Performing as Thomas Jefferson

I’ve been performing as Thomas Jefferson for more than thirty years. In that time, I have spoken to 28 state legislatures, to Supreme Court Justices, including Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Byron White, and Sandra Day O’Connor; and to two Presidents, George HW. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton.

I have, by conservative estimates, performed as Jefferson 5,000 times. I’ve been on the Colbert Show, on Politically Incorrect, on the Today Show, and in three of Ken Burns’ documentary films, including his 1998 study of Jefferson.

Some form or other of the Jefferson Hour has been around for a very long time, first in Reno, more recently in the New Enlightenment Radio Network barn here in North Dakota.

I take all this as a sacred trust. It inspires me. And it delights me.

In the course of this long relationship with Jefferson, I have fallen in love with him again several times, and out of love, too. Like an old married couple, we have our moments. There are times when I can hardly stand to be in the same tights with Jefferson, and other times when I feel the privilege of hitching my intellectual pony to the cart of the American Enlightenment’s greatest figure. Almost no week goes by when I don’t learn something new about Jefferson, and over the course of months or years my perspective on the Third President changes. New approaches come to my head in the middle of the night, or while I am sitting in the little Missouri River in the badlands of North Dakota.

But I am happiest when I am talking with real people in America. I light up during the Q&A sessions of my performances, when I am engaged with some actual American citizen who has a question she or he really wants answered by one of America’s most remarkable individuals. People who follow my work invariably say that while they like the unscripted monologue, they really enjoy my energy, sharpness, and engagement during the Q&A.

That’s how I feel too. Today, we instituted a new feature of the Jefferson Hour. Friends of the program—in this case members of the 1776 Club—call in with their questions. I don’t know what they are going to be in advance. I always want to keep it spontaneous. It gives me such joy to know that you are out there, that you find the work of the Jefferson Hour helpful or compelling, that you believe in a nuanced and non-simplistic understanding of Jefferson and the Founding Generation, and that you wish to extend what Jefferson called the Republic of Letters and the Enlightenment at a time when there is widespread disillusionment with our civic culture.

Thomas Jefferson's grave site by Christopher Hollis, public domain from Wikimedia.

I take all this as a sacred trust. It inspires me. And it delights me. I am so mighty privileged to have this responsibility, to play this role, to get to look at the universe—from the Transit of Venus to the gardens of Monticello—through the eyes of one of the most fascinating individuals ever to walk the face of the earth. Not that Jefferson was always a creature of light, but hey—which one of us is.

Benito Mussolini wanted his epitaph to read: "Here lies one of the most intelligent animals who ever appeared on the face of the Earth." That's ludicrous for the fascist dictator, but it makes some sense for Jefferson—but Jefferson was so modest that he would never, ever have talked about himself in that way.