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.Letter to Colonel William Duane, August 12, 1810
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.
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.
Jefferson was a revolutionary, but also, by some modern standards, a conservative (at the risk of seeming to laud George Will, which I am really loathe to do, because he really does not deserve it, he might be the closest comparison).
Until digging into these letters, I hadn’t been aware of how much he was engaged in the discussions around the Constitution. He was in Paris, of course, and I am in now way suggesting he was involved in its writing, which I understand to have been mostly masterminded by James Madison. But he was aware of drafts, of the discussion around later including what we now know as the Bill of Rights, and of the Federalist Papers. He has some recurring concerns around the ability of a President to keep running for office more or less indefinitely, allowing a popular one to become a de facto president for life.
While he talks about the need for limited government, he, like the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s supposed originalism, is not a faithful lover to the idea. In 1788, he writes to Madison about what he thinks an addendum to the Constitution (again, this is about the discussions related to what would be known as the Bill of Rights) ought to include.
In his mind, a ban on monopolies should be one of them. He acknowledges that the prospect of a limited duration monopoly can spur ‘ingenuity,’ but does not believe that to be worth the damage caused by monopolies in general (which, in his wording, I wonder if our modern speech might not interpret what he calls monopolies as patents or copyrights).
He also writes the amendments should include something to ‘abolish standing armies in time of peace…”
He then goes on to say that our militia should be sufficient in to protect us in most cases, since we were not at significant danger from European invasion and our militia ought, he thought, be sufficient to stave off Canadian or Spanish[-American] aggression. Again, he didn’t have much to do with directly writing the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights, except insofar as his ideas were influential, but doesn’t this also seem to suggest that the eventual Second Amendment was not intended to reflect a general acceptance of guns in the population, in general?
I came across a (the?) letter where Thomas Jefferson speaks of watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots. I do not know if this is only or even first time he used such a phrase (I found it in a letter to Colonel William Stephens Smith, John Adams’ son-in-law, dated November 13, 1787 and written when Jefferson was still in Paris; I also know he tends to cannibalize phrases, as he repeats a phrase from this letter in one sent to Madison and dated over a month later). Read more