“Some of the martyrs to this cause…”

After several days of rest, I got back to work yesterday. At one point, I found myself writing more about someone named Thomas Jefferson:

Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, outside Charlottesville, Virginia. [Photo by me, 2011.]
Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, outside Charlottesville, Virginia. [Photo by me, 2011.]

I did so within a web of happenings that are impacted to some degrees by his views. Writing is such freedom – and such a challenge. It’s a remarkable exercise as a writer to create a fictional environment in which you have to attack a historical figure you “generally” admire.

I have found myself writing for characters who see him as many others did in their shared lifetimes. To them, he was not a “Founding Father” so much as just another opportunistic politician. They criticized him vociferously.

For example, real-life New Yorker Washington Irving (who I also “generally” admire), author of Rip Van Winkle (set in the Catskill Mountains, where Irving had actually never been) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and so many other someday classic tales (and who eventually spent some 20 years in Europe), thought little of President Jefferson (1801-1809). His biggest complaint was he felt Jefferson cared not at all about the burgeoning cultural scene and the growing commerce of New York City. In Irving’s satirical A History of New York, which he penned under the comical pseudonym “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” one “Wilhelm Kieft,” a Dutch governor better known as “William the Testy,” is a parody of Jefferson as president. For instance, when the English are threatening to invade, “William the Testy” sends his men out to face them “armed to the teeth” with “powerful speeches.”

Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson. [Photo by me, 2011.]
Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson. [Photo by me, 2011.]
From from side porch at Monticello, overlooking Charlottesville. [Photo by me, 2011.]
From from side porch at Monticello, overlooking Charlottesville. [Photo by me, 2011.]
Marker denoting a spot down the hill away from the main house, where a slave cabin had once stood. [Photo by me, 2011.]
Marker denoting a spot down the hill away from the main house, where a slave cabin had once stood. [Photo by me, 2011.]

As Americans we tend not to think too much about the initial decades after independence in 1776. The next “big” historical period we picture in our minds is usually the Civil War (1861-1865). Although much was certainly happening between 1789-1861, nowadays most presidents between Washington and Lincoln can seem something of a “blur.”

Abroad, by 1793 Europe was aflame. The revolution that had begun in Paris in early 1789 exploded eventually into a continental calamity that did not “end” until the French emperor Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The then small, distant, newly independent U.S.A., was inexorably drawn into it all; and it had often become especially personal to Americans present:

Sneak Peek from "Conventions." Click to expand.
Sneak Peek from “Conventions.” Click to expand.

As we do now, most people then sought merely to survive and somehow “get by.” They likely sensed in varying degrees some of what was happening around them, and may have possessed strong opinions, but most felt, as “Robert” does there in “1793,” that they had little to no substantive ability to influence the chaotic world around them. Even those who had believed they possessed stature, and some ability to drive events, suddenly could find themselves surrounded by a mob about to behead them.

Looking back at it, the political world we inhabit is very different from that of the 1790s, yet at times striking similarities are evident. And our personal human trials, fundamental fears and desires as individuals have not changed at all. We do not live in a vacuum separate from all that has happened before us, it is now simply “our turn.”

Have a good day, wherever you are in our world. πŸ™‚

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