Friday, October 22, 2010

Was Thomas Jefferson A Failed Idealist? No, But He Was A Deeply Flawed One

(Thomas Jefferson has been much on my mind lately, a consequence of the madness that masquerades for the mid-term elections. This post was originally published in June 2008.)

To visit the homes of many famous people is usually not to really know them. A conspicuous exception is Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the third president's self-designed masterpiece of Palladian architecture where he lived for 56 historic years -- from 1770 before he wrote the Declaration of Independence until his death on July 4, 1826.

Monticello, Italian for "little mountain," sits atop an 850-foot peak in the Southwest Mountains above Charlottesville, Virginia and the world famous university that he founded. What was so striking for this first-time visitor was how small the house depicted on the flip side of the American nickel and countless other places actually is.

Befitting the life of the great man himself, Monticello seems much larger on the inside. It also is full of hidden passageways, secret chambers and other surprises.

Indeed, if you like your dead presidents simple, then Jefferson is not your man, and t
hat overriding fact rings out from Alan Pell's Twilight At Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.

This 322-page exposition on the outer actions and inner thoughts of the most complex and contradictory Founding Father focuses on the 17 turbulent years after Jefferson handed the reins of state to James Madison in March 1809, ducked out of his successor's inaugural ball through a back door and without fanfare rode into a retirement during which he never stopped fretting about the future of a republic at whose birth he had played such a huge role.

Writes Crawford:

"The survival of this exercise in self-government -- the first in the history of the world, he believed -- could never be taken for granted, as each day brought new dangers."

How prescient that seems almost two centuries after Jefferson's passing because of an exercise in imperial excess, power grabbing and vainglory known as the presidency of George Walker Bush.

* * * * *
Jefferson was a republican in politics, a deist in religion and a classicist in his tastes. He also was a spendthrift, shopaholic and lousy farmer, was overly possessive of his daughters and granddaughters to the consternation of their husbands, and was a master deal maker, something that to this day marks him as a hypocrite in his critics' eyes.

The greatest irony and failure of Jefferson's presidency was his insistence on the 1807 Embargo Act against England and France.

Writes Crawford:

"[This] occured not because this advocate of political liberty exaggerated his countrymen's desire to be free from government interference, but because he underestimated it."

The greatest paradox of Jefferson's life is what he thought about slavery, a subject that has been dissected to a farethewell in hundreds of books, most notably Dumas Malone's six-volume biography, Jefferson and His Time.

Jefferson opposed slavery in abstract political and social terms, but he also was a slaveholder and dealt with them as a day-to-day reality. His views did not so much evolve as remain in conflict with his actions, and while he tried while in public office to abolish or limit the advancement of slavery, he owned many slaves (whom he treated with respect and kindness by the standards of the day) until he drew his last breath.

Explains Crawford:

"Developed over years of practical political experience and scholarly study, Jefferson's approach to the problem of ending slavery, and of effecting radical social change of any kind, is at once more searching than has generally been granted, less self-serving than might be supposed, and yet nearly as imprisoning to thought and inhibiting to action as the political and economic realities that it attempted to explain.

" . . . That Jefferson could not act when urged to do more to end an institution that he acknowledged to be a moral wrong indicates the extent to which he was lacking in moral imagination. Trained up in the early forms of utilitarianism, Jefferson believed for most of his life that the proper subject of ethics was the maximization of human happiness. Happiness consists of tranquility of soul, which is achieved not by heroic gesture but through prudent conduct."

Crawford acknowledges that this is a surprisingly constricted view for the author of the Declaration of Independence:

"It is nonetheless the one by which Jefferson lived, even if he seems never to have been completely comfortable with it. He could always insist, as he did throughout his life, that the time to end slavery had not arrived. But, tragically, that was so in part because Jefferson had resolutely chosen not to hasten its coming."

In the end, Crawford takes the road less traveled, spending little time on Jefferson's famous retirement years correspondence with John Adams, his predecessor as president, and perhaps too much time on Jefferson's daily routine and family life with all of its illnesses, miscarriages, scandals and deaths.

After reading Twilight at Monticello, one might wonder if Jefferson was a failed idealist. I do not believe so, but he certainly was a flawed one.

The Dear Friend & Conscience and I lucked into nearly perfect circumstances when we visited Monticello -- a Monday morning in early summer where there were virtually no other tourists and the mountains to the west were covered by a thick fog, which Margaret Bayard Smith, a dear friend of Jefferson's, wrote in 1809:

"[H]ad the appearance of the ocean and was unbroken except when the wood covered hills rose above the plain and looked like islands. As the sun rose, the fog was broken and exhibited the most various and fantastic forms, lakes, rivers, bays, and as it ascended, it hung in white fleecy clouds on the sides of the mountains. By the afternoon, when the clouds had rolled over the mountains, you could hardly believe it was the same scene."

That the scene was indeed the same on our visit is a testament to the private, nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which maintains the Monticello plantation, supports scholarly research and however belatedly has come to acknowledge -- and even underwritten studies -- that show Jefferson almost certainly fathered six of slave Sally Hemings' children.

Monticello is about 125 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. and is open every day of the year except Christmas.

More here.

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