Monday, June 27, 2016

Politics Update: Thomas Jefferson's Vision Of The U.S. Takes A Beating

Some 190 years after the death of Thomas Jefferson -- fittingly on a July 4th -- the flood of biographies of perhaps the greatest of the Founding Fathers shows no signs of abating.  That also is fitting, especially in this tumultuous election years when Jefferson's vision of what these United States should be is alternately forgotten or under attack.
Indeed, if you like your dead presidents simple, then Jefferson is not your man, and that overriding fact rings out from Alan Pell's Twilight At Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson (2008). 
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, and the likelihood that a Donald Trump presidency would be worse -- much worse.
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 singular irony and failure of Jefferson's presidency was his insistence on the 1807 Embargo Act against England and France. 
"[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. 
It should not be forgotten that when Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men were created equal, he meant propertied white men.  He 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 more than 600 slaves, 150 of whom he inherited and 20 of whom he bought.  The others were born into slavery on his lands.  In any event, he treated his slaves with respect and kindness by the standards of the day.  
"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 that 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."
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.  
That is an understated theme of what in my view, beyond the Malone tomes, is the best book on Jefferson, Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012). 
Meacham could be referring to Barack Obama here: 
"In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one's will, the remaking of reality in one's own image.  Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators.  They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanic of influence and know when to depart from dogma. . . . Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move me, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic."
Jefferson and Obama share another talent in that they invariably chose politeness over confrontation.
"He was a warrior for the causes in which he believed, but he conducted his battles at a remove . . . Part of the reason for his largely genial mien lay in the Virginia culture of grace and hospitality; another factor was a calculated decision, based on his experience of men and politics, that direct conflict was unproductive and ineffective."
Are you listening, Donald Trump?  No, of course not.
Jefferson sincerely -- if naively -- believed that he if could not end partisanship, he could transcend it.  Like Obama, he failed miserably, but unlike the current president, was able to negotiate a truce between his fellow Republicans and the Federalists, who were led by John Quincy Adams during the first of Jefferson's two terms and wrote, "The country is so given up to the spirit of party, that not to follow blindfold the one or the other is an inexpiable offense." 

To visit the homes of many famous people is usually not to know them.  A conspicuous exception is Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, his 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.   
Monticello, Italian for "little mountain," sits atop an 850-foot peak in the Southwest Mountains above Charlottesville, Virginia and the famous university Jefferson 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, although befitting the life of the great man himself, Monticello seems larger on the inside.  It also is full of hidden passageways, secret chambers and other surprises. 
A friend 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.

© 2015-2016 SHAUN D. MULLEN

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