Did you know that Thomas Jefferson responded to Benjamin Rush’s letter suggesting rapprochement betwixt him and John Adams exactly two hundred years before Baiboon was born?
Which is important, but not exactly what first struck me.
While praising his erstwhile friend turned rival, he manages to get in a totally unnecessary dig at the late Alexander Hamilton of recent musical fame.
Another incident took place on the same occasion, which will further delineate Mr. Hamilton’s political principles. The room being hung about with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton and Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: “The greatest man,” he said, “that ever lived, was Julius Caesar.”
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, January 16, 2011
While reading it to my daughter (having not realized when I began it, how mightily I would struggle to skip over and elide the racist sections; though I will give some credit for a wonderfully concise criticism of colonialism: an African king says that the last white man to come through, dug holes all over his kingdom and took all the gold and killed all the elephants and took all the ivory and then left without saying this thank you; sadly, this moment of criticism was overwhelmed by subsequent racism, often of a most crudely worded kind), I saw a passage where Dolittle consults Buffon, looking to see if a particular animal is mentioned.
Surely this was the Comte de Buffon whose theory of the decadence of American animals and men had so inflamed Jefferson and inspired some of his most interesting taxonomic efforts?
In a letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the Thomas Jefferson writes:
This struck me because I thought about a description of duty-based ethics that I once read. I wish I could remember where I read this, but the idea was that the follower of duty-based ethics would, when faced with a dilemma, ask her- or himself questions like, ‘what would a courageous person do?’ or ‘what would an honest person do?’ He seems to be proposing something similar.
For those who haven’t been reading too much by and about Jefferson for the last half decade, Dr. Small was Jefferson’s professor at William and Mary, Mr. Wythe was his mentor in the practice of law, and Peyton Randolph was the first President of the Continental Congress (who, incidentally, died of ‘apoplexy’ whilst dining with Jefferson).
If a fact be misstated, it is probable he is gratified by the belief of it, and I have no right to deprive him of the gratification. If he wants information, he will ask it, and then I will give it in measured terms; but if he still believes in his own story, and shows a desire to dispute a fact with me, I hear him and say nothing. It is his affair, not mine, if he prefers error. -Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, November 24, 1808
I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. – letter to Doctor Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803
Which, of course, is to say he was not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian.
Every one knows that judicious manner and charms of style have rendered Hume’s history [of England] the manual of every student. I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured it when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it had instilled in my mind… It is this book which has undermined the free principles of the English government, has persuaded readers of all classes that these were usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown and have spread universal toryism over the land.
Thomas Jefferson has often been accused of dissembling in his political life. Two letters, in particular, that I came across while reading my Modern Library edition of The Life and Selected Writings of Jefferson drove that home. Both, not coincidentally, written to John Adams, his great political rival in post-Articles America.
The first is Jefferson proclaiming a certain innocence in the controversy over his private correspondence praising Paine’s Rights of Man, praise which pointedly criticized the (comparatively) Anglophilicism of the Federalists and their political stances. While certainly true that he did not intend it to become public, much less published as a sort of introduction to the work, he writes as if nothing he said was not an implied attack on Adams.
Later, in the aftermath of what passed for presidential campaign in those days (the 1796 election), he protests too much to his (former, future) friend, writing:
In the retired canton where I am, I learn little of what is passing: pamphlets I never see: newspapers but few; and the fewer the happier.
Even the use of the pointedly pastoral term ‘canton’ (a word I can’t remember him using and a search using the tools of the National Archives reveals that, when used, it mostly used to refer to places in Europe, like the Swiss cantons or places or things actually named ‘Canton’) seems too… too much. After all, Jefferson did engage his supporters in a media war (using newspapers and pamphlets) on his behalf during the election. His failure to say something as simple as, it was a hard fought election and while we have our strong political differences, I remain your friend and admirer. Instead, he says he wasn’t paying attention and later says that he always assumed that Adams would end up the victor. Finally, he says:
No one then will congratulate you with purer disinterestedness than myself…
Gore Vidal’s portrayal of the third President as a conflict adverse, sneaky political operator seems apt. Jefferson later wrote to his friend James Madison, complaining that he despaired of convincing Adams of the truth of his professed sentiments. I’m not sure I would have trusted them either.
My 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.
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.