Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 at his family home in Shadwell in the Colony of Virginia, the third of ten children. Today he is considered to be an icon of individual liberty, democracy, and republicanism, hailed as the architect of the American Revolution.
But was Jefferson actually a great man or just one whose reputation was immeasurably enhanced by the need of Americans to turn their Founders into saints?
Little interests me more than the process of historiography – i.e., the study of historical writing, and the ways in which interpretations of the past change depending on the individual historian and interpretative needs of the present. Books about Jefferson provide a great opportunity to see historiography at work.
What historians choose to focus on regarding Jefferson has important implications for our national identity, making biographies of him all the more significant. The determination of what to include about “a Founder” and how to interpret it not only reflects upon the legitimacy of the American experiment, but also on the continuing social and political order, given our valorizing of “the intent of the Founding Fathers.”
So history is not just a chronicle; it has ideological contours. It not only helps shape what we believe about ourselves, but reveals what we want to believe, and what we want to forget.
For those who want their idealized perceptions of the Founding Fathers left intact, this book is the perfect anodyne to the recent spate of critical works about Jefferson.
Meacham takes great pains to present Jefferson as positively as possible, and in the event of overwhelming facts to the contrary, he has three different approaches to impose his view of Jefferson on the reader. When Meacham is recounting what amounts to dirty tricks, underhandedness, manipulation, and hypocrisy (most of which Jefferson put Madison and others up to doing rather than exposing his own role), Meacham either pleads the different standards of Jefferson’s times, or simply redefines what Jefferson did as “practical” or “adaptable” or “savvy” or even “wise” (a move that Yale History Professor Marci Shore has referred to in a different context as “the teleological deceptions of retrospect”). Most often, however, Meacham takes a third approach and simply omits less savory aspects of Jefferson’s behavior.
Leaving out some events and selecting others creates a narrow shadowbox revealing only what the box’s creator wants you to see. No other voices challenge the dominant narrative. Whether consciously or not, the images of the particular history are filtered and focused to impose one version of the past over another.
Consider these facts:
In 1769 Jefferson paid for a very detailed ad in the Virginia Gazette for the capture and return of a runaway mulatto slave. The next year, as a young lawyer, Jefferson defended a mulatto slave who was suing for his freedom. Jefferson argued, “under the law of nature, we are all born free.” (At this time, he owned more than 20 slaves.)
Meanwhile, in 1776, while writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had 83 slaves. This was a low number for him: from 1774 to 1826, he had around 200 slaves at any one time, owning more than 600 people during his lifetime. Most famously, he used one of them as his concubine, starting up with the not-yet-16 year old Sally Hemings when he was 46. She was almost continuously pregnant when he was in town. When she first became pregnant, while acting as a chaperone for Jefferson’s daughter in France, and where she would have had the opportunity to stay there and be free, Jefferson “bribed” her to come back to Virginia (as his slave) by promising that their children could be set free from slavery at age 21. [Jefferson did keep his word to some extent, and set Sally’s children free in his will, although by then they were considerably older than age 21. Sally, by contrast, was not set free by the will. It is thought he gave verbal instructions to his family to that effect, but there is no proof. In the event, it was only eight years after Jefferson died, that his legitimate daughter Martha allowed Sally to leave.]
Meacham describes a number of times when the younger Jefferson indeed tried to get anti-slavery measures passed but could not. He avers that Jefferson came to believe abolition was politically lethal; he was not, therefore, willing to risk his popularity for what was “a lost cause”. Nevertheless, Jefferson not once made a move to free his own slaves, so how sincere was he really? John and Abigail Adams refused to have slaves; George Washington arranged to have his slaves freed after he and his wife died; and in 1796, one of Jefferson’s relatives, the statesman and eminent scholar George Tucker (who wrote a new edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries that was considered a valuable reference work for many American lawyers and law students in the early 19th century), wrote and published the pamphlet “A Dissertation on Slavery: With A Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia.” In short, it wasn’t as if no one else in Jefferson’s time opted for and acted upon a moral course of action.
It seems clear that Jefferson’s extravagant tastes and sense of entitlement prevented him from having such a large contingent of paid servants on the payroll. He had expensive taste in imported wines, foodstuffs, furniture, linens, silver, paintings, books, and entertainment. He did not care to live without these things, even if it meant that a large number of people had to live in slavery. Further, he was not above instructing his overseer to punish slaves who were not deemed to be adequately productive. The historian Henry Wiencek recounts a story (totally omitted by Meacham), describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work harder in Jefferson’s nail factory, the profits of which paid the mansion’s grocery bills. Some slaves, Jefferson wrote, “require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work.”
Nor does Meacham spend time on Jefferson’s detailed calculations about how much money he could make from the “propagation” of black slaves (a 4 percent profit every year, he noted). He boasted of it to George Washington.
Last but not least, Jefferson wrote about blacks as being “racially inferior“ and “as incapable as children.” He thought that even if slaves were freed, they should all be deported (except, we presume, for Sally, who was, apparently, capable of at least one thing not commonly considered to be “childlike”.)
Meacham does, at the very end, give consideration to the contradiction of Jefferson’s beliefs about freedom for all of mankind and his continued investment in the institution of slavery, but doesn’t really resolve these contradictions, other to say that because Jefferson couldn’t push abolition through, “[h]e gave up.” Meacham did not convince me on that score, especially because when Jefferson wanted anything else done, he took every conceivable step, whether through pressure, mud-slinging, reputation-destroying, or deal-making, to achieve his aims.
Another big issue Meacham elides over is the hypocritical way in which Jefferson became apoplectic over what he considered the “monarchical” tendencies of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and other Federalists. Yet Jefferson’s presidency pushed the limits of a strong executive in ways never before done so, and in ways that Jefferson would have considered anathema if someone else had made those moves. The Louisiana purchase, for example, was clearly unconstitutional – even Jefferson admitted it (in secret). The embargo on sending goods to Great Britain was also a curtailment of liberty and an extension of the reach of the federal government that would have had Jefferson crying treason if his predecessors had engaged in these acts. Meacham concedes this, but contends that Jefferson’s usurpations of power showed how “brilliantly” he could remold his ideology when “the future of the country” was at stake.
And on and on….
Nevertheless, Jefferson endures, as Meacham avers. He holds that Jefferson passes the fundamental test of leadership:
Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and drams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the area of public life.”
I would agree that the idea of Jefferson, and more precisely, the ideals of Jefferson, endure, and have changed the nation for the better. As Meacham observes:
All the … Jeffersons – the emblematic ones, the metaphorical ones, the ones different generations and differing partisans interpret and invent, seeking inspiration from his example and sanction from his name – all these Jeffersons tell us more about ourselves than they do about the man himself.”
The ideals Jefferson inscribed into the Declaration of Independence gave us a bridge from what was (and is) to what we wanted (and still want) to be. Although “we the people” only referred to some of the people, the bridge was in place: now we could aspire to reach the other side.
And certainly his contributions to the cause of freedom from and of religion cannot be denied. (This was a cause surely as emotionally fraught as slavery, albeit without the same economic repercussions. Yet Jefferson worked tirelessly to ensure that America would be a country that was based on a separation of church and state.) As for the man himself, I wish we could acknowledge the great uses to which he has been put, without having to deify him in the process.
Evaluation: I listened to the audio version of this book. Edward Herrmann did a very good job at narrating, and the text (in spite of my complaints about its selectivity) never lost my interest. I would only caution that, as with any historical interpretation, it is advisable to read other accounts along with it.
Published by Random House Audio, unabridged on 15 compact discs, 2012.