Thomas Jefferson: A Summing Up

As we close out our long series of out-of-character programs on the life of Thomas Jefferson, our so-called Jefferson 101 series, I want to say a few words about Jefferson’s character and experience, in the hopes that it will help you and help me understand the trajectory of his life.

His first memory was of being carried on a pillow by a trusted black slave on the back of a horse, from one plantation to another. When he died on July 4, 1826, Jefferson was buried in the graveyard on the slope of the little Mountain he called Monticello. His casket was built by a trusted slave, John Hemings. His grave was dug by a trusted slave, Wormley Hughes. When he returned from five years in France in November 1789, the slaves at Monticello unhitched Jefferson’s carriage as he made his way up the mountain, and hauled it themselves to the portico of his Palladian House, which slaves had built. The carried Jefferson on their shoulders into the house.

Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves in the course of his life. He made some efforts early in his career to abolish slavery, but over time he grew complacent and learned to live pretty comfortably with an institution that he knew to be fundamentally wrong.

He revered his father Peter Jefferson, who died when Jefferson was just fourteen; he was not very effusive about his mother. Sons who lose their fathers at an impressionable age often go on to greatness. Jefferson was fortunate in his mentors: first William Small at William & Mary, then the Greek scholar and lawyer George Wythe. As a young man he was a profound reader—in seven languages, 12 to 15 hours per day. It can be said with confidence that he read all the major texts of the Enlightenment, digested their principles, and absorbed them into the very core of his being. He learned to articulate those principles with the clarity of genius, and then spent the rest of his life trying to create an American society that embodied and championed those Enlightenment ideals: rationality, rights, reform, republicanism.

Jefferson was a pragmatic utopian, and a utopian pragmatist. He envisioned an ideal American republic in which free men worked moderately hard in their fields by day and at night read Homer and Plutarch in the original Greek. This savors of a kind of literary fantasy, the work of an “intellectual voluptuary,” as Hamilton put it, but Jefferson seems to have been in earnest. Fortunately, he was willing to settle for something a little less utopian: the freest, most democratic, and most lightly governed society in human history.

Like many, Jefferson had an irregular romantic and sexual life. He was a deeply disciplined man, all head, frightened I think of female sexual energy, and about as self-contained as a man can be. But he flirted with several married women—in the Betsy Walker fiasco an affair of the heart might have led to an affair of honor. When his wife Martha died, he soon enough found solace in the arms of a nearly-white slave woman named Sally Hemings, who was thirty years younger than the man who owned her.

He was a practicing lawyer for eight years, a farmer (or rather plantation owner) for eight decades, and with a few sabbaticals at Monticello he gave his best energies to public service for forty years. Some historians refuse to believe that a man who was legislator, Governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and the third President of the United States could have been sincere when he said he would rather be tending his gardens at Monticello, but I believe him. His talents were so tremendous that the people of Virginia and the people of the United States would not permit him to lead a retired life as a Virgilian or Horatian farmer.

Jefferson seems not to have experienced any fallout for all of his maddening inconsistencies: He was a liberty loving slave holder, an admirer of American Indians who helped dispossess them, publicly frugal and privately bankrupt, a man who liked to live above the fray who was also one of the supreme political strategists of American history, an Anglophobe whose three great heroes were Englishmen, Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, a strict constructionist who purchased “an empire for liberty” that he himself knew was beyond the scope of the Constitution. This and more. Perhaps the most striking and perplexing quality of Jefferson’s soul is that he seems not to have experienced any discernable negative fallout from these paradoxes, not even his ownership of other human beings who he said were equal in the eyes of God. Unless you count the “periodical headaches” that forced him for days on end into a dark room a dozen or more times in his life.The greatest relationship of Jefferson’s life was with his daughter, Martha. He smothered her emotionally at times, but she adored him and gave the best energies of her life to protecting his privacy, his scholarly pursuits, and his many comforts. If she was aware that her father and Sally  Hemings were lovers, she seems never to have talked about it with her exceedingly private father.

Jefferson’s two closest friends were two of the greatest men in American history: James Madison, a great man who gave his life to a greater man, the downward-motioning Aristotle to Jefferson’s heaven-gesturing Plato. Theirs, say historians, was the greatest political collaboration in American history. And John Adams, a chubby and cerebral Sancho Panza to Jefferson’s cerebral, rail-thin Don Quixote. Adams was the only friend who could criticize and second-guess Jefferson and get away with it. In fact, he enjoyed puncturing Jefferson’s dreamy illusions about man and society, reminding the Sage of Monticello that the fundamental human urge was to be better than the next guy, and that no matter how hard we tried human nature could not be left behind on the European edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

Jefferson was not the greatest president in American history, but he is in many respects the greatest man who was ever elevated to the presidency of the United States. He is the Da Vinci of the New World. He was many things: farmer, man of letters, politician, diplomat, scientist, librarian, bibliophile, architect, paleontologist, legislator, and enlightened gardener. But the word that characterizes Thomas Jefferson best is Creator. He was one of the great creative geniuses in world history. We are fortunate that he was born in America.

Most important of all, perhaps, he believed that humans are up to the challenge of mastering life and governing themselves intelligently with minimal external coercion. To that ideal he gave his long, productive, and extraordinary life.

"Aerial View Of The Jefferson Memorial, April 1973," from the National Archives and Records Administration.