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Mr. Jefferson and His Constant Companions

ISSUE:  Winter 1998

In recent attempts to expose the delinquency of the extremist Thomas Jefferson during the era of the French Revolution, prominent writers have obsessed on familiar Jeffersonian catchphrases and 18th-century hyperbole:

“Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.”

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Somehow, those predisposed to teleporting Jefferson to fresh contexts have failed to uncover what is even more sinister in the writings of the overindulged herald of democracy, to wit:

“A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks. Never think of taking a book with you.” (1785)

As presidential poster-boy for the National Rifle Association, Thomas Jefferson believed that books were vastly overrated, that all an individual needed to learn about self-worth could be accomplished in the forest. Anticipating the conformist sports of football and baseball, Jefferson recognized that these would be violent without the added value of teaching survival skills. For this reason he advocated for youth the practical pursuit of armed happiness. (Incidentally, some historians suspect that the seven thousand books in Jefferson’s personal library contained only blank pages and that his just-published account books may have been doctored to disguise how much he spent on ammunition.)

The Virginian disguised himself in a powdered periwig and ruffled shirt in the opulent society of Paris, but he revealed his true nature in a famous boast that he was “a savage of the mountains of America.” (1785) More and more scholars have come to believe this to be a revelation of his mother’s long-term illicit relationship with the Cherokee warrior-orator Outasette, who in fact may have been Thomas Jefferson’s actual father. Peter Jefferson was a surveyor whose job often took him away from home for extended periods. Outasette was known to have visited the Jefferson home on numerous occasions, and in 1812 Jefferson finally admitted to John Adams that there was something “very familiar” about Outasette, while noting: “His sounding voice, distinct articulation, animated action . . .filled me with awe and veneration.” It certainly sounds like a son’s nostalgia for an admired father. Furthermore, it seems logical to infer that Jefferson believed he had inherited his passionate gift for the stylization of language from his Cherokee father; this could also explain why it was that in his letters to various Indians as president he referred to the original Americans as “brothers.”

Jefferson’s religion has been the subject of books in recent years as well. He has been called an atheist, a deist, a Unitarian, and, most recently, a friend to evangelical enthusiasm. All are wrong. His religion was as radical as his politics: he was of an obscure faith, possibly suggested by his Native American roots, which honored that scrappy American songster, the mockingbird. To his daughter Martha, Jefferson wrote solemnly of the mockingbird, as he sought to attract impressionable young people to his cult: “Learn all the children to venerate it as a superior being in the form of a bird, or as a being which will haunt them if any harm is done to itself or its eggs.” (1793) A decade later, Margaret Bayard Smith, the wife of a Washington, D.C. newspaper publisher, observed President Jefferson in the White House at moments when no one else was watching. She inserted in her memoirs, which remained suppressed until 1906: “Whenever he was alone he opened the cage and let the bird fly about the room. . . . Often when he retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on the couch and pour forth its melodious strains. How he loved this bird!” Jefferson appears to have been migrating in his own mind as he communicated with his divinely inspired mockingbird at the time of his decision to acquire Louisiana from Napoleon. We must face the possibility that the author of the Declaration of Independence was also the progenitor of all new age religions.

As to the third president’s preoccupation with interracial sex, much has been written in the last 25 years since the late Fawn Brodie counted the number of times Jefferson chose the word “mulatto” to describe landscape, when any other man would have simply written “brown.” From Philadelphia in 1793, he wrote his daughter breathlessly: “My house is entirely embosomed in high plane trees, with good grass below, and under them I breakfast, dine, write, read and receive my company.” Whether his “company” referred to multiple partners or just one has not yet been confirmed, but his association of the bosom (“with good grass below”) and appetite seems self-evident. If only he had let on what color the “good grass” was or the season when he enjoyed it. We must recall that this was an experienced man who recommended to younger men that they enter the forest with gun in hand, the Freudian gun being one’s “constant companion” requiring regular exercise.

Questions abound regarding Jefferson’s relationship with a particular man eight years his junior, James Madison, unmarried and apparently unattached until he was past 40.They signed their letters to each other, “Affectionately yours,” and the like, and seemed to find pleasure in addressing each other with the mock-formal “Dear Sir.” Appealing to Madison to visit him while serving as America’s minister to the court of Louis XVI of France, Jefferson coaxed his special friend: “Do you not think the men and arts of this country would be worth another summer. . . . You shall find with me a room, bed and plate, if you will do me the favor to become of the family.” (1784) Why did Jefferson highlight “men” and “arts” instead of traditionally heterosexual amusements? Was it necessary for him to mention “bed” if his interest in Madison was purely cerebral? In proposing once that they rendezvous at his romantic mountaintop home, Jefferson wrote, “I will camp you at Monticello.” (1788) The ruggedness of the verb “camp” seems to hint at physicality in their relationship.

Jefferson’s lack of a moral center seems clear in another proud statement: “I am but a son of nature, loving what I see and feel, without being able to give a reason, nor caring much whether there be one.” (1788) Bored with the age of reason, the indecent radical revolutionary sought to wreck the structure of society and substitute for its moral values an anti-religious hedonism and libertine sensuality. Why else would the profligate president so cleverly have selected the mockingbird (rather than, say, the eagle) to venerate if not to symbolically “mock” ordered society?

The protean founder, like his deceptive mockingbird, changes his tune often. As Jefferson’s writings are too complex to satisfy, they should probably be banned. He was, after all, a gun-toting, bird-brained bisexual Indian.


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