Joe Ellis | Historian

Joe Ellis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of the much-acclaimed biography of John Adams, The Passionate Sage, and a recently published biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx.

“There is an inherently elusive quality to Jefferson's character and personality.”

  Why are we drawn to Jefferson and why is he so elusive? Why can we never grasp him?
He is the greatest enigma among major figures in American history and I think we're attracted to him in part because of his mysterious character. If he were a monument, he would be the Sphinx. If he were a painting, he would be the Mona Lisa. If he were a character in a play, it would be Hamlet. There is an inherently elusive quality to Jefferson's character and personality. Historians as splendid as Merrill Peterson have spent there entire careers studying him and at the end of the process have walked away murmuring, "I don't understand the man." So part of it is the difficulty of grasping the soul of this character and part of it is that he is, while the most enigmatic of American major figures, also the greatest touchstone. More seems to be at stake with Jefferson, that is, we have more invested in him. He somehow is an American symbol that stands for values that are very important to us. He is a man who's got his face on Mount Rushmore and a memorial on the Tidal Basin. He is somehow a person who stands for the future of America. One of his earliest biographers, a guy called James Parton, said "If Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson is right." So somehow we have invested in Jefferson a sense of the future of this very republic. And why that is the case is a long story. But nevertheless people, not only in Washington, D. C. and Charlottesville and the small towns of America, but also in places like Prague, St. Petersburg and Gdansk quote Jefferson. So it is a combination of mystery and also resonance—and he somehow represents for us America's will to believe in itself.

“You would be able to look into his eyes but never quite see what was there.”

  People both hated him and revered him in his lifetime. How can this man have aroused such strong opinions?
Well, I mean he was in his own time a controversial political figure. He was the leader of a group that opposed the Federalists and came to be called the Jeffersonian Democrats, though they called themselves the Republicans. So there's a lot of contested truths out there, not just for us with Jefferson but back in his own day as well. You would be able to look into his eyes but never quite see what was there. People in his retinue who were close friends never really got that close to Jefferson. He was not a man who was capable of intimacy in quite the same way that people like, say, John Adams were. There was always something in reserve. And I get the sense with Jefferson, that there are several different Thomas Jeffersons, several different personae inside Thomas Jefferson and that they don't even talk to each other, that he seals in a hermetically sealed compartment different parts of himself. And he can call forth one persona at one moment, another at another moment. And that's disarming and disconcerting. It's also very effective. He's the kind of figure who can be walking down Mulberry Row at Monticello amidst the slave quarters and simultaneously be thinking great thoughts about the equality of man and these disjunctions don't seem to upset him. He's the kind the person who can oppose Federal power and yet use Federal power to purchase Louisiana in violation of his own convictions and never really seem to feel any disjunction between those two parts of himself. He can be the kind of person who idolizes the farmers, calling them the "chosen people of God," and at the same time be a person who is very much at home in Paris and in Philadelphia, even though he calls cities "sores on the body politic." There are these disjunctions inside Jefferson and it's very much a matter of different people seeming to know different Jeffersons, not just in our day but back in his day as well.

  Describe him to us.
Jefferson was tall, six two, probably slightly more than six two. Thin. John Adams said, "Tough as a lignum knot." Well muscled. Bone structure, very splendid. Muscles that stayed up throughout his long life even though as an old man he began to sag. Reddish brownish hair. Ruddyish, somewhat freckled complexion. A man who was most relaxed when sitting, either on a horse or on a chair or sofa where people often described him as lounging or in a kind of very laconic posture. Most graceful on a horse. When standing erect, a bit tense and often with his arms folded as if to protect himself or hold something in. His most disarming feature, his eyes, grayish blue eyes that many people commented on and his most arresting feature.

  What can we see about Jefferson by looking at Monticello? What does it reveal about him?
Monticello is many things, of course. It is I think the second most popular private residence that attracts tourists, the most popular is Graceland, so that Jefferson follows only Elvis in terms of popularity. I think the first thing to say about Monticello is that its on a mountain. And he chose that mountain in 1768 despite a lot of architectural problems and a lot of problems that being there would pose because he wanted to be able to look out over the world and he wanted to be up and away. The other thing about Monticello that you need to know is that it was never really finished, that the way it looks now when people visit it, it never really looked that way. It was always in a state of repair or a state of renovation. He completed pretty much what he wanted to at the very end by 1823. But that it is also symbolic of Jefferson's sort of ongoing commitment. It's a never-ending process. Monticello isn't something that is complete just as American history is never complete.

The place itself is very much a reflection of the man, idiosyncratic with these little gadgets: the cannonball weights on the clock and the stenography pen that allows him to copy his letters. In some sense, he was an indulged man, a man who's accustomed to being able to do what he wants, but in the end too, because of its octagon windows and sides, a man of many facets, a man who has many sides. Finally, though, I'd also say Monticello is something that was built by slaves. It was a product of slave labor and that it would have never been possible without slavery and it was in that sense another example of Jefferson's dependency on an institution that he claimed to despise.

“...and yet he also was the man who, more than anyone else, articulated in a truly eloquent way the values of human equality...”

Autobiography, Excerpts on Slavery

  He was the man who wrote the words "all men are created equal" and yet lived his whole life as a slaveowner. What is his dilemma?
We've said that Jefferson is a man of many contradictions and paradoxes. Without question slavery is the central paradox, the central contradiction of his life that he could never completely answer. Well, the fact is that he was born into slavery and died with about 200 slaves that he owned. In the course of his life, he probably owned between three hundred and fifty and four hundred African Americans. And his life was dependent upon those people who were his manservants and the people who built Monticello. The life that Thomas Jefferson lived and wanted to live was impossible without slavery. And yet, and yet he also was the man who, more than anyone else, articulated in a truly eloquent way the values of human equality, the values that are central to the liberal tradition in America and the values that led the way in various reforms, including the Abolition movement, to the end of slavery. How did he reconcile himself to this? It's his darkest mystery and it, I believe, goes back to the capacity to create inside himself different personae, different identities that can co-exist without bumping into each other. He is in some sense the first post-modern man, Protean man, several persons, multiple personalities.

What's unattractive to many of his most ardent fans is that he really was, despite his rhetoric in the Declaration, dependent on slavery and a racist, a believer in the inability of blacks and whites to ever live together in peace and harmony in this particular society. One of the major reasons he never freed his own slaves—he ended up freeing in his lifetime eight of his slaves—one of the reasons he never freed more than that was that he didn't really believe that, once free, they could exist in this society with whites. And I think that this is the central paradox of his life and, as we focus more on that as historians now in the late twentieth century, it's ironic that this tribune of democracy has helped to create a democratic movement that has now reached the civil rights stage and promised equality for both blacks and whites in this society. And in that sense, it's outdistanced his original intention.

Sally Hemings Accusation

  Talk about Sally Hemings.
The Sally Hemings story is in some sense the kind of red herring of the Thomas Jefferson life, that is, everybody seems to want to talk about Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was a mulatto girl who worked for Jefferson. The Hemings family was about 30 people. Many of them were house slaves and Sally was one of the house slaves. The accusations were originally made by a notorious polemicist named Callender in 1802, that Jefferson and Sally were lovers or that she was his concubine, this has been dragged through the pages of history. It's like a tin can that's been tied to Thomas Jefferson's tail and has rattled through the ages and pages of history. And Fawn Brodie's book in 1974 revived it. I think that, if it were a legal case brought before a dispassionate group of jurors, the evidence would now be such that Jefferson would be found not guilty. The bulk of the scholarly evidence suggests that it is not Jefferson who fathered Sally's children but probably Jefferson's nephew, Peter Carr.

That said though, the real issue that the Sally Hemings scandal raises is, how could this man who was living in the midst of what is effectively a bordello at Monticello where relations between blacks and whites were going on all the time, whether or not he himself was involved, how could he be presiding over this and simultaneously believe in the values associated with the Declaration of Independence? Again, it comes back to this capacity to disassociate himself from other parts of himself. But, to me, the Hemings episode isn't significant in terms of did he or didn't he, so much as the way it shows that Jefferson is immersed in racial and sexual issues that he can't escape from.

Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress

  How can his writing, the Declaration of Independence, be used by both liberals and conservatives, used so many ways?
The Declaration of Independence is probably the single most important reason why Thomas Jefferson is the resonant figure he is, both in this country and throughout the world now. Those key 35 words that begin, "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." and end with "pursuit of happiness," those are the closest things to the magic words of American history. Those are the words that all Americans at some very, very important level believe in. They are the essential words of the American creed. And part of Jefferson's genius was to articulate at a sufficiently abstract level, these principles, these truths that we all want to believe in. The level is sufficiently abstract so that we don't have to notice that these truths are at some level unattainable and at another level mutually exclusive. Perfect freedom doesn't lead to perfect equality, it usually leads to inequality. But Jefferson's genius is to assert them at a level of abstraction where they have a kind of rhapsodic inspirational quality. And we all agree not to notice, not to notice that they are unattainable and not to notice that they are mutually exclusive or contradictory. They are in some sense nice representations of Jefferson's personality: wishing to be above it all and concealing the contradictions.

“Jefferson is the music and Adams is the words of the American revolution....”

  Tell us about the friendship between Jefferson and Adams.
Jefferson and Adams first met in 1775 in Philadelphia and worked closely together in the Continental Congress. It was Adams who asked Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. They were then together for much of the 1780's in Paris and in London when they were representing the United States in France and England. And their families knew each other well, they were very close. They then split in the 1790's and there was a bitter argument between them as Jefferson became the leader of the opposition party and Adams was president of the United States as a Federalist. Jefferson was actually Adams' vice president and that split was based on very real political differences. And the differences become clear later on in the correspondence that they establish in 1812. The correspondence is their coming together as friends again after a twelve year hiatus and they exchange about 155 letters of which Adams writes about 109, most of the letters. But what's wonderful about the correspondence—it's a kind of elegiac correspondence in the twilight years of their respective lives—is that it becomes clear what they have in common is a recognition that each of them is not complete without the other. That Adams is a realist who is sometimes cynical and needs Jefferson's idealism to redeem him from that cynicism. And, in the same way, Jefferson can float away into a somewhat unrealistic set of assertions, but he's got Adams there to ground him. Jefferson is the music and Adams is the words of the American revolution, the north pole, if you will for Adams, and the south pole of the American Revolution. They are a kind of odd couple who recognize in each other the values that are lacking in themselves. And the correspondence that they maintained between 1812 and 1826 is probably the greatest correspondence between public figures in American history. And it is disconcerting to think in our late twentieth century time if there could ever possibly be two former presidents of the United States now exchanging letters with the degree of civility, wit and wisdom that they possessed.

And, as you know, they both died on the same day and that day was July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a kind of coincidence that people throughout the land noticed. Jefferson had fallen into a coma the preceding evening of July 3, had awoke briefly and his last words were, "Is it the Fourth?" One gets the sense that these men could almost will their deaths so that they would occur in a sort of historically appropriate time. And he died, Jefferson, at 12:20 in the afternoon of July 4th. At almost exactly that moment Adams up in Quincy had fallen ill and they carried him downstairs to his homestead and he expired about 6 o'clock in the evening and his last words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives," words which weren't literally true in the sense that Jefferson had just died but were metaphorically true because the memories and the meaning of the American Revolution became associated with Jefferson more than any other figure.

Jefferson always said that he did not want to be a public figure, that he longed for the privacy of his family, for the life of reading and domestic bliss. But he, again typically, is also a person who was one of the major political organizers of the late 18th century and who spent the bulk of his life as a public servant. In the 1790's, after he's secretary of state, he goes back to Monticello and along with Madison, organizes the first opposition party in the United States. And then he's elected vice president and he again goes back to Monticello rather than serve very much as vice president in order to prepare what is essentially his campaign for the presidency in 1800. And the, again, disarming thing about Jefferson is he claimed not to be interested in running for office and yet he is, while saying that, hiring people like Philip Freneau and James Callender as his political hacks, as writers who will attack the opposition—that means Hamilton and Adams. And so he has again this disarming capacity to be capable of saying, "I want to stay out of public life" while doing everything possible to enhance his prospects for the election in 1800. And the irony here is that one of the people he hires, Callender, becomes mad at him for not paying him enough money or for not giving him all he thinks he deserved and it is because of this that Callender turns against Jefferson and accuses him in 1802 of having this relationship with Sally Hemings. One of his own hired guns, if you will, has turned against him.

  Women were important to Jefferson, especially this relationship with Maria Cosway in Paris which culminated with the "Dialogue between the Head and the Heart."
Probably the most revealing document that Jefferson ever wrote is this famous letter he wrote in 1786-87 to Maria Cosway. All the women in Jefferson's life were women who were delicate, feminine, very attractive. Jefferson liked women who were very gentile. He wanted them to be very feminine. His relationship with women was the relationship between the head and the heart. He wanted them to be perfect examples of purity, of sensibility, and he sort of put them in this special category, a special place where they would be uncontaminated. He had a kind of stiff-backed gallantry, I think, towards women. He didn't interact with women in quite the same way that other men of that time did, say, like Adams. Adams is capable of having a real partnership marriage with his wife, Abigail, and relating to people like Mercy Otis Warren as intellectual equals. For Jefferson, women aren't capable of functioning in that way and he ran into a little trouble in France because of the strong-minded French women in the salon world that didn't behave in quite the special protected way that he wanted women to behave.

It's interesting to compare his advice to his daughter about what she should read and compare that to, say, Adams' advice. Jefferson tells his daughter to learn to play the harpsichord, to become an expert at sewing, to learn the finer arts. Adams tells his daughters and granddaughters that they should read Locke, Newton, Descartes and the major works of English and American thought because they need to educate the male children in the family. There is this sense that Jefferson wishes women to be those people who are not contaminated by the world of public affairs and there's nothing in Jefferson that I can see that would suggest that he's anything like a person who would be comfortable with the contemporary feminist.

Head and Heart Letter

  So what happened to him with Maria Cosway? Something radical happened to him in that relationship. He really suffered over that.
I think that he fell in love with Maria Cosway. There's, I think, no question that that's the case. But the "Dialogue Between the Head and the Heart" which could be read in a variety of ways—does the heart win or does the head win? I think in Jefferson's case, the head always wins, that in Jefferson's case, the power of his passion was quite real. He really did fall for this woman who was a married woman, an accomplished artist in her own right, and extremely attractive. And it was an interlude in his life that he enjoyed enormously. And that famous moment when he's sort of running after her and falls over the fence and breaks his wrist and the wrist never really heals so there's a kind of permanent reminder of Maria's effect on him. On the other hand, I think it's also telling that he never commits himself to this relationship. It's going to be a temporary thing. He is not a person comfortable with his passion and I think that he has to keep it at a distance. And that it's going to be the kind of romantic episode that terminates and he moves on to other things.

Sale of Monticello Notice

  Let's talk about the period of despondency at the end of his life—he's bankrupt, he's never really dealt with the slavery issue—he's been such an optimist all his life and at the end...
In addition, he's in debt. He's getting deeper in debt. And his long-standing promise to free his slaves is a promise he knows he's not going to be able to keep because he is about a hundred thousand dollars in debt which in contemporary modern American terms is several million dollars and he cannot free his slaves because that would mean that those debts would be picked up by his heirs. Even the University of Virginia which he has originally conceived of as a great national center of learning where scholarship of the highest sort will go on and leaders at the national level will be trained—by the time of his death he's thinking of and talking about the University of Virginia as a regional institution, as a state institution where Southern boys can go so they don't have to go north to Yale and Harvard where they'll be corrupted by the infidelities of the abolitionists in New Haven and Cambridge. So it's a really sad figure at the end, not the one that we remember or want to remember but one that, in fact, is facing the very contradictions which throughout most of his life he's been able to avoid.

Statute of Religious Freedom

  Jefferson considered his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to be more important than his two terms as president. Tell us about his faith.
A lot of recent scholarship suggests that Jefferson did study traditional religious things, Christian doctrine, the Bible, more assiduously and more often than we knew. But he certainly wasn't a traditional Christian in the normal sense of the term and I think his deepest faith wasn't essentially a Christian faith but a liberal faith. And by that I mean that what makes the Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia so significant—and he's right to have picked it to recognize that it among the most significant things he did—is that it essentially says that inside each of us, inside me, inside you there is this kernel or core of something sacred, something that cannot be violated, something that cannot be coerced or tampered with by the state, by the government, by institutions of any sort. And that is our essence and that essence is extremely powerful. If we can protect that essence and allow it to voluntarily express itself into the world, it's the single most powerful force in human history. And this is an enormously seductive idea and an enormously consequential idea because it really means that inside each individual is "The Force," what Darth Vader called "The Force." And Jefferson tells us that we have it and if we protect it and we express it in ways that are natural—his famous word "natural"—it's going to make history. And I think that there's something in that.

“What did he mean by "pursuit of happiness"?”

Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  Take us back to 1776, to the work and coming together of Jefferson and Adams recognizing each other and the fire that was happening.
You know, for me, trying to work with Jefferson is fascinating and frustrating because in the end he doesn't tell you and he conceals from you the very things that you really want to know about. Here is a person who has written about 18,000 personal letters and has revealed less of himself than perhaps any other major figure in American history. So if you take him back to a moment like 1776, that day in June when he's crafting the Declaration of Independence, what you really need is to have the sensibility of a poet or of an imaginative artist and to take what Jefferson actually gives you in the way of evidence and then try to speculate and imagine what is really going on. And what is really going on inside Jefferson's head during those hours when he's putting those words on paper? I mean we know that he records in his journal that very day that the high temperature for the day is 76 degrees and that he finds that symmetry between 76 degrees and '76 a marvelous thing.

This is a man who's attuned to poetic truths. But he also said that there's nothing in the Declaration of Independence that's terribly original, that it wasn't a kind of brilliant creative act on his part, that he merely pulled together the common sense of mankind into a set of words that would then be endorsed by the Continental Congress. That said, the words themselves do have a special quality for us. They are the magic words of American history and what you want to know in that moment is what did he mean by "equality"? What did he mean by "pursuit of happiness?" And it helps explain why we just keep pursuing this elusive figure. He has the capacity to craft language that inspires us and that continues to force us to ask what he means. It's what Robert Frost called "the hard mystery of Mr. Jefferson." So I think that when you sit with Jefferson on July 4, 1776, you really have to sit there willing, not just to read what he wrote, but also to try to imagine yourself into his mind and his personality and he invites you in and at that moment then there's room for all kinds of disagreement.

The other moment that I really would love to be able to stand beside him and to ask him questions—and again, it's a moment where the evidence that he has left provides little in the way of answers—is let's say, just when he comes back to Monticello after he's been made president sometime around 1802 and he's walking through the Mulberry Row quarters where slaves live and he's been elected president of the United States. He is famous as the most inspiring articulator of the principle of human equality. What is going on inside his head as he walks among these African Americans and thinks about their future and the future of the nation? It is a mystery. It is a mystery. And how can we get those different personae inside Thomas Jefferson to talk back to us together? How can we, in effect, consummate Jefferson. Jefferson needs to be consummated by us. Jefferson is a figure who doesn't come together for himself; only we can make him come together. He invites that and only by catching him in those moments do I think we have the capability of, in effect, actualizing the real Jefferson.

  Was Jefferson pulling the country into revolution or was the consciousness of his countrymen acting through him as a vehicle of history?
Jefferson came to the Second Continental Congress in 1775 as a young man of 32 and throughout most of his time in the Continental Congress says very little. He's not comfortable talking in public. He's not a great orator. In fact, he's, even as a lawyer, not very good at making oral presentations to juries. He's much more comfortable crafting language in private where he has control. In a public situation, in a debate situation, in a situation requiring improvisation he's not as effective. Adams is the great orator. And Adams, from the very start, saw this kind of relationship that he could have with Jefferson, starting in 1775 and continuing through 1776, this band of brothers present at the creation: one the great orator, one the man who is capable of standing in public and making these cases and insisting on American independence and the other, Jefferson, the great stylist, the "felicitous style" of Thomas Jefferson that Adams recognizes is going to be preferable to his own writing. And they come together at that moment and they seal that relationship in a way that frustrates the dickens out of lots of their contemporaries because they seem to have had a connection that is denied to many of their contemporaries and their peers and in subsequent years they really would say to their friends, "If you weren't there..." —it's like the religious experience, no one can explain it to you. It's a special kind of relationship. It scared the dickens out of both the Federalists and the Jeffersonians in the late 1790's because Adams said that he would rather have Jefferson as president than the Federalist party candidate and of course this was political treason and sacrilege and everybody was always afraid that Adams and Jefferson, even when they were fighting, were going to patch things up, because there was this elemental union present from 1775 on.

  What kind of president was he?
Jefferson as a president begins with one of the great presidential inaugural addresses of all time in 1800 with the famous line, "We are all Democrats, we are all Republicans," a promise that he's not going to use his power in a way to punish the opposition party, the Federalists. And his first term is largely a big success and its central achievement is the Louisiana Purchase, one of the greatest deals in American history where Jefferson obtains a body of land over twice as large as the former republic and does it, despite the fact that in so doing he violates his own constitutional principles—the Federal government is not supposed to have the power to do these things—but he doesn't worry about that. His second term is taken up with the potential war with England, and with the economic and political crisis with England and France and is dominated by the embargo, again a use of his federal power and executive power in ways that otherwise he would not approve. The embargo is a disaster. The embargo doesn't work. Many of his friends, including Adams, tell him, "It's not going to work." And so he leaves office in 1808 going back to Monticello, never to return to Washington, somewhat sad and defeated. He goes back, I would say, to Monticello in much the same way that, say, Jimmy Carter left office in 1980. Things hadn't worked out quite the way he had wanted. And it's for that reason in part, I think, that he doesn't wish to list the presidency on his tomb as his final testament. It's not something that he regards as one of his highest accomplishments.

  Tell us about Jefferson's relationship with his daughters.
Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, actually had six children by him in ten years. Three of them survived to some age, but Lucy died when he was in France, as a young girl, and Maria died when he was in his first term as president in 1802. Martha, called Patsy, is the only one who outlived him. All of them were devoted to him and in some sense of the term he was the perfect father who looked after his daughters, wrote lengthy letters offering them advice about their education, and about what to be careful about. At some point, though, it seems to me that the message that he's giving to his daughters is a message that forces them to become his caretakers, that he is a person who needs protection and privacy and it is their responsibility to provide that for him. Martha, really devotes the vast bulk of her married life, not to her husband, but to her father and to sustaining his reputation and to sustaining his own privacy as well. Now on the one hand he's attractive to women and an attractive figure in a way that he is gallant towards women, yet at another level, there is a degree of coercion and surreptitious control over his own daughters that is troubling.

  I want to pursue that question of control....
The control is a very big part of understanding Jefferson and the level of detail that you see in his notebooks on the measurements of various things at Monticello or the account books or the exact accounts on what vegetables are appearing in the market in Washington on what day of what's in fact a bit extreme. And I think that it also helps explain a great deal about Jefferson to understand that he felt most comfortable when writing letters where he could establish control over language and could define the kind of relationship with you. And he was a genius in establishing, both in letters and in social situations, this sense that it would be embarrassing and inappropriate for you to raise awkward questions or to call attention to some disjunctions and contradictions in his own position or his own language. Somehow the etiquette of the moment that he established protected him from criticism and both by moving himself to the top of the mountain at Monticello and then moving, when Monticello became a kind of tourist attraction after he retired from the presidency, forty miles away to Poplar Forest, he's always trying to keep control over his own private life in a way that is at times obsessive.

  Help us to understand what is legacy to us. You have said Jefferson "is us." What do we need to understand about him?
Well, I think the one thing that we need to understand about him—I mean there are many things we probably would like to be able to understand about Jefferson but he's not going to tell us—he remains in the end a mystery and many a historian who's pursued him has discovered that the pursuit of the historical Jefferson is much like the pursuit of the historical Jesus—it ends up in frustration and what's important is not the historical figure that was there back in the early nineteenth century but what we've made of him. Not the historical Jefferson but the legendary Jefferson, the legacy of Jefferson. And I think that legacy is contained in those 35 words in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident...," and what we read into them. Beyond that, there's a simple but extraordinarily resonant message that Jefferson somehow symbolizes—namely "the future is going to be better than the past." It was F. Scot Fitzgerald who said that there are no second acts in American history. For Thomas Jefferson there are no final acts in American history. It is an ongoing process and it is progress. Especially in a moment in the history of this republic when we had some doubts about the viability of this economy, about the competitiveness of the United States against other global powers, to be told by someone that we remain the youthful vibrant nation, it is still morning in America, is a really uplifting message whether true or not, nevertheless uplifting.

  Why should we care about this guy? Why do you care about him?
From a historian's point of view Jefferson is the ultimate challenge in an attempt to explain another life. He is like the challenge that has never been able to be answered, the figure who has resisted all interpretation, the Delphic Oracle that has not spoken to you. And so on the one hand, he's this enormous challenge. I think he also is becoming one of the most contested figures in American history, that is to say more people are attempting to argue out their own political agendas, whether those agendas are racial agendas, whether they're the agendas of multiculturalism, whether they're the agendas of feminism, whether they're the agendas of the failures of the liberal tradition, in terms of Jefferson. Jefferson serves, in other words, as a kind of convenient rallying point for both those people who wish to argue in an inspirational way about the greatness of America as a nation and those people who find that that greatness is wanting and that are really arguing in a very critical way about the failure of our nation to live up to its ideals. He becomes the convenient conduit, crucible, rallying point, call him what you will, to bring together these different camps and to let them argue with each other.

  You've talked about how important he is to us in this country but he's also very important globally.
One of the ironies right now is that Jefferson is becoming, as I say, a contested figure. There's a lot of people critical of Jefferson. He doesn't look like the kind of person who's going to be able to provide the inspiration on the areas of racial equality, gender equality, he's not good in that regard. But in the very moment that he's starting to fail us perhaps as a symbol of the versions of equality we care most about now, in other areas of the world—especially in those areas of the world like central Europe, especially in those areas of the world like the former Soviet Union and even in China—Jefferson re-emerges as their prototypical hero. Symbols of Jefferson carried about, little replicas of the Declaration of Independence carried about by the workers in Gdansk, by the people in Prague, by the dissenters in Peking. Jefferson even...there's little Jefferson books that are passed out in the capitals of Europe and Asia, the "Blue Book of Thomas Jefferson" to sort of counter the "Red Book of Chairman Mao." So he still remains the symbol of what is eternally powerful and convincing about liberal tradition especially in those regions of the world that have come out from under the influence of tyranny and of Communist oppression. They see him as the symbol of what they want to become: a land of free individuals committed to an ideal of equality and without the power of the state to get in the way.

  What's so special about this guy?
He's the most seductive figure in American history because he is handsome physically and handsome intellectually. He has given us the most inspirational language that American history has yet produced and yet he is always the kind of figure who slinks away from us at the moment when we think we've come close to understanding him. What a seductive figure!

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