#1318 Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian?

#1318 Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian?

"I believe so strongly that Jefferson was right about separation of church and state."

— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

We wish all a Merry Christmas from The Thomas Jefferson Hour, which, as it turns out, is perhaps more than Thomas Jefferson would have done. Jefferson was not a believer in celebrating Christmas in a traditional fashion and felt it should not be a national holiday.

I Acknowledge Mine

I Acknowledge Mine

Clay and David offer a heartfelt thank you to 1776 Club members and share email responses to show #1245 This Thing of Darkness. They also discuss future plans for episodes, including wrapping up the Jefferson 101 series. David goes "off" when Clay tries to pass himself off as an ambivalent person.

A Word About Fathers and Daughters

A Word About Fathers and Daughters

If you ask me what the most successful relationship was in Jefferson’s 83-year life, I can answer unequivocally that it was with his elder daughter Martha, whom he called Patsy, at least when she was young. She adored her father, and was a fierce and lifelong protector of his privacies, his sensitive spirit, and his reputation.

Congratulations, Graduates, and Back Up Your Hard Drive

When I graduated from high school my parents bought me a portable typewriter. It was a brand new Hermes 3000 manual with a gray-green plastic body. It was a beautiful machine, and I used it for everything I wrote for the next 20 years. In fact, even now, one or two or three times per year, when I want to write something I regard as really important—a letter to a lost and found friend, a letter to my daughter about something that really matters, a letter to the governor—I get out my Hermes 3000 and hack away at it. There is something joyful and sensual in lining up two fresh sheets of paper and advancing them carefully over the platen, seeing if the mechanical Tab button still works to indent the date, and then staring at that blank sheet of paper while thinking about how to start. No delete button, or cut and paste feature, on a typewriter.

It always makes me a little sad, afterwards, to slide the cover over the machine and place it back on its special shelf.

I got a portable typewriter for graduation; my classmate Curt Pavlicek got a Corvette. I say this without undue bitterness, though I have managed to find a way to say at several times per year for 42 years in a row. And nothing makes me grumpier than some well-meaning friend who says, "But think of how much more use you got out of your typewriter than he from a car."

Wrong. And beside the point.

This is the time of the year (or was) when gift and stationery stores ran out of dictionaries and Cross pens. Probably some older people still give them as gifts, but they have essentially gone the way of Brylcreem and Burma Shave signs. I gave my last Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary to a high school graduate about ten years ago. He looked at me like I had given him a copy of the 1852 World Almanac for Albania or a rebuilt butter churn. In the age of spellcheck, the freestanding dictionary is regarded as a gift of desperation purchased by a fuddy-duddy who should have just written a check.

We all know that a dictionary is much more than a spelling guide. Free online dictionaries are so rudimentary as to be almost worthless. In his fascinating book, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester offers the following wonderful sentence: "A dictionary is the history of a people from a certain point of view." Almost no day goes by when I do not consult the dictionary—Webster's Third New International whenever possible. After I have opened it to my word, I invariably smooth the sheets several times as if I were touching a fine piece of mahogany or ivory. At earlier points in my life, when I had more leisure, I made it a rule to check the three words before and the three words after the one I had just looked up.

Try defining the following words: truth, north, soul, beauty. She who can do this is a genius.

Over the course of time, I've been asked to deliver the graduation address at a dozen or so colleges and high schools. I always say yes if my schedule permits, because I love the excitement in the auditorium. The proud parents, the snippy and sarcastic siblings, the odd little family "demonstrations" and cheering sections for the kid they reckoned would never graduate from anything. The graduate—usually a boy—who performs some pre-rehearsed trick on the stage: a somersault, a pirouette, the thrusting open of the gown to reveal a Superman t-shirt, a flat-on-the-floor genuflection to the college president. You can usually discern the families of the ones who are the first in their line to graduate from college. I find that very moving. It is such an important moment in the history of that family. My father, a grateful veteran, said the GI Bill of Rights was one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in the history of the United States. He and my mother were both the first.

When I give the graduation address, I always start by saying, "I am well aware that the only thing that now stands between you and your college degree is the knucklehead at this podium, so I will try to be brief." And for once I usually am. And I always start with a comic line from Woody Allen's "My Speech to the Graduates": "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." But in recent years people have not laughed at this so heartily as before, and I am thinking of retiring it until the next American Era of Good Feelings.

Graduation addresses are paradoxical things. First, nobody is really listening. You are just a kind of necessary "fill." I don't remember what anyone said at my graduations, or who they were, but I'm pretty sure they said, "today is the first day of the rest of your life," or "this is not an end, but a beginning." Second, the kind of people colleges get to deliver graduation addresses are usually successful workaholics who have devoted every waking minute to achievement, but who now say, "Make sure you take time for your heart. Relax more. Just laze about sometimes. Buy a skateboard. Don't just stop and smell the roses. Grow some roses." But wait, Mr. Jobs, if you had done that, would we have the iPhone?

Third, assuming the graduation speaker actually has any insight about life (doubtful), that wisdom came from a long and winding journey through the maze of life, with triumphs and failures and periods of doubt and self-destruction, from sudden visitations of unearned misfortune, but also from unearned victories. You can't have wisdom sprinkled on your soul by someone who flew in first class yesterday evening for the reception. You have to earn it through the adventure and pain of an authentic life. You can tell an 18-year-old 100 times, "cherish your parents, for you will be them in thirty years," but it doesn't mean much until you figure it out for yourself. You're probably better off giving more useful advice. "Always back up your hard drive." "Get out of your way." "The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places."

Fourth, nobody's listening.

When I left the country to study abroad for a couple of years, I asked my father, a brainy and thoughtful man, for his advice. He paused. And then he said, "Never kill a cop." He went on to explain, "If you kill a cop, you will be known as a cop killer, and all the cops on the beat will be after you." Actually, that is really good advice, the only advice that I can honestly say I have hearkened to in life, and so far it has worked out pretty well.

When I graduated from college, my father sent me a fabulous gift that could be contained in a stamped envelope. I opened it on graduation day at the University of Minnesota. I quote it in its entirety. "Dear Son, Your college experience has now cost your mother and me $17,345.67. Congratulations. Best wishes to you in your future endeavors."

Your was underlined.

Photograph from the Library of Congress, 3 June 1914.

When a Flying Drop Kick Still Won the Day for Truth and Virtue

Some days I feel like the luckiest man alive. Here, for example, is the kind of mother I have. We exchange notes a couple of times per week. Yesterday morning, after a week-long silence, I got the following text: "Verne Gagne has died." Nothing more. Almost Biblical in its simplicity. The minute I read those telegraphic words my mind drifted off into an adolescent reverie.

Four plus decades ago, every Saturday night for several years my friend Robert ("Brother") and I used to make a homemade pizza (All Star Pizza) at his house, and watch grown men in tights, in grainy and flickering black and white images, lumber and bellow around the Minneapolis Auditorium. The giants of the "squared circle" were Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon (and his brother the Butcher), the flying Frenchman Rene Goulet, Pampero Firpo the Wild Bull of the Pampas, the very capable Kenny Jay, and Iron Man George Gadaski. And of course the evil genius of professional wrestling, Dr. X, who had deposited a $1000 certified check in a Minneapolis bank for anyone who could break the Figure Four Leg Lock (once properly applied).

That's a great mother.

Rest in peace, Verne Gagne. If there is an All Star Heaven, I feel certain you will break the Figure Four Leg Lock no matter how it is applied, and quite possibly unmask Dr. X for the first time. May the marvelous old announcer Roger Kent be on hand to say, "Oooh, I hate to see that hold," and "Ladies and Gentlemen, that hold is banned in many states." Or his signature line: "That's an arm bar with a twist—sounds like a drink to me!"

My grandmother was pretty certain professional wrestling was real, not fake. She was curious about Gagne's elixir Gera Speed, which she reckoned had made him a superman, but we never ordered it. Saturday nights on the farm in Minnesota, she and I would watch All Star Wrestling with the sound turned low, so as not to wake Grandpa who had to be up at four to milk the cows. But she would get so worked up by some ring infraction—the absolute worst thing you could ever do was gouge Gagne's eyes with a foreign object—that she would cry out in protest and slap her knee, and pretty soon Grandpa would appear in the doorway in his homemade pajamas either to rebuke us severely or to call us "damned fools" and make some grimacing gesture in imitation of Mad Dog Vachon.

Verne Gagne, dead at 89.

"Well, after all," said my mother on the phone later, "he was a very old man." Let's see: Gagne 89, Mother 83, admittedly a youthful 83. I resisted the impulse for a smart aleck response. She read me the account of his life and death from the Minneapolis Tribune, mispronouncing some of the names of his celebrated opponents. She was never a true initiate. She couldn't tell a half nelson from a side headlock if her life depended on it. But I do not judge her (Matthew 7:1).

Nostalgia is a strange thing. I suppose the author Doug Larson is right, "Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days." The years of All Star Wrestling were years of pain for me, which perhaps explains why I escaped every Saturday night to eat soggy, doughy peperoni pizza while watching grainy men in speedos bellow and gesticulate. It also explains why there were no dates.

My mother is one who is more likely to stride forward than look back, but she seems to be experiencing a wave of nostalgia these days. She reminded me on the phone last night that my father died 20 years ago this week, in the New Room of our house in Dickinson (still New in the family lexicon). I miss him every single day. Current events intrigued him. He could talk about whatever was passing in the world with insight and wit, and he always had his facts straight. You could not get him to watch All Star Wrestling with a cattle prod—apparently he had what are known as "human standards"—and since we had only one television, indeed one that required you to get up to change the channel, the voice of Roger Kent Ringside (as we called him) was never heard in our house.

When I was a child there was pro boxing on television on Saturday nights. My father would watch for a few minutes while reading the New Yorker in his favorite reading chair. For a few years there was also a Saturday night show called Have Gun Will Travel, starring Richard Boone as a gunslinger called Paladin. We had a special little funky family meal we invariably ate on Saturday nights. I'm sworn to secrecy about its contents, but I am permitted to divulge that it involved homemade hors-d'oeuvres, including, I'm sorry to say, Vienna Sausages.

After my call with my mother, I got out my first photo album to see how many All Star wrestlers I could identify. My parents gave me a 35mm camera for my 13th birthday—maybe the greatest gift of my life. They let me build a darkroom in a storage room just off the kitchen, and for the next four years I spent most of my free time knuckles deep in chemical (Dektol) and using what little cash I had to buy bulk 35mm film (Tri-X) and stiff yellow Kodak boxes of printing paper. My eccentric uncle Joe of Seattle gave me his darkroom equipment.

There was mystery in photography then, and craft, and ritual. Between the moment you snapped the photo (no auto focus, no auto aperture and shutter speed) and the time when you placed a dried print in front of another human being, there were several dozen discrete steps, involving total darkness, wire spools, a red darkroom light, chemical baths, paper cutters, framing wands, negative and print dryers. The process could break down at any point, and if your sister burst into the room to brush her teeth, the whole enterprise could be lost.

My little 5x7 homemade album contains some of the first hundred photos I took and printed. Talk about nostalgia. Pictures of our Schnauzer "Scamp" as a tiny puppy. Pictures of an unhappy family vacation in Winnipeg. My father reading in his chair. My mother in the 70s: big glasses and big hair. My confirmation: me, impossibly young and innocent, wearing pants I had grown out of, my sponsor Robert Burda looking sponsory. Photos of Robert (Brother) with his Dalmatians. A photo of the Ole Reb yodeling reveille at KFYR. My first ham radio kit.

A photo (one of hundreds taken) of our round television screen, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around the moon: July 20, 1969, affixed with yellowing Scotch tape to the page, with my youthful handwriting, all patriotism and techno-pride: "Man Walks on the Moon!!!"

And there he is, Verne Gagne, undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World standing near the turnbuckle in the Trinity High School gym in Dickinson, legs spread in triumph, looking handsome and virile and, well, pretty angry (through his smile), while on his knees before him is Mad Dog Vachon, arms stretched out in supplication, begging for his sorry life.

Godspeed Verne Gagne.

May your cape be newly dry-cleaned, and your entrance fees be paid.

So Now We Wait for the First Thunderstorm

Sometimes in North Dakota when we get through winter, there is a puny little mini-spring that lasts a few days or a week, and suddenlyseemingly overnightit is summer. As we all know, summer doesn’t mean quite the same thing here that it means in other places. There are very few hot or even lovely Memorial Days in North Dakota, and it can be windy, chilly, and grey right up to the end of June. This year we are getting a genuine spring with variable weather and lots of blowsy wind. That makes me happy.

I’ve been recording my observations.

Thursday, March 12First shirtsleeve day of the year. In mid-March! I walked six miles at 5 p.m. and did not take even a jacket with me. That’s an act of trust this time of year but it worked out. Precisely one week ago, same time, same walk, it was below zero. The low on March 5th was minus 8. The high today plus 72. That’s an 80-degree difference in one week. When I walked the same trail a week ago I wore a parka, mittens, a stocking cap, and a scarf, and seriously thought of turning back after the first mile. My legs were numb.

Friday, March 13I walked my long walk reading a book. I do this because I love to read and walk, walk and read, but there are vehicles that go by that seem to regard this as either a physical impossibility or a parlor trick. A car bursting with teenage testosterone (six young men celebrating spring) flashed by and a boy shouted “@#XX% freak!” I waved in good humor. But at some point, no matter how absorbing the book, I close it firmly so that I can walk twenty minutes and just drink in the magnificence of the plains. Endless blue skies in every direction.

Monday, March 23My first meadowlark of the year. I’ve been waiting impatiently. It was five miles south of Bismarck, east of the Missouri River. Ten days ago someone posted on Facebook a meadowlark siting (hearing) in southwestern North Dakota. That evening, I broke an engagement to take my walk in hopes of hearing my first of the year. But no. Normally one sits on the power lines across the road from the trail singing the pure liquid song of the meadowlark--to celebrate life or seek a mate or protect territory, I’m not quite sure. But lustily. I was really disappointed that evening to come home empty-handed. The great meadowlark Chanticleer that used to live in my back yard, and return each year, has decided my neighborhood is a little too domesticated now (I think so too), and sought leaner pastures. I loved that yellow bird, and called back to it with a variety of meadowlark imitations, hoping to start a dialogue. I’ve been able in my life to talk with coyotes, in more or less their language, but never with a meadowlark.

Meadowlark numbers are down throughout the Great Plains. I know it sounds odd, maybe stupid, but my life would be seriously diminished without meadowlarks in it. They bring a kind of grace to our lives. They are a signature species of the Great Plains. They remind us that no matter how civilized we get, how mediated by screens and devices and in-doorsness, we share the planet with a range of wild creatures who are indifferent to our little sad dramas, and live their lives with as little contact with us as possible. There is hope in that.

The same evening I heard my first meadowlark I watched two vees of geese circle over a fallow field east of the Missouri. They were honking to beat the band. The two separate migration teams seemed to be barking at each other in anger. I don’t know if they were competing for the field (it was near dusk), or just somehow Trojan geese versus Greek geese, but it was hard to believe they could need to compete for airspace in one of the planet’s most open skies. Geese seldom fly in perfect vee formation. There are always stragglers madly flapping to catch up to the group, honking a kind of “wait up!” plea. I suppose there are whiners and malingerers among animals just as there are among humans (bipedal animals). I wonder if, once they land for the night, the alpha goose seeks out the losers and pecks them into compliance.

Thursday, March 26I drove from Bismarck to Bemidji, Minn. Very little snow in central and eastern North Dakota. Unless there are freak soaking rains, the Red River won’t flood this year. I always try to remember to observe the Continental Divide sign between Jamestown and Valley City (1,490 feet), but I usually miss it in my daydreaming. I’ve bestridden many spectacular continental divides in the United States, but for some reason this one really delights me, because it is so improbable. It’s near mile marker 275. On the west side, the James, Missouri, Gulf of Mexico basin2 feet to the east, the Sheyenne, Red, Hudson’s Bay basin. Sometimes I stop to take a photograph of it, I’m not sure why, because it is always the same photographgreen sign, fence, long green shoulder grass undulating in the wind.

You descend into the Red River Valley (the bed of ancient Lake Agassiz) without thinking about it, and then at some point you marvel at how perfectly flat the terrain has become. If you know what you are looking for you can see a series of beach edge remnants on the west side. But when you push through into Minnesota, the coming out of the Red River Valley is more dramatic than the coming in. Somewhere near Hawley, the land climbs up into wonderful roller coaster undulations. Minnesota’s rolling hill country between Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Fergus Falls, Minn., is among the most picturesque farm country in America. Barns with traditional silos in every direction. Here is true prairiethe meadow lands “between the trees.” And suddenly, somewhere near Park Rapids, birch trees begin to dominate the landscape. It’s all astonishingly beautiful. It’s amazing that the Red River divides two such dramatically different landscapes in such tight proximity. I love North Dakota with all of my heart, but there is no doubt why Minnesotans look down on us as occupants of a treeless, empty, and windswept landscape. Which is what I love most about it.

“Plains” is such an inadequate word. It has hurt our image in the national consciousness. For most people the word evokes emptiness and comparative flatness and a kind of homogeneous dreariness. Even “desert” has better associations in the national consciousness than Great Plains. But, as we say, there ain’t nothing to do about it.

So here comes April. Lewis and Clark experienced their first mosquito of the year on April 9, 1805, just west of Fort Mandan. I haven’t seen a crocus (pasqueflower) yet this year. It’s always a tight window of opportunity to kneel down in the grasslands to revere the most delicate, and I think most beautiful, of Great Plains flowers. If I miss seeing them I always feel that I have lost control of my life, and the glory of the North Dakota year is diminished.

But what I am waiting for most is the first thunderstorm of the year. That magnificent moment is what tells us that summer is not far off.

Travel-Worn Reveries as Thanksgiving Looms

Last week, I was flying from Washington, D.C., to Seattle, in two gulps, and having a very bad travel day. All the things that go wrong were going wrong, and when I finally got to my hotel with my damaged new luggage, wanting a hot shower more than anything in the world, the check-in agent turned out to be a very officious and unpleasant person who instantly discerned that I had not suffered enough for one calendar day. By the time she finally handed me my keys, thirty minutes later, I wanted to have a giant meltdown in the lobby of the hotel. I had a fantasy of just sitting down on the polished marble in the middle of the lobby and emptying my two broken suitcases of every item, piece by strewn piece, and then decanting a whole can of shaving cream over my body, while chanting the first verse of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan."

I went quietly to my room.

Two hours later, after a meal (mediocre) and a glass of wine (excellent), I tried to step back and put things in perspective. Thanksgiving is coming, after all. Before I write to you again, we will have celebrated our national day of gratitude. It is, in my opinion, easily the best holiday of the year and often the best day of the year. So as I sipped my wine, I decided to take a play from the Sheila Schafer happiness playbook, and make a list of things for which we all can be thankful. My friend Sheila claps three times in front of the mirror every morning, to express her gratitude for the miracle of life, and for all the gifts that she has been given by the grace of God. She is the happiest person I know.
Well, first of all, we are the most mobile people who ever lived on earth. I started the day in Washington, D.C., and ended it in Seattle, at the other end of the continent. That's 2,716 miles. Total transit time 6 hours, 44 minutes. All the heavy lifting was done by the industrial revolution. I merely sat in two snug 38,000 foot reading rooms, sipped beverages brought to me by friendly uniformed attendants, and lost myself in my book. After a lifetime of flying around, I still regard it as a kind of miracle that you can wake up at one end of America and go to sleep at the other. Just think back. On a good day, if everything went precisely according to plan, if there were no accidents or screw ups, Lewis and Clark might make 15 miles. And that's with everyone pushing and tugging and rowing with all of their might, dawn to dusk. I was miffed when they ran out of peanuts on my second flight.
And speaking of books. We are living in a golden age of books. Thanks to and its rivals, I can hear about a book at a dinner party somewhere, order it with a single keystroke (no typing in all that tedious billing and shipping information, and the credit card number, plus the security code), and often enough it is waiting for me in my mailbox when I get home three days later. And that's the slow way to get books in the 21st century. If you don't mind reading a book on a screen, you can as often as not get it instantly. I've actually downloaded books, in seconds, at 35,000 feet, while soaring at 500 mph over the deserts of the American West. How is this even possible? What would Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1398-1468) say about that? What would Thomas Jefferson think? With these breathtaking technologies, plus our superb currency-credit systems, and the wholesale digitization of the backlog of books from prior centuries, it is now possible to read just about anything you might ever want to read, immediately, on demand! I'm going to Europe in a few days, and my backpack will carry approximately 15 books (alas for my back), but I have pre-loaded 30 more books, some of them giants, on my iPad. In the face of that, how much annoyance can a power-drunk hotel desk clerk cause?
And speaking of backs. Thanks to pharmaceutical chemistry, nuclear radiation, lasers, and synthetic materials, we now live much longer than we used to, at a higher rate of well-being and productivity, with infinitely less pain. The life expectancy of First World people essentially doubled in the Twentieth Century. Today's men and women easily survive their first grave health scare (early 60s) and frequently enough survive the second and third crises, too. The quality of dental care we enjoy in America is enough to make anyone thankful to live now, rather than in the Age of Queen Elizabeth I, or for that matter in the Age of Jefferson, when you could expect to gum your gruel sans teeth for the last decades of your life. The "lying-in" period for women in childbirth in Jefferson's era was two weeks to two months. Today most women who give birth are kept in hospitals overnight merely as a precaution, and to provide some on-site neonatal assurances. Think of reconstructive surgery for those born with cleft palates or harelips, for those who survive grievous car accidents, or women who undergo mastectomies. Think of in utero surgeries that correct miniscule malformed heart valves or underdeveloped stomachs or lungs. We are living in the age of miracle and wonder.
Think about communication for a moment. When I was in college I called home once a month or so, collect, and I could hear my father at the other end of America, somewhere away from the phone, grumbling, "Tell him to write a letter," or "Can't this wait until Thanksgiving?" If we called my Grandma Rhoda long distance, she immediately asked who was sick—or dead, because it was not permissible to spend money on long distance calls if there were no big announcement or emergency. Today long distance is too cheap to meter. Some Saturdays I Skype or Face time with my daughter for a full hour, on high resolution video, free, wherever she happens to be and wherever I find myself. When she is busy I can follow her rhythms on Facebook. When she is very busy she sends me a puny little text, "Hey, papa," or "'Sup," that gives me the assurance I need that she is alive and well. In the Age of Jefferson, letters invariably began by hoping that the recipient was still alive. Communication was slow, uncertain, a kind of shot in the dark. If Lewis and Clark had had cell phones and GPS units, things would have been so much easier.
I've just ordered another glass of Pinot Noir. Remember back when in North Dakota your choices were red wine or white, and Inglenook was regarded as a quality wine for special occasions? When I go up to my room I'm going to watch Federico Fellini's great epic film of Rome, La Dolce Vita (1960), downloaded instantly for $3.95. But it could be any of a hundred thousand movies or television series.  
For all of that, now that I've cheered up, the things for which I am most thankful have nothing to do with technology, or money, or stuff. They are two women, one biologically old but young of soul, the other biologically young but smart and wise beyond her years, or her father's.
Happy Thanksgiving.