . . softness of disposition,” and his Heart, which concentrates on the “sublime delight,” “the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart,” when he is in the presence of his charming companion, Maria.

Although most analysts of this letter have called the debate a draw or declared the Head the winner, Burstein says that the Heart won. But his interpretation of their friendship wobbles between a passionate and a compassionate relationship, and he ends with “a provocative, perhaps unanswerable question . . . ‘Did they or didn’t they?’”

Four chapters later Burstein answers this titillating question, concluding that Maria Cosway “plainly stimulated him [TJ], but he successfully commanded self-restraint.” And in his concluding chapter, Burstein reiterates his view that “intellectual passion and the power of his imagination seem to have brought him to the verge of satisfying his physical needs, but the power of his conscience likely constrained him from realizing his private fantasy. Or,” Burstein writes, qualifying his certitute ever further, “if he did indeed succumb to a few moments of unrestrained passion, the consciousness of these acts must have riddled him with guilt, as he returned to a friendship marked by controlled passion.” But he flatly rejects Jefferson’s alleged liason with Sally Hemings.

Burstein cites Kenneth Lockridge’s book on patriarchal rage only once (in his discussion of Jefferson’s relationship with his mother), but he completely ignores Lockridge’s charge that Jefferson was a misogynist. Instead of being a woman hater, Jefferson is portrayed as having a rare conversational and epistolary prowess with women, and Burstein cites the Virginian’s letters and conversations with a notable list of ladies who recognized his sympathetic and sensitive wit: Abigail Adams, Angelica Schuyler (Hamilton’s sister-in-law), Margaret Bayard Smith, and Eliza House Trist in America as well as Mme Helvetius, Mme d’Enville, Mme de Tott, Mme de Tesse, and Mme de Corny in France. Except for Maria Cosway, Jefferson “adopted a warm, indulgent style, playful to the point of hinting at amorous possibilities, yet morally secure and nonthreatening.” To women, Burstein concludes, “he was capable of creating an unreal, sensual, sentimental world, pretending to be escaping from the sober obligations he imposed upon himself, which ruled his life.”

For Jefferson, letter writing was more than an avocation; it became almost a vocation and constituted his “most notable means of self-presentation.” Jefferson tried always to be an engaging and considerate friend, embodying the virtues of amiability, moderation, and civility in order to foster reason and understanding in his letters. Indeed, he ranked good humor above integrity, industry, and science, although he confessed that the preference of the first to the second might not be universally accepted.”But,” he added, “we had all rather associate with a good-humored, light-principled man, than with an ill-tempered rigorist in morality.”

Like the English novelist Samuel Richardson, Jefferson viewed letter writing as “the cement of friendship . . .friendship avowed under hand and seal.” And he agreed with Richardson that letter writing was friendship “more pure, yet more ardent, and less broken in upon, than personal conversation can be amongst the most pure, because of the deliberation it allows, from the very preparation to, and action of writing.”

In a careful analysis of Jefferson’s letters to James Madison and James Monroe, Burstein demonstrates that the letters to Madison were written from the Head in terms of a rational and philosophical definition of friendship. Those to Monroe, who had studied law with Jefferson, were written from the Heart, dwelling constantly on sentiment and emotional issues. And when Jefferson invited his closest friends—men with the qualities of Head and Heart that he cherished—to settle near Monticello, only Monroe moved into the neighborhood.

It was Jefferson who orchestrated the friendship between Madison, his “most particular friend,” and Monroe, his prize protege. Just before his departure for France, he urged Madison to open a correspondence with Monroe. Whenever political differences first emerged between the two—they were pitted against each other in the first congressional election under the Constitution—Jefferson smoothed the way for later cooperation between them. At the end of his presidency, when dissident Republicans backed Monroe against Madison as his successor, Jefferson tried to maintain personal neutrality and subsequently labored to patch up the differences between “the two principal pillars of my happiness,” a three-year project that finally brought Monroe into Madison’s cabinet as secretary of state.

But it was Madison, who Jefferson called “the greatest man in the world” in 1790, who became his greatest collaborator. He was also, as Burstein suggests, “Jefferson’s greatest blessing.” He admired Madison’s sound judgment, “the powers and polish of his pen,” and his “habit of self-possession, which placed at ready command the rich resources of his luminous and discriminating mind,” allowing him to express his beliefs “in language pure, classical, and copious, soothing always the feelings of his adversaries by civilities and softness of expression.”

Jefferson tended to relate political discourse in a virtuous republican society to the values he ascribed to personal friendship and familial ties. He viewed participation in the implementation of the founding principles of the American republic as a virtuous civic duty. He hoped and apparently expected that men would discuss public policy without assailing the private character of those with whom they disagreed. But as William Plumer observed during Washington’s first term, “It is impossible to censure measures without condemning men.”

When Jefferson discovered that civility in politics was a forlorn hope, he assumed an uncompromising political stance to defend his views and to combat what he perceived as a virulent opposition. Although “he made language serve political partisanship,” Burstein writes, “he did not consider himself a partisan.”

Explaining this surprising statement is the task Burstein sets for himself in a chapter entitled “Obstructed Vision.” He first analyzes the obstructions that Jefferson viewed as threats to his vision of a liberal republican America. When he joined Washington’s administration after five years away from domestic politics, Jefferson thought that he could function as an executive, without becoming entangled in any factional quarrels in Congress. But he soon perceived a powerful group of representatives who had, he feared, abandoned republican virtue in favor of measures patterned on British-style corruption and the creation of an American aristocracy. He quickly linked this heresy with the program of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, whose consolidation of power and authority threatened his idealized republic, Jefferson concluded that Hamilton’s “system flowed from principles adverse to liberty, & was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic” by enriching legislators in return for their votes.

Despite Jefferson’s repeated denials of any inclination to invite controversy—he claimed that he was “too desirous of quiet to place myself in the way of contention,” Burstein demonstrates how he became the most controversial of men.”To define a mission as Jefferson did,” he writes, “required a strong sense of one’s superior knowledge of lightness, almost of revealed Truth,” And Jefferson was convinced that “no one could rescue the principles of ‘76 as effectively as he himself.” So Burstein concludes that “the obstructed vision of this chapter’s title refers to two notions at once: Jefferson came up against obstructions to his liberal humanist vision for America; and the obstructed vision was in fact his own shortsightedness” in “not recognizing in himself the bitter partisan.”

In reading Burstein’s assessment of Jefferson, one in my age bracket is reminded of the famous National League umpire Bill Klem, who claimed that he had never made a bad call in his long career. Burstein concludes that “Jefferson found himself blameless in all things” and “consistently assigned blame to sources outside himself.”

Burstein notes that historians frequently ask, “Which Jefferson are we talking about?” He discusses many of the facets that make up the many-sided Jefferson, concentrating on his lifelong pursuit of friendship and moderation and his growing political partisanship. Despite the larger contradictions in Jefferson’s life, it was his optimism about the American people’s future as a democratic nation that makes him a durable public and private person, and Andrew Burstein has made a major contribution to our understanding of the inner man.

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