Jan Lewis | Historian

Jan Lewis is a professor of History at Rutgers University in Newark. She is the author of the book The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson’s Virginia and of numerous articles on women’s life and on slavery in the early republic.

Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress

  Why are we so interested in Jefferson? What keeps attracting us back to him?
There are several things that make Jefferson particularly interesting to us. One of them, of course, is the enormous impact that he had on the nation. He wrote the Declaration of Independence. He penned those ideas: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and all men are created equal. And those have become in a way our national religion, the creed that we live by. And we come back to him when we try to understand what those words meant.

  Can we find him more in his public life or his private life? Where do you find him?
I find him at the place where his public and private lives meet. It sometimes seems almost like there's a gap between his public life and his private life and that's in some ways the way that he intended it. He intended his family life to be a refuge from public life and, in fact, that's something that we've carried with us for several hundred years; a notion that public life, while important, is somehow not entirely fulfilling and, if we find happiness anyplace, it will be at home. Jefferson helped craft that idea. He expressed it. It's the way that he himself lived and it's a way that we continue to relate to the world.

  What was he looking for from his public life? Why was he out there if home was so important? What was he seeking out there?
I think that's one of the things that is the mystery because he griped so much and complained so much about how miserable public life was and he couldn't do anything in public without writing home to one of his daughters that he was absolutely miserable. He described politics as a "splendid misery." He said that life in Washington or in Philadelphia, when the nation's capital was there, was nothing but torment. It was filled with enemies and spies. Yet he was driven, he was compelled to live his life in public from the moment that he entered the public stage in the early 1770s when he entered the House of Burgesses until he retired from the presidency in 1808. He was almost always in public life. He seemed to want some amount of fame but realized early on that he was never going to achieve the sort of public adulation that he wanted. Presumably he did it because of his belief in his ideals but you don't see Jefferson saying, "I'm doing this because I have this set of ideals. I have this vision." More often he says, "I'm doing this so that these other bad people won't muck up what America could become." He tends to depict public life often in terms of his enemies: Hamilton and the Hamiltonians, the monarchists, the British, the potential tyrants who might destroy American liberty, and so he has to be there to protect America.

  So he saw himself as a kind of patron saint?
I think maybe he did, but you only get a glimpse of that at the very end of his life as, just a year or so before he dies, his favorite granddaughter, Ellen, married and moved to Boston and she sent her possessions up to Boston on a separate ship. And that ship went down. With it went a desk that her grandfather had given her and all of her papers, all of her personal possessions, and she was just miserable. So Jefferson sent to her the desk upon which he'd written the Declaration of Independence. But in the letter he said, "Well, it's not really for you. I'm sending this to your husband, to Mr. Coolidge." And he made it clear that it was not appropriate. You couldn't send this desk to a daughter; it had to go in the male line. And he fantasized about what might become of the desk upon which he'd written the Declaration of Independence. And he thought that in future celebrations of the nation's birthday, perhaps Mr. Coolidge or other sons in the family could carry this desk on which he'd written the Declaration of Independence in a procession, sort of like the relics of the saints were carried in religious processions of old. So, at that moment you get the sense that maybe he did think of himself as sort of a saint in a national religion, but usually he was far too modest to let any sense of his own importance escape. He tended to be much more self-deprecating. But maybe in his heart of hearts, he thought that he was saintly and had made an important sacrifice for the nation.

“...Jefferson's notion that, for society to work, for life to be worthwhile, we have to get along, we have to be sociable, we have to have good manners.”

  So do you think there was a difference in how he saw himself and how he portrayed himself? There seems to be multi-layers here of his personality.
Well, some people have thought that Jefferson was a little duplicitous and that he portrayed himself, that he went to great lengths to portray himself as being much more humble than he actually was. In fact, Gore Vidal wrote a novel, Burr, in which the depiction of Jefferson is really of a real hypocrite who when he knows someone's coming to the front door of the White House, he quickly puts on the bedroom slippers to make sure that he's looking very humble and not at all arrogant. Jefferson tries to control the way he appears in public but I don't think that's so much to deceive people as out of a sense of how people ought to behave in public. For example, he believed that one should never argue with anyone, ever. That was a principle he learned from Benjamin Franklin and he observed how well it worked for Franklin who was one of the most sociable men in the entire world at that time, and Jefferson took that as his model. He told his grandson, for example, "Never argue with anyone." He had never seen any good coming of an instance when two men got into an argument and sometimes it even proceeded to a duel and one of them ended up dead. But I think that's not so much deception as Jefferson's notion that, for society to work, for life to be worthwhile, we have to get along, we have to be sociable, we have to have good manners. That's an ideal that I think we've lost sight of to a certain extent. It's not something that has a great deal of resonance today but certainly in Jefferson's time and, for Jefferson, there was an idea that one has to be polite. And that good manners was the self that one should display to the rest of the world.

  But there was vicious fighting going on the press between him and Alexander Hamilton. Tell us the place of the press and the way they used it.
Well, the press, the political press was just developing in the 1790's. The national government was established after the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 and, of course, this is the first national government. It brings together people who had never met each other before, people who barely knew each other. (There were a handful of people like Madison and Hamilton and Jefferson who knew each other slightly.) Some knew each other better than others, but there were many other people who simply did not know each other, who knew each other only by reputation and now they've got to run a national government. They have behind them a legacy of defeating the British, but there have also been and there will continue to be serious and profound disagreements about the course that the nation ought to follow. And, as men try to maneuver and situate themselves for these struggles, they're setting out a sort of public life that had never existed, a national political life. And this is an invention, it's something new. And they struggle for advantage and in that moment, the partisan press appears and it becomes one of the forces that organizes national political life. In some ways from one perspective, it looks like they performed no good service at all because they exacerbated tensions. On the other hand, they displaced a lot of the hostility that might have ended up in duels. If you can call people really nasty names and let it go at that, that's a way to displace the hostility that drew other people out onto the fields of battle that would leave one or the other, sometimes both of them, dead.

Declaration of Independence, Earliest Known Draft

  How do you reconcile the author of the words "all men are created equal" with the owner of slaves who never freed them during his lifetime?
Jefferson presents us with a problem because he wrote the words "all men are created equal," yet he owned slaves and, during his lifetime, did not free the slaves, even though he knew in his heart of hearts that slavery is wrong. That, in fact, is the dilemma. It's our national dilemma, which is to know that slavery is wrong, it was wrong and yet Jefferson continued to own slaves. And we continue to have a problem with racism in this country. The way I approach this issue is to recognize and to realize that when we judge Jefferson poorly, it is by his own standard. The only way we can judge him a failure is by holding up his own words against him, that all men are created equal. Had he not given us that doctrine, had he not popularized it in this extraordinary way in the nation's founding document, we wouldn't be able to judge him poorly, as we do. So, it's by Jefferson's own standard that we judge him, and he doesn't meet his own standard in some way, then in a very important way, Jefferson is a tragic figure.

“...as Jefferson aged, his optimism faltered.”

  How do you see him as a tragic figure? Talk about the end of his life and what's happening there.
Jefferson as a young man was extraordinarily optimistic. And I think anyone who studies him and looks at his early life and the life of the new nation is overwhelmed by the sense of optimism. How else could you be a revolutionary unless you were extraordinarily optimistic about the outcome? Jefferson and other revolutionaries, like Paine, thought that they were beginning the world anew, that they had an extraordinary opportunity to establish democratic government in the world for almost the first time and make a real go of popular democratic government. In those moments, Jefferson hoped very much and believed that slavery could be eliminated. So he could say that slavery was wrong and he didn't have to worry particularly that he wasn't doing everything that he could to get rid of it because he knew that the force of history was with him, that slavery would disappear. And he imagined that it would disappear very soon. It wasn't going to take too long. But as Jefferson aged, his optimism faltered. He saw that slavery, rather than getting weaker, was getting stronger. It was not disappearing. A new generation was arising that was not eliminating slavery. When Jefferson thought about it—and I don't think he liked to think much about what was happening with slavery towards the end of his lifetime—but when he thought about it, all he could say was, "Well, time which outlasts every evil, will outlast this one too. My generation couldn't eliminate slavery. The present one hasn't been able to. Maybe..." He hoped against all hope that the next generation would eliminate it. But in the older Jefferson you see much more pessimism than you had in the early Jefferson. He retreats, he pulls back, he won't even read the newspapers. Public life upsets him and saddens him. So at the end of his life, deeply in debt, unable to get rid of slavery, unable even to leave a legacy to his beloved daughter and his grandchildren, he's a much sadder man than he was in his youth as an optimistic revolutionary.

  He left nothing to his family but a huge debt, but his family loved, supported, adored him. Can you talk about why that is?
Jefferson brought up his family to love him, and love him they did. He was an extraordinary father and an extraordinary grandfather also. His granddaughters would reminisce that everything that they ever got that was of importance to them came from their grandfather: their first books, their first fancy dresses, their first writing desks, were all gifts from their grandfather. And they think that he gave them also something that was even more important, which was an extraordinary love and respect. Which sounds sort of silly—Jefferson in some ways was a misogynist. He thought that women should all stay at home. He was skeptical about women meddling in politics, really disliked it intensely. If you read many of Jefferson's letters and his public papers, you think this guy is a misogynist. Yet, at home with his daughters and with his granddaughters, he treated them as intellectual equals. So at the same time that he'd say that there are limits to what women should do and they really shouldn't talk about politics. It's utterly unbecoming, yet he's giving his granddaughters book after book to read. Surely his daughter Patsy and her daughters—Ellen, Cornelia, Virginia—had to have been among the best educated women in their day. Ellen, after all, named her twin sons Algernon and Sidney after one of her grandfather's favorite heroes from the English revolutionary past. So they were brought up to read, to enjoy ideas, and their teacher was Thomas Jefferson. How could they not have loved this man who gave him his time, his love, his affection, their first party dresses? He gave them everything, and they returned his love immeasurably.

  But when his own daughters were growing up, he was very harsh on them...
Jefferson was a very demanding father and he set extremely high standards. When he was ambassador in France during the last years of the revolution when the nation's being founded, he sent his daughter Patsy to a convent school and we have a lot of the letters that he wrote to her. And they qualified his love for her. He always said, "Do this and I will love you." And he set out this elaborate schedule of what she was supposed to do, every hour of the day. And when we read this, we find it a very harsh regimen. And we find it in some ways very manipulative to do all these things and spend 12 hours a day studying and, if you don't do it, "I won't love you." But another way to look at it also is that he had very high expectations and he instilled in his daughter Patsy a self-discipline that would serve her very well throughout her life. Nonetheless, there is a manipulative undertone. He says, "Love me as much as I love you. I'm looking to you to make my life happy." At this time in Jefferson's life, his wife had died. He had only his two daughters and he seemed to look to them almost as surrogate wives. They would fill up his life and they would make his life worth living and he wanted them to be worthy of that trust that he was placing in them

Head and Heart Letter

  In the dialogue between the Head and the Heart, who wins?
Jefferson wrote a very interesting famous letter to Maria Cosway when he was thinking about his relationship with her. We don't know exactly where the relationship had been or where it was going, but he phrased the relationship as if it were a debate within two parts of his character, between the Head and the Heart. And the Head says, "This is not a world to live at random in as you do." But the Heart, the Heart seems to win. Different people read this letter different ways but it seems to me if you look at the end, the Heart gets the bottom line, the last line and the final word. And I think that, in his heart of hearts, that was where Jefferson was, that was what his philosophy was, that in fact, it was affection that held the world together. And in the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment that Jefferson read reason had to be tempered by affection. It was the affection not simply between men and women but among friends and among society that was the glue that held life together, that held the world together and made life worth living. So when Jefferson gives the Heart the last word, the final word, that wasn't simply his talking about what his relationship with Maria Cosway should or should not be, but it was also his statement about the place of affection in the world.

  It was said that he had a genius for friendship. Talk about his functioning as a president.
Jefferson believed in the principle of friendship and he needed friends about him. When he lived in Virginia, for example, he was always asking one or another of his friends to move near him. Madison didn't live very far away. He told Monroe, "Hey, I've got a place for you to live. Why don't you come down here?" Anyone that he met whom he liked particularly, he would say, "Come live around me in Virginia." He needed friends but it's also that he believed in friendship. That was his model of social life. There was nothing that he enjoyed more than sitting around late into the evening with friends talking. There are a number of travelers who went to visit him at Monticello, and they would reminisce later about how extraordinary it was to stay up into the evening with Jefferson talking about everything: about art, about music, about politics, about gardening, about everything that there was. Jefferson knew an extraordinary amount but he also enjoyed exchanging ideas with other people and talking with other people—not arguing. He despised arguing but he liked being with people with similar interests and similar attitudes and similar ideas.

Sally Hemings Accusation

  Sally Hemings.
Jefferson was a gossip and he enjoyed gossip. He loved to hear dirt about Hamilton in particular and he would sort of see what Monroe or Madison could come up with on Alexander Hamilton. But before too long, the tables were turned and Jefferson found that he himself was the victim of the scurrilous pen of James Thompson Callender, a Scottish journalist who had transplanted to America. When Callender was turning up dirt on Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson loved that. But the next thing he knew, Callender had turned against him. Callender in fact had thought that he was working for Jefferson in a very general way, forwarding Jefferson's interests when he dug up dirt and published dirt on Hamilton. He expected that he would be rewarded with a position by Jefferson. Jefferson decided against it and Callender turned against him. Then in 1802, Callender started publishing a series of articles in the Richmond Recorder alleging that Jefferson had been engaged in a long-term sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. Jefferson never responded; so far as anyone knows, Jefferson never responded directly to that allegation. A number of years later, he wrote a letter saying, "in my lifetime, a number of horrible, horrible things have been said about me," in effect. And he says, "of all those things that were said about me, only one was true and that was that I once offered love to a handsome woman. " This was Betsy Walker who, at the time, was the wife of one his very good friends. Jefferson was unmarried at the time. He evidently propositioned her, was turned down in no uncertain terms and, even years later, Jefferson felt guilty, ashamed about it. That is the only evidence we have from him that seems to be the closest thing that we have from him to a denial of any relationship with Sally Hemings.

  What can we see about Jefferson in Monticello? What does it reveal about him? What does it conceal?
Well, when we look at Monticello, we see Jefferson's home and we can learn a great deal about him. One of the things we can learn about him is that he had absolutely impeccable taste. The home is gorgeous. But the thing that I find is most interesting about him, the thing that struck me when I first saw it is that it's really rather small. When you look at pictures of it on a postcard or in a history book, you think, "This is a mansion." And when you get there, it's really rather small. On the first floor, there's only one bedroom and it's Jefferson's bedroom. This was a home that was built really for one man to live in. There are a number of bedrooms upstairs but, in the way the home is designed, they're obscured. It looks almost as if Monticello is a one-story home when it's really two stories plus a large dome room that was used as a playroom for the grandchildren. It's basically a large home for one man and his books and his guests.

  Was he essentially a hermit living on top of this mountain surrounded by slaves and family but basically very alone?
Jefferson built his home for himself, yet, for almost all of his lifetime, his daughter, her husband, their children (there are about 11 children), lived there, but it wasn't a home designed for large family. And there were guests. There were guests all the time which became a continual frustration for his daughter, Patsy, who lived with her father most of his life. So Jefferson would say always when he was in public life, whether it was Philadelphia or Washington, "I can't wait to get home with my family. There's just too much going on here. All these people are bothering me. I'm harassed. Ah, to retire into the happiness of my family." And he would get home to Monticello and, after receiving letter after letter, Patsy would think, "Finally, I'm going to have Dad to myself." And it never turned out that way because everyone followed Jefferson. Even after he had retired from the presidency, people would troop up the mountain just to see this great man and, of course, he was very gracious and he would invite them in at great cost to provide food for them, sometimes overnight shelter for guests, some of whom were invited, some of whom weren't invited. It got to the point that Patsy, Jefferson's daughter, was extremely frustrated that her father had been telling her all along, "I just want to be with you. I can't stand politics. I can't stand these hordes of people." Yet there he was at Monticello, surrounded by people to the point that she could barely get a word in with him edgewise.

“Happiness for Jefferson would have been a wonderful evening with men and women at his home discussing art, discussing music, discussing the literature that he enjoyed.”

  What did Jefferson mean by happiness?
Historians don't know exactly what Jefferson meant by happiness. For a long time, people thought he was just substituting "happiness" for Locke's "property" and that meant something that was very tangible and material and individualistic. Many of us think, however, that when Jefferson said "happiness," he meant something that was more social. It was something that was generally enjoyed by society. Not so much an individual happiness that we think of now as when we've bought something that we like or when we had a great day at the beach, we're happy then. But instead he meant a general sense of contentment in society. Happiness for Jefferson would have been a wonderful evening with men and women at his home discussing art, discussing music, discussing the literature that he enjoyed. That was happiness for him. It was something that was enjoyed in company with other people. It was a society functioning well, providing well for all of its people. It was not some sort of blissful or ecstatic state but it was a sense of contentment that came from a society that was functioning well and providing well for all of its people and providing opportunities for social exchange that made life worth living.

  If you could be a fly on the wall for any particular moment in his life, what would you like to have witnessed?
If I could have been with Jefferson at any moment of his life, I suppose, as painful as it would have been, I would have wanted to be there at the moment when his wife died.

  Describe the moment, put us there.
Jefferson's wife took ill after the birth of their sixth child and she was confined to her bed and she declined and it soon became clear that she was not going to get any better and there was nothing that could be done. Jefferson seemed to stay by her side almost every minute. He wrote letters from beside her bed. He was deeply attached to her. After she died, he destroyed all the letters that they exchanged, so we have only little bits of information. And one of the bits of information, one of the records that we have is a piece of paper on which they both wrote shortly before she died. She started writing out, copying out from Jefferson's commonplace book, in fact, a passage from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, talking about how time was fleeting as death approached. And she was so weak that she dropped off and could not finish writing out the whole passage and he picked up the pen and completed it. It was their recognition that she was about to die and that their love would be broken, that they would be separated eternally.

“Jefferson's greatest gift to us...is his ideas, in particular, his ideal of equality.”

  Finally, what is the legacy that he leaves us? What is the gift we receive from him?
Jefferson's greatest gift to us, I think, is his ideas, in particular, his ideal of equality. And whatever his failures, whatever his limitations—and there were many—that idea, I think, is still a beacon. It shines out to us like a bright light. And it's a demanding legacy. It's a demanding ideal because we've never been able to live up to it, yet still, it's there.

  Do you like him? In your heart , how do you feel about him?
I can't decide if I like Jefferson. It's like one's own father. He's like a very close member of one's family to whom one is bound by the closest of ties but sometimes you get so annoyed and sometimes you're so disappointed, yet you love him still. Jefferson appears to us differently depending upon how we look at him. If we look at him for his ideas of equality and freedom, he's extraordinary, he's a giant. If we look at him as a grandfather, he's a wonderful, loving man, just an ideal grandfather. If we look at him as a slaveowner, he's very disappointing. And that's hard to deal with. He's like a member of the family whom we have to love and we do love and we can't help loving but whom we find disappointing at some times also.

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