Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image In His Own Time

I am not sure the McDonald’s book is quite so different from other biographies and studies of Jefferson as he thinks, was one thought that occurred to me as I read Confounding Father. Really, in trying to show how Jefferson is seen in his own lifetime, he is going over things I have read previously and I do not really see a very different shine on any of it.

Which is not to say that it isn’t a good book on the great man with interesting things to say.

He credits Jefferson’s rise to fame in part, at least, to Hamilton’s constant, public attacks on him, which served to elevate him as the leader of a certain democratic ideology, which I have read before, but which he describes in greater detail that I have read before.

The image of him as the philosopher on the mountain began, by this account, in the late 1780s (and has persisted to this day), but one of the things that comes up repeatedly is how little known he was for his (disputed) authorship of the Declaration until probably the 1790s and how much that was actively promoted by Jefferson himself, albeit in a slightly roundabout fashion (by contacting what we would now call thought leaders and gently letting them know about his key role and helping elevate the document to a place which it had not held before).

The best section by far is on the elections of 1796 and 1800. Specifically, on how electioneering took place. The descriptions of letters going back and forth and the wars taking place via partisan newspapers… it’s all the sort of thing that I love (he writes that in 1800, printers circulated 250,000 newspapers, pamphlets, and books each week in America, truly astounding number, greater even, I wager, than the amount of Harry Potter fan fiction produced last year). How the (now known to be true) tales of his sexual relationship with Sally Hemings circulated in the media even gets its own chapter.

So, in the end, it was a decent, if not terribly deep, biography.

Radical Hamilton

This… was a disappointment. I know Hamilton is having a moment, but this book didn’t quite seize on it.

The unique insight, supposedly, is that Hamilton’s insufficient to recognized Report on Manufactures is the key economic document for understanding the man’s rare genius. Yet despite saying constantly how important that work is, it is not properly discussed until something like 2/3 of the way into the book.

The book feels just sort of… thin. Yes, a connection was made between his biography (especially his service in the Revolutionary War), but I don’t know. I wanted more. I expected more. Hamilton was a prophet of government involvement in the economy and of industrial strategy (if there was an interesting insight, it was the connection between Hamilton’s ideas and the industrial policies of Japan during the Meji era).

Finally, he keeps using the word ‘dirigiste’ to describe Hamilton’s position on virtually everything. I mean, a lot. He uses it all the time. The constant use is like someone who has just discovered a word and decides to keep using it, rather like when my child learned to spell and use the word ‘anxious’ and it was her go to adjective in virtually any context.

Understanding Thomas Jefferson

Halliday begins his book with frequently salacious asides about Jefferson’s sex life, which rather sets the tone… badly. Taken in and of itself, the erotic life of our third president is a valid path of inquiry, but his probing is written in the language of a nineteen year old trying to show off his supposed sexual sophistication in conversation with sixteen year olds. Like any normal adult eavesdropper on that hypothetical conversation, I was not amused. The whole thing is not improved by improvidently titling the second chapter, Surges of Youth.

Really, it feels like a rather juvenile and often tone deaf excuse to delve into the sex life of our third president. And it gets downright icky at times. He bemoans that when Abigail Adams measured Polly, Jefferson’s youngest daughter, and the young slave who was accompanying, a certain Sally Hemings, that no record of Ms. Hemings measurements survive. So sad that we don’t get to know the cup size of a girl was fourteen at the time. He later suggests that maybe Sally seduced Thomas, which is supposed to make conservative commentators who can’t stand the idea that he fathered her children feel better about the whole thing. It seems a shame that this has to be mentioned, but an adolescent girl who is also owned by someone does not have the independent capacity to seduce a middle aged man, nor to give anything like genuine, informed consent to sex.

On several occasions, he explicitly describes his project as in opposition to the premise of Ellis’ Pulitzer Prize winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (which is on my list, but which I haven’t read yet). Towards the end, in the penultimate chapter, he asks if his book, thus far, has elucidated Jefferson’s character so far as to say it is not Sphinx-like. While admire that he believes Jefferson can be understood, unless he is best understood as a somewhat sex-addled figure, I’m not sure this book has succeeded in that laudable mission.

I was also personally miffed by his remark that ‘Jefferson’s tenacious adherence to the moral-sense theory of psychology must be judged as scientifically rather dubious.’ First, I’m not sure how much that is the case. And I assume he is referring to Jefferson’s general acceptance of the sentimentalist theory of morals which was so eloquently argued by prominent figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, which adherence made him quite forward thinking for his time (with the caveat that many contemporary elites would have agreed with him). However, he almost made up for that by praising Gore Vidal’s Burr.

The Tyranny Of Merit: What’s Become Of The Common Good?

Despite some half hearted references to other cultures, this book is distinctly aimed at America. While I agree with much of its premise (which is more about assumptions of merit; that those who more deserve it, while those who have less are intrinsically inferior, because they lacked the necessary merit), I was made hesitant early on by his relatively uncritical acceptance of Weber’s famed Protestant work ethic as a sort of modern source (though he also notes earlier, also biblically inspired ideas about meritocracy).

My fascination with Thomas Jefferson got a jolt when he compared the introduction of the SAT to Jefferson’s idea of providing education to America’s ‘natural aristocracy.’ In Jefferson’s view, small, local schools would exist in part to unearth the small number of geniuses from among the ‘rubbish.’ Conant, the man who came up with the SAT, also wanted to find those select few. It was never intended to expand access, but only to find what Jefferson would happily would have agreed was his natural aristocracy.

Solutions are few and far between, but I don’t ask Sandel to be Rawls (who, incidentally, gets a minor, but definite, raking over proverbial coals). And I liked his idea of changing college admissions to a modified lottery process. For example, a competitive Ivy League university will get tens of thousands of applicants, something more, or at least close, to half of which can be reasonably considered to be qualified and otherwise equipped to succeed there. Take that number and give out acceptances based on a lottery. I like it. The book as a whole, however, feels like it somehow fell short. The analysis goes into depth on issues, but always feels like it pulls back and doesn’t go all the way in ways that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Thomas Jefferson: A Modern Prometheus

First, let me credit Professor Moses with being the first person I have read to refer to Thomas Jefferson as ‘the Count of Monticello.’ As someone deeply impacted by both Thomas Jefferson and Dumas’ epic novel of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, I applaud without reservation.

Jeffersonian agrarianism from Locke’s idea that property derived from making use of the land. Against speculators, rentier capitalism, and… American Indians making ‘unprofitable’ use of the land.

On the whole, his criticism and occasional fury are well merited, I must allow. His showing that Jefferson was not the child prodigy and possibly not as intellectually gifted as Franklin and Hamilton feels a little petty, but is possibly a necessary corrective to Jefferson’s (unwarranted, I reckon Moses would say) reputation for such great intellectual gifts as inspired Kennedy to make his famous remark about Jefferson dining alone to a group of Nobel Prize recipients. He actually spends almost the entire chapter on genius casting shade on Jeffersonian claims to it, before ending that chapter by concluding that, yeah, he actually was pretty darn smart.

Moses also made some nice references to Jefferson’s relationship to various works of history and philosophy, some based on direct knowledge (because Jefferson wrote down his thoughts) and some conjectural (like suggesting that Jefferson must have absolutely hated Plato’s dialogue, Crito).

I must also allow that when I defend Jefferson or feel defensive when he is attacked is possibly my own white privilege rearing it’s fish belly pale head.

I must also allow that this an absolutely terrific book. I don’t know who you are, reading this blog (besides my mother, of course), but whoever you are, this a fantastically researched, elegantly thought out work and you should read it.

I think I am the first to read this copy, which I borrowed from the library. The paper feels wonderfully new and so lovely to the touch. I remember in the Tin Drum, the narrator asking for a ream of virgin paper. This paper, too, feels virgin.

Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle To Remake America

The author is, quite clearly conservative (though I read that he received no little flak for having admitted to having voted for Obama in 2008). Not a Republican writer, per se, but something one might find favorably mentioned by the folks at the James Wilson Institute. Unsettlingly, Gutzman, while (grudgingly?) acknowledging Jefferson’s fathering of Sally Hemmings children, he also writes sympathetically of unreconstructed historians who rejected the idea.

But, I should be fair. He does not shy away from criticism of Jefferson on issues of race and slavery. Indeed, he is rather cutting. For example, he notes that our third president wrote rather deceptively of Benjamin Banneker. He suggests without evidence that a white friend might have given him help in creating his almanac (specifically, in doing the mathematical calculations) and criticizes his writing style as being indicative of an average mind, whereas Gutzman found it to clearly be from a man of cultivated intellect and sensibilities.

The section which covers in the most detail Jefferson’s thoughts on race and slavery is, I found, one of the weaker sections. Gutzman’s heart is clearly in the first part, when he outlines the Virginian’s federalism. Yes, a little jarring that the party opposed to Jefferson’s politics was called the Federalist Party, but he is using federalism correctly, at least in current usage, which, is, of course, a strict view of the limitations on federal power, with the greatest balance of government authority in the hands of the states.

Some of the other sections lacked, I felt, partly because Gutzman’s ideas on Jefferson and federalism were relatively new to me and many other topics were not. Under a chapter on education though, there is a remark that Jefferson was a fan of Henry Home, Lord Kames. That particular Lord Kames was actually David Hume’s uncle (Hume changed the spelling of his name, because when he spelled it ‘Home,’ Englishmen kept mispronouncing it) and my interest was piqued not just because I have an interest in Hume, but because of a particular letter in which Jefferson roundly attacked him.

The Paris Years Of Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s time in Paris was, clearly, incredibly powerful influence on all the years the followed, especially aesthetically (reminding me to sit down with Thomas Jefferson Among the Arts, a book I bought on my last trip to visit Monticello, at a wonderful look riverfront bookstore in Yorktown).

It is not a chronological history, but rather picks up several topics and explores them in the context of his Paris interlude. Topics include the arts, science and philosophy, and… women (in the last one, the author claims that the mighty Abigail Adams was a disciple of Edmund Burke, which I loved).

Early in the chapter discussing his actual work as a diplomat (which was mixed with a role as sort of trade representative for the fledging nation), his little book, Notes on Virginia, is described as being as ‘a kind of philosophical blueprint to guide him in devising a coherent foreign policy.’

While emphasizing that (even noting that, to his friends, he seemed almost foreign, when he returned), William Howard Adams also returns to Jefferson’s… standoffishness? He was, in his own way, an introvert. He enjoyed the company of small groups of intellectuals rather than the stylish salons that Benjamin Franklin famously enjoyed during his years in Paris (possibly helped by his love of the company of women, compared to rather more ‘naive, as the author says, Jefferson). He even used to retire to a monastery for a week at a time when work was pressing

I suppose that I am seeing elements of myself in him. Which is probably why, in my inflated self-regard, I keep returning to him. And perhaps why his failings hit me so powerfully. What do his powerful and important failings say about me?

Finally, Adams quoted at length from the great American political theorist, Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition:

…deep ambiguities in his thinking, which made any effort of consistency impossible. Ever since Jefferson’s death, scholars have been trying to discern order in – or impose it upon – his elusive, unsystematic thought, but without much success. It simply dos not lend itself to ordinary standards of consistency.

Jefferson On Philosophy

This is, more properly, about my having finally finished my little collection of Thomas Jefferson’s writing (with a short, mostly hagiographic biography at the very beginning). I have, of course, been chronicling those things which struck me upon reading. I have also been putting this down for many other books, including many about Jefferson himself. Despite my wrestlings, he still occupies my mind, rent-free. Something he has really done since I was a young child and my mother took to Charlottesville, Virginia and up the mountain to see Monticello. She preferred the simpler beauty of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, but the erratic intellectual cacophony of Jefferson’s home stayed with me.

So what should I say about this book? I don’t know if the selected letters, which constitute the greatest part of the book, are the best selection possible, but I enjoyed them.

I can say that Jefferson is a fine writer. He has the belle-lettres excellence of the best eighteenth century scribblers and the clarity of the his English and Scottish Enlightenment influences (Locke, Hume).

I can say that he grew a bit resentful in his old age, with the late Alexander Hamilton still receiving approbation two decades after Burr’s ball felled him.

I suppose that I can say that I will continue to read his writings and writings about him.

And, that while not a philosopher, he might have made a fine one, except that his mind wandered towards too many other things. No matter. He has done enough to be remembered, loved, reviled, and revised without a philosophical magnum opus.

I do not think that it is a coincidence that the most obviously philosophical moments are from letters written later in life, when he stepped back from the business of being a revolutionary and a politician.

That said, in 1803, while president, he writes to Dr. Benjamin Rush about a conversation that they had in 1798-1799, before the contentious presidential election of 1800 about Jesus and moral philosophy. He begins to outline the ideas that would come to truest fruition in his ‘edited’ version of the Bible, but roams, comparing Jesus to figures of classical philosophy like Socrates, Epicurus (Jefferson, in other letters, suggests that he is an Epicurean), Epictetus, Cicero, etc, to the purpose of sketching out a moral philosophy (not theology) of Jesus.

He later writes explicitly about his sense of Epicurean philosophy.

Then, towards the end of his life, he wrote to John Adams and lays out an explicitly materialist epistemology (despite bad mouthing Hume and points, the Scotsman would have been proud, though its probably closer to Locke).

But even in the last case, the original topic or, at least, the topic which most directly led to his philosophical musings are religious ones. You cannot escape the conclusion that he is a Deist (in one letter, he praises the Unitarian Church for dispensing with the whole Trinity thing), but also that he ultimately considers religion to be a philosophical topic, rather than an issue of faith.

Jefferson On Epicureanism, In A Letter To William Short, October 31, 1819

In a letter to his friend, mentor, and former professor (from his days at William & Mary College), the Scotsman and an, by virtue of his teaching of Jefferson, important evangelist of the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment in American, William Short, Thomas Jefferson sums up his interpretation of the Epicurean philosophy:

Syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus

Physical. – The Universe eternal.
It’s parts, great and small, interchangeable.
Matter and Void alone.
Motion inherent in matter which is weighty and declining.
Eternal circulation of the elements of bodies.
Gods, an order of being next superior to man, enjoying in their sphere, their own felicities; but not meddling with the concerns of the scale of being below them.
Moral. – Happiness the aim of life.
Virtue the foundation of happiness.
Utility the test of virtue.
Pleasure active and In-do-lent.
In-do-lence is the absence of the pain, the true felicity.
Activity, consists in agreeable motion; it is not happiness, but the means to produce it.
Thus the absence of hunger is an article of felicity; eating the means to obtain it.
The summer bonum is to be not pained in body, nor troubled in mind.
i.e. In-do-lence of body, tranquility of mind.
To procure tranquility of mind we must avoid desire and fear, the two principal diseases of the mind.
Man is a free agent.
Virtue consists in 1. Prudence. 2. Temperance. 3. Fortitude. 4. Justice.
To which are opposed, 1. Folly. 2. Desire. 3. Fear. 4. Deceit.

His description of how the gods interact with humanity does not just reflect the ideas of Epicurus, as we know them, but also deism (which, I would argue, reflects the beliefs of Jefferson and Washington, at least, among the Founders; though it is not typical of the mostly staunchly protestant thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, but rather of the French Enlightenment; of course, that greatest of all figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, was almost certainly atheist).

Some Peace Made, Some Peace Not

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