Two Buck Tom: Thomas Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection.

Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection. link

This post is long overdue.  I am currently reading about Teddy Roosevelt, almost a century beyond Thomas Jefferson in my quest to read about each U.S. President.  I had hoped to write about each President, but at this rate, I may be dead before I get to Obama!  Anyway, without further ado….

Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson left me puzzled about one of the most revered leaders of the revolutionary era.  Jefferson is an enigma, a complex amalgam of the best and the worst of American characteristics, a man to both revere and despise.

Known as he “the Sage of Monticello” and “the Apostle of Democracy”, Thomas Jefferson gets no shortage of encomium. Politicos of all stripes love to quote Jefferson, rallying the illustrious founder from his long dirt nap in support of or opposition to the cause du jour.  His face is on Mt. Rushmore, and he has his own monument in Washington.  Cities, counties, streets, highways, schools, particle accelerators, and even swimming pools are named in honor of the third president. But I think the most fitting tribute to Mr. Jefferson is his portrait on the face of the two dollar bill.

The Jefferson two dollar bill is legal tender, for all practical uses as good as George Washington’s greenback dollar. But we rarely see two dollar bills. Once I get one in my wallet, I’m torn. Should I hold on to it for its rarity, or try to get rid of it as fast as I can, because it is so…weird?  And so it is with Mr. Jefferson, people either love him or hate him.

As presidential biographies overlap a great deal, I had read a lot about Two Buck Tom before I dug into  American Sphinx. In the clubby atmosphere of the revolutionary era, virtually all the founders were familiar with each other. As a leading light of the revolution, Jefferson knew everyone, serving as Washington’s Secretary of State, and as Vice President under John Adams.  When I read Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington, Jefferson’s actions as Secretary of State surprised me. Instead of the dignified statesman I was expecting, Chernow portrayed T.J. as a schemer, suspicious of Washington, and a ruthless behind-the-scenes intriguer. It was hard to square this image with the learned, patriotic image commonly associated with Jefferson.

On reading David McCullough’s John Adams biography, nothing shocked me more than the contrast between Adams term as vice-president under Washington, and Jefferson’s tenure in the same office under Adams.  Adams took his constitutional duty as President of Senate seriously,   gaveling to order almost every session. Jefferson, on the other hand quickly recognized his second-fiddle status as veep, and his broad policy disagreements with Adams. Two-buck Tom decamped from the Federal capital to his Virginia mountain home, Monticello, petulantly shirking all but the minimum of constitutional duties.  The United States was waging an undeclared war with the French, and  Adams correctly recognized the need to build up a robust navy for protection of our coasts.  Jefferson worked behind the scenes to undermine these efforts, perceiving Adams efforts as attacks on Anti-Federalists.  He anonymously drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves in opposition to the Aliens and Sedition Acts, laying the groundwork for state’s rights claims that would be pursued to their logical conclusion during the civil war.  Regardless of the merits of the Alien and Sedition Acts, I question Jefferson’s loyalty to a sitting President.  Jefferson served as Vice-President while covertly working to undermine the President.  This is not the behavior of an icon of democracy behaves, but rather the workings of a scoundrel.

Once Jefferson became President,  he put his rather idealistic dreams for democracy into practice as best he could.   Idealistic visions usually suffer when they run into the concrete wall of reality, and Jefferson’s visions were no exception.  Jefferson worked to limit government, actively dismantling the navy Adams had so long fought to build up.  He would live to see the outcome of this failure of resolve in the War of 1812, when Madison really could have used an effective navy.  He dreamed up hare-brained fantasies for ridding the country of the South’s dependence on slavery, believing that somehow if the slaves could be moved off to a reservation far away the problem would be solved.  Or, perhaps if the country was large enough, the slaves would just become so diluted a component of the population that slavery would just disappear.  His most emblematic achievement, the Louisiana Purchase, was in part justified as an opportunity to turn these dreams into reality.  He was not the only one who shared these fantasies, but my intuition tells me that his influential eminence gave credence to these fantasies, effectively promulgating a bad idea by force of his reputation.  While Andrew Jackson signed and carried out the Indian Removal Act,  Jeffersonian inspiration lent legitimacy to the forced migration of recalcitrant tribes.  Jefferson viewed the removal of native peoples as a benevolent act of preservation, paternalistically allowing their lifestyle to continue within White man’s bounds.

Slavery, the “peculiar institution” so favored by Southerners, Jefferson included, deserves more than a passing mention.  Jefferson owned over 200 slaves, without whom he could not have managed his vast land holdings.  His writings reveal striking contradictions, with Jefferson objecting to the slave trade, but, clearly, not slavery itself.   He believed slavery to be perniciously harmful to both master and servant.  Whether he felt personally harmed by slavery is unclear, although his sheer arrogance leads me to suspect that he believed himself immune to the moral hazards of slavery.

Jefferson considered his Negroes to be amiable fellows, but mostly incompetent and inferior to whites.  His perceived moral superiority notwithstanding, he felt license to succumb to his lustful desires for the dusky-hued women at his disposal, notably Sally Hemings.  Jefferson was not proud of his relationship with Hemings, his wife’s half-sister, as Sally was the offspring of his father-in-law’s liaison with another slave.  He expended considerable effort denying charges of miscegenation, denials furthered by historians well into the twentieth century.   In my opinion, given the power relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, Jefferson could rightly be labeled a serial rapist.

Jefferson only freed two slaves during his lifetime, and opposed the voluntary manumission of slaves by their owners.  He believed voluntarily granting slaves freedom would only inspire slave revolt, which of course white Southerners greatly feared.   For all his disdain of the slave trade, this most persuasive man failed to persuade even his own family of his convictions.   They sold 130 of his chattel laborers to pay off the mountain of debt he left his heirs.

How are we to evaluate this man?  The Sage of Monticello, regarded as the most brilliant thinker among our founders, would have scarcely had time for sagacity were it not for his many slaves.  Jefferson is heralded as an icon of democracy and freedom, yet his own shining brilliance blinded him to the utter lack of freedom in his own front yard, back yard, and bedroom.  Granting pardon to Jefferson for being only a “man of his time” is pure poppycock!  Many lesser luminaries of his age arrived at the conclusion that slavery was inherently immoral.  Jefferson was either a mere average man of his time, or a great but deeply flawed intellect, and I find it hard to dismiss his philosophical and political work as just average.

America remains a country of contradictions, particularly with regard to race.  We’ve elected a black President, yet black Americans remain targets of racial profiling, overt racism, and benign neglect in education, housing, and jobs.  Likewise, Thomas Jefferson, enshrined in the pantheon of American demi-gods of democracy, was a man of great contradictions.  I believe that America is an ongoing, unfinished experiment, and we have the obligation to resolve the contradictions in our public life.  But we can’t proceed with blind faith in the founders, who like us were deeply flawed and conflicted, Jefferson being a prime example.   Infallibility is the stuff of religion and mysticism, which, as Jefferson would vehemently argue, should be kept far away from political life in a democracy.

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About Chris van Hasselt

I eat, sleep, play guitar...but wait, there's more!
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