After our interview with historian Joseph Ellis last week, I offered a preliminary commentary on why Ellis is the best historian we have of the Early National Period of American History.
Today, I want to talk more specifically about his analysis of the life and achievement of Thomas Jefferson.
In American Sphinx, Ellis provided a number of key insights about Thomas Jefferson. In his chapter on Jefferson in France, Ellis wrote that by now, “He was also more seasoned as a man, less vulnerable and sensitive because more adroit at protecting his interior regions from intruders by layering his internal defenses in ways that denied access at all check points.” Check points is perfect, a kind of modern “metaphysical conceit” of the kind we find in John Donne’s seventeenth century poetry.
The eighteenth century poet Alexander Pope defined wit as “what oft was thought but never so well expressed.” When I read Ellis’s view that Jefferson was “protecting his interior regions from intruders,” I immediately underlined the passage and wrote, “precisely!!!” in the margin. How did Ellis see this? Well, for one thing, if you come at Jefferson after you have written about John Adams, you immediately see the difference. The personality of Adams sets off the personality of Jefferson, and vice versa. Adams not only wears his heart on his sleeve, but he appears never to have had a thought, impression, feeling, or notion that he did not scrawl out on paper. We know what Adams’ heart and soul were up to, because there they are in his letters, no layering, no internal defenses. Adams’ soul is there right in front of you: raw, battered, insecure, petty, anxious, fretful, angry, vengeful, envious, and self-pitying, but also high-minded, magnanimous, candid, and insusceptible of gauzy platitudes. By Adams’ standard, Jefferson was so intensely self-protective and buttoned up as to be maddening or possibly even boring.
Because Ellis has worked his way around the great lights of the American Revolution—Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine, Abigail Adams, and Burr—by which I mean he has done the hard scholarly work of reading everything by them and much that has been written about them—he does not see these great individuals as a series of nearly identical looking chess pieces or marble statues in Disney’s Hall of Revolutionary Heroes. Because of his immense reading, Ellis sees them as strikingly interesting and idiosyncratic individuals, and he is not afraid to explore the unresolved energies in their mighty lives.
Here’s another great insight from Passionate Sage. Ellis writes, “Unlike Adams, whose heart and mind were wired together in a single network that carried ideas and urges along lines that linked them to a common power source, Jefferson had created separate lines of communication inside himself that were designed to prevent one set of signals from interfering with the other.”
This is marvelous and also true. Jefferson had to live with certain paradoxes. The most obvious of these, and the most morally troubling, was that he was a human rights advocate who bought and sold slaves all of his life. Think about that for a moment. To use our cliché, how did he sleep at night with this whopping hypocrisy visible every hour of his waking life—and if the rumors are true, during his sleeping hours too? My lifestyle may necessitate open pit coal mining on the Great Plains or locked sweatshops in China, but I don’t have to face those paradoxes on a daily basis. In fact, you may say that one of the masterful strategies of global modernity is that we have found ways to hide from ourselves and each other the true cost of our material comforts.
Not so for Jefferson. Slaves served him breakfast. Slaves cleaned out his ingenious indoor privy. Slaves washed his clothes. Slaves prepared his horses well before he stepped out onto the terrace to mount up. Slaves mulched his gardens. Slaves grew his tobacco. Slaves built his Palladian neoclassical house, by which I mean they baked the bricks, cut the timbers, mixed the cement, erected the scaffolding. Heck, slaves built the White House and the Capitol in Washington, too.
The question I ask myself virtually every day is, how did Jefferson find it possible to live with this contradiction (and many others)? Where’s the fallout? Why did he not break out in hives? Why did he not have a massive stroke just after writing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal?” Why didn’t he drink heavily, like so many of his friends and kin or get hooked on laudanum or develop sexual fetishes?
Ultimately we have no answer to this question. Nobody has ever really been able to sort this out. The great Jefferson biographer Merrill Peterson admitted in the preface of his book that after twenty years of hard study he found Jefferson: “impenetrable.” That’s a very telling and perhaps Freudian word choice. Jefferson would probably have smiled to read that sentence. But if anyone has ever found a way to make sense of the paradox that was Jefferson it is Joseph Ellis.
He concludes the passage in question with this powerful and possibly unfair sentence: Jefferson “Had the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart.”
Or how about this passage about Jefferson’s 1786 Paris romance with Maria Cosway. Ellis argues, and I agree, that whatever it was, it was probably not a carnally passionate relationship. Of Jefferson’s correspondence with Mrs. Cosway, Ellis writes, “It also bears witness to his urge to transport his palpable feelings for a real woman to a more imaginary region where perfect love could be more easily and safely experienced.” Excellent insight. A little later he writes, “the abiding character of their lengthy correspondence makes it abundantly clear that Jefferson preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of his mind rather than the physical world of his bedchamber.”
Spot on, in my view.
Here’s one more.
Ellis writes, “Unlike Adams, who regarded an argument as the ideal form of a conversation, or Franklin, who had the capacity to float above the political infighting on the basis of seniority and wit, or Washington, who was already regarded as atop the American Olympus, and therefore untouchable, Jefferson felt every criticism personally. Clashing opinions or arguments struck him as dissonant noise and therefore a crude refutation of the national harmonies he believed in and heard inside himself. In a sense, his retirement to private life in 1794 was a long-delayed recognition that as a public figure he had always been miscast.”
“Heard inside himself.” Perfect. Here’s how good Joseph Ellis is. I think if Jefferson read that passage he would agree with every word of it. He might try to quibble with Ellis’s view that Jefferson “felt every criticism personally,” but alone late at night, in the safety of his study on top of a remote mountain, he would probably acknowledge that Ellis was right about that, too.
Joseph Ellis is a national treasure. If you haven’t read his books, I urge you to start now. The place to start, is Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams.