Jefferson’s early biographer James Parton famously said the third president could “Calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.”
A version of that famous list of talents has been in my stage-performance introduction for several decades now. But when I actually paused to read Parton’s statement carefully the other day, I realized, all over again, what a remarkable man Jefferson was. And that’s just an abbreviated list of his talents.
It also made me realize, all over again, my own glaring limitations as a man and as a Jefferson impersonator. Let’s go through the list. Calculate an eclipse. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I understand how an eclipse works. I remember at Stonehenge long ago my Oxford friend Douglas, a physicist, explaining an eclipse to a scientifically challenged friend using an orange, a grapefruit, and a tangerine. If the experts tell me there will be a total eclipse of the sun on August 21, 2017, I know how to plan my schedule and get myself somewhere in the eclipse corridor where the summer skies are likely to be clear that day. But if I had all alone to calculate the next total eclipse of the sun, I’d be flummoxed. To put it lightly.
Survey an estate.
This I could probably learn to do in a few weeks of basic training. I’m not saying it would be easy or very accurate, but give me George Washington’s tools—Gunter’s chain and surveyor’s compass—and I could probably do a minimally credible job of that. But don’t start digging your basement using my calculations.
Tie an artery.
Hard to think of how to get ready for this one. I’m guessing I could do it, given some practice, but a lot of goats would probably have to die along the way. Quivering terrified plunging animal, blood oozing or shooting all over, slippery uncertain fingers—given the state of my eyes, I’d probably still be trying to thread the needle long after the goat kabobs were roasting over the fire. I’m a little amazed that Jefferson could do this, but as they say, genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains. And he happened to have a needle and thread in the pocket of his greatcoat. Never leave home without that.
Plan an edifice.
Well, we can all do that. Don’t ask me which are the load-bearing walls, and the bathroom doors would probably open the wrong way, but I could plan my dream house. In fact, thanks to this exercise I am going to spend this weekend drawing out on a napkin what my dream house would be, if money were no object. I do think a dome is a great idea, but I’d use mine as an astronomer’s observatory, not as my grandson’s honeymoon cottage. I’d have skylights in as many rooms as possible, like Jefferson, and a solarium/greenhouse on a southwest facing wall. I’d make it the smartest smart home you can buy with current technology, including tunable windows, and I’d have a Siri/Alexa thingy in every room.
Try a cause.
All my degrees are in English literature, but I could probably do this if I set my mind to it. We’ve all seen enough law dramas on television to have some sense of how this works. “Objection your honor: leading the witness!” I wouldn’t want to be the defense attorney if very much were at stake, but for a fender bender or a minor drug deal gone bad, I believe I could do this. Read the statutes in question, read the police report looking for inconsistencies, read a bunch of related cases, cite Blackstone and Edward Coke for no apparent reason, and pray they didn’t read the perp his Miranda rights at the time of the arrest. Case closed. Visitation hours: Thursdays at 10 a.m.
Break a horse.
I’ve seen this done out in the Killdeer Mountains of Dakota Territory. First you have to catch the horse. That requires a skill set I probably don’t have. Then you snub it up somewhere. Put a blanket on its back for a millisecond. It goes berserk. Repeat 800 times. Soothe the beast as best you can. Eventually the horse will accept the blanket. Add saddle, same violent results. Repeat endlessly. But eventually you have to get up on that horse and turn it loose. I think it’s fair to say the horse would be infinitely likelier to break me than the other way around.
Dance the Minuet.
This I have done, many times in fact (by which I mean about five). I was trained to dance the minuet twice: once during a teacher training humanities retreat in Minnesota; the other time for a play I co-wrote called My Head and My Heart: Jefferson and Maria Cosway. This drama, based on the Paris love affair between the widower Jefferson and the Italian-English painter, musician, and coquette Maria Cosway, required me to dance with the two beautiful actresses who portrayed Mrs. Cosway. I could not perform it tonight, at the country western roadhouse out on the edge of town, but give me a long weekend and the right coquette, and, as Shakespeare says, hark what discord follows.
And Play the Violin.
Nope. I won’t say it’s too late now, but it’s effectively too late now. I curse my mother and father for being permissive 60s parents. I’d give anything to be able to work a dinner party like Patrick Henry with his fiddle. I’d love to start a Jefferson performance by pulling out my kit violin and playing some hauntingly beautiful violin solo—perhaps Tchaikovsky’s Concerto-Second Movement, if I may be anachronistic. I’ve put my 10,000 hours into mastering Jefferson, and an equal number into understanding Shakespeare and John Donne, and there are perhaps a dozen five thousand hour projects in my obsessive compulsive life, but making exquisite music is not one of them.
That’s the Jefferson list.
So now I’ve worked myself into a pretty deep depression. I’ve always wanted to be a renaissance man or a Man for All Seasons. But when I look into the Jefferson mirror, I see that I am merely a Man for a Season and a Half, at best. In a just world, I would be portraying Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan. Still, it is never too late to regroup and rededicate one’s life. How do you climb Mount Fuji? One step at a time.
Perfect. I’m ordering my violin, my Gunter’s chain, my telescope, and my herd of goats on Amazon prime today. Buy Enlightenment with one click, indeed.
"The Devonshire minuet", 1813. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.