MAN OF CHARACTER
AUGUST 11, 1997
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Joseph Ellis, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and National Book Award winning author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.
DAVID GERGEN: Prof. Ellis, in your new book about Thomas Jefferson you say he has become the great sphinx of American history. When you think about Jefferson, what man comes to your mind?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
JOSEPH ELLIS, Author, The Character of Thomas Jefferson: Well, probably six foot two and a quarter, burnished, burned complexion, hazel eyes, reddish blond hair about the color of my hair, but a person who can convey to a variety of different people a set of images which different groups see differently. And so the sphinx title is an attempt to get at the fact that Jefferson is the most elusive and perhaps promiscuous President in American history.
DAVID GERGEN: Promiscuous in the sense that--
JOSEPH ELLIS: Promiscuous in the sense that what people believe he represents is so different. The North thought that they were fighting for Jeffersonian principles in the Civil War; so did the South. Herbert Hoover thought that Jefferson had the answer to the Depression, so did Franklin Roosevelt and conservative Republicans like Reagan have embraced Jefferson, and so have liberal Democrats like Clinton.
So itís his--what I try to say is he becomes a kind of Rorschach test for Americans, and he becomes a kind of every man, and part of my effort is to explain how one becomes an every man. Itís just not any man who can become every man.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, letís explore that just a bit because you say that he was a visionary.
JOSEPH ELLIS: Yes, indeed.
DAVID GERGEN: And at the same time he had a realistic side to him too, so much of his writing had a visionary quality to it, and thatís where people could often find--
JOSEPH ELLIS: True. I think that heís good at projecting onto a screen or above us in some kind of upper region, a set of attractive notions about whatís possible, and what the future could be like. I try to say somewhere in the book that heís sort of like that dirigible at the Super Bowl that floats above the football stadium and flashes inspirational messages to both sides.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, what is at the core of Jefferson then?
JOSEPH ELLIS: One thing thatís at the core is a--and I think that this is something that is becoming a more potent force in American politics of the last decade or so--is a fundamental aversion to federal power or aggregated, or what he would say consolidated political power of any sort. Now, in certain international contexts, this makes a lot of sense. If youíre standing in front of tanks at Tiananmen Square, if youíre trying to rally the troops in Gdansk, or participating in the Velvet Revolution in Prague, boy, you want to have Jefferson on your side because Jefferson is a person who can really be a useful tool in beating down totalitarianism, despotism, tyranny in all forms. Thatís really true.
But for modern Americans I think that the evil empire that weíve come to regard as our major enemy is the federal government, the inside-the-beltway world of Washington, D.C., and thatís very Jeffersonian, the notion that you canít trust people who have political power, who are far removed from you geographically; that Jefferson is a firm believer that the less political power the better, and I think weíre--since the end of the Cold War and since the Cold War ended and before that World War II and before that Depression, the Depression allowed us to justify or to believe that emergency powers at the federal level were necessary.
Now, those threats recede, and the natural Jeffersonian strain comes back again. In some sense, itís the point of view of the right wing of the Republican Party, but it really goes beyond party labels. Itís a deep primal feeling. And itís Jeffersonian.
DAVID GERGEN: The primal feeling about the less government--
JOSEPH ELLIS: Thatís right.
DAVID GERGEN: We should be left alone. You think thatís--Jefferson is coming back today, in effect, because the Cold War is over.
JOSEPH ELLIS: In that way--if one said why is he coming back, I would say itís because he speaks to that part of our political life that has come into existence since 1989. The notion that weíve had a suspicious attitude towards federal power, thatís back.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. Well, just as Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan are all claiming Jefferson, there are others in the economy in particular who have been knocking Jefferson a lot. Why is that?
JOSEPH ELLIS: Primarily because over the last twenty to twenty-five years, race has become one of the major windows through which people looking back at American history are trying to see things. And if you start looking at the issue of race and you look at Jefferson through that window, things are not going to look too good. Jefferson wrote there words that we are the magic words in American history, the ones that begin "We hold these truths to be self evident," that in some sense are responsible for the most liberal reforms, including the end of slavery, civil rights movement, the suffrage of women.
But Jefferson, himself, didnít intend those words to mean all of those things, and on the issue of slavery, Jefferson remained a slave owner his entire life. He owned about 200 slaves throughout most of his life. And he really didnít believe that blacks and whites could live together in the same society. And I think thatís what really upsets people in a world in which integration and multi-cultural values are the national norm, and we remain committed and wedded to the possibility of that kind of society, Jefferson doesnít quite fit.
And there are those who even argue that we should tear down the Jefferson Memorial on the tidal basin, take his face off of Mt. Rushmore, and I think that thatís the major reason that he is vulnerable. I think within the academy too there is--there is a more general aversion to patriarchs who are dead white males, and heís one of the deadest, whitest males there is. And so there are people wanting to go back and, in effect, bring him back into the present as a kind of trophy in the culture wars.
DAVID GERGEN: Part of Jeffersonís elusiveness that you point out in the book is that he could walk past the slave quarters at Monticello and be thinking brilliant thoughts about human liberty and human equality.
JOSEPH ELLIS: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: And you have this sentence in your book that Iíd like you to address, if you might. You say, "He had the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart."
JOSEPH ELLIS: Jefferson was not a hypocrite, in my view. Jefferson didnít conceal from us or from his peers his deeper thoughts about slavery, for example. He had almost separate chambers in his psyche, where he could put things and seal them, where you didnít have to--he didnít have to confront them.
I think, for example, both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are capable of analogous forms of political behavior, Clinton walking into a room and being able to read that room and understand what people want and tell them what they want to hear, Reagan believing that he did not endorse any arm sale to the contras. And I think that political success at the national level has come to require a lot of the same psychological skills that Jefferson possessed naturally. Jefferson wasnít what we would call a spinner.
He wasnít a person who sort of did this in a calculating way. It came to him quite naturally, who he was, because he didnít like argument; he didnít like conflict. He didnít like debate, and he wanted this to always come out nicely, and, therefore, he would tell you what you wanted to hear.
DAVID GERGEN: Prof. Joseph Ellis, thank you for telling us about Jefferson.
JOSEPH ELLIS: My pleasure.