The Duality of Thomas Jefferson

CBS News: Thomas Jefferson is remembered as a progressive man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an abomination, yet he was also a slaveholder himself who fathered several children by a woman he owned. Martha Teichner reports.

CBS News Jon Meacham, author of “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” discusses in this extended interview clip for “Sunday Morning” how the Founding Father fought against the practice of slavery even as he himself owned slaves.

The book, Jefferson’s Children, is mentioned.

Talks At Google: Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jon Meacham returns to the Googleplex for a talk about “Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power.” You can find Jon’s books on Google Play: http://goo.gl/5lDWk

Meacham, born in 1969, calls himself a “recovering journalist,” neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and is now a Pulitzer-Prize historian, one of the most prominent younger historians in a field in which people tend to distinguish themselves in older years. He does not view the study of America’s founding as a “historical anti-depressant,” to simply draw inspiration from how sainted and brilliant the founders were because in fact, they could be just as partisan and self-seeking as politicians today. “We’re a lot more like them and they’re a lot more like us than either side would like to think.”

In his talk at Google, Meacham notes that since at least the 1990s, when DNA tests revealed Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemings, he has been viewed as either as a terrible, hopeless hypocrite on race — writing that “all men are created equal” when he kept 800 slaves at Monticello — or a fundamentally duplicitous politician who had no real principles. Since the 1990s, very fine biographies of the founders — Washington, Adams, Hamilton — have been published by such (older) scholars as Ron Chernow, David McCullough, H.W. Brands, and Walter Isaacson. Those books have understandably focused more on Jefferson’s flaws than his virtues, Meacham noted. “I wanted to recover the political Jefferson…(his) failings were universal to the nation. Jefferson’s tragedy is also America’s tragedy.” But Jefferson’s political and pragmatic side, not moral absolutism, were essential to the survival of the nation.

Jefferson is Meacham’s favorite founder, one “you can imagine having a drink with.” Adams was pompous and judgmental, Washington was aloof and stood above the hoi polloi, Hamilton was so obsessed with honor and reputation, so hot-headed and quick to express an opinion and careless about offending his fellows that he dueled three times and lost his life in one of them. Jefferson, in contrast, was deeply human.

He “lives on in our imaginations because he articulated the promise of the best that we could be, but was far from it. And when we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re kind of like that,” Meacham said.

His lifestyle was made possible by slavery. He was born with slaves taking care of him, and though he came to recognize slavery as evil, he saw no way to end it, and died with slaves taking care of him.

Jefferson understood history and fame, which in the 18th century meant reputation. “He knew we’d be talking about him.” His tombstone at his request listed only three accomplishments — “author of the Declaration of Independence, the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” It did not mention that he was a politician for 40 years and president for eight years. “He always understand that (his political career) was going to be a contentious topic,” Meacham said.

He and Adams in their last years exchanged more than 158 letters, which were not dashed off, written casually or even as just single drafts. “They were Ciceronian,” Meacham observed, written for posterity, for history.

From the publisher: Thomas Jefferson hated confrontation, and yet his understanding of power and of human nature enabled him to move men and to marshal ideas, to learn from his mistakes, and to prevail. Passionate about many things—women, his family, books, science, architecture, gardens, friends, Monticello, and Paris—Jefferson loved America most, and he strove over and over again, despite fierce opposition, to realize his vision: the creation, survival, and success of popular government in America. Jon Meacham lets us see Jefferson’s world as Jefferson himself saw it, and to appreciate how Jefferson found the means to endure and win in the face of rife partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat. Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history. The father of the ideal of individual liberty, of the Louisiana Purchase, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and of the settling of the West, Jefferson recognized that the genius of humanity—and the genius of the new nation—lay in the possibility of progress, of discovering the undiscovered and seeking the unknown. From the writing of the Declaration of Independence to elegant dinners in Paris and in the President’s House; from political maneuverings in the boardinghouses and legislative halls of Philadelphia and New York to the infant capital on the Potomac; from his complicated life at Monticello, his breathtaking house and plantation in Virginia, to the creation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was central to the age. Here too is the personal Jefferson, a man of appetite, sensuality, and passion. The Jefferson story resonates today not least because he led his nation through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare amid economic change and external threats, and also because he embodies an eternal drama, the struggle of the leadership of a nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world.”

Meacham points out that Jefferson believed citizenship, not leadership, was the highest virtue in a republic, that a republic is only as good as its citizens. “It seems sort of banal to say it that way, but the experience of Rome suggests that it is not banal, that it is actually very hard to make these things work,” Meacham observes. “And it required constant attention, constant cultivation, constant nurturing of social ties and the life of the mind, in term of putting reason in the place of revelation. Without our being able to think for ourselves, we are going to fall back into superstition and absolutism. And that was Jefferson’s great terror.”

Meacham also argues that we can’t understand the early American republic unless we see the 1760s, beginning with the French and Indian War in 1763 through the Revolution of 1776-82 and the end of War of 1812 as an ongoing 50-year war with Britain (begins at 7 minutes in the lecture). Like the presidents of the Cold War period — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush — who lived in fear of nuclear annihilation, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison “lived in fear of the loss of the American experiment.”

He says we also can’t understand early American history unless we see that Jefferson or a Jeffersonian held the presidency for 36 years, from 1800 to 1836, when Andrew Jackson completed his second term, and Martin Van Buren, a Whig, won the presidency.

Jefferson and Adams in particular saw the American Revolution as “a child of theirs…a living thing.” (8:50)

In a second lecture at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapid, Michigan, home of President Gerald Ford, Meacham was introduced by daughter Susan Ford Bales in 2012. Meacham first talks about the courage of Ford when he pardoned Richard Nixon to start the nation afresh.

Meacham said Jefferson “hated confrontation, and yet his understanding of power and of human nature enabled him to move men and to marshal ideas, to learn from his mistakes, and to prevail. Passionate about many things—women, his family, books, science, architecture, gardens, friends, Monticello, Paris—Jefferson loved America most, and he strove again and again, despite fierce opposition, to realize his vision: the creation, survival, and success of popular government in America. Jon Meacham lets us see Jefferson’s world as Jefferson himself saw it, and to appreciate how Jefferson found the means to endure and win in the face of partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat. Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history.”

Meacham first discusses the hyper-partisanship of the 1790s, which was worse than in contemporary politics (14:00).

Briefly around 1803, Jefferson believed that partisanship could be dissolved from American politics without restricting political freedom, but he ultimately determined that it was inevitable, tracing it back at least to Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic, saying that citizens divided themselves into party over whether “the interests of the many or the interests of nobles should predominate.” Hyper-partisanship can be managed, ameliorated, but “it could not be done away with because if we don’t have conflict that breaks along partisan lines, that means we’re in an absolutist society.”

The central work of Jefferson’s life was to continue the republican experiment in self-government.

“What we have is a culture of contention. Where political greatness lies is in the banking of the fires of that contention because you’re never going to put that fire out, because if you put that fire out, that means we all agree. Which in your heart of hearts, you know we never will all agree.” If we do, we’ve shifted to a monarchy, a king, or an absolutist political culture “that enforces the sense that we all agree.” (17:00)

Jefferson “did not believe that the life of the mind, and the political life of the nation should be separate.” (23:00)

For the republican form of government to survive, citizens have to “like each other,” share a common human bond, or at least believe that their interests and their fates and destinies are inextricably linked. If not, why should one pay taxes for another’s schooling, health care, equality of opportunity?

Jefferson the politician was sociable. He loved to share stories with his political adversaries about the things they had in common, whether children, grandchildren, food, recipes, or anything else. It was that sharing, he believed, that helped make government function.

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