Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Thomas Jefferson, Republican or Democrat?

Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, is one of those historical figures that both modern political parties like to claim as one of their own. Franklin Roosevelt was so enamored of the idea that Jefferson was the equivalent of a New Deal Democrat that he pushed for construction of the Jefferson Memorial in the 1930s. Modern Republicans likewise try to lay claim to Jefferson and view him as an anti-big government hero. From one end of the political spectrum to the other, Jefferson apparently appeals to everyone.

Neither of today's major political parties existed during Jefferson's lifetime, at least not formally. At the time of the American Revolution, there was in fact a profound hope that political parties as such would never exist. The founding fathers viewed political parties as corrupt and prone to favoring petty interests and power-grabbing. Jefferson, Madison, et al. rather naively hoped that the citizens of the new United States would always be able to cooperate on governance without resorting to electioneering or factional squabbling. They were, of course, dreaming. Given the very different views of what the new country should be and how it should be governed, e.g., a strong central government versus a weak one, it was inevitable that persons sharing similar political philosophies would coalesce into distinct interest groups and eventually create formal party structures. The near unanimity that had existed when George Washington was elected as the first President quickly fractured. By the time Jefferson's name was put forth as a candidate in 1800, two distinct camps had emerged -- Federalists and Democratic Republicans -- along with hostility and nastiness that make 21st century politicking seem like a Girl Scout meeting in comparison.

Jefferson identified himself with the second faction. . . or perhaps the faction formed around him. As the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's insistence that the best form of government was no government at all carried more rhetorical weight than it might have coming from a less revered figure. In American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Joseph J. Ellis examines Jefferson's opinions as expressed in writings that were publicly available during Jefferson's lifetime and private papers available now in archives and muses on how Jefferson's ideas continue to influence politics today.

Ellis refers to Jefferson as the American Sphinx because Jefferson's ideas and behaviors were often contradictory. What did he really believe? Is it possible to know? He'd advocate one thing while doing the opposite. The classic example is, of course, the contradiction between his public statements that chattel slavery was a moral evil and must eventually abolished and his personal reluctance to actually free any of his own slaves. Jefferson also preached austerity and cut the federal government's budget dramatically during his Presidency but lived his own life perpetually mired in debt while refusing to do anything that would reduce it -- no matter how many bill collectors might be figuratively knocking at the door, Jefferson always lived well beyond his means. He publicly ranted about the evils of a strong central government and an imperial presidency but then pushed through the Louisiana Purchase without consulting Congress. He talked a lot about democracy and the will of the people, but wanted to restrict the right to vote solely to property owners. He railed against lobbyists and factions and publicly decried the vicious slanders prevalent in political campaigning while at the same time secretly funding a journalist to write slanderous screeds against Jefferson's ideological opponents. He was, in short, the consummate politician: say one thing, do the other, and try not to get caught in your lies. .

I've read quite a few biographies of dead Presidents. Sometimes it's difficult to tell just what a historian thought of his research subject. He or she will wordsmith in a way that results in a pretty well-rounded portrait. You see the good stuff, but you also see the warts. And sometimes it's fairly obvious that somewhere along the line the biographer lost any pretense at objectivity: the dead guy either ends up walking on water or leaving a slime trail. Jefferson doesn't quite make it to garden slug status, but I got the distinct impression that more research Ellis did, the less he liked Jefferson. It probably didn't help when he realized that Jefferson's best known achievement, the Declaration of Independence, had big chunks that were cut and pasted from other documents, not all of which were written by Jefferson.

Of course, as Ellis points out, at the time the Declaration was written, no one involved had any sense that it was going to become as iconic as it did. The Revolutionary War didn't begin when the Declaration was written and signed; it had already been going on for over a year. Jefferson apparently got tasked with writing the document because he was viewed as one of the least important people at the convention in Philadelphia, someone young, inexperienced, and the perfect person to stick with the boring grunt work of having to sit down with pen and ink and draft something the other members of the convention could then do the final edits on, which they did. One of the things that they don't teach in typical American history classes is that the convention heavily edited the document, cut big chunks of Jefferson's draft, and pissed Jefferson off in the process. Like most authors with an ego, he didn't take kindly to editing. He was apparently still bitching about the edits 20 years after the fact.

Jefferson was out of the country serving as an ambassador to France during the crucial years when the Constitution was written, ratified, and the United States began to function as a nation rather than as a loose confederation of multiple independent states. He corresponded with Madison and others, but his influence on the proceedings was probably fairly minimal. Jefferson had a bad habit of seeing things in absolutes; creation of the Constitution required multiple compromises.

Jefferson's career, incidentally illustrates that the United States has a long history of rewarding incompetence. Jefferson was in France as the events leading up to the French Revolution unfolded. The one thing that becomes clear in looking at Jefferson's analysis of those events is that he was consistently 100 percent wrong. No matter what the issue, Jefferson was adamant that the outcome would be the exact opposite of what actually happened. Naturally, when Jefferson returned to the United States, he got tapped to be Secretary of State.

American Sphinx is an interesting book. Jefferson's inconsistencies and contradictions are intriguing, as are some of the author's. For example, Ellis didn't believe that Jefferson ever had an affair with the slave Sally Hemings (the book was written before DNA tests settled the question), claiming that Jefferson had a low libido. His evidence for the low libido? Jefferson was involved with very few women after being widowed fairly young. And how did Jefferson's wife die? She had 7 pregnancies in 10 years and died shortly after the birth of her last child. Each pregnancy left her weaker and sicker, but Jefferson apparently couldn't keep his fly buttoned long enough for her to regain her health before he knocked her up again. Jefferson's failure to remarry or to have physical love affairs with women of his own class doesn't indicate a low libido, especially when his household staff in Paris included his wife's 14-year-old half-sister Sally (who returned to Virginia pregnant with her first child).

When Jefferson's rumored sexual relationship with Sally was used to attack his character during the 1800 presidential campaign, newspapers described Sally Heming as "sable" and with exaggerated African facial features (e.g., thick lipped), but the reality was she was 3/4 white and physically resembled Jefferson's dead wife. Still, Ellis is sure that given Jefferson's strong sentiments on the evils of slavery that the man would never willingly exploit Sally sexually. I think this is one case where Ellis was blinded by his own prejudices. Given other evidence of how Jefferson treated his slaves -- he did his best to make sure his household staff in France never learned that France had abolished slavery so his "servants" could walk away any time they wanted to (although he did pay them wages), he apparently didn't emancipate any slaves in his lifetime, and he freed only 5 (all of them members of the Hemings family, but not Sally herself*) in his will -- why Ellis thinks Jefferson would have qualms about screwing Sally is a mystery.

But enough about Jefferson's love life, or lack thereof. The bottom line is that Jefferson's writings and life contain so many contradictions that it's possible to use him to support almost any position, and not just political. I have Bible-thumping acquaintances who are convinced Jefferson is proof that the Founding Fathers envisioned the United States as a Christian nation, despite Jefferson's anti-religion statements. I know atheists who are equally convinced they can claim Jefferson as one of their own. Tea Party types love to quote Jefferson on the subject of the tree of liberty being watered with the blood of patriots, populists and progressives cite Jefferson on democracy and the will of the people and the evils of industrialization and big business. It's like a visit to Alice's Restaurant: you can get anything you want.

So how would I label Jefferson? I think asshat pretty much covers it. He was selfish, short-sighted, a hypocrite, irresponsible, out of touch with reality, and had an ego bigger than the Louisiana territory. He worked hard at cultivating his image and practicing revisionist history, he screwed up big time when he had a chance to actually help eliminate slavery in the United States, and he was a spendthrift. Although I will concede my opinion was strongly affected by discovering that he basically fucked his wife to death.

Would I recommend American Sphinx to other readers. I'm not sure. It did win a National Book Award for history, but it also has a number of flaws. Ellis tends to assume there's been so much written about Jefferson that the reader will be familiar with Jefferson's life already. This isn't true. For many readers, American Sphinx may be the first (or the only) book about Jefferson that they ever read. I know the public library I patronize doesn't have a real broad selection of presidential biographies; American Sphinx was the sole Jefferson tome on the shelf. He also skips over big sections of Jefferson's life, like the second term of Jefferson's Presidency and his two terms as Governor of Virginia. Still, it is readable. Ellis has a way with words as well as a sense of humor. He intends the work to be read by a popular audience, not an academic one, so isn't boring. At the same time, he does have end notes so you know what sources he used. In short, not a bad book, not a great one, just somewhere comfortably in the middle.

*Jefferson's daughter sort of gave Sally her freedom by allowing her to live with her freed adult children in Charlottesville. Based on the sources I found, all of Sally's children passed as white after leaving Monticello. .

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