Spelunking for Truth in a Disillusioned Era

When people ask me, “how’d you get into this,” I usually say, “I was shoved.” I was trained in classics and English Renaissance Literature. I like to say I became a historian through the back door. One of my beloved mentors, Ev Albers, asked me once to dress up as Thomas Jefferson for a conference he was putting together. I agreed without really thinking about it. I did not then know that I would spend about a third of my life in tights.

I’m not really a historian, not even of the backdoor sort. I’m a humanities scholar. History matters to me. Being accurate and getting it right matters to me. I try never to distort the lives or the outlooks of the characters I portray, or make them puppets for my own worldview. That’s one reason I never work from a script. I don’t want to lock any of my characters, especially Thomas Jefferson, into a single configuration. I don’t always agree with what comes out of my mouth when I am in character. In fact, I’m often shaking my head—at least on the inside—when I say things that perplex me or run counter to my own sensibilities.

Hamlet famously told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that nobody looking in from the outside can “pluck out the heart of my mystery.” (By the way, the fact that I am quoting Shakespeare in a history essay is a sign that I am a humanities scholar not a pure historian). There are many things I don’t even now know about Thomas Jefferson, and I assume I will never know them: What kind of relationship he had with his mother, for example. What was the nature of his relationship with Sally Hemings? On a spectrum with brutal rape on the one end and a star-crossed interracial forbidden love affair at the other, I’m closer to love than rape, but the simple truth is that we don’t really know. There are scholars—I hesitate to call them that, because they are really opinionators—who believe that it had to be rape no matter what, because Jefferson had all the power, Hemmings none; he owned her, so even if she thought she was in love with him her responses were those of a victim scrambling to find survival strategies in a dehumanizing and inherently cruel institution. I find that idea hard to accept. Jefferson was many things, not all of them admirable, but sexual predator does not seem to be one of them. Or even sexual opportunist, for that matter.

We don’t finally know. I spend a lot of time puzzling over Thomas Jefferson. But the precise nature of his relations with Sally Hemings is not one of the themes that interests me much, in part because these things are inherently vexed and mysterious—what exactly was the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, or for that matter between Meriwether Lewis and William Clark? But the main reason this subject does not finally interest me much is that it feels like tabloid stuff—sensational, prurient, titillating, nosey—and like all tabloid stuff it tends to shoulder much more important and interesting information off the stage.

I’d rather try to figure out whether Jefferson actually thought humans were born good—that is, without original sin—than to intrude upon his privacy in the night. I want to know how he squared his amazing ideals with the much shabbier world he actually lived in, if he really thought we were up to the challenge of creating a semi-Utopian social order, or if he was in some sense just imagining or even posturing when he said all those inspiring things about the possibilities of reason, good sense, science, tolerance, due process, freedom, and peace. And when I think about slavery—which I do many times per week—the question I want to wrestle with is the question of emotional fallout. If you write “all men are born equal,” and mean it, and believe that slavery is a moral abomination, and mean that, and yet own several hundred human beings, and buy and sell them, and track them down when they try to escape, and have them whipped if necessary, then how does that whopping contradiction work its way through your being—your heart, your conscience, your language, your writings, your creative life, your relationships, your body language, your sleep and your repose?

I’ve puzzled over this for several decades now, and I have no answer for myself or for those who listen to me. Jefferson was an indefatigable writer of letters, notes, journals, and essays, and I have combed them all hoping to find something—a phrase, an aside, a moment of personal agonizing—that helps me to understand how the internal tension (a liberty loving slave holder, an idealist charting breeding rates for his slaves) found its way to the surface. You’d expect some neurotic fallout, a conscience pustule, a paradox rash, a momentary breakdown of repose in which the internal perplexities or misery forced its way into the expression of even a famously stoic man.

But no.

As a humanities scholar, I was trained never to accept any simplistic answers to complex questions. In fact, the work of the humanities scholar is to revel in the layered-ness and indeterminacy of the big questions. We know where Jefferson was on July 4, 1776, but we do not know much about the state of his mind. As in so many other arenas, Jefferson chose to withhold that understanding from us. We need to accept that, however much we might find it frustrating. Pat answers to complex, sometimes impossible, questions don’t actually illuminate the bewilderment that is at the heart of almost everything that is interesting in the world; Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile—why Hamlet could not sweep to his revenge—why Meriwether Lewis killed himself in 1809—why Mark Twain gunked up the ending to Huckleberry Finn—why Bill Clinton shattered his presidency for some tawdry oral sex in the Oval Office—why the Renaissance was obsessed with death—and, not inconsequentially, what Jefferson meant when he declared, in the most loaded of all of his great phrases, that we are endowed by our Creator with the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

As a humanities scholar I’m like a spelunker with a little REI camper’s headlamp—one indeed with doubtful batteries—exploring a few of the vast labyrinthine caverns of western civilization (from the conservation ethos of Theodore Roosevelt and the ethical agonies of the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, to the birth of broadcast news in William Shirer’s London, or the erotic theology of my poet John Donne). I see those few things that I blunder into in the dank caverns of our collective past through a glass darkly, and my little lamp shines flickeringly into this alcove or that crevasse. There is (I speak only for myself) far more darkness than light, far more mystery than clarity, far more ignorance than knowledge, far more sight than insight. And when I return to the surface, with a tear in my shirt and my hat now missing in some corridor I could probably never find again, I feel like the prisoners coming out of Plato’s cave in the Republic—blinded by the light at the surface, disoriented, unsteady on their feet, incapable of explaining precisely what they saw down there, and already feeling their few insights slip away into the infinite darkness.

For all of that, I feel enormously privileged to get to spend my life in these little Charlie Chaplin investigations—so many many many rooms I still want to explore—and I feel humbled and honored that you tune in to listen to those fragmentary thoughts that I bring back from my journeys.