The Road To Monticello: The Life And Mind Of Thomas Jefferson


While reading it, I was constantly contrasting its view of Jefferson with that in Friends Divided.

The short version is that Road takes a significantly more positive view of Jefferson. Friends was overwhelmingly complimentary, but with notable moments of, dare I say, snark. Jefferson was sometimes portrayed in that one as a bit fatuous and image obsessed and even slightly shallow, especially in comparison to the earnest and earthy Adams. Both, interestingly, more or less skip over Jefferson’s presidency.

Road glossed over the eight years of Jefferson’s presidency because he was mostly busy with business of being president and the book is an intellectual history of Jefferson. More specifically, it is a bibliographic history of the third president, focusing on not just what he was writing, but on what he was reading. The immense research into his book buying, reading, and library contents is staggering. Others might find it boring, but not me.

Even more than in Friends, the treatment of Sally Hemmings is disconcerting. I was particularly struck by a moment when the book talked about James Hemmings coming with Jefferson to Paris and then noting that his sister, Sally, came, too. James gets mentioned quite a bit, but Sally, hardly at all and the absence feels jarring. How can you talk so much about James Hemmings and not mention the relationship and children Jefferson had with Sally? I’m sure that the author wanted to get back quickly to the particular subject of his sort of biography, but it just feels… weird.

Friends several times noted that Jefferson did not read novels (unlike Adams; the book had a slight bias against the third president, I felt, and even this felt like an attempt to imply that he didn’t have much of an inner life) and Road once, towards the end. But Road also repeatedly stressed his great love of… what for it… the novels of Lawrence Sterne! Yes, that’s right! Tom loved Tristram Shandy! For some reason, I got a kick out of that.

If there is one thing that this book will do, it will make you want to move into a house on a Virginia mountain or hill and fill up a large library and read all day long.

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Difficult Topics


Our little girl is adopted. More than that, she was adopted recently and was not a baby, so she comes to America with little understanding of her new home’s culture and history.

Living in Washington, DC, there are so many reminders of how problematic that history can be.

We visited Mount Vernon, the home of our first president, George Washington. Having been on a bit of a Jefferson kick lately, my recent reading has focused on the Revolutionary  War and early days of the United States – all of which has served to reinforce how vital he was to our founding. No, he was not a particularly good general, but his gravitas and dedication to some of the best ideals of our founding made this country possible. And then we talked by the slave quarters. How do you talk about these aspects of the man to a young child who knows little English and even less about our national origins? If she were younger, we might ignore it or gloss over it, but she is old enough, that you cannot.

More recently, her mother showed her the 14,000 shoes made into a temporary monument to the child shot since Sandy Hook.

There are so many things like this, that need talking about, but which are hard to talk about. I want her to know this a great country, founded on groundbreaking ideas emerging from the fermentations of the Enlightenment. But I can’t ignore slavery, Jim Crow, school shootings, nor the genocidal treatment and effect of Europeans on Native Americans.

And Lord knows, I have fallen down on these conversations, because they are so hard. They are hard in practical terms, because of the language barrier, but also in finding ways to talk about them with a young, but not so young, child.

So I end with no solutions, but feeling overwhelmed by all that we have to teach her about and the need to be honest, but not despairing.

Books In The Field


That was the title and subject of an exhibition (now closed – I caught it on its penultimate day) at the Society of the Cincinnati, housed in the Anderson House, near Dupont Circle. The Society focuses on Revolutionary War history (Cincinnati comes from the Roman general, Cincinnatus, who you can look up on your own, but which connects to George Washington both resigning his commission and also only serving two terms). The books in question are the books used by Continental Army soldiers and officers during the war against Britain – mostly, as you might expect, books on military strategy and exercises and on medical/surgical techniques.

I am a sucker for exhibitions about books. I love looking at old books.

I will admit, it was a struggle to really linger over the volumes because my little one, unsurprisingly, is less enthralled by such exhibits than her father. I didn’t even try to complete a tour of the house later. But I hope to go back some day and see it all (the next exhibit is on Alexander Hamilton who is, of course, having a bit of a moment).

Friends Divided: John Adams And Thomas Jefferson


9780735224711_p0_v1_s600x595I got fairly excited when I read about this book because it was described as being more an intellectual biography of Adams and Jefferson. As a child, visits to Monticello happened probably twice every three years, so I always felt a closer connection to Jefferson, a sense that was only partially relieved by reading McCullough’s biography from 2001. Continue reading

History Of Thailand


I’m glad that I read it; after all my in-laws are Thai. But… I could have hoped for a bit more from this history.

The book breezes through the past rather quickly and tends to let things become a jumble of names of places.

There is a (relatively) lengthy section on the Kingdom of Ayudhya, one of the two roughly medieval kingdoms (along with Sukhothai) that are considered the foundations of modern Thailand, and the author seems engaged and interested when writing about it.

Continue reading