Andrew Burstein | Historian

Andrew Burstein recently became a professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa after years of international trade work in China. His first book,The Inner Life of Thomas Jefferson, was published last year.

“...Jefferson had an understanding of the human spirit.”

  Who is Thomas Jefferson?
If you were to have encountered Thomas Jefferson in his prime, particularly just after he had returned from four years in Europe as America's minister, you would have found a man who had been inspired by the Enlightenment intellects he had encountered there. He was eager to engage people in conversation. He was unprepossessing in his dress in that, although most people of his age wore tailored clothes with ruffles, Jefferson dressed casually. He wasn't your typical aristocrat. He believed in a natural aristocracy of talent. And this Thomas Jefferson was a great conversationalist, a generous friend, a sincere man, and people who encountered him in his prime felt that Jefferson had an understanding of the human spirit. He was a good friend.

  And yet he seems now very contradictory and almost unknowable. Why are we compelled to know him? Why are we drawn to him?
We are drawn to Thomas Jefferson because in an age when America's republican experiment was new, untested, and many people—including George Washington—felt that it didn't have a great chance of success, Thomas Jefferson embodied a spirit of optimism and a belief in the promise of America's future. He believed that America was a place where ordinary citizens could be educated to make right choices about their own futures. And this was a novel idea in Jefferson's time.

  He seems so contradictory , a man of extreme opposites. How do we know him? Make him human for me.
In his letters to intimates, Thomas Jefferson expressed his inner turmoil, his torment, his desire to be away from political strife, to be at home with family at Monticello where he could observe nature, gaze at the stars and enjoy the reproducible growth of nature. This was the real Thomas Jefferson.

“...Jefferson did not have in him the spirit of the martyr.”

Autobiography, Excerpts on Slavery

  How do you reconcile the fact that this man wrote the magic words of America “All men are created equal“ and yet he owned more than 200 human beings and never saw fit to free them. How do you handle the disparity of race and slaveholding?
Jefferson saw African-Americans as noble human beings. In the abstract, he could appreciate the African-American's humanity. We have to understand that Thomas Jefferson occupied a particular moral space and within that moral space, he was a liberal who believed that the most humane thing that could be done with the slavery problem was to re-colonize African-Americans back in Africa. He was not alone in this. James Madison felt similarly. The American Colonization Society was formed for this purpose. And Jefferson wanted slaves to have decent lives. He wanted to be the best slaveholder in America. He could not, however, find the means because he did not think that America was politically ready. Perhaps John Quincy Adams expressed this better than anyone when he said that Jefferson did not have in him the spirit of the martyr.

Jefferson ultimately on this issue was a political pragmatist. And he felt that African-Americans could not live in the same society with European Americans.

  His neighbor freed his slaves. His mentor, George Washington, ultimately freed his slaves. He could see that the rights of man were essential to the progress of humankind, and yet in the Notes on the State of Virginia, the inferiority of the black race and his comments about it scream out. Is he in some way the author of the fault line that still divides us? Did he set in motion that bedeviling part of the American republic by not dealing with slavery?
I would describe Jefferson as a scientific racist. What he wrote in the Notes on Virginia was a description of what he thought was an objective scientist's appraisal. He did not feel that he was bringing his personal emotion to his statement that African-Americans had offensive body odors, or African-Americans could not aspire to the same degree of rationality as whites. This is unfortunate but Jefferson did not do this with any ill will. He did not write other than what he considered to be the search for objective truth. We don't like it. It doesn't make us happy to think that the man who is heralded for his love of equality and liberty, who believed in the promise of America perhaps more than any of his generation, that within Jeffersonian optimism, there could exist this dark side. We don't like to think of it that way, but Jefferson was not alone. He was merely a conservative, socially a conservative, Virginian.

  So you forgive him.
I don't think it's our place to forgive. He was only capable of doing so much. It's 20th century Americans who expect so much of Thomas Jefferson because we know the eloquence that he was capable of. We can relate to that. And so if he was able to write in such a way that continues to inspire us, continues to make us feel that there is hope for the progress of the human spirit, we just can't accept that a man with that kind of vision who can connect with us in that way could not have understood that black people were just as competent, just as inspired, just as noble as the Americans whom Jefferson embraced in his writings.

“He simply couldn’t keep his pen in the inkwell.”

  It seems like he couldn't not write, that he dealt with everything and his writing therefore reveals him
Letter writing was essential to Thomas Jefferson. He got up in the morning before the sun and one of the first things he did was write letters. Jefferson was not a passionate man if you met him in person. He was sometimes shy, reserved. He never blustered. But as a letter writer, he was the most passionate of men. He simply couldn't keep his pen in the inkwell.

  Friendship is the key to Thomas Jefferson in a way. We can know him by his friendships with other people.
Friendship was Thomas Jefferson's means of ordering his life in a lot of respects. For Jefferson, friendship was not only important on a personal level but he organized politically around a group of friends. He wanted to settle them in the neighborhood of Monticello: James Madison, James Monroe, William Short. These three men he considered to be the inner circle of Jeffersonian friendship from which would develop a democratic spirit. He believed that in the intellectual conversations that he had with his friends, a kind of political foundation for the sort of America he believed in could grow. So friendship was critical to Thomas Jefferson, not just for personal reasons but for public purposes as well.

  John Adams.
John Adams was a difficult friend for Jefferson. He respected Adams as his senior. He respected his talent as a writer. He respected what Adams did in 1776. He looked up to Adams. He knew Adams also as a cantankerous man, a man who spoke his mind, who was so wonderfully honest that you could trust in him as a friend. But John Adams was so independent of mind that Jefferson had a hard time with him in politics.

But it was to John Adams that Jefferson wrote, “I believe in the dreams of the future more than the history of the past.” It was to John Adams that Jefferson looked for a sense of history. It was to John Adams that Jefferson could express his profound appreciation for the spirit of “76, which lived in him until his dying day.

Alexander Hamilton troubled Jefferson because he was so popular. He was educated. He was charismatic. And Jefferson didn't know how to deal with a man who could compete with him on an intellectual level, who could make friends as easily and as eagerly to organize for political purposes just as Jefferson did. Hamilton was his counterpart in the Washington administration whose principles were so opposed to Jefferson's that Jefferson, who respected Hamilton deeply as an intellect, despised him because he frustrated Jefferson's political purposes.

James Madison was Jefferson's closest friend in life. He was Jefferson's best friend in that he was able to translate Jefferson's very personal visions for America into legislation. When Jefferson needed help on any issue, Madison was there. Jefferson described Madison and Monroe as “my two great pillars of support.” And the architectural metaphor is not an accident. These two men represented stability for Jefferson in the political realm.

  They adored him?
Madison at first was Jefferson's lieutenant. He looked up to Jefferson. Jefferson was several years older. Monroe was a whole generation younger than Jefferson, was his protégé. Jefferson taught Monroe the law in 1780 when he was governor in Williamsburg. They were his two pillars of support. That's how Jefferson described them; Madison being the intellect that supported Jefferson—Monroe being the heart, the emotion that supported Jefferson's purposes.

Sally Hemings Accusation

  Talk about Sally Hemings.
The reason why it's highly unlikely that Jefferson could have fathered the children of Sally Hemings is that he was a moralist, but beyond that he was a practical politician. And as President, he would not have been capable of giving Sally the two children that were born when Jefferson was a 60-year-old man and in the White House. Callender's revelations had surfaced.

  This is a man beset by tragedy and loss. This is a story about loss
The interesting thing about Thomas Jefferson's life is that this man who comes down to us in history as the embodiment of American optimism, the promise of a bright future for this young country, knew that in his own life he was bound to lose everything he loved. He lost his wife at an early age. He was 39 and she was in her early 30s. He lost his younger daughter, Maria, when he was in the White House at the end of his first term. He lost friends. And he grieved. He was a grieving optimist.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Contents and Map,

  What did Virginia do to him?
Jefferson grew up on the Virginia frontier. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a frontiersman, one of the first to live in Albemarle County when they were surrounded in a sense by Cherokees and the nearest neighbor would have been miles away. Jefferson grew up hunting in the mountains around his father's small plantation. And yet, he acquired a love of reading at an early age. He went to a log-house school and learned Greek and Latin.

  Can you tell me the story about the evening at Ford's Tavern?
There is an interesting story that takes place in the eighteen-teens. There is a clergyman who stops at Ford's Tavern in Virginia, which is on the road between Monticello and Poplar Forest. And he encounters a man he terms “a respectable stranger.” And he engages in a conversation at some length with this stranger. First they talk about mechanical operations and he's certain that the man is an engineer of some sort. Then they move on to matters of agriculture and he thinks this is, in his words, “a large farmer.” Finally they talk about religion and he's certain that the man is a clergyman like himself. The hour gets late and they go to bed, and the next morning he arises and speaks with the innkeeper and asks for the stranger he had seen the night before and he describes him and the innkeeper says, “Why, don't you know, that was Thomas Jefferson?” And the man had no idea he had been talking to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was not the arrogant aristocrat that people expected. In this age before photography, he could go anywhere unnoticed. And in his encounters with ordinary people, they were always amazed by how he seemed to be their neighbor, a friend.

  Talk about the death of his wife.
Thomas and Patty Jefferson had read Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy. This was a novel about the workings of the human heart. And Jefferson had recorded in his commonplace book, a book of quotations, a section of one of the last scenes in Tristram Shandy. And as Patty Jefferson lay dying in September of 1782, the two Jeffersons sat at her bed and they wrote out together this quotation from the commonplace book. And it started out in Patty Jefferson's handwriting, a little four-by-four inch piece of paper. And on the scrip of paper, Patty Jefferson began, “Time wastes too fast, Every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen, The days and hours of it pass over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return more, Everything presses on....” At this moment, orchestrating it as a deathbed adieu of two lovers about to part, Jefferson picks up his own pen and continues the quote, “And every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu and every absence which follows is a prelude to that eternal separation we are shortly to make.” Jefferson kept this little piece of paper in the most private drawer in a secret compartment of the drawer beside his bed. And it was folded and unfolded countless times over the years and in it was a lock of his late wife's hair and a lock of the hair of one of their infant children who had died. And this was the real Thomas Jefferson, the man of sentiment who loved deeply, who felt deeply.

  He was devastated by her loss.
He was so devastated by Patty Jefferson's death that he was insensible. He lost consciousness and for weeks all he could do was amble about the mountaintop, sometimes accompanied by his daughter Martha, who was then 10 years old. And he couldn't talk. For a man for whom control was important, this was the one time in his life when he completely lost control.

First Plan of Monticello

  He built his great mansion on a mountaintop. Can you talk about this building?
The logical thing for Jefferson to have done would have been to construct a plantation house near the river as other planters did. But Jefferson instead chose the top of an 867-foot mountain. He loved the vista. He had gone there often as a child and must have planned this for many years. At first he called it “The Hermitage.” But as he began construction, he changed the name to the more euphonic “Monticello,” Italian for “little mountain.” Monticello for Jefferson was not just a great architectural feat, helping him utilize his love of mathematics and calculations and building and going to his library and looking at his books of Palladian architecture and ancient Roman architecture. That was the cerebral Jefferson, the mechanical Jefferson at work. Beyond that, the grounds of Monticello were a place where he could scan the skies, look at the stars, plant 39 varieties of peas, grow all kinds of vegetables and flowers, and learn the Latin names, and teach them to his children and his grandchildren. He kept tame deer in an enclosure atop Monticello. He constructed the burying place, the graveyard for his friends and loved ones. Monticello was a place that mirrored the Creator's genius. Jefferson saw himself both as a mechanical builder, a lover of mathematics, and as one who could capture the sublime spirit of the Creator's genius.

“Jefferson was a humane man with humane purposes.”

  The story of Thomas Jefferson is the story of the United States writ small.
Jefferson was a humane man with humane purposes. He was a moral philosopher—not a philosopher in the classic sense, but a man who felt that the way he lived his life could be extended and that the country that he believed in, the promise of America, could find a Jeffersonian spirit. He hoped that he could extend his love of human potential and belief that Americans could create, so that ordinary Americans could be a part of creating a nation whose genius was rooted in moral good.

“But any America that was not his vision he had no patience for.”

  When I look at his contradictions, they seem to be the contradictions of the country too, not just the dark side, but the problem of race, of public/private, of big/small, of lots of government or of no government, of a small agrarian place or a magnificent shining city on a hill or a continental nation. He seems to embody all the tensions that will play out over the next 200 years and we hope more.
Jefferson was a man who loved deeply and he was a man who could hate deeply too. He believed in a certain kind of America. But any America that was not his vision he had no patience for. He could wish death upon his political opponents. He could write nasty things about people. He was a man whose passion ran deep—both his passion for friendship and for a government rooted in decency and the humanist spirit.

Declaration of Independence, Earliest Known Draft

  What's the pursuit of happiness?
Americans constantly refer to this pursuit of happiness as the quintessential statement of Jeffersonian optimism. Jefferson meant little by the pursuit of happiness. He meant merely a quality of moral bearing, that we should live our lives, that we could live our lives in a morally consistent way. That was the pursuit of happiness, nothing more. He used the word “delight” when something meant more than mere happiness. Happiness was a general term. He read Homer in the original Greek, that was his delight. He spoke of pleasure as something that was not unmitigated. Pleasure was always accompanied by pain of some sort. So happiness meant little. Pleasure was...there were consequences for pleasure. But “delight,” when Jefferson used the word “delight,” he was talking about something that meant very much to him.

  Can you put me back in those days in Williamsburg with Small and Fauquier? What's cooking with Jefferson?
In Williamsburg as a student, Jefferson was soaking up all the learning he could get. His best friend of those years was John Page, who much later became a governor of Virginia. And John Page wrote that while he, Page himself, could enjoy the merriment of friends, Jefferson would “fly to his studies,” in Page's words. He loved books and he could hardly be taken away from them. Even when there was a fancy ball. Well, Jefferson participated in those too, but he always seemed to gravitate back to his room, to his books. He couldn't get enough of reading.

  What were the ideas that intoxicated him?
Jefferson was most intoxicated by the idea that human beings possessed the potential to do remarkable good and that a government could be created which would tap into this spirit, tap into this impulse to do good.

  Is that the Enlightenment?
The Enlightenment was a spirit of intellectual optimism that transcended national boundaries. The Enlightenment thinkers saw the good in the human spirit and Jefferson, despite what may seem to us moments of utopian fancy, embodied the spirit of the American Enlightenment because of his sense of intellectual optimism, because of his belief that nations could treat each other on equal terms and people with disparate ideas could argue rationally and come to sound conclusions. He believed in the human spirit. The Enlightenment was the sharing of books, the writing of letters, the creation of a community of compatible minds that transcended national boundaries. The Enlightenment made the world smaller, and in that way was perfectly suited to Thomas Jefferson's personality.

  These Virginia lawyers, farmers, and planters don't strike me as revolutionaries. What went wrong? Why did they turn against Parliament and Britain?
There came a time when English liberty no longer felt the same as it had. Originally, English liberty was contrasted with Spanish tyranny. By the 1760s and 1770s, there was something new in the air. Part of it had to do with the proliferation of pamphlets. Part of it had to do, of course, with Parliament's acts which colonists began to speak out about. They felt that they were being enslaved. They used the term “enslavement” to describe what Parliament was inflicting upon these people who had grown up with a certain view of English liberty. And if English liberty could no longer be preserved, then what was their recourse? Ultimately, it was independence.

  Can you talk to me about the head and the heart and who wins in Jefferson?
Jefferson recognized that he was composed of a head and a heart. It was the head that enabled him to become a creative politician, to frame those principles that we continue to revel in that make America what it is. But it was the heart of Thomas Jefferson that directed Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. It was the heart of Thomas Jefferson which he invested in his friendships.

Head and Heart Letter,

  Who wins the battle?
In his letter to Maria Cosway, the heart wins the battle. The head must prevail because Jefferson is a diplomat and he's always conscious of his public reputation. But it's clear that in the Head and the Heart letter, the heart has the longest uninterrupted passage, the heart refers to what it was that caused the American Revolution to succeed, which was a belief in America, not what the head would have preferred which was to recognize the superiority of British arms. The heart was able to challenge when hope seemed diminished.

  But with Maria the head really wins. It's an unrequited love.
Part of the problem that Jefferson has with Maria Cosway is that she's married. And Jefferson is a moralist. Whether or not they shared intimacy is, well, we will never know. But Jefferson certainly reached out to this woman. She was artistic and musical as his wife, Patty, had been. He was by this time four years a widower and something was, something was coming back to him, something that Maria Cosway inspired in him. They went to a play together; they picnicked together. He allowed his heart to pass the head, to overcome the warnings of the head. Thomas Jefferson was a passionate man. He had a hard time expressing that passion in person but when he wrote, it all flowed.

  If you could be a fly on the wall, what moment would you most like to have witnessed?
I think some of the most interesting moments in Thomas Jefferson's life, the ones we'll never know, are the times he shared with his closest friends: playing chess across the table from Benjamin Franklin or James Madison. I'd love to know who won those chess matches.

  Talk about his death. There is a kind of excruciating perfection there.
In the poem that Jefferson composed to his daughter Martha just before he died, he wrote, “Life's visions are vanished, its dreams are no more.” He welcomed the shore. This is a man whose life was marked by the torment of “a boisterous ocean of politics” as he had often called it. And the torment, the turmoil, of politics remained with him up to his dying day. He did not yet see the America of his visions. He knew that life's visions were vanished. He knew that Monticello was bound to be sold. So this great optimist, this grieving optimist, went to his death ready, but frustrated because his dreams had not been fulfilled. He knew that the slavery issue was unresolved. On a personal level, he felt that he had done all he could to create an America of promise. And I think for Thomas Jefferson, that was good enough.

  What is his legacy then?
Jefferson invented America in the sense that Americans today continue to feel amid the troubles that we read about in the daily press, that there's still hope, that there is a basic decent impulse among Americans, which Jefferson embodied. Americans can make a difference in the world. That was Jefferson's optimism. Americans continue to want to believe that despite what we see and what we read about in the news today, the horrors in the world, that there's some good that we can do. And that there's a basic benevolent impulse that Americans possess as a nation, as a culture. And I think that goes back to Jefferson. It was his spirit of optimism that shone through at a time when this experiment, the American Republic, was new, unsteady, and many, including George Washington, suspected that it might not last very long. Jefferson alone persevered in his belief in the promise of the American dream.

“Jefferson threw up his hands with the press.”

  He had problems with the press.
Jefferson threw up his hands with the press. He didn't know what to do about it. All he could do was rant and rave. They were “malignant,” they were “malicious slanders.” These are the kinds of words that he used to describe what the press was reporting. He believed in a free press. He was perhaps the herald of this belief. Until he became President and he found what most presidents have found subsequently, which is that no president gets an easy time of it. And Jefferson was perhaps the first to really reel from the pain that it caused him. He didn't know how to get the record straight. He didn't want to face the press, he didn't want to explain himself. He wanted his deeds to tell the story. But he moved through his legislative aides, men like William Giles of Virginia, who could carry the Jeffersonian purpose into the halls of Congress and, in essence, be Jefferson's mouthpiece. But the Federalist press continued to paint Jefferson as a dissembler, as a man who couldn't be trusted, as a man who said one thing and did another.

  Take me to France.
Jefferson departed for France on a boat called the Ceres, named after the Roman goddess of agriculture. And it was a brisk 29 days under sunny skies. He recorded in his diary of that time the sightings of whales and Portuguese man-of-war. He ate well. And he read. And on his arrival in England he had to take his daughter, Patsy, to a doctor. She was feverish, but she mended soon and then they sailed to France. As he disembarked, he found himself surrounded by onlookers, beggars, and Jefferson was a generous man and he gave to indigent people, to beggars often. They surrounded his carriage. They had never seen an American phaeton, as he called his carriage. And so they were a curiosity upon landing on the continent. And they passed through a lush landscape on their way through France and Patsy recorded in her diary that she felt it was a luxurious beginning.

  What did the salons of Paris do to Thomas Jefferson?
Jefferson was very attracted to the salons. He enjoyed meeting intellects of Europe. His French wasn't very good. It took him awhile to master the language. And of course he was much better in writing than he was as a speaker. But he met the great philosophers. Condorcet, who was called the last of the great philosophes, and was a man who took much pleasure in his communications with Jefferson. Jefferson frequented many of the salons. He found the women entertaining. He could talk to them about his love of nature. And this was the sort of thing that men discussed with women. Their appreciation for beauty. With other men he could discuss the great philosophic issues of the times, talking about religion, about tyranny and liberty. Jefferson was in France in the salon culture on the eve of the French Revolution. He was witnessing a kind of stirring that was reminiscent of America in the 1770s and so he was, of course, sought after by many of the notables of Europe to give his perception of these political doings, and Jefferson loved the conversation.

  In the end, after we argue over him, how finally should we remember him?
We should remember Thomas Jefferson as a man who loved his country deeply, who believed in the inherent wisdom of the people and the educability of ordinary citizens, who dreamed of the future in which America would expand west and create new decent communities of agriculturists. He hoped we would not become the workshop of the world the way Europe was, with crowded factories and the corruptibility of human nature being able to express itself. Jefferson thought of America as a benevolent country that would nurture a benevolent people.

  Did he succeed?
Jefferson felt that he held true to his own convictions, that he was able to inject into the American political system the moral philosophy that mattered to him. But I don't think he was convinced that America would be able to advance without fits and seizures and numerous torments. He didn't know how to hold the union together, but in the end I'm sure he felt that he had done his best, that he had lived up to his own dreams, that the decency which he felt in dealings with other human beings would be a legacy that Americans could hold.

  How do we deal with the dichotomy and his failings without retreating to the safety of “everyone did it” and “a man of his time? Do you think that that has helped to sponsor the problems of our republic over the last two centuries?
In a perfect world, Jefferson would have had the foresight to write something more promising about the relations he would like to have seen develop among the races. He felt he was being an objective scientist when he said that Americans and Indians could intermarry and produce beautiful offspring, but that white Americans and black Americans would produce unattractive offspring. Why? Why did he think this way? I don't know. He was a man of his time. It's not a good excuse, but that's just the way it was.

  Return to top