Just in time for Independence Day…
It always stings a little to learn that one of your historical heroes is actually just a flawed human being. Examining faults and balancing successes in someone you want to lionize can be challenging, but I guess that’s what we call maturity. I went through this process recently regarding Thomas Jefferson, who I consider to be one of the best presidents the US has ever had.
I recently finished reading a Jefferson biography called The Art of Power by Jon Meacham that chronicles Jefferson’s life from birth to death in a very balanced and honest way. Of course most of what people focus on today about Jefferson is his unequal and likely emotionally abusive relationship with Sally Hemmings. I was already aware of that very significant problem, but this biography really expanded on a situation that has been reduced to a sound bite and a way to dismiss Jefferson. In fact, this bio exposed that it was probably a worse relationship than people are commonly aware of, compounded by denial and massive cognitive dissonance by all those involved, including the rest of the (white) family.
But it’s Jefferson’s ideals and his political philosophy that I really learned more about and what humanized him for me. As anyone who knows me, I generally have no patience for conservatives or Republicans with their fear of “the other” or “get the gummint outta my life” or the fact that they generally always end up being wrong about human rights and liberties (slavery, segregation, women’s suffrage, LGTBQ rights, etc).
So it’s actually a little self-contradictory for me to be such a fan of Jefferson, considering he is the original Republican. He, along with James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican party for the election in 1800. A constant theme throughout his life was that Jefferson was a small-government, states-rights supporter, which today would make him a pretty staunch member of the GOP.
However, upon closer analysis, I realized the truth: Jefferson wasn’t a modern-day, “drown it in a bath tub” limited-government Republican. He was a small “r” republican, the opposite of a royalist; Jefferson was anti-monarchy to his core, always suspicious of anything even remotely tainted by the crown or tyrannical abuses of executive power, often to the emotional extreme. It was this tendency towards extreme anti-federalism that eventually led his to falling out with Washington and Adams.
SIDE NOTE: Contrary to what other historians or very popular Broadway shows may or may not say, Jefferson really didn’t spend a lot of energy on Hamilton, any more than you would, perhaps, spend on your average office twit: Better to avoid and marginalize than to engage. Hamilton was completely the opposite of Jefferson with regard to the crown; he was such a Tory it was nearly treasonous.
And today? If Hamilton were alive in 2016, he’d be a combination between the CEO of Blackwater and some banker-executive at Goldmann-Sachs: Building a private army and using nearly illegal hedge funds to do it. Put another way, if Hamilton lived in our times, it wouldn’t be Aaron Burr he’d be dueling against, it would be Elizabeth Warren. And like Burr, Warren probably would win.
The US really dodged a historical bullet when Hamilton failed to dodge a literal one!
Which brings us to one of the most profound and dramatically far-reaching rivalries I think this country has known, that between John Adams and Jefferson.
I’ve known about Adams for some time, having read his bio by David McCullough. Adams was a piece of work and was probably one of the most dangerous presidents we’ve had. I’ll grant that being the second President probably wasn’t easy, following Washington (against whom nothing bad is ever said, of course), but Adams seemed to willfully do his best to cock it all up. The biggest issue was the Alien and Sedition Act that really drove a wedge between Adams and Jefferson. Adams was completely off his rocker with this one, a piece of legislation that even George Bush wouldn’t have tried to pass on September 12. Jefferson never forgave him for this move, and rightly so. The Act (for those of us like me who have forgotten their American History) basically prevented immigrants from voting and preventing anyone from making fun of Adams (that sound you hear is the First Amendment getting ripped up). This Act is the sort of thing that would give Donald Trump a woody, and in fact, part of Adams’ scary legislation is actually still on the books today.
Jefferson, who really did love and trust the common (white) man, campaigned against Adams, his legislation, and his philosophies, handing Adams a defeat in 1800, making Adams the first single-term president. As vindication of his ideals, Jefferson went on to serve two terms, his protégé (Madison) also served two terms, followed by a close ally of Jefferson (Monroe) serving two terms as well. That’s a very long American dynasty.
Jefferson did have his faults: Sally Hemmings being the most publicized today (he also had at least two emotional affairs with married women), his Virginia governorship wasn’t what you’d expect from a Founding Father (he ostensibly “retreated” from the invading British in 1781), he acted just outside the letter of the law as President (Barbary pirates and the Louisiana Purchase), and his treatment of the Native Americans was pretty terrible (not Jacksonian, but in the same ballpark).
All of those very significant negatives contribute to the humanizing of Jefferson for me. I continue to realize that the people who created this country and the leaders we have today are far from perfect and clean, even the ones we think are the best or most respectable (Obama and Guantanamo, anyone?). But now that I’ve learned even more about him, I find that I still greatly admire Jefferson and the man he was and tried to be.
- I love his liberalism and belief that people hold their own power, that rulers are there at the will of the people and the rule of law, not divine right or hereditary.
- I am inspired by his intellectualism and quest for knowledge both breadth and depth (It was his huge collection of books that became the foundation for the Library of Congress after President Madison let the British burn down The People’s House in 1814).
- I aspire to his example regarding his highly principled approach to dealing with his political opponents.
- I think it’s really cool that he was the original foodie.
- I admire that, as a man of his time, he was capable of seeing that slavery was an abomination against humanity (even if he did shamefully kick
that can down the road).
- I am inspired by the fact that he was incredibly disciplined with his exercise and personal health.
- I’m thrilled that he was a secularist and was not particularly religious, although he did consider himself spiritual. He looked to certain religious ideals for inspiration, but truly believed that religion shouldn’t be anywhere near government.
- And finally, I’m extremely proud of the fact that it was Jefferson’s work that kicked off this whole great American “experiment”. I believe the Declaration of Independence to be one of the greatest political documents in human history and I’m glad Jefferson gets the bulk of the credit for its creation.
So while Jefferson was far from perfect, and I definitely have a more well-rounded understanding of him, I still revere him as one of the greatest US presidents and leaders this country has ever had.
Thank you Mr Jefferson, and Happy Birthday USA!