‘Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson’ By Gore Vidal

I was forewarned regarding Vidal’s dislike of Hamilton, but was surprised by his frequent dismissal of Jefferson (though I loved his depiction of the third president in Burr) and his seeming affection for and interest in John Adams (though the McCullough biography was still within a couple of years of peak popularity, so maybe he felt compelled).

No one in their right mind reads a history by Vidal in order to know history. Understand more, perhaps, but not to know it, if that distinction makes any sense to you. And I know enough, I feel, to know what to distrust and what might offer some new understanding.

But I have always found Vidal’s obsession with American politics vaguely surprising. It makes perfect sense and he was, really, a frustrated politician, in many ways, in addition to the family history. But his public intellectual style and Brahminic accent, not to mention his long time home in Italy, he always felt like someone who should have spent the life of his mind with Cicero rather than Washington.


Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson And The Empire Of Imagination

I, uh… I am not sure what the second half of that title is doing there. While I am sure that Jefferson was imaginative, that’s not really what this book is about (and most folks, including the authors, do not consider Jefferson to be an original thinker). And while you could make a strong argument for Jefferson having helped create an American Empire (the Louisiana Purchase and also the war against the Tripoli pirates).

But the first part makes a great deal of sense, because the authors’ main line seems to be that Jefferson saw himself and the world through the lens of an agrarian view of the family, with the patriarch at the head. Even democracy was a democracy of small patriarchs. It’s well understood that the Founding Fathers were deeply invested in protecting the rights and political prerogatives of landowners, so this isn’t that different, but the emphasis on family – and most especially on the role of the head of the family – is where they make their mark.

If you read my last post, you know I am struggling with Jefferson right now.

So also, I think, are Gordon-Reed and Onuf.

They want to praise Jefferson, but like Antony to Caesar, they seem rather to have ultimately come to bury him (yes, I know, a literal reading, rather than a true understanding of Antony’s intent in that speech).

They cannot get beyond his hypocrisy, because their unearthing sees it everywhere in his ideas. Even worse, they see him as being less and less committed to even the idea of ending slavery as time went on.

Like many writers, they view his time in Paris as crucial. But they see a sort of reaction wherein Jefferson reinvented himself in his mind as uniquely American (and also invents an image of America) that pushes him away from criticism of slavery, because he saw many European thinkers as inherently critical, so he wound up dropping the subject within himself.

On Having No Time For Thomas Jefferson’s BS

I’m reading my fourth book on Thomas Jefferson over, roughly, the last year. And after I finish this one, I’ll likely start on a fifth (a selection of Jefferson’s writings).

I posted a picture on social media of the current one (Most Blessed of the Patriarchs) and friend made this comment:

I find him so annoying, so self-absorbed and extremely petty. How he was able to accomplish anything is amazing with these as his driving traits.

My first instinct was to respond with a defense, of sorts. Acknowledging his many faults, but still defending his role in our history and, ultimately, his role as a generally admirable person.

Here’s where I should mention that the commentator is a black woman.

Which is much of reason why I paused.

Because it’s easy for me to make a nuanced case for his virtues, in spite of his rank hypocrisy on the issue of slavery. But… I’m white. That’s a pretty simple for me to do, isn’t it?

And isn’t it also a fairly obvious reaction by someone whose ancestors were enslaved, were sexually assaulted by slaveholders like Jefferson (and while he may have loved Sally Hemmings, lets be clear that when you own a person, genuine consent is not possible)?

I can’t say, despite my desire to like Jefferson, that she is wrong to effectively state, ‘I have no time for his BS.’

Exact Thinking In Demented Times

Apparently, we’re doing back to back Viennese themed books.

The last one was better.

This one is good and interesting, but keeps failing to do more.

You see, Exact Thinking in Demented Times is about the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, mathematicians, economists, and physicists who roughly made up the core founders of (now mostly… I don’t want to say discredited, because that’s not fair, but let’s just say that it’s not something many people identify themselves as these days) logical positivism.

While it does a good job of showing how physics, in particular, played a fascinating cross-pollination role in this philosophical school, it doesn’t really tell us much about the actual philosophy. It also spends too much time on people who weren’t really logical positivists nor participated in the meetings on the Vienna Circle (I’m looking at you, Wittgenstein!).

And aspects of the depiction of the historical milieu seem a little half-baked. For example, I am assuming that the ‘demented’ references mainly to Nazism and fascism, but somehow, until the last quarter of the book (in a way that feels tacked on), he manages to elude the urge to talk about this key aspect of the time period.

So we neither get an exact picture of their thinking nor a good view of demented Nazis.

Which isn’t to dismiss it entirely. It was a worthwhile read, just not what it could have been.

And it did inspire me to try and dig up some Carnap make another go at reading him after some abortive efforts in college (I used to study at a table very near the shelf where The Logical Syntax of Language could be found, taunting me).

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.

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).