Gore Vidal | Writer

Gore Vidal is a best-selling novelist, screenwriter, and playwright whose works include Burr, Lincoln, and Empire. He once ran for Congress, and he served for a time as the co-chairman of the New Party.

Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  Thomas Jefferson is a dilemma, isn't he?
I don't know if Jefferson is so much a dilemma as he is, like most people, a series of contradictions. There is a problem with Thomas Jefferson. There always has been a problem. On the one hand, he is the voice of the best aspect of the United States, which was the notion that every person had life, liberty, and the inalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness, which turned out to be the joker in the deck. And this was not exactly a novelty, but to have it stated as the basis of a formation of a republic was something different. And George Washington didn't much care for the last part, and when he started the republic, he took out "pursuit of happiness" and put in "life, liberty, and property." So we are between Washington and Jefferson. We're between Hamilton and Jefferson. That is the sort of fault line, the two tectonic plates in American history: the line of Jefferson, which is individual freedom and a minimal state, and the line of Hamilton, which is international banking and the state has great controls and rights. And the battle goes on and on.

Statute of Religious Freedom

  Why does Jefferson survive? Hamilton does not. Hamilton's world survives, but Jefferson survives.
Jefferson's rhetoric was quite beautiful and Hamilton had no rhetoric. Hamilton was a businessman. He understood banking. Americans at the beginning were agrarian people; they hated banks, and they hated Hamilton because he represented banks and loans and public debt. Jefferson sailed over it and talked to freedom of the individual. He was superb always on religious freedom and religious tolerance...something that today's politicians might imitate Jefferson in this. He really believed in separation of church and state, and although he waffled on almost everything at one time or another, he was a rock in the separation of the church from the state, and one was not allowed to leak into the other. His last days, he was writing his old enemy, John Adams, president before him—they used to hate each other, but suddenly they both were writing to each other—and they were saying, "Wouldn't this be a wonderful world without religion?" Suddenly, they found something they agreed in. And then they said, "And particularly without Jesuits." And they do this terrible attack on the Jesuits.

“The past is another country, and it's mysterious to those of us living in future time.”

  How do you reconcile this man who distilled the essence of the Enlightenment in one remarkable sentence that begins, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and yet he owned other human beings?
Oh, yes. They are not we, and we are not they. History is history. The past is another country, and it's mysterious to those of us living in future time. But you cannot judge them by our standards. Yes, it would be nice. He certainly said that slavery was a bad thing, and he said, "I fear for this nation, if God is just." And he meant slavery. Then he himself, however, seldom freed a slave. He had one slave that he had taken to Paris with him and trained as a cook. Jefferson always had a great table, he knew all about wine. This slave came back a superb cook. The slave then wanted to go into business in Philadelphia with a wealthy man who wanted to buy him from Jefferson, free him, and they'd have a restaurant, an "eating house," as they called it. And Jefferson said, "Oh, I cannot sell you after this, after I...I mean, I taught you how to cook, or I had the French teach you how. Now you want me to sell...Ungrateful!" he said. So he finally did sell him, but he really increased the price because he was selling a great chef. Well, this can be, politically correct people will not like this story, but after all, this is a man in 1800, and it was another world then.

  So you think that even though his neighbor, Coles, sold his slaves and the father of our country eventually emancipated his, that we could not ask of Thomas Jefferson more?
We could ask it, but you wouldn't get it. He was a poor man with expensive tastes. He built that expensive great house. He lived like a king; he collected books. I mean, he was lavish in everything. Slaves were his capital. It's like asking a wealthy man today, "Well, we're sorry, you're going to have to move into the YMCA and sell all your stocks." This was human capital to him. Remember, he was always divided about everything, and he was always rather melancholy at these divisions, not only in his nature, but in human nature.

I mean, he got into that great fuss over the Louisiana Purchase. He had no right to buy what ended up being over two-thirds of the United States. It was unconstitutional. But it was such a good bargain he couldn't resist it. And he kept wondering, you know, "I'm breaking the Constitution." He was also breaking his political teacher, Montesquieu, who said, "You cannot have a republic if you become an empire." A republic can only be a small place, a city-state, maybe 2, 3 million people at most. Enlarge it and centralize it, and any chance of a proper republic was finished. Of course, they never used the word 'democracy,' except as a swear word. The two swear words in Jefferson's time were 'democracy' and 'monarchy.' And though he inclined toward democracy and always said that Hamilton and Washington inclined toward monarchy, in fact he was the closest thing to a democrat, but he wasn't much of one.

  Do you like the man?
I do and I don't. When I was writing Burr, I was telling my story from the point of his vice president, Aaron Burr, whom he betrayed several times politically and then tried to get him hanged on treason charges, which were all cooked up by Jefferson. You could be tried for treason if you levied war against your own country, the United States. Aaron Burr was trying to make himself an empire in Mexico, and he was out in the West, and he was headed for Mexico, and Jefferson had him arrested. I think Jefferson did everything in the book that was wrong, but he had the bad luck that his first cousin, Chief Justice John Marshall, tried Aaron Burr at Richmond, and Marshall really hated his cousin, and the president hated Marshall. So Burr, with a great sense of mischief, and on trial for his life, knew what Jefferson was up to. He was getting witnesses to write things, and he was going to pardon them, and he said finally, "Mr. Chief Justice, there's only one person in this case who's accused me of treason. And if he has any reason to think that I might be levying war against my own country, I demand that he come to Richmond and give his evidence. I demand that President Thomas Jefferson come to Richmond and testify. Jeff" Jefferson went up the wall. "Is the president to be called for at any trial in this large country? Is he to go hither, thither, east to west to north to south?" You've never heard such a cry of pain. John Marshall, who had a nice sense of humor and was enjoying torturing his cousin, said, "No, it is not required in this case. If you just send the documents, that will be quite enough. Richmond is not really so far from the capital city, and you seem to spend a great deal of time at Monticello, which is about the same distance from the capital, and you seem to get your work as executive done there." Jefferson went up the wall again, but that was the end of that.

  What kind of man—you spoke a bit about being unsure, being torn on the bias in a way... What kind of man was Thomas Jefferson? Drink him in for me.
Well, I'll give you one example. He was an atheist, and we were not sick with religion in 1800 as we are sick with religion in 1995. Religion was a private matter, and they had seen to it that it was kept a private matter. People could go to any church they wanted, and the government stayed away from them, and they stayed out of the government. Yet there was a certain amount of evangelical Christianity going on, and they finally got after Jefferson because they knew this was in his background, as indeed it was in the background of Abraham Lincoln. So he gets caught on this, and finally comes up with a weird premise that he's a deist, which means one who believes in a god but he can't quite define what it is. Well, you're living a lie every day of your life if you're surrounded by devout Christians and you have to give them a feeling that you're one too, or at least you're not hostile, and he was hostile. Well, these contradictions are a joy for most politicians. I mean, there is nothing a real politician loves better than telling a lie, and the bigger the lie, the more ecstatic it is. I mean it's really exciting stuff to lie. Jefferson did lie, but he didn't much enjoy it, and you could see that things were turning over in his brain, and he would make excuses for his behavior, particularly over the Aaron Burr case, that were just ludicrous.

  What's the case against Thomas Jefferson?
The right wing in America—if phrases like that have any meaning, since right and left seem blurry all the time—but reactionary people in America, who have money, who love their property, are Hamiltonians. They're not Jeffersonians. Jefferson wants free men with their own farm, and yes, there's the anomaly of slavery, but he still believes in the autonomy of the individual and the family. Hamilton believes in manufactures and trade, commerce. So Hamilton is the natural Republican, or the natural right-winger with money. So they don't like Jefferson. And Jefferson didn't like them. So there is that hostility that keeps going along. I think he's a misty figure. He lived too long, in a way, and he didn't write enough. I mean, he wrote an enormous amount, but he's not a terribly good writer. He doesn't really catch you the way, let's say F, Franklin does, when you do read his letters. There's a sort of windiness to Jefferson, and a kind of ambiguity. Aaron Burr loved his mixed metaphors; he said he never knew a man who could mix a metaphor just spontaneously the way Jefferson could.

I think an underlying case against him is miscegenation, which is still taken seriously in parts of our great land—that he indeed had an affair with Sally Hemings, who is a slave girl and whose mother was of the same father as the late Mrs. Thomas Jefferson. Now, for the hagiographers this is a dicey situation, and it started when she was a teenager and his wife was dead. One of his biographers—one of the Mount Rushmore biographers, as I call them, who've done in most of our founding fathers, one by one—announced, "No gentleman would have gone to bed with a slave. Since Thomas Jefferson was the greatest gentleman of his period, he could not have done so either. That takes care of that." Now, there's a document which was suppressed for many years, which was sitting there and historians knew about it, but it didn't get published very often or alluded to. One of his children by Sally was Madison Hemings. And he wrote a memoir, and it was fascinating. He ended up free, he went West—he had a farm somewhere in the Midwest. He wrote a memoir—what it was like growing up at Monticello knowing that his owner was also his father, and what the relations were between his mother, Sally, who was like a super housekeeper to Thomas Jefferson. And Hemings is a very shrewd observer, a rather good writer. He said that he was the last of Sally's children, and James Madison and Dolley Madison took a great fancy to him, and they liked Sally. They became his "grandparents." Hence, he was named after Madison: Madison Hemings. And he said, "I was so pleased to know that President Madison had been my godfather, not to mention Thomas Jefferson, my good father. But I never heard from James Madison or Dolley Madison ever again after they gave me my name." I think this is disturbing to people who think that (A) you shouldn't go to bed with slaves, (B) that black and white should not go to bed. And they're still powerful elements in the United States.

  Jefferson seems to contain, or be about, the fault line of this country with regard to race. Is the story of Thomas Jefferson the story of America?
Well, it's one of the stories of America. Between our war on one race and our enslavement of another race, we began in the most difficult moral situation that you could possibly be in. Simultaneously, when you had a man of genius like Jefferson, or indeed Hamilton, or...in his way, Washington—men of the Enlightenment, the greatest moment in European history after the fall of the Roman Empire, when you had these extraordinary ideas about the rights of man....Here you have the most politically correct, immaculate people who ever walked the earth founding the United States, and yet they had to explain why they had black slaves, and what on earth were they constantly doing with Indians on the Ohio River? We lived with so many contradictions, and if you get a very great man of considerable sensitivity and of no humor, I think that is one of the problems with Jefferson, is there's not one line of wit in him, anywhere. He was self-righteous, too—I mean, he had charm, he had lovely manners, but this terrible self-righteousness... And he had this amour-propre that if he had made some terrible error, instead of admitting it or walking away from it, he'd keep justifying it and justifying it and getting himself in deeper. That's a bad character trait, and I think contemporaries resented that in him. But you say race, and race it is. That is the curse upon the United States, and in my lifetime it has got worse, not better.

  So, remember that my question is whether the story of Thomas Jefferson is the story of America.
That's...yes, you can say that the story of Jefferson, of all the founding fathers, is the one most intimately related to the problem of race, which has been the ongoing problem of the United States, the tension between black and white in which, by and large, I tend to take the black side, as they are the ones who've had a rather bad time of it. And Jefferson, they can argue, of course, was a slaveholder and incorrect. Although I might immediately say we must remember when he lived and what he had to contend with.

  This remarkable sentence, the second sentence of the Declaration, survives and will survive for a long time. Could you parse it in a way? What is so remarkable about those words?
Well, life and liberty...and that every man is born free and has inherent and inalienable rights. Well, this is highly arguable. Jefferson was the school of Rousseau in that. Well, is it true? It should be true, but it isn't true. Men are not born equal. Some are big and strong, some are small, some have rich families, some have poor families. No totally egalitarian society has ever been created. I once answered the famous Rousseau thing, "And everywhere I look I see men are slaves," and I said, "Well, all men are slaves," because they're babies. Every baby is a slave to the family; that's how men start, or women....

  He added this thing at the end.
Then, out of the blue really, came the pursuit of happiness, which was a new concept. I mean, I have studied it at times, trying to find out where Jefferson's ideas came from. There is a marvelous series just being republished now for the first time since the 18th century. The debates that were going on in London over a good society, over taxation, over the rights of the citizen versus the crown. Over colonists versus mother country. Slaves and masters. And there was some very brilliant writing being done. There was just an explosion of it, from Locke, and from the French as well. Montesquieu and Rousseau. And everybody was thinking. How do you...What is the best form of society? What is a republic? Is a republic applicable if the country's too big? You have to have representative government. I remember Madison was saying, about our Constitution, he said, "Well, suppose we have a hundred million people. We might have one thousand people in Congress. How on earth is a Congress of a thousand representatives going to do any work?" And Madison expressed the great American truth, which Jefferson would have agreed with: the iron law of oligarchy always obtains. A very few people will always run the place, no matter what, whether it's a monarchy or a republic.

  If you could be the fly on a wall, at what moment would you have most liked to accompany Thomas Jefferson? Where would you have liked to be?
I suppose his first term was not happy, and he had the embargo. The second term was...he became a Hamiltonian. I think he didn't like that. I think when he was free in France and able to meet interesting people and talk about architecture and talk about... He knew nothing terribly well, but he knew many, many things fairly well, and he was a true fox as opposed to a hedgehog, as in that famous saying, "All men are foxes or hedgehogs." And foxes are the ones who know lots of things. And there's the hedgehog who just knows one thing. Well, he was the sublime fox in our history.

  So, I get the sense that deep down you really like Thomas Jefferson.
You cannot help but like him when you think of the alternative, Hamilton. Washington is our first millionaire, with no great love of the people, and Hamilton has total contempt for the people, and if you think as I do that the people at large are the source of legitimacy of any government—what good is Jefferson today? It was Jefferson who said, "I think that once a generation, every 30 years, we should hold a new Constitutional Convention and work out the things that do not function properly in our political arrangements." And he used a nice image: "Because as we grow older, as a republic," he said, "you cannot expect a man to wear a boy's jacket." So that is, I think, the lesson of Jefferson today.

“...Jefferson is American scripture.”

  Here's a man whose words gave comfort to John C. Calhoun and to the armies of Jefferson Davis and yet inspired an Abraham Lincoln. How is it this man can be sort of both poles of the same polestar?
It's my impression that it seems anomalous that Jefferson Davis and Calhoun, the southerners, worshipped Jefferson, as did Abraham Lincoln, the Unionist president. I can only say to those who find this puzzling: both sides quoted the New Testament at each other. And each was equally sincere or insincere, as the case may be in quoting scripture, so Jefferson is American scripture. You must have him on your side if you're going to have a government based upon the people. If you're going to have a government based upon property, you can get rid of Jefferson, you can turn to Washington, to Hamilton, to John Adams. But it is Jefferson who really expresses the sense... Well, they began, "We the people of the United States in Congress assembled...." "We the people." That is the great phrase, that is the only legitimacy that there is. And if indeed a Constitutional Convention were ever held again, that's why everybody's terrified of it. Once we the people are assembled, they overwhelm the courts, the legislature, and the executive.

  So we need Thomas Jefferson.
We certainly need the spirit of Thomas Jefferson in order to repair the American republic, which I do not believe anyone—if I may use contemporary names, from Newt Gingrich to Mr. Clinton to Mr. Perot—thinks is in terribly good shape.

  Was he afraid of emancipation? I mean, Winston Churchill said that no great country could handle more than one great problem at the same time. And so slavery was sacrificed on the altar of the Union at the Constitutional Convention.
I think Jefferson was nervous about emancipation on rather logical grounds that the newly freed blacks might be very angry about what had been done to them during their time on the cross, as it were. He was particularly horrified at the rebellions in Haiti that the French were undergoing, and although it proved to be a great advantage for the United States because Bonaparte was so broke that in order to raise cash—because he spent so much money trying to subdue the black revolt in Haiti—that he sold Jefferson Louisiana. So we made good business out of it, but he was scared, and the word from Philadelphia was that the blacks were going to kill their former masters. They were going to kill all the whites. That frightened him.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV

  Was he a racist?
Yes, I think he was a racist, in any proper use of the word. He thought the blacks were inferior to the whites. He thought the Indians, as they were known then, were somewhat different, off to one side. He admired the Indians' independence and their warrior spirit. He rather admired that. The blacks, he didn't grasp at all. He didn't realize that, after all, if you were a fifth-generation slave you were not going to invent electricity, you know, you would not be in a position to know enough to do these things. He thought the blacks...well, there's a famous passage on that. He was comparing blacks to whites to Indians, and he said that "what they may lack in brain power, they make up for in the affection and sweetness of their character," and so on. Which is racism, you know, laid on with rather a heavy hand. But he was then. He was not now.

  What about the sense of him as a poly-man, this great inventor of things? Do you buy into the Renaissance man?
I buy into it to a degree. I think the fact that he was such an inveterate and, may I say, optimistic inventor. He did invent a very good dumbwaiter, which was absolutely...put Washington into a passion over at Mount Vernon. Here was this wonderful dumbwaiter that he had not thought of. So Washington then invented an iron plow that was so heavy no ox or horse could pull it. So there was this huge iron plow at Mount Vernon, a kind of monument to his rivalry with Thomas Jefferson. But he certainly... You see, in the 18th century there weren't so many books, and any learned man could feel he knew everything. He would know Roman history, he would know Greek history, he would have read all the classics, you could do it in 10 or 15 years. You lived on your own place; you had slaves or cheap labor. You built your own house; you were your own architect. It was no wonder that some of them were very good at it, and he was one.

  What is he?
Well, I've portrayed Jefferson variously. Particularly in a book called Burr, as a manipulator, a first-rate political manipulator, as somewhat hypocritical, which goes with the territory of being a politician. He makes a deal with Aaron Burr of New York in order to get New York's electoral votes, with the understanding that Burr is vice president and he will succeed Jefferson after two terms. He then betrays that. Duplicitous, he can be called. Is he more duplicitous than Franklin Roosevelt or any of the other useful presidents? Well, that's part of the territory. "Airhead," "bubblehead," has sometimes been used—not by me—about him. A certain windiness gets on my nerves. Lack of concrete nouns. There's an awful lot of liberty, justice, freedom, you know, all these vague words which, you know, bad politicians use, and he ought not to because he's too clever. On the other hand, he sometimes has to make a blur for the listeners. When he gave his first inaugural address, Aaron Burr was sitting next to him, this was the new vice president. And Burr wrote to a friend—he said, "The president's speech was extremely eloquent. It was addressed entirely to me." No one in the chamber heard a word that he said because he had a very weak, low voice. And he always, after that, he sent all his messages written, to Congress, to be read by somebody else.

  Do we not ponder over the problem of "all men are created equal" and the mystery of "the pursuit of happiness"?
Well, certainly vagueness can get you a great distance in politics, and precision can end your career rather quickly. The greatest politicians are terribly vague and rather pious. "Of the people, by the people, and for the people" of Lincoln means nothing at all. My grandfather, who was a southerner, always hated the Gettysburg Address, and he didn't much care for Jefferson, either. Because he didn't like the sort of rhetoric. He said, "Of what people? By what people? For what people?" He always said, "Well, there was a cemetery for northern troops, but it wasn't for the southerners." Half a nation disagrees. And what does he mean about "inalienable rights"? Well, rights can be alienated rather quickly. Certainly by writs of attainder, one of which he launched against Josiah Phillips 20 or 30 years before, which is you can kill this man on sight. He is contradictory, but it isn't his contradictions that we need to bother with. He isn't here. We don't know anybody that we know today who is alive, who we can say...no one can say, "I know so-and-so very well." You can't. You know certain aspects of so-and-so. With a dead man, you have only his words that have survived and his works, to the extent that you know what they are. And you make your assessment from that. In that sense, Jefferson is extremely useful, whether he was hypocritical about 'pursuit of happiness,' whether he was duplicitous about inalienable rights when he once rather liked writs of attainder. Contradictory, duplicitous, hypocritical—what difference does it make? It's what you have said, what you have done. It is the resonance of what you have projected that will light us down the dusty corridors of time.

  Describe the deaths of Jefferson and Adams.
I think one of the most touching episodes in American history, the two great rivals: John Adams, Federalist with monarchical leanings, according to Jefferson—he was always suspicious of it—and Jefferson with Jacobin Democratic leanings, as Adams always darkly suspected. In fact, Adams left town. He didn't wait to greet Jefferson when he became president in 1800. He fled in the night, having made a whole lot of new justices and judges, went back to Quincy, Mass. And they really, really hated each other. And then, in their last days, they were the last survivors of the founding fathers, and suddenly, they struck up a correspondence, which is one of the most moving in American literature. And they're talking about their invention, the United States, and some things disturb them, some things they're rather proud of. They both express their dislike of organized religion, their love of philosophy, interest in classical literature, and then, on July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States of America, the two old men are dying. Jefferson dies first. Adams, as he is dying, says, "Well, at least Jefferson still lives." And then they were both gone.

  So, in the end, do we hold Thomas Jefferson close to our hearts?
I don't know if Thomas Jefferson is a figure that's easy to hold to one's heart, as it were, in the way some people have managed to hold Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln. But I think that you can—with all his faults and contradictions—that you can hold him very close to your mind, and if there is such a thing, which I think there is and others perhaps do not, as an American spirit, then he is it.

  Is he the author of that spirit? He authors something that comes down to us, flawed as it is. What is that American spirit?
Jefferson simply—with genius, I should say—had the ability to synthesize the great ideas of the Enlightenment, apply them to a bunch of former Englishmen, colonists on this great continent now with very few people in it, white, black, Indian. And he was able, somehow, to pick up on all the waves of thought that were going through from Paris to London, from the coffeehouses to Boston, even down to Virginia, and all these ideas were coming in and coming in...What is a good country? What is a good way to live? What is a republic? Should we have a republic? What is a monarchy? What is a colonist? What are the relations between master and slave, the relations between owner and the owned? And he took all of this, and in two or three sentences hurled it at the world. And it still goes 'round; it still inspires, and it is still the essence of whatever spirit we still have and that we once had, indeed.

  Thomas Jefferson was....
Thomas Jefferson was, I would say, a loner. He came at things on his own. Like most great men, he did not have many friends. People have remarked that of Lincoln, too. Lincoln had no close friends, other than Josuah Speed. Jefferson had no real friends; he had colleagues. He had people he worked with. He had people, particularly in his time in Paris, where he could really be himself. Then he did show he could be a wonderful companion, and he was very curious—he wanted to know everything. I'd say that was his first thing as a man: I want to know it. How do you make a building? What kind of grapes do I use if I want to make wine at Monticello? What grapes? Merlots? He knew how to extract information from people, and I think that's what he loved most of all, was learning, relating one thing to another. Sexually, I don't think... People have tried to psychoanalyze him. I'm not much of one for psychoanalyzing the dead, since we really don't have enough data. It was certain that he was fond of the young wife that died. He certainly was fond of Sally Hemings. He had his one wild oat that we know about in Paris with the... But I would say that he was somebody who strikes me as sensuous in that he loved food and wine and beauty and architecture, furniture. But he was not sensual, because there would be more stories of Jefferson and ladies, and there just aren't any, aside from the one wild oat. So he was a sensuous but not a sensual man.

  Who won the argument, the head or the heart? Did the heart win, or did the head win?
I think the head absorbed the heart. And perhaps it's his great resonance today that alone, with a first-rate cortex, the heart is beating within his mind.

  And you feel that you can feel the heart in his work?
You do certainly when he starts to talk about what the country could be, what the human race could be, and get past all the contradictions and so on. And you really see a fantastic idealism of a sort perfectly unknown to the practical Hamilton, equally practical George Washington, and rather legal-minded James Madison. But you see in Jefferson—I mean, his will and his ideal are as one, and it got him into a lot of trouble. He did many terrible things, trying to defend his ideals. He thought if he gave way on anything, the whole house would collapse around him. And that's why he took so many absurd positions, to defend a position which he felt, even though it might not be defensible, he had to defend it. You know, let one room go and this house shall fall. Well, that's will, and that is ideology.

  If you could ask Jefferson one question, what would it be?
Do you think you served your self and your cause well by the extreme vindictiveness of your nature, particularly toward those who criticized you—like the editor of The Wasp, a newspaper up in Columbia County, New York? By your betrayal of your agreements with Aaron Burr? Do you really think that this helped your cause, or hurt it? I think I would get the longest, windiest answer you have ever heard.

  There is an opacity to him. He seems so very difficult to penetrate. What is that? Do you agree?
I think a lot of it is the lack of humor, in the modern sense of the word, and the lack of wit, in the ancient sense of the word and the contemporary. The point to humor and the point to wit—and this is how Lincoln got away with many worse things than Thomas Jefferson... Lincoln could be very funny, and Lincoln could get you off the serious subject very, very quickly, although stories he told were means of getting people off his back, not questioning him. Jefferson was a monument to himself in life. He had no way of getting off the subject. So he just got in deeper. He would then defend himself more; Lincoln would make a joke. That helps quite a lot in politics. So you asked me what question—I'd say, "Did this serve you well?

  Be hard on him. What angers you about Thomas Jefferson?
I suppose the most disappointing thing about Jefferson and his career is that he could not take criticism of any sort. Now, if you are any form of republican—small "r"—believer in representative government, parliamentary debate, Congressional debate, even in democracy, you must listen to what other people have to say. He was Mr. Know-It-All. Now, he did know a lot more than most people, but he didn't know everything, and there were many things people could have told him. And he was not tuned in; he was not listening. He was far too busy with his wonderful rhetoric, some of which still resonates in the world today and some of which just falls dead, it's so obviously specious. And I think that this inability to listen, to take criticism hurt him, limited him, isolated him. You know, his presidency was a disaster. You see, the Jefferson that we remember and revere is the Declaration of Independence, long before the republic was started. He comes into the presidency and doesn't set a foot right. Everything is going wrong for him. He puts an embargo on which wrecks American trade. Then he rather takes the wrong side of the French Revolution, but then has to zig-zag all over the place. The Louisiana Purchase turned out to be a wonderful deal for the US, but a very dicey one if you wanted to create a true republic based upon "We the people," with our inalienable rights and so on. And had he listened more and spoken less, I think he would have been more successful.

And here's the man who said, "If I had to choose between newspapers and government, I would choose newspapers." Well, by the end, he was practically censoring papers. I think he would have had contracts out on half the journalists in the United States, he was so furious because they were writing about him and his black girlfriend and so forth. He could not take anything... No, the great politicians are very cool. Of course, they don't like being criticized, and they all become paranoid. I have known one or two important politicians in our time, and every last one of them: "Them! I know what they're up to. They're after me. I see it every day in the press." Well, Jefferson was one of those politicians, complaining about "them."

  Was there a mystique about Thomas Jefferson? What did the people feel about Thomas Jefferson at the time?
It's my impression that we the people of the United States of America had no interest at all, outside of a few rather wealthy lawyers, in the government of the United States. This was imposed on them. The Revolution was not popular anywhere in the United States, particularly in Virginia—particularly, curiously enough, in Massachusetts. There were a lot of loyalists to England, which is sort of a lot of trouble. They did not like being taxed without representation. Hence, that was the reason for the separation of colonies from the British Empire. But basically, this was a lawyer's affair, as far as Massachusetts and New York went and an aristocratic planter's affair, as far as Virginia and the South went. It was a curious alliance. It was misalliance; they were never going to get on. And they didn't. And they don't get on. So—what did the people think of him? I don't think anybody gave a thought to Mr. Jefferson outside of Monticello and a few townships nearby.

  So what accounts for his immense staying power? Where did the magic come in?
Well, he said the right words at the right time, and they were never forgotten. One day the United States will be forgotten. We will have fallen apart or drifted away, found our true place somewhere between Argentina and Brazil, and then Jefferson will have been lost too. It was only our power that made our politicians interesting to the world. And it was only the experiment in North America which seemed to be carrying out all out all of the great philosophes of the day—the Diderots', Voltaires', Rousseaus' ideas of a new world with a noble savage, where man could be free. This was the voice, and I would say that Jefferson and Washington were far more popular in Europe than ever they were among their own people.

  Why are we compelled to try to understand Thomas Jefferson?
We're compelled to understand Thomas Jefferson because I think we're compelled to understand ourselves. We live with so many contradictions that make no sense; he did too. I'm curious to see how he managed to live with them, a slave-owner who at the same time thought all men were created equal. We live in the most racist country that I can think of in the first world—the whites hating the blacks, blacks hating the whites, one religion hating the other religion. I mean, we—we are torn with this stuff. How can we deal with it? Well, it's useful to think of how he did. And he may be a bit windy, and a little unclear, and a little contradictory, but he prevailed. Something we might not do.

  What does Monticello say about Thomas Jefferson?
Well, he was a bit of a snob in artistic matters, architecture. He took a good model, Palladio, to imitate for his building, which must have caused consternation at the time. What on earth is he putting up over on that hill? But it's a stunt; it's a stage set. And this is the sensuous side of him. I could see him as a film director, born in another time. Somebody...yes, sort of somewhere between Cecil B. DeMille and...I'll mention no more names, but somebody with a great sense of decoration. He had...he had a considerable dramatic sense, even though his voice was very bad, very weak. And he couldn't deliver a proper speech. He would not have survived on television today, much less the old days of oratory, when you had to address out in the open air. I don't think he would have projected much, but in a drawing room, beautifully furnished and...what more can you say in praise of the man who invented baked Alaska? The first baked Alaska, which is ice cream inside a fluffy hot meringue, was introduced by a Jefferson chef at the White House, to the consternation of the Washington city nobles.

  If he could not speak, then what is his gift?
His pen. He was obviously very persuasive in the councils of state. I mean, he always knew what he was after and he was a very good politician. He was not one to arouse the people. If you wanted that, you got Patrick Henry, you got somebody who could really make the eagles scream and shout and carry on. He could write. And in the United States at the time, I would say per capita, there were more people who could read well than there are per capita today in the United States. It was a highly educated bunch of colonists, despite the fact they lived on the backs of slaves and were fighting Indians all the time. They read the classics, and they certainly read all the political debate coming out of London through the various journals which were passed around the coffeehouses in Boston and Philadelphia. He had a pen, and he could write. That's how you reach the people. After all, who was the greatest voice of the time? A friend of Jefferson's. That was Thomas Paine. Common Sense.

  How then, finally, should we remember Thomas Jefferson?
We should remember Thomas Jefferson, if I may paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, as the archangel of our better nature.

  And yet there's this dark underbelly. What is the darkness?
Well, if I were a good Christian, I'd say it was original sin. There's a dark side to everything. If there was not a dark side, there wouldn't be a light one.

  So we take the good with the bad; the slavery and freedom go hand in hand?
They don't go hand in hand, slavery and freedom. But the idea of freedom that loops through Jefferson's rhetoric, and that of some of the other founders, made it inevitable that slavery would go. You can't be preaching freedom and inalienable rights just to white people. The black ones are going to hear it too. And they're going to ask for freedom. And they will have rebellions, and in due course a crisis will come. And the war came.

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