James Cox | Professor of Literature

James Cox was a professor of American literature at Dartmouth College for 29 years. He is the author of numerous essays on American writers, including William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Thomas Jefferson. He is currently retired to his family farm in Independence, Virginia.

  Why are you drawn to Thomas Jefferson? Why do you like him?
Well, part of it's being Virginian—of growing up there and having a father who believed that the Jefferson Bible was a great document. He liked it. He felt a deism right in his bones and he sympathized. So I heard that as a child and always been on my mind. And then I began to work on autobiography. As a teacher of American literature I got interested in Jefferson's autobiography and worked on it a bit, and tried to write about Jefferson a little. But, as you know, I'm not an expert on Jefferson.

Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  Well, what do you like about Thomas Jefferson's autobiography?
I like it because it is absolutely unpretentious. He doesn't have any hope of immortality by virtue of the autobiography. He's very sure, though, that his name will not perish. And he begins the autobiography almost immediately by discussing his writing of the Declaration of Independence. He puts in the entire text of the Declaration and shows what parts worked, what it originally was before the emendations of the Continental Congress.

  Why are we drawn to Thomas Jefferson?
He's a writer. He couldn't speak very well at all and couldn't be heard. He acknowledged that Patrick Henry was the great speaker. But he was a writer and I think he sees himself, or at least I want to see him, as the author of his country. I taught American literature and he's not featured in classes in American literature. Jonathan Edwards gets more attention. I think it's a sad story about American literature. But Jonathan Edwards gets more attention than Jefferson.

  Is he a great stylist?
He has what I would call a chaste style. He does not like frills and he does not like what we would probably call imaginative writing. He likes facts very much and he wants, not a plain style like Franklin, but a style which will retain a purity and not be involved in emotion. He would find Edmund Burke, you see, full of fancies. He doesn't want that in his own writing.

“I find the American people somewhat weak in thinking about slavery.”

  The sentence "we hold these truths" is so vague as to tolerate slavery in the United States. How do we reconcile this?
I don't think you ever can quite reconcile it. I think what you have to face with Jefferson is that this in an enormous contradiction. But it's a contradiction, I think, that brought him energy. Now we think of slavery as something evil, but it was legal. I mean, you do have to see that the Continental Congress had great difficulty. They saw it as a problem immediately. They saw the contradiction and they couldn't really have a union in the first place without admitting slavery—they wouldn't have gotten South Carolina, for example. And not quite eighty years later, you couldn't get a union without a war. I find the American people somewhat weak in thinking about slavery. It's assumed so immediately evil that nobody could imagine it. They can't imagine it being legal. But it was legal. And it took a war. The Constitution was amended, not in any regular process, but by violence. That's the only way it got amended.

“And whenever Jefferson touches the problem of slavery, I think his whole mind is galvanized.”

  How do we as Americans today reconcile the author of those words with the man who owned slaves?
As I say, I don't think you can. Henry Adams, when he would go to Mount Vernon, knowing that Washington, as he said, was the pole star, that he was the sum of all virtue. And yet slavery was the sum of all evil and Washington owned slaves. And Adams had to just face that contradiction. And I see us having to face it. And it still produces energy. The danger, if it becomes obsessive, is that you'll begin to forget what Jefferson did. You'll begin to lose a free Jefferson who, even owning slaves, has that freedom of speculation. So there's a huge amount of speculation always about Jefferson and I think the speculation on Sally Hemings, if you move to that, is a very fair speculation. I rather like Fawn Brodie's book. I think she got a little over-determined in her thesis as she proceeded. But the idea of Jefferson being passionate and passionately involved. It's a little hard to see that passion through his style. Even reading the Declaration, you don't have a great sense of passion. But, in the parts that were deleted about slavery, there is that passion. And whenever Jefferson touches the problem of slavery, I think his whole mind is galvanized. I think he was profoundly troubled and really did not know what to do, was helpless himself to slavery.

Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress

  So what is his legacy? What's his gift to us?
I'd start with "all men are created equal." He doesn't include women but it would, it would include women. I mean that's the possibility that's in that sentence even though it specifies men, it would include women and it would include children. That equality clause will go all the way through. We'll never get rid of it. Nobody quite believes it. I have a hard time and when you stop and think to yourself, do you really believe all people are created equal, you have trouble believing it. But you don't ever wish it hadn't been written. You would have trouble believing that in the beginning was the Word. I tend to think that in the beginning was not the Word—in the beginning was not the word "tree," but in the beginning there was a tree. I tend to believe that the world of nature precedes language and not that language creates nature. But you never wish that hadn't been written. One of the best statements that I know about that was by Robert Frost in a fine poem called "The Black Cottage." And he has a minister speaking and he comes to that "all men are created equal," and he says, "That's by the Welshman," because Jefferson had a sort of folk identity as a Welshman. He said, "The Welshman planted that, planted that and it'll trouble us a thousand years." I like the idea of being troubled by that equality clause and not being complacent about it. So, you'll be troubled and I will too. And I think the country will be troubled. And that's what I like about Jefferson.

  What is the pursuit of happiness?
Well, I don't want to exclude pleasure. I think he sees that freedom will be hard to protect. I think that Jefferson is very fearful in a deep way. He wrote to John Adams that he was optimistic, that he believed that his ship of state would sail free, you see, and have a successful and happy ending. But I think he is scared too. He feels that representative government is the best that you can probably get but he knows that the representatives are very likely to desert the people. And he says, be jealous of your representatives—you have to watch them all the time. So there's a, I don't want to say paranoia, but I think he is fearful. I would even include slavery in that. I would be willing to see slavery as a factor. Just living in those conditions would have made you apprehensive, I think. Certainly Jefferson shows apprehension when he touches on the subject of slavery.

  Churchill says that a country can't do two things at once. You solve union and leave slavery hanging. And Jefferson knows this. His passion about slavery is the cognition that there's going to be a civil war.
When the Missouri Compromise came in 1820, when that occurred, Jefferson said it was like a firebell in the night. And that it couldn't help coming to a war, that you could not draw a line which was a moral line with one kind of morality on one side and one on another and not split the nation. So he saw that very clearly.

“He wanted to get rid of slavery. I think that was sincere.”

  Do you think they could have gotten rid of it at the beginning and still created a union?
I think these will always be our wishes. These are the wishes. And it seems easy once you start saying slavery is evil. Once you move to a moral absolute, then you just keep feeling, well they failed. They didn't see the way we see it. And then we begin to forget how hard it was, how terrifying it was to get rid of slavery. Then you move to the Civil War. And you see the absolute violence and ruthlessness with which freedom was won. And we're all glad it was won. There's no ambiguity there. There's maybe a few very recalcitrant Southerners who wish it had gone otherwise. But that's what you have to face. I think that's the history. And I think Jefferson was facing that much of his life. He did not know how. He wanted to get rid of slavery. I think that was sincere. So it wasn't an idle wish of his. He wanted to get rid of it. But he could not. And did not know how. He needed help and he couldn't get the help when he was president or earlier when he was governor of Virginia and yet he couldn't quite lead either.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII

  Do you like Thomas Jefferson as a man?
I think you can't tell about him there. I don't know whether I like him. Of the three, if we consider John Adams and Franklin and Jefferson, Franklin comes through to us. He comes through to us with a humor, with a wonderful readiness for life. We can detect it in him. Jefferson is masked. I feel even his style is almost like a death mask. That it's hard to feel the emotion. There is the sense of abstraction that's there but then you learn. You can begin to see. And I will say, I think slavery was one of Jefferson's real disturbances. I mean, the mind...the minute he touches it, there's a vibration. At almost a...it's there in the Notes on Virginia and it's there very much again when he comes to it in his autobiography. He says it is written in the book of fate that these people are to be free. So, as you see, he would see history as a book and he could see that it was inevitable that they were to be free. Yet, he is just as sure that they can never live together. So, the minute he sees freedom, he either sees trouble or he sees that they'll have to be relocated—he thinks of Santa Domingo as a place to colonize them outside the country. And it can't help seeming strange that, here he lived in Monticello with all the slaves around him and yet could not see them free and living in the proximity of the white race. That's a difficult problem to face.

  Do we not see the story of our country here?
Well, I think we begin to imagine it. We imagine it. And I don't want to get too much obsessed with that one aspect. Now there are other things that are equally grave about Jefferson. And states' rights is one. I mean, he did believe in states' rights to what we would now think an alarming degree. You can feel him in Virginia feeling that Virginia is his nation. I think it would be difficult to imagine him at the threshold of civil war not doing what Robert E. Lee did. I mean, with Virginia faced with troops coming in and having seceded. I think Jefferson would have fought secession. That he would have done. But once that die was cast, I think that Jefferson would be hard pressed to turn against his state. I do not believe he could have done it.

  And yet he doubled the size of our country in one stroke of the pen....
Sure, he did. And that was his vision. He was right on the western mountains. I think Henry Adams, speaking of states' rights, Henry Adams sees John C. Calhoun as the real legitimate son of Jefferson. That he carries states' rights in a kind of ruthless logic to its conclusion. I don't know that Jefferson would have done so much. I mean, he did love the union, but I think as you read him and see how passionately he felt about the states' rights and the fear of a federal government. He does have a fear of it. Even though once he's president, he pushed right ahead, he saw the west and saw that was a great acquisition.

  And it's more than an conquest of space, it's a vision. What's he seeing? He's anticipating manifest destiny....
Well, he is probably envisioning Manifest Destiny. He sees the empire. He sees a sort of an empire of freedom. He does see that. And, in his mind, freedom is an expansive force. He sees that the French Revolution will bring the violence, that it will be bring ruthlessness. There will be millions dying, as he says in his autobiography, that the French Revolution is but the beginning and I think you appreciate the violence of Jefferson's imagination. The purity of his style can sometimes mask the full violence of his metaphor. He says, "the tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of patriots." That is an excessive statement. And yet the balance, the order of the grammar tends to elide the violence that's still residing in it, that's there and visible for those that will read it.

“And I like the trouble and I like the mystery.”

  What are his principles?
I go right back to the equality clause. It is "all men are created equal." I think that's the key one. And that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of happiness...it's difficult to know. It's not quite...he isn't a pleasure-seeker. And yet he knows that freedom is happiness too. That liberty will enable you to pursue happiness. And how grand it is that in a capitalistic country like this, that he did not follow Locke and have life, liberty and property. And that mystery of the pursuit of happiness suits me just fine. If the equality clause will trouble us a thousand years, as Frost said, if it'll trouble us, then the pursuit of happiness will mystify us forever. And I like the trouble and I like the mystery. And that suits me just fine about Jefferson.

  What did he see looking west? What were the possibilities?
One, I think he saw sort of what Thoreau was later to see. He saw that it drifted southwest. I mean, he could see these mountains. The Shenandoah Valley goes southwest. And he had, of course, explored enough himself to know it. So I think what he saw was a freedom. He felt the freedom of the West, and of America as West. I think he saw that and felt it. He could see that there would be free land out there. There would be free land if the country acquired it and in his moves to get it and to have Lewis and Clark explore it. He saw it first as a great fund for scientific knowledge. He always had that speculative mind constantly at work. So there was always that drive to the West and Jefferson, up on the mountain, was absolutely in touch with that vision.

Curriculum for the University of Virginia

  And yet I get an almost literary sense of the tragic cost....
It is tragic cost. But I think that Jefferson would have always seen freedom as coming at great cost. He had feelings about monarchy. He disliked monarchy. But he was enough of an aristocrat that he couldn't overthrow an aristocracy without some grave misgivings. You can feel the aristocracy. You can look at the conception of the University of Virginia and you can see...it even, for us, it haunts us a little with a plantation image. Even as we know it is a masterful design. I think if you just think of the University of Virginia, he had his library. You entered it with your back to Washington. I think it's not accidental that you walk, you walk with your back to Washington into the Rotunda, then it opens out through all the orders of architecture and had an open end when he designed it. He did not close that quadrangle. That's a sad moment when that quadrangle was closed. It's about 1900, I think, when they decided to close the quadrangle with Cabell Hall. Stanford White, I believe, did the architecture. That was a sad day. And it tells you what Virginia was entering at the turn of the century, that it was going to be a closed state. And I feel that having Douglas Wilder as governor was a great, was one of the great events, for me, for my life in Virginia, that I went to the inauguration and felt proud of this state, that whatever it had done, it did elect Douglas Wilder as governor.

  What do you feel when you walk around Monticello? What does it tell you?
I don't know. It's just a remarkable, remarkable achievement. But I'm always a little troubled by the fact that it's there on the mountain, it towers in a way over the surroundings. It has a touch of aristocracy and then you do feel the slaves. You see the slave quarters. You can't avoid it. But I feel distant from Jefferson in the sense that I have a farm and work so hard on it. And Jefferson worked hard but I think of his having all that help to do his work and I sure can see that Jefferson had some advantages. You know, there may have been some disadvantages, but he had some advantages.

  It's also unfinished.
And it's imperfect. It has a lot of problems in it. I mean, there are a lot of problems about the building of it. And his tearing it down. The creative aspect is implicit, it's implicit in his destructiveness too. He'll tear his own house down. He built it up and then practically tore it down again. So it's constantly being remodeled. That's the dynamic quality of Jefferson, I think.

And if we lose that, you see in speculating on the slaves, in having to decide one way or another on Sally Hemings. It's not reserving judgment, but knowing you can't decide. I think the wish to have a personality for Jefferson is reductive. It isn't that I feel that I am superior in not wanting him but it'll be a reduction to reduce him to personality. Of course he had a personality. But I just don't find that endless wish: I've got to know him better and I'll feel better if I know whether he did or didn't have a relation with Sally Hemings. I think the mystery, just like the mystery of the pursuit of happiness, and the troubling quality of the equality clause, the mystery of what the relations were is positive. We know there would have been great reluctance on Jefferson's part to engage in that. He certainly remarks it. It isn't that he couldn't have done it. I sometimes you think he couldn't have helped doing it. But I think you just will lose in pursuing that. And you'll always be in a reductive mode. And I prefer to accept the mystery, that's all.

“...I find some people wanting almost to prosecute Jefferson because he owned slaves as if he should have done better.”

  Maybe this crisis of unknowing, is that a gift?
I would want it to be. I don't feel that wish, you see: oh, I wish I could get closer and closer to him. We don't have to get close to him. He is close to you. His writings, you see, are still just absolutely volatile. The equality clause is right back up before the political world within the issue of affirmative action. Here we've had what we thought was a great revolution in 1965. Here in 1995, we're almost to the threshold of going backwards just as the 19th century went back. So this is alarming. And we're not out of Jefferson's mode...that, I don't mind. But I find some people wanting almost to prosecute Jefferson because he owned slaves as if he should have done better. If he had known how to do all that, he might have been a man of that kind of principle but it might have done nothing to write the equality.

  Is this why Jefferson appeals to everyone?
He appeals but he troubles. The appeal is there. I wish people were a little more troubled, all sides, a little more troubled by him. But yes, he appeals. He's got the states' rights and fear the federal government so the conservatives are always going to come up. Of course, Lincoln and the Civil War absolutely solidified the federal government forever. That would have troubled Jefferson no end, though he himself contributed to it as a president with the acquisition of Louisiana. That's one of a number of things that that did.

  He's a problem, right?
He is a problem. But it's a wonderful problem. That's how I see him. I 'm not an expert on all his writing but his writing is everywhere around us. I mean, that Declaration. That's why I call him the author of his country. And you notice that he says that he was author of the Declaration of American Independence. On his tombstone, he has the Author of the Declaration of American Independence, and the Author of the Statutes of Religious Freedom and the Father of the University of Virginia. So, if you're a teacher as I have been, you don't have to try to get close to Thomas Jefferson. He's close to you all the time. And I've taught at the University of Virginia as a visiting professor and it's just a wonderful experience to see that here is a university that is a working conception, and a great piece of architecture. One of the greatest things ever built in this country. Its amazing that he designed and built the university in all its essence. It's enlarged but the center is pure Thomas Jefferson. Just to walk into that rotunda with your back to Washington and looking south. And I always imagine, you see, what it would have been like when it opened onto nature. So he has a controlled view of nature. I like to imagine that he was hoping John Adams would help him get out of slavery. And that he would help John Adams and New England get out of religion. Eliminate the religious conception that would always threaten the New England vision of the country. That was in all of that puritan past.

Statute of Religious Freedom

  Jefferson separates for the first time ever Church and State. That's as revolutionary as anything.
Yes it is. And, to me, it's wonderful. I think he really understood the tyranny of religion. That somehow it would be tyrannical. He was a sensitive person and religious. He felt an awe of the Creator. But I think his separation gave freedom of religion. It would have never been free if it hadn't been separated and I will hold to that principle. And I am delighted that it's there and it's tough. And it's hard to get around and I just dread the day the Supreme Court may begin to violate it too much. There are certain people who worry it to the extreme. They push it so far. They don't want any religion in the schools at all. I don't want any there either but I don't want to be worried every minute that something might happen. Neither, I think, would Jefferson.

  Do we need Thomas Jefferson?
We need him, yes. But we have him. That's what I feel always too. You see, as much as we need him, we have him. He's always present. And that's the Declaration. You just come back to that equality clause and those inalienable rights and then the Statutes of Religious Freedom, which he mentions in his own summation of his life...you can see how much he cared about religious freedom. And we'll never go back on him. That can't be done, you see. He himself has so many contradictions which interest me much more than they bother me. Because I just feel that energy always there. You can't sit down and read a single letter of Jefferson without feeling that mind that is relentless too, I think it has a great deal of skepticism. It's by no means a mind of innocence or sentimentality. He knows pretty well how many things can go wrong. And yet, somehow, I think he was able to see the ship of state through. And he was confident even when he knew the Civil War was coming. He feared that. But he would never have given up. That I do know. He wouldn't have given up.

Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  Is he a hero?
Yes, he is a hero, I think. But I just don't feel a need of heroes, you know? I think that he is the conceiving spirit of this country. I don't want to put any of them down or make them less. If we were talking about Franklin, I could get just as enthusiastic. But he is the conceiving spirit somehow, at 33 years old. Here he was and he could write the Declaration and they knew it. They somehow knew that here was person who couldn't speak very well but they knew he could write and they assigned him that task and he accepted it. And it is in a way committee prose and it's the greatest committee and it's so good to have Franklin and Adams who were the readers....the first readers and who suggested the emendations. What a great piece of work. And Jefferson's there and yet it's that whole group that is somehow engaged in it and was engaged. And they did it for us. How fortunate. How fortunate. And we are optimistic for all our troubles and all our knowledge of how troubled we're going to be. And how much the equality clause will trouble us. We haven't had the equality we're going to have. Or that's the way I want to see the country. That the children are going to get more equality. They're now starting to come in for it. And it'll trouble everybody. We don't know how much we want them to have. But they're going to have it. And everybody's going to have the vote and finally, I believe that they are created equal.

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