That Quotable And Controversial Founder

America’s political challenges in the early 21st century are prompting yet another generation to discover Thomas Jefferson:

[From Instagram, July 2022.]

That Instagrammer captioned that this way:

[From Instagram, July 2022.]

And that is essentially all correct.

[The Portable Thomas Jefferson, edited by Merrill Peterson. Photo by me, 2022.]

Some are also learning how “varied” his opinions were. Indeed, what needs to be understood, too, is his opinions themselves often varied. He did acknowledge plainly that circumstances, of course, DO change:

[Jefferson to Benjamin Austin, 1816. In The Portable Thomas Jefferson.]

I have read lots of Jefferson since university (too many decades ago now). One of my fondest memories of graduate school in political science in New York was a late afternoon with my advisor (who died in 2002) in his office in the early 1990s. It came about because he had discussed Jefferson in Poli Sci 101 earlier in the day… and fallen naturally into digressing about Jefferson, slavery… and Sally Hemings.

Assisting him, I was looking on. The 100 or so students, normally quiet and taking notes (or pretending to – and this was before smartphones, too, remember), turned animated; and several (especially a couple of as I recall Black students) asked pointed questions about the issue. It was obvious the students were far more interested in the long-discussed possible (probable?) but as of then still “unproven” Hemings/Jefferson relationship than in anything else about U.S. governance. LOL!

The hall fell silent as the (older, white, lawyer) professor revealed he believed Jefferson had had that relationship with Hemings – for the students seemingly expected him to have said he did not believe it.

[Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860): “Thomas Jefferson.” Photo by me, 2014.]

We talked privately about it several hours later in much more detail in his office. I had not known either than he had believed the affair occurred. We agreed it was likely that Jefferson had lied in this 1805 letter:

I communicate it to particular friends because I wish to stand with them on the ground of truth, neither better nor worse than that makes me. you will percieve that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young & single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknolege it’s incorrectness; it is the only one, founded in truth among all their allegations against me.

From Thomas Jefferson to Robert Smith, 1 July 1805. In Founders Online.

The one “charge” Jefferson admitted to there was not having an affair with an enslaved woman, but to an approach he had made around 1770 (before he married) to a friend’s wife. Most (mostly white) historians had proven over the generations since much more willing to accept as the truth his denial there (and his general silence about the issue otherwise), as well as statements protesting his innocence offered by white (legitimate) grandchildren, than they were comments made by freed slaves, including eventually Hemings herself. In 1998, though, we learned due to DNA sequencing comparisons how that denial of Jefferson’s was indeed a lie: in all likelihood he had had a sexual relationship with the enslaved Sally and there had been children.

What that demonstrates too is he did not always tell the truth (or, shall we say, was “careful” about how he told the truth) in his letters. That human failing duly noted, it is also worth pointing out that although by no means the most forward-looking man of his “planter class,” insofar as his status and privileged outlook allowed him Jefferson was also, by the standards of the time, among America’s then “progressive” (white male) thinkers. One has to wonder if, in that sense, his relationship with Sally – who was likely his deceased wife’s much younger unacknowledged half-sister – played a part in that:

[From President Thomas Jefferson to Frenchman Henri Grégoire, February 25, 1809. In The Portable Thomas Jefferson.]

What needs to be understood too is Jefferson also knew his letters might be quoted – and misquoted – so from the time he began to become “famous” in the 1770s, he wrote seemingly bearing in mind they might be made public. For example, he wrote this to his by then political rival and friend John Adams in 1816 reviewing the rise of opposition in Europe to monarchy after the French Revolution began in 1789. While “dramatically”-worded, it is reasonably accurate in broad terms:

[From Jefferson to John Adams, January 11, 1816. In The Portable Thomas Jefferson.]

If you read enough of his letters you also learn that he tended toward well-crafted exaggeration and near-theatrics. That he was already known as excellent at writing a polemical in a “reasonable” tone was a major reason he was given the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776. His one-time close ally Adams (until they began to drift apart politically in the 1790s) would eventually lament that Jefferson would also probably get a massive memorial built to him someday because he was superb at personal “PR” (although Adams did not put it precisely that way, of course), while he, Adams, alas, was not.

For to Jefferson the world was always going to get better; the young would achieve what they as increasingly old men could not; and the dark forces always out there ready to steal from man his dearly fought for liberty would never triumph, etc., etc. All of that is also the big reason he still gets routinely quoted (and misquoted). Americans are in real terms much more hardheaded and practical like Adams, yet they love to think they are more Jefferson.

For example, this from Jefferson is aimed clearly at his Federalist opponents – especially Adams who he had defeated in the presidential election of 1800:

[New president Thomas Jefferson, to Englishman Joseph Priestley, 1801. In The Portable Thomas Jefferson.]

Typical of Jefferson’s writing style (what Adams would have possibly also termed “slippery”), notice in that how he manages both to praise Christianity and also assail it (and quite “reasonably” so) – “…Christian philosophy,-the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man…” – in just one sentence. As for most of the rest of that, it might best be described as a post-election victory lap. The key to it, though, is in its way it is soaring, stirring, and irresistable.

After all, would you rather be standing with your honest countrymen, ever-guarding a cherished liberty that would lead to a happy future? Or are you with the “bigots,” “barbarians,” and those who support “power and priestcraft”? Jefferson knew which group you would probably wish far more to see yourself counted among – of course the former, which would be also… well, well, well… his supporters.

Throughout their careers Jefferson drove Adams bananas due to his seemingly unmatchable ability cleverly to position himself politically as always the reasonable and sensible one, while making opposition look like medievalists who were angling to return to burning witches at the stake. Long before they both would die by sheer chance on July 4, 1826, Adams sensed that Jefferson had already “won” history in the minds of Americans: He had successfully made himself “the man of progress” and cast Adams as standing up for “the bigots.” Build that man a memorial! LOL!

[Jefferson Memorial. Photo by me, 2017.]

Yet Jefferson did primarily author the (1776) U.S. Declaration of Independence and, lesser known today, the (1786) Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The latter too is an amazing document in a then-world in which the idea of allowing your neighbor to worship – or to not – God as they chose was in no way commonplace thinking (and a forerunner of the First Amendment that would follow in 1791). For all of his faults, on just those two contributions to American governing thought alone he is probably worth that memorial.

To be surprised he could dissemble and was at times less than candid is to be naive. What is also truth is his letters often are not only substantive but make entertaining reading (those of his close political ally and successor as president, James Madison, by comparison, are often cures for insomnia) and are importantly a priceless resource on U.S., and even aspects of European, history and the thinking of the late 1700s into the early 1800s. Thomas Jefferson was not an easy man for even his contemporaries often to feel they “knew” well, so it should hardly be a shock to us that some 200 years after his death he is now in many ways even harder for us to get our heads fully ’round.