Review: ‘Twilight At Monticello: The Final Years Of Thomas Jefferson’

img_5245My interest in Jefferson has always been in the workings of his mind and I am not sure this book did much to expand my understanding, in that regard.

Also, this is the second book I have read about Thomas Jefferson in the last several weeks that seems to give weight to arguments that doubt his fathering Sally Hemmings’ children. This is does so better, by describing the arguments against it, as if in good faith, but ultimately coming down on the side of, yes, Jefferson and Hemmings had a sexual relationship and he fathered several children with her. Frankly, right now, the issue (no pun intended) is so little in doubt that any effort to seriously recognize the other side is deeply fraught, because it is clear that racially motivated prejudices drive them (Jefferson, a proud and noble white man with unimpeachable intellectual and ethical credentials, could not have had a sexual relationship, which could never be truly consensual, with a black woman, however light skinned).

It is also a depressing book. The chronicle of a family’s decline into insolvency. Page after page of Jefferson’s extravagant spending, combined with loan upon loan (including sad sounding loans, like $100 from a local shopkeeper) and the occasional bad faith financial transaction (while acting with essentially power of attorney for a European friend’s property, he sold it and then loaned the proceeds to himself). Even his offer to sell his library to replenish the Library of Congress, which the British had burnt to ashes during the War of 1812, was driven in no insignificant part in order to get a hold on some cash to pay off some loans and show sufficient solvency so as to be able to ask for more credit. And did I mention that Crawford hints that, in his later years, Jefferson might have had an opium addiction? Yeah, it’s not a fun read, in many respects.

Review: ‘Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics Of Enlightenment And The American Founding‘ By Darren Staloff

My critique would be this: we must take him at his word. He devotes some two score pages to a description of the Enlightenment (primarily the French Enlightenment; in the sections about the individual Founders, the Scottish Enlightenment gets many nods, but not so much here, though the distinctly non-French Kant does get a few mentions). In the 80-100 pages each of the figures gets, he describes their take on (and sometimes rejection of) various strands of Enlightenment.

But he does not much quote from them. Yes, he has extensive citations, but not owning all those primary sources (and also having a job and a family which takes up some of my time), I must accept his interpretations and assessments at face value. And, as I mentioned, I’m not one hundred percent on his vision of the Enlightenment (which sometimes bleeds into early Romanticism).

But on those assertions.

Adams, he claims, saw class conflict, as vital. It was the tension which preserves the Republic. If the aristocratic elite become too dominant, you have baronial oligarchy. If the masses win, some charismatic general, a la Napoleon, takes power. Interesting and also begging for some contemporary commentary (where he have a populist who simultaneously works to put the economic oligarchs in power).

One nearly unforgivable statement is that he writes it is ‘probable but not certain’ that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemming’s children, which is true (though by 2005, when this book was published, it would have already been more to say it is ‘nearly certain and widely accepted’), but what makes it so frustrating for me and what makes me question him, is that he goes on to cite the theory that it could have been his younger brother. That is a canard that had been used by unscrupulous historians and pseudo-historians for years to try and deny the heritage of his descendants by Hemmings. What makes this so much more frustrating is that Staloff is unstinting in pointing out the racism that undergirded too much of Jefferson’s public life, including how his own actions to drive American Indians (oh, and why does he insist in writing ‘Amerindian?’) from their land lay the foundation for Andrew Jackson’s later, genocidal actions.

In general, it was about Adams that I learned the most (though my trust in what he writes was deeply shaken by what he wrote about Hemmings in the final section, about Jefferson). It’s been many, many, many years since I that McCullough biography and the section on Adams spoke a lot more aspects of his presidency that had (to my mind) little to do with whatever point he was trying to make about the Enlightenment, but I didn’t know about his critical support for Haiti’s revolution, opening up relations with the revolutionary government and allowing American ships to bring needed supplies. Again, though, not clear how this relates to Adams supposedly somewhat skeptical view of Enlightenment ideas.

In fact, he doesn’t do a great job on how their actual political lives were or were not guided by their own takes on the Enlightenment. When he writes about the Enlightenment, he mentions the Physiocrats who can be directly linked to Jefferson’s agrarianism, but then he posits Jefferson as being a post-Enlightenment Romantic. And if the Physiocrats are an emblematic facet of Enlightenment, how does Hamilton’s singleminded focus on commerce and finance fit in? He does place the Enlightenment in a uniquely urban context, which fits well with Hamilton (and Adams, though he doesn’t make that point).

This is an interesting book, but frankly, the arguments are little muddled.

When It Is Written

This chapter in world history will be written and it will portray us, the United States of America, badly. Because we, as a country, compare so badly to a defined group of other, otherwise comparable (more or less developed, capitalist, and small ‘d’ democratic) countries. There are the countries that acted nationally and decisively and are on some kind of trajectory to make the virus a more or less negligible factor even in the absence of the vaccine; and there are countries like us who have flailed about and now sort of appear to have given up on doing anything about.

And this chapter will be written and it will be remembered because it makes for such a nice, clear narrative. Those that took action and succeeded, in some fashion, and those who did little, did it late, gave up early, and failed.

Historians like it when such bright lines exist.

A Guide To Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia

As it turns out, it’s the sort of glossy covered, trade paperback you would find (and probably do) at the gift shops of Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, and elsewhere across Virginia (in fact, it helpfully provides the website addresses to such places, where mentioned). Not, perhaps, providing the sort of new information that I am looking for, having already read I don’t even remember anymore how many books and writings by and about Jefferson over the last two years or so.

But, to give it its due, a nice guide to places of importance to Jefferson. And going beyond Monticello to include places like the house of his legal mentor, George Wythe, and his retreat at Poplar Forest (for when the visitors at Monticello got to be too much). And a shallow, but still useful primer on architecture. I learned more about Andrea Palladio, from whom we get the term Palladian, including the title of his most famous book, which Jefferson apparently read and much enjoyed, I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture). I also did not know that Jefferson designed a number of Virginia courthouses and also the houses of some of his friends.

A Journal Of The Plague Year

This is the second time I have read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The first time was when I was a young man (late teens? twenties?) and was only the second book by Defoe I’d ever read (true to this day; the other being his book of the English Civil War, Memoirs of a Cavalier; incidentally, the use of ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ is interesting; I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, wherein the use of the indefinite pronoun and the implied rejection of a certain authorial omniscience makes the works feel more trustworthy). Read more

Ways Of Heaven: An Introduction To Chinese Thought

I begin to see why my wife criticizes my photography

Though not stated openly, Sterckx, for the majority of the book, sets Chinese thought as a sort of rivalry between Confucianism and Mohism. You can easily see a bias towards the former, though he is not unkind towards the latter (Legalism, however, receives only a lukewarm defense). Read more

Letter Of Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, To Sir William Windham

Various causes have made me want to read eighteenth century English political philosophy and other causes have made it less easy than you might suppose.

But this letter I found, and though I would have rather been introduced to Bolingbroke by other works, beggars can’t be choosers, especially in a pandemic and facing the uncertain financial consequences thereof.

This letter is not political philosophy, except that his constant appeal to party (he was a Tory) is a useful thing to keep in mind. Party loyalty, above all, seems to be his excuse. Excuse for what? Siding with the Pretender and supporting to Scottish rebellion of 1715 against George I.

If it is not philosophy it is a fascinating, if presumably biased and unreliable, history of a period I am not well versed on. He wrote the letter in an attempt to win allies who might secure his pardon, which is why he frames his support for a so-called pretender to the crown in terms of service to the Tories. It all sounds pretty weird these days. And perhaps scary as we see one party maintain mostly blind loyalty to a mostly willfully blind and cruel leader.

Oh… and he ends the whole thing with an aside that basically comes down, you can’t trust Catholics, even good ones, because Popery will always lead them astray.

I Almost Didn’t Finish ‘The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American’

Not because he doesn’t make good points, but they are too strident and not new and I wasn’t feeling patient. But I persevered.

I know that George Washington was famously present in church, but would neither stand nor kneel nor take communion.

I know that Franklin tended to think that religion was a useful opium for the masses.

And that Jefferson was not a Christian in any useful sense of the word.

I also know that right wing people are using Christianity as an excuse to peddle corporate tax cuts and their own neuroses.

So if I’m going to read about this, I expect to learn something in the first fifty odd pages, but somehow failed to. And I don’t think it’s my fault.

The Bible has many issues. Or rather, I have many issues with much of the Bible. Seidel lays them all out, but I didn’t pick up a book on why the Bible is contradictory or even hypocritical, but rather (I thought) on constitutional issues. And you lose a certain status which contributes to credibility when you are so gleeful about it.

At some point, I finally realized my objection. Seidel quotes and references Christopher Hitchens several times and it was after reading one, particularly Hitchensesque Hitchens quote that it finally became clear.

I wanted to read a book about constitutional history, theory, and practice.

If I had wanted to read a screed against Christianity, I would have picked up a copy of one of Hitchens many books with such things. While I might not have agreed with his ultimate conclusions, I would have been greatly amused by the last, great eighteenth century political wit of the twenty-first century.

‘Lincoln’ By Gore Vidal

One of his most famous novels (second only, these days, perhaps, to Burr), but I was somewhat disappointed. The quality improves immensely towards the end, but I am trying not let the magnificent writing of the last quarter of the novel (and recency bias) to make me overlook the first seventy-five percent. Part of the improvement is that he mostly drops – until the very end – a subplot about one of Booth’s fellow conspirators: a callow fellow named David. The less of him the better!

His Abraham Lincoln is compelling but too distant. Aaron Burr loomed large and his young protege interested; and in my own favorite, Julian, the titular emperor and his two chroniclers are compelling, catty, and captivating. No one steps up so in the absence of Lincoln.

The writing is good, but not great. I believe that he understands the politics of the time pretty well and he is a good commentator on the realpolitik of eras predating ours. And his small details are wonderful. For example, we generally see General George McClellan as a ditherer, who let the war drag on. But Vidal portrays Washington society as worshipful of the man they called ‘Young Napoleon.’ I hadn’t realized he was so young, much less that he was ever compared to Napoleon, but I trust the author enough to believe it (though I will hold my fire on the venereal controversy).

But it is not enough. Perhaps one wishes that he had dived deeper into Lincoln’s psyche and written from his perspective.

To the reader, Lincoln sits opaquely, fascinatingly at the center, but for much of the book, the characters who orbit the man view him as a weak figure, easily stymied by his generals and hangers on and a man of wan, waffling convictions. I mention this because though I cannot for the life of me remember the title, I recently read a review of a newish history that suggests just that: Lincoln was actually rather weak and most of the credit for victory should go to the so-called Radical Republicans.

Thomas Jefferson’s Education

Gentle reader, you have no doubt noticed that I am a fool for a new take on Thomas Jefferson, one that dodges standard biography. This one dodges so far as not to be sure what to make of itself.

It is sort of a history of the founding University of Virginia; sort of history of education in Virginia during Jefferson’s lifetime; and sort of a collection of anecdotes of Jeffersonianisms, towards the end of compiling an unsystematic intellectual biography of the planter philosopher. And a surprising quantity of text devoted to Jefferson’s extended family, hangers on, and the financial ruin of his family.