Clay Jenkinson | Historian

Clay Jenkinson teaches History and Literature at the University of Nevada at Reno. He is a former Rhodes Scholar and a founder of the modern Chautaqua movement. His scholarly impersonations of Thomas Jefferson have entertained and educated audiences throughout the country at venues including grade schools, universities, and the White House.
 

“... we have to know about Jefferson because he's the man who found the language to express the greatest aspirations that humanity has.”

  Why do we care about him?
Well, Jefferson is important because he wrote in imperishable language some of the most important truths about culture and about freedom in civilization. So even if Jefferson is not interesting as a man, which he is, the words that he wrote and the natural law that he articulated are essential to human freedom. The Declaration of Independence has been quoted back at tyrants by every insurgency movement since Thomas Jefferson; so the Declaration of Independence instantaneously became one of the world's most important documents. So we have to know about Jefferson because he's the man who found the language to express the greatest aspirations that humanity has.

  And yet he seems completely enigmatic and unknowable. Who was Thomas Jefferson?
Well, we can know him. For one thing he was a very meticulous record-keeper. He was virtually anal retentive with respect to records and he kept a letter log of all the letters that he received and sent after a certain period in his life. We have an incredibly detailed paper trail for Jefferson. And he shaped that document trail for history. Certain things he expunged and burned. Other things he carefully preserved so that history would have a chance to look back and interpret him in more or less the way he wanted to be interpreted.

“There was nothing concentrated about Jefferson.”

  What did he look like?
He was six foot two and one half inches tall but he didn't seem that tall because he tended to slouch. And most contemporary observers felt that there was some lack of posture in Jefferson, some lack of poise, especially compared to Washington who had perfect posture and was the tallest man of his age in several senses. Jefferson sat on one hip when he was on a chair and his conversation was equally diffuse...he rambled. There was nothing concentrated about Jefferson. He would say things that were not particularly interesting or even articulate and then suddenly a gem or a nugget of wit or an aphorism or a natural law euphemism would emerge. So Jefferson had a marvelous ability to disarm people by seeming to be unconcentrated. And I think one of the keys to his character is that Jefferson never let people take him at one glance. They had to see him from a number of different perspectives. They had to wait to see what would emerge. And his genius came out only in fits and starts. So he was a man who deliberately played the role of a slightly abstracted professor.

  Why did he guard his feelings so and how can we know him?
Jefferson was an incredibly sensitive man: thin-skinned, vulnerable, fragile in character— and he protected himself by putting up a kind of screen as the philosophe, the mild-mannered professor, the scientist who is slightly abstracted. But Jefferson was so vulnerable that some things wounded him and stayed with him for the rest of his life. For example, when Jefferson was the war-time governor of Virginia, bad things happened, there was an invasion and Jefferson didn't handle it very well, and he was accused of being a coward. For the rest of his life this charge put forward by Federalists that he had not shown proper fortitude during the war came back to haunt him again and again. And Jefferson said, in an important letter Jefferson wrote to Monroe when he was being investigated by the House of Delegates in Virginia for cowardice in the invasion, "The wounds that I have received to my spirit will stay with me until the salve of the all-healing grave." And this is sort of the key to Jefferson, that he was a man who was thrust into the public arena because he believed in revolution and he believed in the rights of man and he also saw that he could be a solon and he could be an important legislator for a whole continent's destiny but he didn't really have the temperament to be a political figure. He was too sensitive and too thin-skinned. In fact later, when he had sort of survived all the years of criticism, he produced a two volume scrapbook of every bad thing that he could find that had ever been written about him. And he would show it to particular friends at Monticello. But you can see that there's both pleasure and bemusement and pain in keeping that kind of a collection. His greatest desire was harmony and to be loved and he couldn't stand not to be loved. In fact, when he entered the Presidency he said something like, "I will consider my administration to have been successful if when I leave this office no man can call me his enemy." This was a ridiculously naive thing to believe, but it's Jefferson's urge to be loved and admired.

  So let's go back: where did he come from, who were his parents, what did he feel about them?
Jefferson's father was Peter Jefferson, a relatively self-made man. Jefferson said he was one of the three or four first pioneer settlers in that part of Virginia, Albemarle County, then Goochland County. And his mother was a woman named Jane Randolph who belonged to the most important aristocratic family of Virginia. Jefferson adored his father, was relatively skeptical about his mother. His father died when he was fourteen and his mother died when Jefferson was about to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson once said of his mother's family, the Randolphs, "they traced their blood well back into British aristocracy to which let every reader attach what significance he will." There's a certain antagonism to the social pretensions and the aristocratic style of the Randolphs and particularly his mother.

  Before his father died, what did he do with him?
Well, we don't really know. His father, of course, taught him to hunt and carry a gun, which Jefferson recommended as good moral and character training for young people. And Jefferson adored his father for his physical strength, his sense of adventure— his father was a surveyor and he had gone out into the wilderness to survey the line between Virginia and Carolina. And his father was a man who, although he had no personal education, insisted that his son be classically educated. What Jefferson remembers most about his father is that at the end of his life, he demanded that Jefferson, that Thomas Jefferson get the best possible education available in Virginia. And Jefferson said this was the greatest gift he could have given him, greater than any patrimony or land.

  This meant going to Williamsburg and being exposed to ideas. Tell me about his teachers.
One of the ways to understand Jefferson is that he was an intensely bookish man. Jefferson is truly an American radical, but he was what I would call a rational radical. He was not a temperamental radical like Samuel Adams or Thomas Paine. He reasoned his way into positions that we now see to be radical ones. And this came largely from his appetite for reading. He later in life said that he had a canine appetite for reading. He collected three libraries in the course of his life, one of which numbered almost 7,000 volumes, and was even in his own modest admission the best privately selected library in the New World. So Jefferson had the desire to learn things by way of books, and this began, of course, earlier in his grammar schools, the private tutoring that he received near his home in Charlottesville. But it really took off when he reached the College of William and Mary at the age of sixteen. And there, he had a greater access to books and to music and to culture, but particularly he met there a man named William Small who Jefferson said set the destinies of his life. Small was a minor figure in the English Enlightenment and he was sort of washed up in America for a time; and he took Jefferson under his wing and made him his daily companion and offered him a chance to learn not just what books can offer a student, but the kind of superior culture that comes from a life of learning and for Jefferson that was one of the pivotal moments of his life.


Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress.

  So where do the ideas embodied in this one remarkable sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." where do they come from and how did they come out of Jefferson?
Well, we don't really know how Jefferson came to the notion that all men are created equal. It was a widely held view in the Enlightenment and Jefferson had read his Bolingbroke and he had read the Scottish philosophers and he had read his John Locke and certain of the French philosophes. But he formulated this position in a way that's still enigmatic to historians. He says "All men are created equal." Well, today people wonder whether he meant all men or men and women, whether he meant black and red and white or whether he meant, as some cynics would argue, white males of a certain property qualification. I think the truth is that Jefferson meant all men are created equal in the most universal possible sense. That all human beings, irrespective of the accident of their birth, are entitled to identical treatment in what he called "the machine of the law." That is, every human being, with respect to his rights, should be seen as an interchangeable unit and that we will not have achieved an enlightened culture until our social structures learn to respect the equal rights of everyone who is born, irrespective of any accidental condition like creed or social status or race. Now, Jefferson never realized this ideal in his own life. He was a slaveholder, he was a racist, he had a patronizing romance with Indians, he was chauvinist with respect to women, he had a stage theory of culture which despised people say from Catholic cultures as opposed to Anglo-European culture. So he never fully realized this principle in his own life. But I think if you could pin him down and say "Did you or did you not believe that all men are created equal?" I think Jefferson would say "Yes, and if that means that slaves must be emancipated, we ought to do it; and if that means that women would hold public office, it may not suit my taste, but we have to permit it." In other words, he would have to reason himself into the widest application of this principle, even though his own temperament was, in some regards, limited and conservative.

  He has another teacher...
His second mentor was George Wythe who was actually a superior mind even to William Small. Wythe was the first law professor in the United States, thanks in part to Thomas Jefferson later in his life. And Wythe took Jefferson under his wing to apprentice him in the law. Jefferson read law for five years with George Wythe and performed some minor clerking tasks in his office in Williamsburg. And Wythe had a wonderful influence on Jefferson. He said, "Use your best hours of every day to read Greek and Latin classics and then you'll learn case law as it comes up." But the reverse would be the state today. Jefferson always kept that priority in mind: that reading classics, getting to things that really had historical tradition behind them was much more important than the moment. And one of the geniuses of Jefferson is that he could take any situation— declaring independence from Britain, disestablishing the Church of England— and he could see through it to some universal principle and articulate it in such a way that it had meaning that extended well beyond the moment that it was meant to address. And Wythe in some sense helped to teach him that— by insisting upon the primacy of a grounding in classical languages and history and literature if you wished to be a statesman.

  And what's the poison story?
Well, later in life, Wythe took on a common law wife who was black. She was his house slave, his servant. And they became lovers and had a child together and Wythe was such an important man and so committed to the principles of human rights that he decided to let this be known to the world. And he changed his will to provide for his child, his mulatto child by this woman. But his grandson, or grand-nephew, I can't remember which it is, but I think it was his grandson, was offended by the fact that he would lose some of his projected inheritance to a mulatto. So George Wythe's grand-nephew decided to poison the boy, the mulatto son and the mother, Lydia, and George Wythe himself and he put arsenic in the morning coffee. Well, George Wythe did die in agony from the arsenic poisoning and the boy died also, but Lydia, the mother, somehow survived. Now this was a clear case of premeditated murder but because of the peculiar racist, one might say apartheid, laws of Virginia, no slave was ever permitted to give evidence in a court of law. So Lydia, who was the only person who could solve this mystery in the legal system, was not permitted to serve as a witness and the grand-nephew was exonerated. Now Wythe, before he died, was able to change his will one more time and deny the grand-nephew any access to his estate, but Jefferson heard this story as President of the United States and it broke his heart. It broke his heart partly because George Wythe was an enormously important figure in his life, but also this really opened the tragedy of slave-master relations. It possibly touched Jefferson's own relations with slave women but it certainly got to the problem of trying to establish human relations across race boundaries and indeed, slave boundaries in colonial and early national Virginia.

“Was he living with contradictions or did he feel somehow that he was a man of unified sensibility?”

  This is a man of contradictions...
Jefferson is a man of enormous contradictions. He's the greatest advocate of human rights in the history of the United States, possibly in the world, and yet he owns slaves, sometimes as many as 200 slaves. In fact, Jefferson bought and sold slaves furtively through agents while he served as President of the United States. This is a man who was a strict constructionist and wanted the Constitution narrowly interpreted and yet he purchased Louisiana territory from Bonaparte in 1803 and enforced the embargo in 1807 and '08 with more presidential powers than any president up until Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson was a believer in states' rights but his activities as the President of the United States only increased the likelihood that this would become a great nation and not a nation of constituent confederated states. Jefferson was a pacifist, at least in theory— he said, "Peace is my passion," and yet he fought a war against the pirates of Tripoli, and when the War of 1812 came along, he wanted to invade Canada. Indeed when the British burned our Capitol in Washington, he said this act would justify the razing of the city of London. And Jefferson was a man who believed in fiscal responsibility and was obsessed with eliminating the national debt of the United States. He said, "a national debt is a national disgrace." And yet he died tens of thousands of dollars in debt himself and was bankrupt essentially for the last decade of his life. So in every possible way, when you start to explore the life and achievement of Jefferson, you find that there is a gap, sometimes large and sometimes small, between his vision and the beautiful articulation of that vision on the one hand, and then his actual achievement as a human being on the other. And the questions that historians and Jefferson scholars and Americans have to ask is "what to make of this?" Was he a contemptible hypocrite as some believe? Or were there simply inconsistencies between his life and his vision as others like to believe? Or is there some way of understanding this which preserves the integrity of Jefferson? And it's not just a question of judgment, it's a question understanding. How can we see through these paradoxes and inconsistencies and even hypocrisies and get at the man? Was he living with contradictions or did he feel somehow that he was a man of unified sensibility? I think this is the only question that really matters in Jefferson studies.

  Could you put me in the moment of the writing of the Declaration of Independence?
Jefferson is 33 years old. He's one of the youngest members of the Continental Congress of the United States. He's a provincial from Virginia, he has scarcely ever been out of his home state. He is a shy man. He has perhaps a slight speech impediment and he has a high-pitched and weak voice and is not given to asserting himself in any way. He's considered a brilliant committee man but he has no presence in the Continental Congress. But he's established a reputation as a penman by writing A Summary View in 1774, a pamphlet so radical that it was not adopted but it nevertheless gave him a reputation for brilliance of scholarship and brilliance of writing. So suddenly, we decide that we must provide a state paper to declare our independence from Britain and Jefferson is named to a committee of five. It devolves upon Jefferson to write this document. Ben Franklin could have written it but he was an elderly statesman and it was in a sense beneath Franklin to have to do this task work. And John Adams might have written the Declaration of Independence but he came to Jefferson and said that Jefferson ought to do it and there's an interesting moment when this occurs. Adams comes to Jefferson and says, "You must write this document." And Jefferson says, "Oh no, of course not. You're my senior, you're from Massachusetts, you've been more integral to the revolutionary cause than I have. I think you ought to do it." And Adams says, "No. Three reasons you must do it. First, you are a Virginian and a Virginian must be at the head of this business. Second, I, John Adams, am disliked and obnoxious and if I write it, it will lack credibility. And third, you are ten times better a writer than I am." Well, Jefferson of course demurs in his usual modest way but agrees to take on the task. Then, as we have it from his own pen, he goes back to his boarding house in Philadelphia on Market Street. He designs a desk on which to write it— typical Jefferson to divert energy into ingenuity before he gets to the heart of the problem— and then over the course of about seventeen days, consulting neither book nor pamphlet, doing no research at all, he writes out what he says is the common sense of the subject. In other words, this greatest document in the history of the United States was written off the top of Thomas Jefferson's head, if we can accept his testimony. It was a Lockean document. He was working from the principles of John Locke. And more particularly, he was working from George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights; but essentially he wrote it from his own memory, his own study and, more importantly, what he took to be the natural law of the subject. Now most of the Declaration of Independence is simply the indictment against George the Third and it doesn't bear up very well historically. It's a piece of propaganda and not a particularly sensitive one in some regards. But what people remember is the famous preamble. And here's an example of Jefferson's seeing the universal through the particular. Instead of just saying "we choose not to be subordinate to Britain any longer" which is what someone else might have done, Jefferson takes that moment to assert principles that he considers to be fundamental to human liberty. And those principles, that preamble, is what has changed the world, not the rather tedious indictment against George the Third.

  And people forget that it ends so beautifully...
"...for the support of this Declaration, that with the firm reliance on the protections of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." There's a story, unfortunately for Jefferson, behind this peroration. He wrote "for the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." Congress added the phrase "with reliance on the protections of Divine Providence." And this offended Jefferson. He considered it to be what the eighteenth century mind called cant: sloppy, pious thinking; that, if there were a God— and Jefferson was never fully certain about at least the historical God— that God certainly wouldn't side with farmers' insurgency movements. This is not a god who chose which rebel forces that he would support, that it was somehow beneath the dignity of the idea of a creator or fabricator that he would take an active interest in such human affairs such as revolutions and armed struggles. And so Jefferson, for the rest of his life, had his own version of the Declaration of Independence and he made sure that other people had it to read so that they could prefer his more deistic and his more spare approach to the one that was finally adopted by the Congress.

  Yet he sees these rights that are self-evident as coming from a Creator....
Not necessarily. Jefferson sees the rights of man as based in our innate humanity; that, when Jefferson speaks of natural law, he means if every rational being would consult his own heart, he would come to the same conclusions about fundamental rights, that these are rights that are somehow inscribed in the very nature of man himself. Now the Creator, God, will have implanted this sense in humanity but Jefferson never argues that God has granted humans any specific coefficient of qualities or characteristics. That God created a universe; it's clock-like in its Newtonian mechanics and brilliance. Humans are the apex of creation: they're almost godlike in their ability to reason and to reshape the world. But our rights, our liberties are not God-granted. They're merely human.


First Plan of Monticello

  Tell me about Monticello. What does it tell you about Thomas Jefferson?
Monticello is a museum, it's a private residence, it's a receiving room for famous statesmen, but most of all Monticello is, I think, a kind of metaphor for Jefferson's soul. The moment you walk in, you're in a museum with artifacts from the Lewis expedition into the American West, with mammoth bones, trick mirrors, statues of his favorite people, maps and so on. This is the heart of Jefferson, the man of science. He always considered himself a scientist first, a farmer second, and a statesman only reluctantly and well down the list. I think Page Smith got to the heart of Monticello when he said it was an optical illusion: it looks like a one story Roman villa but in fact it has three stories of rooms and the facade. The windows are constructed in such a way that it appears to be one story but in fact, it inscribes two more. I think that what Page Smith saw is that Jefferson was a man of two facades: he placed one glitteringly beautiful image up to the world of the serene statesman, the advocate of human rights, the man of science. But behind that facade he was able to maneuver as quite a different human being. And I think Smith and others have seen a certain level of deceptiveness and illusion at the heart of Jefferson: that he was a man who in some regard was radically uncomfortable with his inner self and could only project the sort of Newtonian philosophe image to the world. And so Monticello becomes not only his retreat—it's after all built on a mountain—but it's in a sense what T. S. Eliot would call an objective correlative: an image which gets to the heart of the mystery of Thomas Jefferson. If you want to know Jefferson, wander around Monticello. I think you get a better sense of who the man was from being at Monticello than of any other house of any other statesman or figure in American history.

  And it's never finished....
It was not meant to be finished. It was a laboratory. Monticello was a laboratory of continuing architectural design. There are funny and famous stories about the dilapidation at Monticello. When Mrs. Thornton came and rain was coming in from the open roof and bricks were falling and there were planks on the floors, Jefferson was wandering around in his slippers serenely with tea pretending that he was living in complete order. So here's a man who had a rage for order almost unprecedented in American history and yet he was willing to live in a state of almost deplorable dilapidation much of the time. This wasn't really the result of poverty, although Jefferson had problems with cash flow all of his life, it really had something to do with his soul, that nothing was ever finished for Jefferson. It was all experimentation. He had no laboratory so he used Monticello as a laboratory. He said once that "Architecture is my delight—pulling down and putting up is my hobby." And that's really what Monticello was meant to be.

  It's also a plantation where other human beings are put to use. Walk me around.
Well, Monticello is designed as a Palladian structure—Jefferson was enamored of the work of Andrea Palladio—and it was meant to be a kind of Roman villa with a headquarters and then the attendant buildings for servants and for agricultural implements and so on. Jefferson's adaptation of the Palladian approach was to hide the service quarters so that when you look at Monticello, you would not guess that it's a slave property necessarily. Jefferson, again, tried to keep quiet or play down the fact that his very existence depended upon slave labor. This is seen in a number of ways: the dependent wings are hidden underground. Secondly, in the dining room at Monticello where most of the important activities would have taken place, Jefferson had trick doors, lazy-Susan doors, wine dumbwaiters and other contrivances to keep the number of servants at a minimum, partly because he wanted a freer flow of conversation but partly because it wasn't useful to him to advertise the fact that there was so much dependency at Monticello on slave labor.

  Tell me about his wife.
Jefferson's wife, Martha, is an elusive figure because Jefferson chose not to preserve momentos of their marriage. There are no letters exchanged between Jefferson and his wife that are still extant. He destroyed them. Jefferson left no visual image of Martha Jefferson so far as we know. There may be one but he certainly didn't preserve visual images in the way that he did of other characters. Jefferson claimed that he was overwhelmingly in love with this woman. They had nine pregnancies together in their ten year marriage. She gave birth to six children and only two of those children survived infancy. So this was a life of sorrow. Great grief in Jefferson's life; death was omnipresent throughout his life. And late in life, Jefferson reflects back upon his time with his wife and the losses that he had sustained in a wonderful letter to John Adams and he says, "I can accept all of the economy of life and all of human activities and human nature except one thing: what is the use of grief?" I think that's one of Jefferson's unresolved concerns. He believed in a providential universe. He believed in a deistic god. He believed that life was good. He was a happy man, indeed an optimist. But he could never come to terms with grief.

  What happened to Martha?
She died on the sixth of September, 1782, from complications of birthing her last child. She died at the age of 33, an extremely young woman. Today she would be saved by the merest clinic in the merest village in America. The greatest difference between Jefferson's time and ours—and one that had enormous impact on his life—was the difference in medical access. Medicine was in a deplorable state in his time compared to our own. And Jefferson never had any respect for the medical community anyway. But his wife died from birthing so many children so fast with so much enervation.

  What was his reaction to her death?
Jefferson was overwhelmed by the death of his wife. We have an account of it from his daughter. He was taken out of the room after she was dead and he fainted in the antechamber and then he was led to his own bedroom, and by all the accounts that we have, he spent most of the next month inconsolable in that room. He didn't sleep in his bed but rather on a pallet on the floor, and he had his meals placed quietly into the room and he ate as little as possible apparently. And his daughter Martha said that when she would go into the room, the grief that he was expressing, the sobs and the anguish was almost overwhelming to her. When he finally left the room, he rode his horses madly up and down the hills of the Blue Ridge and Albemarle County for the next month or so and little Martha would attend him to see that he would come back safely. But his grief was so powerful that it almost appears to be a kind of convention, a kind of Wortherian romance. But apparently it's true, apparently Jefferson was absolutely undone by the death of his wife which came so unexpectedly.

  Talk about his surviving daughters.
There were six children. Four died in infancy and two survived to adulthood: Maria, who died at the age of 23 or 24 while Jefferson was serving as President, and Martha, who survived him. And these were wonderful daughters but contrasting daughters. Martha was in every regard her father's child: she was tall, apparently not particularly beautiful, intelligent—she had a reputation for sarcasm—and she was master of all that she attempted to do. Jefferson had an intensely powerful relationship with his daughter Martha. For example, whenever Jefferson would come home from wherever he happened to be, he would insist that Martha and all of her children come to live with him at Monticello for the time that he was home. And she would do it, leaving her husband and leaving her estate behind. And she would stay with her father as long as he was at Monticello. When he left, she would return to her other estates. She was absolutely dedicated to Jefferson. In a letter she says that no new attachment can ever overcome the more primary attachment that she had established with him. And so there was a potency to that relationship that makes Martha, his daughter, almost his common-law wife in everything but a sexual respect. And I think in some regards today we would look upon this as a kind of codependent relationship and possibly even an abusive one. He pushed his daughter hard. He would write her letters saying things like "If you wish my love, you will learn to read Don Quixote in Spanish." And he was constantly telling her how she can be more: more virtuous, more active, more productive, less likely to fall into fits of hypochondria and melancholy, better dressed, more suitable as a marriage partner. And this daughter, Martha, accepted that pressure. In a sense, Jefferson, the greatest public libertarian in our history, was a private despot. His younger daughter, Maria, rejected it. She refused to be taken in by that sort of pressure and they had a more distant relationship all of their life. When she died, Jefferson was heartbroken—he was serving as President—and he wrote a letter to his oldest friend, John Page, in which he said, "Others may give of their abundance, but I have lost even half of all that I had. Now my evening prospects hang on the thread of a single life." There's something extremely moving in Jefferson's dependency upon the love of his daughters.

  Can you tell me about his relationship with John Adams?
His relationship with John Adams is the most interesting relationship of his life. His closest friend was James Madison but there's not much life in that relationship that one can discern from the letters. But he and John Adams had a wonderful, tense, affectionate relationship. It began in the Continental Congress when they met in 1775. They worked on the Declaration of Independence together. Adams championed it in Jefferson's behalf before the Congress in June and early July of 1776.

  Do you like him?
Immensely. I think Jefferson is one of the most extraordinary human beings who ever was. What I love about Jefferson is the mix of the head and the heart, the passionate and the rational, the obsessively ordered and the slightly chaotic, the man of science and the slightly daft professor. The mix of Jefferson's character is truly exquisite and I think anyone who gives him or herself the slightest acquaintance with Jefferson is just swept away by the level of sensibility and the range of achievement and the whimsicality of Jefferson. And Jefferson, if he had done nothing with statesmanship, would still be one of the most extraordinary human beings who ever lived in this country. And it's, I think, impossible not to fall in love with the soul of Jefferson in spite of the dark side which is a very considerable one.


Notes on the State of Virginia Query XIV

  Talk about the dark side.
Jefferson was a racist. He believed that blacks were genetically inferior to whites. And he concludes in his book, the only book he ever published, Notes on Virginia, that either from separate origin or some divergence from a common origin, that blacks are inferior both of mind and body to their white counterparts. And he erects an elaborate and in some ways outrageous argument to justify this scientific claim. Now admittedly, Jefferson says in Notes on Virginia and everywhere else that he addresses this question, that he has come to this scientific conclusion with enormous reluctance and hesitancy. And at one point, he says, "I fear to make this conclusion because I may be condemning a whole race of people unjustly." And he hopes always that better anthropology, better science will disprove his theory of race inferiority. But he argues that blacks have a different odor from whites, that they're less intelligent than whites, that they cannot produce poetry, that their thought is primitive and so on. In fact he goes so far as to repeat a notion put forward by a Scottish anthropologist that blacks like to breed with white women just as orangutans in Africa like to breed with black women, that is that primates like to breed up if they can. And so here's a man of exquisite science and sensitivity who somehow allowed himself in his most important single piece of writing to retail views that we now consider to be outrageous.

  He hoped that the Revolution would....
Jefferson hoped that the Revolution would extend itself not just to separation from Britain but be a true social revolution. There are two ways to think about the revolution: one, that it was a separation and we replaced the British overlord with a homegrown elite—that's essentially Hamilton's plan; Jefferson's plan was to start with separation from Britain and then to conduct a complete revolution of American life, to change everything from its existing order to a more rational and humane one. He revised the law code of Virginia. He proposed a metric system. He laid out the rectilinear survey grid. He revised our coinage and so on. Jefferson argues in Notes on Virginia that you must take advantage of the revolutionary moment, that the revolution is a kind of fissure in the continuity of things, and you have to use that moment to wedge in as much progress and reform and enlightenment as possible. So, he wanted to take advantage of the moment to abolish slavery. The Declaration of Independence contains an anti-slave manifesto which Jefferson wrote. It was expunged in the end at the insistence of the Carolinas and, Jefferson implied, several New England slave trading states. It's not very good history, that anti-slave manifesto, but it was Jefferson's attempt to start to get at the problem of slavery. And he realized that if we didn't do it then, that we would lose our revolutionary edge and reform would become more difficult every day, every year, every decade following the close of the Revolution.

“Jefferson...chose to buy more Bordeaux wine and more books and more scientific instruments and to live in his comfortable way and not to emancipate as others in his circle had done.”

  So he thought it would fall to the next generation....
When Jefferson was a young man, he spoke about emancipation, either immediate or gradual. And he did, in the course of his life, propose more than a dozen pieces of legislation, either constitutional or state and local, that would have enabled immediate or gradual emancipation of all of the slaves, at least of Virginia. None of those proposals was accepted. In fact, most of them were overwhelmingly defeated or ignored and from time to time, Jefferson was denounced for his emancipationist views. And so he learned a lesson; he realized that if he went to the wall as an absolutist on the issue of slavery, that he would lose his credibility on other fronts that were equally important to him. And so, in a sense, from the middle of his life he began to temporize. And he began to talk about the next generation. And he postponed slavery—as America postponed the issue of slavery. What happened with the Founding Fathers is essentially this: they were filled with revolutionary idealism, at least most of them. They came up against the issue of slavery. They wrestled with it briefly. They realized that it could not be settled without enormous divisions which might jeopardize the very experiment that they were attempting to conduct; and so they postponed it and hoped that it would either go away or that some future generation would be able to get at it in a more effective manner. And Jefferson is right at the heart of this national paradox. He could not find the moral courage to take a serious leadership role on this question. And any serious retrospect on Jefferson has to admit that he temporized. In fact, it has to go farther and to admit that in about 1815, when Jefferson realized that he was insolvent, he had to choose between living the life of a patrician and doing something about slavery which he had always said that he wanted to do; and Jefferson, having looked in the face of that dilemma, chose to buy more Bordeaux wine and more books and more scientific instruments and to live in his comfortable way and not to emancipate as others in his circle had done.


Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII

  What did he say about slavery?
He always said we are to be pitied. His most famous pronouncement about slavery comes in Notes on Virginia and there he said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and his justice cannot sleep forever"—which is a really powerful thing for Jefferson to have said, a man who was skeptical about even the existence of God. But he believed that we invited providential judgment because of our ownership of slaves. And late in life, about the time of the Missouri Compromise, he said, "It's like having the wolf by the ears." We can neither hang on nor let go, that we're trapped. We're stuck with slavery and slavery is a poison which is getting at the heart of the American experiment.

  And you think that this has been a toxin that has flown through our bloodstream ever since?
Oh indeed. I think we have postponed the resolution of slavery even to our own time. The Emancipation Proclamation was enormously important but it didn't solve the problem. And Reconstruction went further but it didn't solve the problem.

The reason why Jefferson is still important in a way that Hamilton isn't or John Adams isn't or even General Washington isn't, is that Jefferson is the enigma of American history. We are an Enlightenment nation; we were created at the height of the Enlightenment. Because of that, our founding documents are filled with the highest sorts of ideals—with standards which are unprecedented in the history of humanity for their dignity and for their sense of justice and fair play. And yet, we're human beings like other human beings. For a long time, we lived on what we called the myth of exceptionalism, that America was unique in history and we wouldn't have a fall here, we wouldn't have original sin, we wouldn't succumb to the frailties of other nations of history. But, as Henry Adams pointed out in his marvelous study of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, the myth of American exceptionalism is indeed falsely based, that America is a nation like other nations and the history of America is our slow realization that our human nature is virtually identical to that of all other human beings of history and that our ideals, therefore, are necessarily at odds with our behavior—and Jefferson is the man who most inhabits that national paradox and so he's indispensable. It's often said that Washington was the indispensable man but it's Jefferson who's indispensable because he is mysterious, idealistic, pragmatic, misunderstood, complicated, paradoxical, hypocritical—he's the stuff of America and that's who we are and that's why Jefferson has to be the center of our national discourse.

  If you could be a fly on the wall, what moment of Jefferson's life would you like to see?
I would have loved to have seen Jefferson in the studios of Davide, the painter, in pre-Revolutionary France. Jefferson was a provincial from America; he called himself a savage from the woods of America. And suddenly he was lowered, as if from a hot air balloon, into the glittering world of late aristocratic France. And it overwhelmed him—he was intoxicated by its beauty and its decadence and its intrigue, its flirtation, its architecture, its music, its dance, its literature, its science. He knew he shouldn't love it, but he was overwhelmed by it and it was an awakening for Jefferson. He fell in love for the last time in France. And I would have loved to have seen Jefferson in his wig with his elegant hands, reading books, talking with elegant ladies in Paris. It seems to me that that's the Jefferson moment for culture.

  What did he learn in France?
In France, Jefferson learned that Voltaire was right: every man is either the hammer or the anvil. Jefferson's revolutionary principles were bookish up until the time he went to France and there he realized what was at stake. And France deepened his radicalism. It's in France that he wrote his most important letters about political theory and human freedom. And he came back from France realizing that this isn't about ideas, this is about the fate of humanity. And that he had to give himself, in an absolute commitment, to the creation of something like a democratic social structure in the United States. And that prepared him, psychically, for the long struggle against Hamilton and Federalism and what amounts to a counter-revolution that occurred when he returned to this country.


Notes on the State of VirginiaQuery XIV

  Finish your thoughts on the Notes on Virginia.
Notes on Virginia was not intended for publication. Jefferson meant to distribute it amongst philosophes and other men of letters. He speaks very candidly about slavery in it and I think what he's doing there is attempting, although he doesn't admit it, to recreate Aristotle's concept of the natural slave. Aristotle believed some people were simply born to be slaves and, in a sense, culture did them a favor by allowing them to fill that niche. And Jefferson as a racist, and as one who held slaves all of his life, in a sense is recreating that argument; because, if he can, at least to his own satisfaction, prove that blacks deserve somehow to be slaves, then that takes the moral edge off his own ownership, it atones in some sense for the crime of owning another human being. Now he would never admit to that but I think that that's the dynamics that's going on behind the arguments about mental capacities of Negroes, their lack of courage, etc.

  Can you talk about the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom?
Jefferson wanted to be remembered for just three things: the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. And in every possible way, the Virginia Statue is his most important achievement, I believe, and certainly his most original. Jefferson believed that all other human freedoms are based upon freedom of conscience, the free marketplace of ideas. If the mind is free to examine the world without bias and without the weight of tradition and to come to whichever conclusion the mind requires it to find, then all other freedoms will necessarily follow in line. And so Jefferson, as a young man, boldly attempted to disestablish the Church of England. But again, he used the moment to produce a universal insight about humanity. He disestablished the Church—that was the point of the Virginia Statute—but in it he also said that the mind is utterly free and uncoercible and any state which makes the slightest attempt to coordinate your religious value structure, your conscience, is a corrupt state. And in doing so, he effectively installed the program of the Enlightenment and deism into the public policy of the United States, first in Virginia, later through the Bill of Rights (for which he was a sort of midwife) and then in the famous letter to the Danbury Baptists of 1802 when he creates the phrase "wall of separation between Church and State." The fact that we are today a profoundly secular nation, at least with respect to our public life, owes more to Jefferson than to any other man. He was not the only free thinker or deist of his time, but he is the most insistent deist and he absolutely demanded that this country be utterly free from sectarian bias or sectarian sponsorship of public institutions.

  Talk to me briefly about Adams.
John Adams was Jefferson's most interesting friend. James Madison was his closest friend but Adams is much, much more interesting, I think. Adams was a vain, quirky, irascible, pompous, proud but principled man. And he had great trouble with Jefferson and Jefferson had some trouble with him. They fought together in the early years to produce the Declaration of Independence; they spent time in Europe together where they were famous friends—in fact, Jefferson and Abigail Adams became close friends—but eventually they began to part company and it was really for several reasons. First, they had different views of government. Adams believed that aristocracy is inevitable in any society and so we may as well give the aristocrats the Senate so we can keep an eye on them. Jefferson believed in democracy and so he found Adams to be monarchical or aristocratic or too much concerned with class hierarchy. Jefferson believed that Adams had been corrupted by his time in Europe and he always felt that Adams wanted to create titles of nobility and set up a true system of aristocracy in this country, possibly even monarchy. Adams was suspicious of Jefferson because he considered him to be ambitious and possibly a demagogue, irresponsible in his flirtation with rebellion and revolution. So that was the first divergence. Secondly, Jefferson supported Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts, and the French Revolution, including the Reign of Terror. And Adams felt both of these were cataclysmic events and that they showed that anarchy was about to loose itself upon the world again. And finally, they were competitors for the highest office in the United States. Adams had the quirky notion that he should serve as President as long it pleased him and retire when it suited him. Jefferson realized that there should be term limits. And Adams was in fact returned to private life after just one term. And this rankled him. It rankled him first to lose the vote of confidence of the American people but it rankled him even more to lose that office to Jefferson, this Jacobin, this man of irresponsible politics.

Adams was intensely jealous of Jefferson and angry that Jefferson had supplanted him so he didn't stay to watch Jefferson inaugurated in Washington. Jefferson's inauguration was the fourth of March 1801, and Adams left the city at about 4 a.m. that morning to avoid the humiliation of watching the mantle of power move to Jefferson. He later wrote a bitter letter to his son saying, "If I had to return to live my life over again, I would come back as a shoemaker rather than a statesman." Well, meanwhile, Jefferson is at the height of his powers. But afterwards when they had both retired successfully from office, they were brought back together, thanks to Dr. Benjamin Rush, their mutual friend. And Rush wrote to each one of them saying that other was eager for reconciliation. And they were drawn in by this ruse and began a correspondence of incredible beauty and potency. Adams began on the first of January, 1812. He sent Jefferson a polite little note and a copy of his son's recent book on belle lettres. And Jefferson replied and thus began what some historians think is the most fruitful correspondence in our history, more than 170 letters were exchanged. More by Adams than by Jefferson. In about his fifth or sixth letter, Adams said to Jefferson, "My friend, we must not die until we have explained ourselves to each other." And that's what they attempted to do, never with any success. They, in fact, in the end died on the same day, on the fourth of July, 1826, within hours of each other. And Jefferson's last words, although he mumbled things about the committees of correspondence, were "Is it the Fourth?" Adams, who died a few hours later at Quincy, Massachusetts, said in his last words, "Thomas Jefferson still survives." And so there's a wonderful closure to this long and troubled friendship. And it, in a sense, is a more interesting set of contrasts than the more famous one between Jefferson and Hamilton. Because both Jefferson and Adams were committed to a republic but they had different views of human nature, they had different ideas of government, they had different senses of the place of order in public life, and they had very different styles. Jefferson was bland and careful and aphoristic and high-flown. His rhetoric always soared towards aspiration and to human dignity. Adams was earthy and anecdotal and pugnacious. And in the famous correspondence, Adams is constantly trying to pick fights with Jefferson: needling Jefferson about his Enlightenment ways, bringing up old issues that had divided them earlier in their life history. And Jefferson steadfastly refuses ever to take the bait. In one important moment, Adams talks about the quasi-war in which he felt as President, that there might be a revolution, a coup in this country and he had actually barricaded his doors in the national capital. And then he speaks of Jefferson's advocacy of rebellion and says, "I suppose you was fast asleep in philosophic tranquillity, Mr. Jefferson. What think you of terrorism?" And in spite of that fairly serious provocation, Jefferson, in his next letter just reverts to the usual topics of Indians and religion and the weather at Monticello. So, this correspondence reveals something really important about Jefferson: that he could not fight, that he hated conflict and that harmony was his obsession.

  What does the "pursuit of happiness" mean?
The phrase "pursuit of happiness" comes from John Locke; it was a widely-used phrase in the eighteenth century in Enlightenment circles and it essentially means the pursuit of public happiness, the creation of a republic which enables humans to thrive. But, for Jefferson of course, it means much more than that. Nobody knows quite what Jefferson meant by it but it seems to mean a limited government that leaves you more or less alone to pursue your own ideas of destiny and fulfillment, a life of friendship, a life of love and family, grandchildren, gardening, good food, good wine, good conversation, correspondence with absent friends, a love of the arts—music, architecture, dance, literature—in a sense, happiness for Jefferson means finding the art of living without intrusions by institutions that might get in the way of that.

  Tell me about his presidency.
Jefferson, like many presidents, had a very successful first term and a not particularly successful second term. He came to power in what he called the second American Revolution. And people wondered whether he would actually recreate the nation on a much more democratic line than his predecessors had been comfortable with. In fact, Jefferson was a very moderate president. He didn't alter the foundations of the Hamiltonian system. He merely attempted to put it on a republican tack. He tried to be moderate—again, his need to be loved was paramount. He said in his inaugural address "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans." And by that he meant all of us can get along in the basic common goals of the United States: we need to be a republic in that we want a limited government that's not intrusive, but we need to be federalists in that we want a government sufficiently powerful that it can hold the nation together and can protect us from foreign incursion. And so, in a sense, Jefferson tried to become a president who would have virtually unanimous support by the American people.

  Talk to me about ambition and posturing...
In the eighteenth century, it was required of all political figures to pretend that they didn't want the office. General Washington did it, Adams did it—they all spoke about Cincinnatus and the reluctance in a republic to hold office. But they, of course, all wanted office very badly and Jefferson was no different from the others, in fact, in some regards, Jefferson was more ambitious than the others, but more crafty. And so he, quite successfully, pretended all of his life that he would have been happy to live quietly at Monticello as a farmer-scientist but the emergencies of the times in which he lived had thrust power upon him. He called the presidency "splendid misery" and just before he retired in 1809, he wrote to DuPont, his good friend, and said, "Never has a prisoner released from his shackles felt more relief than I do upon this occasion." And he seems to have meant it. It's so hard to get at this because, on the one hand, this was the rhetoric of the age—but Jefferson speaks it more powerfully than anyone else of his time, this reluctance, this fear of ambition. And so it's hard to know what he really felt and what he really wanted. I think by 1800 he wanted very much to be the president of the United States. But in another sense, he realized that he was not temperamentally suited to be a political leader—that he was too thin-skinned and he was too sensitive and he was too much a loner, too aloof to really do it. And so there's a deep ambivalence in Jefferson. Merrill Peterson speaks of withdrawal and return, the constant harping after a pastoral life and yet the urge to return to the fray and help shape the nation. And so Jefferson's ambition has to find its expression through intermediaries: Madison, and other protègès that he gathered in the course of his life. And I think it's fair to say that Jefferson was in some regards a Machievellian figure who stood behind the scenes and pretended to be above it all but was, in fact, directing things fairly intelligently and with some minute attention from Monticello. And so he had what we would call deniability. He would make his lieutenants do the dirty work for him and go out and write the pamphlets and wrestle with Hamilton. Jefferson would stay aloof. And then if something miscarried in those attempts, then he could distance himself from them. But I think most people who knew Jefferson well realized that he was quite ambitious. Adams certainly did. Adams saw through this facade of the Virginian pastoralist with great insight and felt contempt for Jefferson that he couldn't be more honest about his political urges.


Head and Heart Letter,

  Maria Cosway.
Maria Cosway is the most pleasant of all Jefferson stories with respect to women. Jefferson went to France. He was taken by John Trumbull, the American painter of the Revolution, to see a new agricultural dome in the center of Paris. And there he met Mr. and Mrs. Richard Cosway—and instantaneously was swept away by this woman. She was blond, petite, learned in languages, adept in music, a conversationalist, a flirt. She was a femme fatale who had many lovers, including James Boswell, the English diarist. And somehow Jefferson was swept into her orbit and he became intoxicated for the last time in his life. He wrote a famous letter about their love affair called "My Head and My Heart" which reveals a good deal about his mental make-up. But Jefferson spent many weeks with Mrs. Cosway going to gardens, galleries, to salons, sometimes privately and sometimes in the company of her husband. And I think it's fair to say that he had a genuine love affair with her—whether it was consummated is another question—but it produced a crisis for Jefferson. He had, since the death of his wife, lived primarily in the head and suddenly the heart came streaming out with an urgency that he was surprised by. So, when she left, he wrote a dialogue attempting to make sense of this. I don't think he ever did. But after Mrs. Cosway returned to England—there was one other brief meeting in Paris—Jefferson reasserted the head and I think lived in the head for the rest of his life. And so the resolution never came. I think the emotional life, the life of human commitment had been so full of grief for Jefferson with respect to his wife, his older sister, his children, his best friend, Dabney Carr, that he finally felt that human relations were too painful and that it was simply better to live in a world of abstraction and ideas and architecture and not in a world of the flesh.

  Sally Hemings.
Sally Hemings remains the notorious mystery of Jefferson's sexual life. Most Americans think that Jefferson had a slave mistress named Sally Hemings and at least four and perhaps more children by her. Most historians have been reluctant to admit this. We don't know. The evidence is slender. What we know is this: that Jefferson was at Monticello about nine months before Sally Hemings' children were born, that her children were certainly mulattos, that they had a white father, that Jefferson may have been their father. Her youngest son, Madison Hemings, late in his life gave a newspaper interview in Ohio saying that his mother Sally had told him, Madison Hemings, on her deathbed that Jefferson was his father and the father of his siblings. Now historians don't know quite what to make of that testimony because there are some things about it that lack credibility. But it seems to me that it would not be out of the range of possibilities for Jefferson to have had a slave mistress and to have fathered children by her, in spite of his well known public statements that he abhorred mingling of black and white blood.


Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII

  If he didn't sleep with her, who did?
Well, the family alibi was that the nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr, were the fathers of mulatto children at Monticello. One of the grand-daughters says that Samuel Carr was the most good-natured Turk who ever kept a seraglio at another man's expense. And I think there was a family cover-up established—whether it was true or not—to suggest that, if there was miscegenation going on at Monticello, Jefferson was not responsible. But it seems to me that that doesn't close the case; that alibi sounds a little thin. I think the way to get at this is to talk about slavery. The fact that Jefferson owned other human beings is enough. If I own another human being, can kill that person without recourse in the law, can whip that person, can make that person clean up after me, in short own that person in every possible respect, why would we draw the boundary at the sexual frontier? It seems to me that slave rape, if you want to call it that, follows from the fact of slave ownership. And Jefferson, more or less, admits this. In Notes on Virginia, in a really interesting passage, he says, "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other." And then a little later in the same passage he says, "The man must be a prodigy whose manners and morals are not corrupted by this institution." That, it seems to me, is as close to a confession as we are ever likely to get. Whether Jefferson actually had sexual relations with Sally Hemings is, in some respects, immaterial. The fact is he could have had them. And it was routine in plantations throughout the United States and Jefferson may well have had relations with Sally Hemings. But the possibility was there because slavery invited all of those abuses and Jefferson saw that, once you're in that institution, it will drag you down morally and you cannot escape these dilemmas.

  What did he think of George Washington?
Jefferson admired Washington and always, of course, spoke highly of him. But Jefferson, in some regards, envied Washington because Washington was not an intellectual, not a thinker. Washington was essentially a magnificent posture for Jefferson, a kind of figurehead.

And Jefferson realized that Washington really wasn't up to the business of charting a republic through the dangerous waters of its early course. But he wasn't, of course, able to say that. He constantly had to use formulae of adoration. And he did look on Washington with the respect of, say, a son to a father. But he felt that Washington, at least in the second term of his presidency, had begun to weaken a bit. He didn't say that he was senile, but certainly that he was less acute than he had previously been. And that that enabled Washington to be led by the nose by Alexander Hamilton. And Jefferson was offended by that. It troubled him that Washington, in spite of his instinctive commitment to republic, found himself agreeing with Hamilton much more often than he agreed with Jefferson. That appalled Jefferson that Washington in a sense betrayed his own best instincts about what the United States by letting Hamilton install a national bank and a national debt and essentially a mercantilist foreign policy. So there was a struggle by Hamilton and Jefferson for the soul of Washington and Jefferson lost. He also admitted in an important anecdote about Washington that Washington had a fiery temper and that it was not prudent to be susceptible to his wrath. So Jefferson, I think, had mixed feelings about him and unfortunately, Washington died in tension with Jefferson. Their friendship had been destroyed. Jefferson had written a letter saying to another corespondent, "You would be surprised that men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the temple have had their hair shorn by the harlot England." This was an unmistakable reference to the great Washington. And it was made public; this letter was leaked and published. And when it came out, plenty of Americans who were favorable to Jefferson in general terms were upset that he would betray the master in that way and this cost Jefferson his friendship with both Washington and eventually his widow, Martha.

  What's at the core of the tension between Jefferson and Hamilton?
Jefferson and Hamilton are an interesting set of contrasts. In a sense, each one betrayed his own class of origin. Hamilton was born in obscurity in the Caribbean; he was illegitimate. Jefferson was born a patrician in aristocratic Virginia. Hamilton gave his life to the rich and the well-born. Jefferson gave his life to the creation of a social democracy. And so, in a sense, each one was antagonistic to the class that he ought to have, out of self-interest, championed. Jefferson was appalled by Hamilton's willingness to squander the potential of America. And I think this is one of the key moments in our history. For Jefferson, we were a new nation, founded on new principles, on a new continent, with new peoples, new animals, new plants—this was going to be a unique human experiment in liberty and happiness. And the worst thing that could happen from Jefferson's perspective was that we would simply imitate the failed institutions of Europe and create European banks, European courts, European monarchy, European social structures and economies here. And that upset Jefferson.

“Jefferson was the foremost visionary of our westward expansion.”

  Talk about Lewis and Clark.
Jefferson was the foremost visionary of our westward expansion. He essentially created the notion of manifest destiny, although he would not have liked the term 'destiny.' He never traveled farther than 50 miles west of his birthplace. And yet he envisioned American in an extraordinary way, almost an arrogant way. At Monticello, he laid out the rectilinear grid system which was perhaps his most important achievement in a way because he gridded out every acre of land in the American west in a single moment of rationalist ordering. It's just a stupendous achievement. And Jefferson, in his typical rage for order, simply felt that he had the authority to grid the continent and make it an orderly development. Then he had attempted three previous times to send an expedition into the American West. And finally when he became president, he had the wherewithal to bring it off. And he sent his private correspondence secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and his friend and neighbor, into the American West to conduct a reconnaissance, essentially an inventory, of a continent. And Lewis chose William Clark to be his lieutenant and they went off with about 35 men and one woman into the west and were Jefferson's agents in the wilderness. It is truly an extraordinary odyssey that Jefferson envisioned all by himself.

  What would it have been like to be at Monticello and receive the stuff?
I don't know what Jefferson's response was. He instantaneously diverted the artifacts from Washington back to Monticello. There was no national museum, and there was no place, no repository for these effects, so Jefferson in his usual whimsical way simply decided that they would be best looked after at Monticello. He was delighted by the live prairie dog and the magpies and other specimens that Lewis had sent. Undoubtedly he spoke with Lewis about his discoveries and about the terrain of the American West. But I think it's fair to say that Jefferson did not fully engage his enormous curiosity in response to the Lewis expedition. Jefferson seems to have had his mind turned elsewhere. And one is surprised. One would think that Jefferson would have made much more of the materials of the expedition than in fact he did. He doesn't write much about the discoveries of Lewis and he nowhere shows any understanding of one very important conclusion of the expedition which was that the American West was not the Ohio Valley, it was not this Edenic farmland waiting for Jeffersonian farmers that the President had envisioned. In short, the aridity and the ruggedness and the wildness of the west and the fact that it had some very militant sovereigns already living there should have given pause to Jefferson's vision of an Arcadian republic. There's no evidence that Jefferson revised his views in the face of the evidence of the expedition.


Louisiana Purchase

  How important and how contradictory is the Louisiana Purchase given Jefferson's constitutional views?
The Louisiana Purchase is in a sense the making moment of American history—because by buying Louisiana, Jefferson not only doubled the size of the country with a single stroke of the pen—I mean it was unprecedented in human history to buy an empire—Napoleon, after all, had cost the lives of a million young men to pursue one that fell down around his ankles. So Jefferson purchased empire and then, secondly, by buying this territory, he essentially removed Britain, France, Russia and Spain from serious contention on this continent and that meant that this was going to be an Anglo-European American experiment and not a kind of Balkanization of European colonial powers. That was important. And it also enabled Jefferson's vision to find fruition if it chose to, that is, we could be a nation of farmers for centuries, thanks to the purchase. That was the making of Jefferson's first term as president. But it also—typical of Jefferson—was a violation of his favorite constitutional principle. He knew when Napoleon dropped Louisiana into his lap that it was technically unconstitutional to buy it. Jefferson's solution was a typical one: he wrote two draft amendments to the Constitution so the American people could decide for themselves whether they wished to extend governmental powers for what he called "this fugitive occurrence." In the end, he did not promulgate those amendments because Madison rightly warned Jefferson that Napoleon would change his mind and withdraw the offer. But Jefferson was troubled by this because he knew that if you opened the door to broad construction for a useful purpose like purchasing territory, that door stays open and Mr. Hamilton's national bank will sneak in through it also.

  Why did Jefferson launch this expedition? What was he hoping to achieve and are there parallels to the space program?
There are lots of parallels to the space program in the Lewis expedition. First of all, there's the Sputnik effect. Jefferson launched the expedition partly because Alexander MacKenzie had done something similar in Canada and Jefferson wasn't going to let the British take control of this continent. And so he sent Lewis out, in a sense in the wake of MacKenzie's expedition. And Lewis, like MacKenzie, had a Newfoundland dog, and Lewis, like MacKenzie, wrote things at the Pacific Ocean and so on. Secondly, this was an example of gunboat diplomacy. Lewis and Clark were on a peace mission but they carried a very heavy arsenal and whenever they met an Indian tribe, one of the first things they did was fire off some of their most impressive guns, not at anyone of course, but to show the Indians that we had all the power that we could possibly want and that it was in their interest to be overawed by what Lewis would have called "the big medicine" of our arsenal. And so there was that parallel. And then there's another parallel which is much more personal. I think that what happened to Lewis is essentially what I would call the "Buzz Aldren syndrome." Aldren was the second man on the moon and he came back to this country and had a nervous breakdown. And he wrote a book, a very interesting one called Return to Earth in which he says, "When you've been to the moon, what's left?" What do you do after you are the second man on the moon? You don't sell spark plugs like Chuck Yeager. How do you come down from this peak experience at such a young age? I think the same thing happened to Lewis: he discovered the Great Falls, he discovered the source of the Missouri River; he met twenty-four Indian tribes that had never been encountered, so far as he knew, by Europeans before. He was at the leading edge of what was going to be the continent's experiment with the West—and then he had to be an administrator and write up his accounts and take care of financial matters and negotiate with Indian tribes on the lower River and, worst of all, watch other and lesser men beginning to go up the River to sell their kettles and their whiskey and so on to the natives who were there. I think Lewis had the same psychic collapse that happened to Buzz Aldren although Aldren was able later to recover from it and to go on to do very interesting things with his life.

  Jefferson called this the "corps of discovery."
Yes, Jefferson loved the notion of discovery. He loved the idea that this continent was a treasure house of the unprecedented and we were going to describe it and fall in love with it. I think that's extraordinary in Jefferson. But it also is, in a sense, another moment of Jefferson's character because, behind the facade of the philosophe, inventorying the West, Jefferson was a quite shrewd geo-politician and he wanted to send out an expedition to put flags in places, to set up treaty relations with Indians, to start trade emporia in the West. In short, Jefferson had some very serious political and international designs for the expedition, but he couched it in terms of the Enlightenment—typical of Jefferson—and he sold it to Congress in terms of commerce. Because he was a strict constructionist, he knew that Congress wasn't going to fund what he called "the literary expedition." So he urged Congress to pursue it to seek a northwest passage. And so, Jefferson was able to give different messages to different constituents to enable what for him was partly a practical matter of making sure that this continent was going to belong to us; and then secondarily, and more interestingly, his Enlightenment program, which was to say "Let's go see if the Woolley mammoth is still roaming on the Great Plains somewhere. What does the source of the Missouri really look like? What kinds of Indians are those and what can they teach us about human relations?" So part of it was Jefferson at his very finest and part of it was Jefferson as a more practical statesman. But he had this ability to show a kind of chameleon face on every issue.

  So this notion of having been bested by the sublime is really the end result?
Bested by the sublime is one of the end results and destabilization of Indian cultures is another one of the end results. But I don't think it would be fair on balance to see the dark side of this expedition as too significant. It was a gloriful myth at the beginning of American history. And it created the penetration of the American West that followed. I think, in terms of the national destiny of America, at least if you don't want to focus on the negative fallout, it was one of the supreme early moments and Jefferson alone was capable of pulling it off.

“...at the heart of Jefferson is a true believer, a real revolutionary....”

  Gardening metaphor. What's that quote?
There are three interesting quotations on revolution in Jefferson. The first one is what he wrote to Abigail Adams and James Madison when he said, "I like a little rebellion now and then. It's as important in the political world as storms are in the natural world." And then later he writes to William Short, his protégé, and says, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." It's always struck me as odd that here's a man talking about bloodshed and mayhem and slaughter and reigns of terror but who chooses to use gardening metaphors to explain it. In a sense there's some dysfunction there. The gardening metaphors are too gentle and too organic to talk about something as violent and chaotic as revolution. That's what's behind John Adams questioning of Jefferson: "How serious are you about revolution and terror, Mr. Jefferson? Was you fast asleep in philosophic tranquillity?" There's something quaint and maybe not quite true about Jefferson's talk about rebellion. But the third quotation proves that he meant it. He defends the Reign of Terror. He's alone among Americans defending the Reign of Terror and he says this: "Never was so much good gained with so little innocent blood lost. Rather than that revolution should have failed, I would have seen half the earth descimated. If there were one Adam and one Eve alive in every nation and alive free, that would be greater than the present." Now that's the boldest thing that Jefferson ever said. What he's essentially arguing there—and I think he meant it—is that human liberty is so important that we must be prepared to shed blood, surgically if possible, wholesalely if necessary, to bring about human liberty and dignity. And he was able to decide, at least to his own satisfaction, that the French Revolution, with all of its abuses and bloodshed, was a necessary bloodletting because so much was at stake. So that leads me to believe that at the heart of Jefferson is a true believer, a real revolutionary who deserves to be classed with Lenin and Mao and other men of that sort, that this is not a kind of bourgeois revolutionary of the kind that we sometimes like to think.


Head and Heart Letter

  What are Jefferson's health problems?
Jefferson was a health fanatic. He bathed his feet in ice water every morning; he was more or less a vegetarian; he was never intoxicated in his life; he took exercise and so on. But he had some debilities: he had periodic migraine headaches that incapacitated him utterly. I mean, he speaks of having to be in a room with no lights on from dawn until dusk for weeks on end. And he, as President, suffered from chronic diarrhea which was only finally solved when things began to calm down a little in the first term. So he had those health problems. And I think that suggests something about Jefferson's sensitivity. He was so easily wounded and he was so thin-skinned that stress found its way through his system in either debilitating diseases like migraines or diarrhea or the need to withdraw to Monticello and to recover in splendid isolation. And he says something interesting in his letter to Maria Cosway—he says, "And our own dear Monticello where we ride above the storms." His sense of Monticello was that it was above the storms of life and that's, I think, why he had to build his house on a mountain because he needed those retreats.

  Is Jefferson a Renaissance man?
In some regards Jefferson is the greatest Renaissance man in our history. He was an architect, paleontologist, archeologist, linguist, etc. But, in other regards, Jefferson, I think, has to be seen as a kind of enlightened dilettante. And he might not object to that sort of a judgment. He was a dabbler in many things. But if you look at his inventions, for example, they didn't run very deep with the exception of the plow. I think it's fair to say that Jefferson was more impressive in his range than in his penetration. And I would say that Jefferson is not the greatest mind of the early national period. I think in some regards Hamilton was a stronger intellect although not a greater intellectual. Madison was a much shrewder student of human nature and the nature of government. Even Adams, I think, was more sure in his grasp of what was at stake in some regards in the American experiment. So Jefferson's genius was for being able to master everything up to a certain percentile and to be able to speak learnedly on virtually every subject and to be curious about everything—which is a gift. But I would not, myself, rank Jefferson in the highest category of intellectuals amongst presidents. In some regards, Theodore Roosevelt, I think would take that role.

  Why is Jefferson the problem?
Jefferson was an optimist. He believed in the goodness of man. He believed in the perfectibility of man. He was, in a sense, as optimistic as it was possible to be within the Enlightenment, although he did stop short of Condorcet's extreme utopianism. But Jefferson, in believing that humans are good and capable of self-restraint, did his best to remove the traditional props: monarchy, aristocracy, the priesthood, militarism and so on. And he liberated us to govern ourselves. Now he assumed that there would be rival props: education, agrarianism, decentralization and so on. But the fact is that in American history, we have taken advantage of the Lockean spirit of de-regulation, that libertarian obsession that we have as a people. But we have never fully taken seriously the responsibilities that come in the wake of that liberation. We have never done education right—certainly not at this time in American history. And our agrarianism has been steadily eroding since Jefferson's death in 1826. When he was born about 96% of the American people were farmers. Today, fewer than 2% of the American people are farmers and most of those are Hamiltonian agri-producers rather than Jeffersonian husbandmen. And so the things that Jefferson thought would hold the culture together have, in fact, not done it. And meanwhile, the secularization of culture and the liberation that came from the Lockean spirit of the Declaration of Independence have given us almost unlimited freedom which we have largely chosen for self-interest, materialism and chaos rather than for enlightenment and dignity and benevolence. And so, in that regard, I think Jefferson has to be seen as part of the problem of late American history.

  Are we doomed?
Well, one of the things that I always remember when I'm thinking about Jefferson is something that Gerald Ford said about a moment of annoyance. He said, "If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he would be rolling over in the grave." I think that's a fair judgment of Jefferson's response. It seems to me that he could not look on what we've done to this continent and to our social and political structure without feeling a deep disappointment. On the other hand, Jefferson was such an optimist, virtually a fatuous optimist, the Pollyanna of American history, that it's almost impossible not to see that he would come to our world and be impressed by modern medicine, by modern communications, by television, by radio and by the potential of a late industrial democracy. But I think the conclusion would be that Jefferson would say, "You had it in your power to build the only nation in human history that really treated every human being with complete respect. And you had it in your power to simplify life and so we got back to some kind of essential natural existence. And you chose instead to pursue empire and popular culture and getting and spending and resource development and in doing so, you lost one of humanities real moments." I think Jefferson would not want to interfere in our world but if we asked him strenuously enough, I think he would say it's time either to have a revolution and to restore the principles which really lead to human dignity or to give up and admit that Hamilton had his way with the country.

  Why does he appeal to all sides of our political debate?
Jefferson is many-voiced. He lived a long time. He changed his mind and he wrote with imperishably beautiful language on almost every subject that matters to an American. And so the first reason that he still matters is that he was a brilliant writer. John Adams said that he had a "peculiar felicity for expression." And I think no one would deny that. Secondly, Jefferson speaks for human aspiration and America, if it stands for nothing else, stands for hopefulness. The history of America is the history of aspiration, although a failed aspiration. A third, Jefferson is paradoxical and America is nothing if not paradoxical. In our time, I think that we are a Hamiltonian nation with a Jeffersonian veneer. You only need to travel abroad to see the confusion that this produces in the world's arena. And so Jefferson, because he himself is so inconsistent and evasive and hopeful and paradoxical represents the American experiment. And so, in coming to terms with Jefferson, we automatically are attempting to come to terms with ourselves.

  And he ends of appealing to the right and the left.
Yeah, Clinton Rossiter wrote an important article in the 1950's saying "Which Jefferson do you quote?" And he found seven different Jefferson's, all of which annoyed him. And different writers at different times have found different Jeffersonís to admire. And there certainly is the libertarian Jefferson which is in the ascendancy at the moment. There's also the provincial states' rights Jefferson, which is not so important in our time. There's Jefferson, the Enlightenment philosophe; there's Jefferson, the practical politician; there's Jefferson, the envisioner of the American West. And so, there are many Jeffersons. The fact that he was a dilettante or a Renaissance man opens him to a myriad of interpretation. But anytime you speak of the hopefulness of America or the ideal of America, as Jefferson did, you're going to attract very different groups. The question is: what policies do we enact to bring that aspiration into being? And that's where Jefferson breaks down.


Sale of Monticello Notice

  Talk to me about his death.
You would think that the death of Jefferson would have been a melancholy event. Slavery had spread into the American West. We were now in a sectional tit-for-tat relationship with the bringing in of new states in the West which Jefferson said might be the death-knell of the nation. He was personally bankrupt and had been for a number of years and barely survived being thrown out of Monticello merely because his creditors didn't have the heart to do it. His family was in some disarray. He knew he wasn't going to be able to emancipate more than a handful of his slaves. In many respect, the younger generation that was rising, represented for example by Andrew Jackson, did not fulfill Jefferson's aspirations of an enlightened citizenry which would be going about mild-mannered government. And the farmers of the West, Jefferson's chosen people of God, were clearing the forests as fast as they could of trees and Indians. And then finally, Jefferson's agrarian paradise was being changed into a manufacturing industrial nation. So one might expect that Jefferson would die in deep disappointment. Not so. Jefferson remained optimistic until the end. In fact, his last letter is a breathtakingly beautiful articulation of his whole life's work. His said, in a letter to Roger Wakeman, who was organizing a jubilee celebration of the Declaration in Washington, he said, among other things, "All eyes are open or opening to rights of man. The gradual spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of men were not born with saddles on their backs nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. Let this be the ground of hope for others." And so Jefferson dies with the full panoply of his optimism and his hope for the future. And that, too, is the epitome of the American experiment.

  What day did he die?
Thomas Jefferson died on the fourth of July, 1826, fifty years to the day after the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence.

  Talk about his relationship to the press.
Jefferson was one of the most calumniated figures of his time and he believed strongly in freedom of the press, but his optimism about freedom of the press was eroded in the course of his life. As a young man, he had said, "Given the choice between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would not hesitate to prefer newspapers." But in 1807, he wrote to a friend named John Norville and said that he had been so depressed by irresponsible newspaper treatment that he thought that most newspapers should be divided into four sections: truth, probabilities, possibilities and lies. With the notion that the fourth section would appear every time and the first section from time to time. And he also said at that period, "The only thing I trust in newspapers now are the advertisements."


Curriculum for the University of Virginia

  Talk about the University of Virginia.
His three achievements were all intellectual ones: the Declaration of Independence which enabled us to be a free people, the Virginia Statute which said that the mind is utterly free and uncoercible. And then, to make sure that that tradition of free exchange of ideas had perpetuity in American culture, he designed the University of Virginia. It was meant to be a kind of temple of continuing revolution and enlightenment rationality. It was an experimental college. It was first college in the history of the world that was not a divinity school, that was not founded by a religious organization. Jefferson had some ideas that weren't, in the end, adopted. But, for example, he didn't want degrees to be given; he didn't want matriculation. He simply wanted people to come when they felt like it, to study what they pleased and leave when they felt educated. And it was meant to be what he called "an academical village." Instead of one blockish building like the college of William and Mary at Williamsburg, he designed a campus, the first American campus. It consists of what he called "the lawn" which had the rotunda at one end and an open prospect of the Blue Ridge at the other end. And then barracks or dormitories along the way. Jefferson saw this as a hobby in his old age but I think it's purpose was much more serious than that. He was afraid that the revolutionary edge of the founding generation would not be recapitulated in the younger generations. And so he wanted to create a temple to the Enlightenment in his old age—and he did. The University did not, in the beginning, live up to his expectations but it has since.


the Statute of Religious Freedom

  He was a mentor. Talk about the one who perhaps had the most difficult time being under his wing.
To understand Jefferson, you need to know that he was a collector of protégés. He could never have achieved what he did without able-bodied men who yielded their own characters to his. For example, the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty. Jefferson wrote it and it's an extraordinary piece of legislation and natural philosophy. But he didn't have political staying power; he introduced it but when it miscarried in its first attempt to find its way through the legislature, Jefferson was tempted simply to back off. But Madison, his closest friend, James Madison, then worked assiduously over the next few years to find a coalition that would finally pass that bill. And so Jefferson and Madison have to be seen as collaborators in their political vision. Jefferson had the aspirations and the rhetoric and the ideas and Madison had the pragmatics to see them through. There was a dependency there which I don't know that Jefferson acknowledged in its fullest sense.

William Short was his protégé; James Monroe was his protégé. He collected any number of people who were willing to serve him, knowing that first of all he was the only representative of a certain political ideology who could command widespread support in this country. But also they seemed to recognize that there was some type of greatness in Jefferson that simply deserved that support. Madison is the most interesting case of all. I think its fair to say that Madison was a great man who yielded himself to an even greater man. Madison is underrated in American history because he lives in the shadow of the "sage of Monticello." The last word that Jefferson ever offered to Madison was in the final letter between them. Jefferson says something like, "The friendship which has subsisted between us for five decades has never known a single moment of tension." And then he goes on to say, quite pathetically and interestingly, " Take care of me when dead." And Madison did it. Madison devoted much of his last years to protecting Jefferson's reputation against the claim that Jefferson was the founder of nullification for southern secessionists. And Madison gave his life to the protection of Jefferson's status as America's premiere figure of the early national period.


First Plan of Monitcello

  Walk me through a day for the sage of Monticello.
Jefferson said he got up before the sun every day of his adulthood. He bathed his feet in ice water and then, according to his testimony, went straight to his writing table and worked assiduously for five or six hours answering letters. He complains in a letter to John Adams that he received the previous year 1,268 letters, I believe, and he said most of these come from perfect strangers. They ask for detailed analysis of this or that or history or anecdotes. And Jefferson complained that letter-writing was shear drudgery. He said, "Compared to this, the life of a cabbage is paradise." Well eventually he took a bit of tea and rode out to look at the fields and putter in his garden. Dinner would have been served at three or three-thirty in the afternoon.

It would have been a sustained affair. It would have been a very copious dinner. And only after the table cloth was removed would there be any wine. And then Jefferson would drink two or three glasses of wine—the glasses were much smaller than they are today—and often he diluted his wine with water. Then he would take some tea a little bit later, gather with his grandchildren in one of the parlors, conduct an amateur seminar in ideas and in reading. And then the rest of the evening would be Jefferson's private time when he would retreat to his sanctum sanctorum, what he called his "cabinet" and read and study until perhaps 10 p.m. and then sleep.

  Tell me the moose story.
Notes on Virginia, Jefferson's only book, is an attempt to refute a European theory called the degeneracy theory which posited that the New World had been flooded longer and more recently than the Old World and therefore the New World was moister and cooler than the old and therefore our flora and fauna were comparatively less fertile and less magnificent. This was the degeneracy theory. And Jefferson's Notes on Virginia is a series of tables attempting to refute this notion put forward by, among other, the Comte de Buffon. When Jefferson went to Paris in 1784, he took with him on board the Ceres, the boat that he traveled in, a panther skin which he presented to Buffon. But later, in order to completely refute, to scout degeneracy theory, he wrote to John Sullivan, the governor of New Hampshire and said, among other things, "Send me a moose." And Sullivan went out into the wilds of New Hampshire and found a moose herd and shot a bull, dragged the carcass back to civilization—he claimed he had to cut a road to do it—and then had it gutted and sorted and so on and all packaged up and sent to Thomas Jefferson in Paris. Well, Jefferson appears to have forgotten about the moose by now when suddenly this crate comes which contains the antlers and the skin and bones of a moose. He had it refitted after a fashion and sent with his compliments to the Conte de Buffon. I think this is what Shakespeare's Othello calls "the ocular proof." The moose was so magnificent that Buffon had no choice but to admit that his degeneracy theory was at least miscarrying on this respect and he agreed to change his theory in later books although this never, in fact, happens. And so this is a perfect example of Jefferson's whimsicality, the extravagance of spirit which makes Jefferson so marvelous a man. He was a great believer in America and he would not allow us to be prejudiced by European notions but, in order to prove it, he went to enormous expense to bring what he considered the acme of American fauna to the Old World to prove a simple point. And I think the notion of this moose arriving at the salon of Buffon has to be one of the great moment of European intellectual history.

  What does Thomas Jefferson say to us right now?
The epitome of Jefferson's message at the turn of the millennium, as we enter a new thousand year cycle, is that if you are not satisfied that the social structure that you live in serves the rights of man and human dignity, then you have an absolute moral imperative to address that, including with bloody revolution if necessary. In other words that reform and incrementalism and a hope that things will be better or a nostalgia that things were better at some previous time are not adequate answers to human misery. That humans have an urgent imperative to build something like a utopian political and social and economic structure on earth and we cannot rest until we have seen that into realization. And the mechanisms for that are constitutional amendment, constitutional revision and, if necessary, blood, as surgical as possible but as widespread as necessary to bring about liberty and equality. Jefferson essentially tells us that we cannot be complacent until two conditions are met: every human being born on this continent has a right to equal, indeed identical treatment in the machine of the law, irrespective of race, gender, creed or class of origin. And secondly, everyone born on this continent has a right to roughly equal opportunity at modest prosperity. And until those conditions are met, we cannot rest. When those conditions are met, we may say, as Jefferson said he would, "Nunc dimittus": "now you may dismiss me; my work is done."

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