of Mr. Jefferson
One of the by-products of a
college education is the opportunity to bait the so-called heroes that are
paraded before us in primary and secondary education. Among favorite subjects to
mock, with this superior education, are George Washington for “I can not tell
a lie” and Abe Lincoln for “Four score and seven years ago.” The reason
for this is pretty obvious; after 12 years at least of having famous historical
figures paraded before us as monuments to virtue, we as students love
nothing more than a chance at academic revenge.
Thus, when we learn that the icons of
history are imperfect, we relish the opportunity to “expose” these men for
being just as ordinary, contradictory, and flawed as we are. We find a sense of
“equality” by denigrating these men. This is, in fact, psychologically
healthy for two reasons; one, no human can attempt to set standards for himself
knowing he must be measured against a god; and two, such criticism helps
alleviate the pressure of “great men” for having to live up to their own
Mr. Jefferson was the author of the Declaration
of Independence, and a number of other documents, and represented Virginia
in a number of Continental Congresses, held the seat of Governor in Virginia,
and served as President of the United States before retiring to private life,
and was principally responsible for the establishment of the first University of
Virginia. He also served a number of years as diplomat in France, and with John
Adams, Ben Franklin and others, helped negotiate treaties with a number of
countries – not limited to France and England – that would help ensure
America’s survival as an economically viable nation.
Yet, with this legacy of talent and
formidable powers, it seems that what is remembered were the whispered
insinuations, the whispers concerning Jefferson’s private character. The
“quirks” in Jefferson’s personal nature are still debated today.
Mr. Jefferson had a number of quirks, as
any dynamic personality is sure to do. He was laconic to the extreme – seldom
speaking, but when he did, he spoke with a wit that could pierce, and with a
conciseness that seldom left room for debate. He was a tall and imposing man,
not for stature but for composure. Jefferson’s sheer presence and absolute
clarity of mind made him a formidable opponent.
Yet, unknown to many, Jefferson had
nervous habits that he concealed well. He bit his nails frequently under stress;
he was known to walk out of assemblies without so much as a by-your-leave; he
would hide in corridors when he knew anything he’d said or written was going
to be open to criticism or discussion; and, if pressed into conversation, would
go on at length about weather patterns, or he would use other diversionary
Jefferson was in the greatest of company
when he signed the Declaration of Independence; in essence, what these
men signed was an agreement that they would die for what they believed. Few if
any of these men thought they really had a chance in hell of overcoming the
British Army and whatever other powers the Crown might levy against them. The
members of the Second Continental Congress felt that by signing the Declaration
they were pretty much signing their own death warrants, but they agreed to do it
because without solidarity of Purpose they had no hope at all of
Yet, this man who risked being hanged for
treason, along with his compatriots, is still maligned and questioned as to the
“authenticity” of his character today, some 200 years later.
This must have been galling to Jefferson,
since this accusation arose after he had already publicly proclaimed in writing
his belief in the right to trial by jury, and the right to face one’s
accusers. It was also, to say the least, a direct insult to his wife, Martha,
who died in childbirth. Jefferson was inconsolable when Martha died. Jefferson
knew what was at stake, and he fully recognized his own very public profile, and
would hardly have dabbled in marital or moral indiscretions, knowing his
political enemies would only use such an opportunity to exploit the outrage of
the citizenry, to the peril of the newborn and delicate system of Democracy that
was too vulnerable to the powers of international intrigue.
Another whisper asks that if Jefferson
was opposed to slavery, why did he not release his own slaves? Jefferson’s
response might have been: To where? To what?
Jefferson inherited his slaves along with
his father’s estate. Jefferson, like all the Virginia delegates and supporters
including George Washington and Richard Henry Lee, were prepared to abolish
slavery the day after the original Declaration of Independence was
approved. In fact, these men had already called for the abolition, or the great
reduction of slavery, in 1759. These were men with independent incomes that did
not require slavery. Slavery in Virginia, at least, in the latter 1700’s, was
an ancillary, rather than primary source of income. Most of the men who
eventually signed the Declaration of Independence had professions and
other sources of income.
The original Declaration was not approved
with the anti-slavery clause. This was not Jefferson’s fault, but for some
reason he carries the stigma of “not having seen the matter through,”
through no fault of his own. He was voted down by democratic process. The
fact is that in 1776, South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge was adamant that
slavery not be banished at that particular time. Part of Rutledge’s rationale
– and a practical one – was that the South, and the independent colonies,
needed a solid economic basis with which to wage warfare with Great Britain,
should such a conflict be inevitable.
Thus, it was agreed that while slavery
was an ugly subject, and had no true “redemptive qualities” in a moral or
aesthetic sense, was still considered necessary – not because it was
“just,” but because it already existed, and like it or not, was already part
of the fabric of the American culture, which the British had helped to
The question of slavery, then, was left
for future generations to resolve.
Why then, collegiates like to ask,
didn’t Jefferson abolish slavery when he was the President of the United
Jefferson was the third President of the
United States. He was not the KING. Jefferson, in company with his fellow
statesmen who served in the Continental Congresses and other bodies, simply
didn’t have the POWER to excise slavery, or to enforce any other reforms that
might have been suggested. Jefferson, and his fellow civil servants agreed from
1776 and onward to support the tenets of Democracy.
Democracy was a concept debated by Greek
philosophers, of whom Jefferson and others had read much. Democracy, like
Christianity, has been much written about but little-tried. It’s important to
understand that America wasn’t simply a choice between “picking the
government that hasn’t been used yet.” America as a nation was founded on theories.
The Founding Fathers were extremely
well-read and versed; this makes them exceptional by our standards today. With
this in mind, we would do well to try to equal their academic exposure to the
great works of history, language, and trends in art, science, math and music,
and to try our own hand at expounding a great societal system of democracy,
economic proficiency, and social and artistic balance to keep equality afloat.
Jefferson spent the majority of his
public life defending Democracy, and defending his own efforts to support
Democracy. Jefferson very much believed in class demarcations; that the
“quality” of a human being very much was reflected in their mannerisms,
philosophy, educative reflections, and what-not. Jefferson, it is fair to say,
had his preferences; he preferred the company of sensitive, educated people who
possessed insight, character, and the same resolute quality that characterized
his own generation when he signed the Declaration of Independence,
fearing quite likely that it would be his last official act before being hanged
and his head stuck on a pike as an example to other revolutionaries.
What would Jefferson say today about
“Democracy is the voice of the people.
Pray the people aren’t too stupid.”