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Old Wine in New (Medicine) Bottles?

ISSUE:  Summer 2005

Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello, by Andrew Burstein. Basic Books, February 2005. $25

Do we really need another book about Thomas Jefferson? Andrew Burstein apparently thinks so, and to prove his point, he has produced a well-written, scrupulously researched, richly illustrated, and accessible volume on our third president. Although he examines such familiar topics as Jefferson’s views on women, slavery, politics, history, and religion, Burstein promises to approach his subject matter in a new way. First, he relies heavily on “the relatively uncensored Jefferson that exists in the least-studied writings of his retirement years, 1809–1826” (3). Regrettably, historians and editors have, for the most part, left this portion of Jefferson’s written legacy in obscurity. Indeed, only about one-third of his outgoing letters during this period have ever been published, and the figure for his incoming correspondence is lower still. The “secrets” that Burstein expects to uncover, therefore, have long lay “hidden in plain view in his mass of preserved papers” (283), waiting for their historian. Second, he pledges to expose “the unfamiliar that was familiar to Jefferson” (2) and to reveal “the imagination of an eighteenth-century man who read incessantly but safeguarded his inmost thoughts” (286).

What the author finds is that Jefferson had an abiding interest in all things medical. He owned more than one hundred medical texts and treatises (about 3 percent of his pre-1815 holdings); counted among his friends a number of noted doctors—Robley Dunglison, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Watkins among them; gave out medical advice; regulated his life according to the admonitions of such medical theorists as Samuel Auguste Tissot; and even based the design for his beloved University of Virginia on a Parisian hospital. Of even greater importance to Burstein is the fact that Jefferson utilized “a comprehensive language of medicine” (3), a fact that past Jefferson scholars have failed to recognize. For Burstein, Jefferson’s recurrence to “a medicalized vocabulary” (44) (e.g., political spasms and convulsions, salutary measures) offers valuable insights into “a lost emotional universe” (49). More provocative still is his assertion that Jefferson “acquired many of his guiding principles from medical discourse” (45).

That Jefferson would be interested in medicine as he advanced from middle into old age (he was almost sixty-six when he left the presidency) should surprise no one. Although he seems to have left the severe headaches he had occasionally suffered behind him when he rode out of the nation’s capital early in March 1809, during his retirement he was often beset by rheumatism, diarrhea, and an irritable bladder. Moreover, Jefferson’s right wrist, which he had broken in France decades earlier, caused him great pain as he tried to keep up with his voluminous correspondence. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the ex-president almost died of suffocation while sitting for a life mask with John Browere in October 1825. In addition to these physical ailments, Jefferson feared that he would outlive his usefulness and become a burden on his family.

He need not have worried. Indeed, those living with him at what the author calls his “domestic dreamworld of Monticello” (79) seemed perfectly happy to bear any burden on behalf of their beloved pater familias. His grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, for instance, was not just a trusted friend, but also an adept manager of Jefferson’s financial affairs. Although Jeff Randolph “lacked the creative intellectual spark to rise above being an appendage to the greater man’s designing mind” (72)—a needlessly disparaging remark that might be applied to most people who write about Jefferson or edit his papers—he was a conscientious, loyal, and devoted steward of Jefferson’s interests. Jeff’s sister Ellen Wayles Randolph was, like her devoted mother, Martha, well-read, intelligent, and a fine conversationalist. According to Burstein, Jefferson prized Ellen most of all and “no doubt privately regarded [her] as the principal heir to his tastes and affections” (78).

The fact that Jefferson’s family was chiefly made up of educated, accomplished women makes it somewhat surprising that he gave so little thought to the advancement of women’s rights. Like most men of his era, Jefferson could not conceive of women playing a role in the marketplace or in government. He also shared the belief that their education had to be monitored. The study of dance, drawing, music, foreign languages, and literature was to be encouraged, but most novels were to be avoided, as they tended to bring on romantic feelings that put the dignity and chastity of their female readers at risk. If novels were to be read, Jefferson favored only those that exalted female domesticity and benevolent patriarchy. In brief, he believed the perfect woman to be reserved, but not dull; poised, but possessing a sense of humor; politically informed, but politically harmless.

Jefferson’s conservatism, of course, extended to the issue of slavery. Although his draft of the Declaration of Independence chastised Great Britain for inflicting slavery on the New World and his Notes on the State of Virginia made clear his belief that slavery degraded master and slave alike, Jefferson did precious little, in office or out, to free those held in bondage. An avowed opponent of aristocracy, Jefferson lived like a lord and took advantage of the unpaid labor of those owned by him throughout his life. Like many of his fellow Southerners, he squared the circle by subscribing to the commonly held belief in white supremacy. When he happened across intelligent African Americans, like Benjamin Banneker and Phillis Wheatley, he denigrated them and dismissed their accomplishments behind their backs. Believing that freed slaves could not peacefully coexist alongside white society, he proposed—but did little to bring about—their deportation.

Jefferson justified his inaction, Burstein argues, by contending that before slavery might be overcome, the threat of “white-on-white political tyranny” would have to be eliminated (127); that rash action would make the problem worse; and, ultimately, that, because of his advanced age, the slavery question would have to be resolved by the younger generation. While recognizing that Jefferson’s attitudes about slavery were not far from those held by James Madison and Abraham Lincoln, Burstein chastises him for failing “to reconsider, lead, or, even, emancipate his mind” (287). In reading his correspondence, the author sadly notes, “one is hard pressed to avoid the conclusion that his only doubt on the subject of race relations was that anyone could teach him anything new” (131).

Having spent a chapter on Jefferson and slavery, Burstein slides easily into a discussion of his relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Since the publication in 1998 of DNA test results linking a member of his family to Hemings’s offspring, most Americans, Burstein claims, have come to the conclusion that Jefferson fathered children with her and that they had “a warm, if not loving, relationship” (114). Although he is careful to point out that the DNA evidence does not absolutely prove Jefferson’s paternity, the fact that the allegations went back to the early 1800s and that Hemings’s children—but virtually none of Jefferson’s other slaves—were allowed to purchase their freedom or run away or were given their freedom shortly after his death is strong evidence against the ex-president. Jefferson’s interest in ancient Greece—where concubinage was common among widowers—and medicine also weighs heavily against him. An exclusive relationship with Sally Hemings would protect him against venereal disease, adultery, and the emotional trauma that the death of a second wife might bring. Furthermore, as an avid reader of medical treatises, Jefferson was certainly familiar with the common argument that a moderate amount of sex was important to good health.

What Burstein denies is that there were real feelings of love between the pair. Sally Hemings, whose mother and grandmother had both been the concubines of white men, may have determined early on that the best way for her to carve out a decent life for herself and her family at Monticello was to exchange her sexual favors for more lenient treatment. Moreover, according to Burstein, nothing in the written record “even remotely suggests Jefferson’s warmth toward” her (155); he didn’t teach her how to read or write or improve her social position in any meaningful way. In essence, Jefferson viewed Hemings as “not a black woman but part of a socially subordinate netherworld of parallel family” (153) and treated her as a sexual instrument in much the same way as an English aristocrat might have made into a mistress a technically free servant within his household.

The question of what Jefferson’s family knew about his relationship with Sally Hemings is also examined in some depth. Although Jefferson seems not to have paraded his concubine in front of the family, at least one (and probably all) of his children knew what was going on. For Burstein, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who had known Sally Hemings since birth, “had to know who the father or fathers of her several children were” (155). “If Jefferson lied to his family,” either tacitly or explicitly, the author continues, “Martha appears to have been complicit in her father’s lie” (179), even to the point of helping to create the myth that he was not the father of Hemings’s children.

Although rumors abounded during and after his presidency concerning a long-term sexual liaison with one of his slaves, Jefferson’s ideas about religion created even more of a stir during his lifetime. Indeed, Burstein postulates that only Tom Paine was more “anathematized by religious conservatives” in America (251). For Jefferson, the Bible (which he categorized in his personal library under “History. Antient”) was not divine in any way, and he viewed such ideas as immaculate conception and the resurrection of Jesus as absurd. While accepting God to be the architect of the universe, he refused to believe in “an active, omnipresent” deity (238). Furthermore, he thought orthodox religion to be “mindless dogma at best, tyranny at worst” (239). What he did embrace were Jesus’s teachings. To aid him in his studies of the founder of Christianity, Jefferson created during his retirement two works for his own use—a “Philosophy of Jesus” and “The Life and Morals of Jesus”—by excising out of the first four gospels of the New Testament all of the miracles and anything else that he thought to be unbelievable. Perhaps recognizing that his religious opinions ran counter to what was commonly believed in America at the time, Jefferson preached religious toleration throughout his adult life and chose the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786 as one of the three accomplishments to be inscribed on his gravestone.

Jefferson’s interest in freedom, of course, extended far beyond religion. His desire to perpetuate the political liberties secured by the American Revolution was, if anything, of even greater importance to him. Jefferson saw it as his duty to combat those who favored the concentration of federal power and the establishment of “a proto-aristocracy” (191–92) and to expose the “vanities, tricks and hidden designs, dangerous financial speculations, [and] abuses of power” (193) of his political opponents. Increasingly concerned that Federalists would write the history of the period between 1776 and 1800 (and thus nudge the country back in their direction), Jefferson repeatedly sought to commission good Republicans to tell their (his) side of the story. That he refused to do the writing himself or, often, even be quoted should not come as a surprise. Throughout his career, Burstein notes, Jefferson had “relied heavily on political allies to dish out dirt, or to answer attacks. . . . If he wanted something done, he spoke quietly or wrote confidentially” (227). First, during the 1790s, he tried to get Christoph Ebeling interested in writing a sympathetic Republican history of the period. Later, he asked Joel Barlow, William Johnson, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Louis H. Girardin to write histories based, at least in part, on his recollections and personal papers. None of these initiatives bore fruit, however.

The danger, for Jefferson, was very real. Chief Justice John Marshall’s Life of George Washington (Philadelphia, 1804–7), based as it was on our first president’s correspondence, portrayed Jefferson as a disloyal and ambitious politician who tried to shift American politics away from the direction Washington had chosen. It would be an arduous task, Jefferson realized, to explain away Washington’s personal enmity and position him back under the Republican banner. To do so, Jefferson argued that a creeping senility had allowed Washington to become a tool of the Federalist party, particularly during the last four years of his life. Although he had never abandoned republicanism and embraced monarchy, the Federalists around Washington had done much to turn him against his real friends and allies. Once their schemes came to light, however, Jefferson and his colleagues would be seen for what they truly were: loyal patriots.

Jefferson was also bothered by the persistent charge that he had fled Monticello in a cowardly manner when the British tried to capture him in 1780. Indeed, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee’s Revolutionary War memoirs had repeated this allegation as recently as 1812. When Lee’s son, therefore, expressed an interest in visiting the ailing ex-president in the summer of 1826 as a part of his effort to revise his father’s work, Jefferson leaped at the opportunity to have the son right the misrepresentations put forward by his father. The younger Lee’s arrival at Monticello on 1 July 1826, just three days before Jefferson’s death, and Jefferson’s own desire that he live until the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, ensured that putting the proper spin on history remained in the forefront of his mind until his dying breath.

All of this is very well done. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a better place for insights into Jefferson’s ideas, attitudes, and belief system. This is not to say that the book is without fault, however. It contains a few factual errors, although, to be fair, most of them are of little consequence except to those immersed in the minutiae of Jefferson’s life. For instance, Jefferson’s famous missive to Washington, D.C., mayor Roger Weightman of 24 June 1826 was not the last letter he wrote. Two others are recorded in Jefferson’s summary journal of letters for the following day, and a copy of one of them has recently come to light within the collections of the Virginia Historical Society. Furthermore, to say, as Burstein does, that the summary journal was “ordinarily reserved for his most significant correspondence with respectable gentlemen” leaves the impression that many of his letters were not recorded there; such was not the case. In addition, Jefferson usually visited his Poplar Forest estate near Lynchburg for weeks at a time, not months. The Notes on the State of Virginia was not the only book Jefferson ever published; his 269-page Manual of Parliamentary Practice was printed in 1801, and his 91-page monograph on the controversy surrounding the ownership of the New Orleans beach, or batture, came out eleven years later. Moreover, Burstein’s description of the batture case as a “vicious legal battle that [Edward] Livingston ultimately won” (232) is true so far as it goes but neglects to make clear that Livingston failed in his attempt to hold Jefferson financially responsible for the losses he suffered because of his eviction from the disputed piece of land. It is also demonstrably false that Jefferson took only one newspaper during his retirement; although he limited his newspaper intake, he certainly did not restrict himself to the Richmond Enquirer. Lastly, Jefferson may (or may not) have used a common shorthand code to give the names of women with whom he was having sexual encounters in his 1770 memorandum book, but to claim that the modern editors of Jefferson’s financial accounts reproduced the pieces of shorthand because of their suspicion that such was the case is (having myself recently spoken of this to one of these same editors) to go too far. Such quibbles aside, there is a larger issue worth exploring. Is there anything new here? Or is this just the case of old wine in new bottles? To say that Thomas Jefferson was a racist and a deist will surprise no one familiar with our third president. Nor will the information that he seems to have had a long-term sexual relationship with one of his slaves. The sections regarding Jefferson’s relations with his family, his opinion of women, and his attempts to bring Republican histories to life are, I suspect, less well known but hardly revelatory. It has long been recognized that Jefferson loved (and was loved by) his family, that he had socially conservative views of a woman’s place in society, and that he was a staunch partisan until the end of his days. The real question, therefore, is whether Burstein’s use of Jefferson’s retirement-era correspondence and examination of his “medicalized” mind-set get us any closer to the “real” Jefferson. Unfortunately, the answer to both of these questions is, not really.

Because of the topics under review, Burstein’s use of Jefferson’s later writings remains more of a novelty than a source of real enlightenment. If he had been able to show how Jefferson’s ideas grew and changed after his final retirement from politics, that would be one thing. Regrettably, Burstein’s Jefferson seems to be just older, not wiser. He is, one suspects, the same old sexist, racist, and deist in 1820 that he was forty years before. Had Burstein decided to use Jefferson’s retirement correspondence to tackle the intricacies of the lesser-known issues that took up most of Jefferson’s time after March 1809—his business dealings, legal imbroglios, financial difficulties, agricultural pursuits, and the machinations that led to the establishment of the University of Virginia—he might have given us a new portrait of our third president. Being drawn to the same old questions, he has given us, for the most part, the same old answers.

Jefferson’s interest in things medical and use of “a comprehensive language of medicine,” while interesting, do not advance our knowledge substantially either. Burstein seems to think that the ownership of medical treatises, friendship with members of the medical profession, and use of medical terminology show that Jefferson viewed the world through a medical lens and that this helps to explain why he believed what he did. There are a number of problems with this. The ownership of works on a particular subject says something, but not as much as Burstein claims. One does not believe everything one reads. Many Americans are fascinated by Nazi Germany and own works on it. This does not prove such individuals to be militaristic, undemocratic, or anti-Semitic. My own bookshelves might convince someone who does not know me that I have an exaggerated interest in communism (works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin), conspiracy theories (books on the Kennedy assassination), warfare (works on the Napoleonic Wars, the Civil War, and both world wars), and murderers (books on Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and O. J. Simpson). Furthermore, Jefferson (like most of us) had friends from many walks of life. Like does not always attract like. Again, within my own circle of acquaintances there are musicians, architects, dentists, museum professionals, environmental scientists, and bankers. What my friends do says something about me, but, in reality, even less than what books I read.

Furthermore, the words one uses to express oneself are important only if they mold one’s worldview or induce a specific reaction from one’s listeners. Otherwise, they are a curiosity. By itself, the use of nautical phrases (“ship of state”; “a rising tide lifts all boats”), sports expressions (“a slam-dunk case”; “hit a home run”), theatrical terminology (“stage fright”; “break a leg”), or medical lingo says something, but not very much. People might well believe the same things that Jefferson did about women, slavery, religion, and politics, but use very different words to express themselves. Even Burstein’s assertions that Jefferson chose the language of medicine and that it was particularly effective linguistically are open for debate. Charles A. Miller’s Ship of State: The Nautical Metaphors of Thomas Jefferson (2003) and a careful reading of Jefferson’s letters and other papers show that he utilized a host of “languages”—nautical, political, religious, scientific, and agricultural, among others—in his written work. Why Burstein privileges medical language over the others is nowhere made clear. Nor does he explicitly show how the language of medicine was any more effective than other forms of communication.

Finally, Burstein fails to provide convincing proof of his suggestion (and it is only that in some chapters) that Jefferson’s internalization of medical terminology shaped his belief system. This is nowhere clearer than in the place where he most unambiguously connects the two: the chapters dealing with Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. The medical literature of the day stated unequivocally that a moderate amount of sex was necessary to good health, especially for sedentary intellectuals. Jefferson, Burstein tells us, had soaked up what those authors had to say on the subject. Therefore, the fact that Jefferson kept a slave mistress for many years should surprise no one. The possible connection between theory and practice is all very interesting, but is it true? We don’t know. Burstein doesn’t know. One thing is clear, however. We have moved in a few short years from the belief that Jefferson could not have had a relationship with Sally Hemings because he was such an intellectual to the notion that he had a relationship with her because he was such an intellectual. For myself, I do not for a minute believe that Jefferson needed Tissot (or anyone else) to put such ideas into his head. Just because Jefferson was an intellectual, it does not follow that he necessarily intellectualized every aspect of his life. The simplest solution might be that Jefferson, like many of his Southern friends and neighbors, took advantage of an opportunity that was open to most every slaveholder. Might may not make right, but it certainly helps to explain why people behave as they do.


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