Putting Jefferson Under the Knife

Jefferson was a private man, at times a secretive man. For reasons that are not clear, at an early point in his 83 years, he walled off his inner life and fashioned a stoic persona that he presented to the world. He presented that persona not just to the big world, but to his own immediate world, too. He wanted us to see him as a mild-mannered gardener and man of learning who was reluctantly called from the plow at a revolutionary time, but who would rather be calculating an eclipse or grafting peach trees. And indeed he was all of those things, but those are not the only things he was, either. Jefferson was, for example, the most masterful politician of his era, though he would deny any political ambition or will to power, and he was constantly pining for what he called “our own dear Monticello,” where he could pretend to live above the sordid world of politics.

Jefferson’s propensity to pose as a modest agrarian with exquisite manners and civility is one reason why some people regard him as inauthentic, one reason why many prefer John Adams, who wore his soul on his sleeve, or Alexander Hamilton, who was perfectly willing to say that it was all about power, money, ambition, glory, war, primacy, and sexual conquest. Adams and Hamilton seem like versions of our own disillusioned selves, while Jefferson often seems like a character from an eighteenth century novel of manners. Like characters in Jane Austen, Jefferson seldom actually tells us what he feels or even what he is really thinking. What he offers us instead is what a highly evolved and exquisitely civilized small r republican would be expected to say or write on every occasion. Meanwhile, John Adams just sputters and mutters and gets it all off his chest every time.

Why was Jefferson so secretive? Why did he construct that Enlightenment persona and to what extent was some other Jefferson hiding behind it? Was he hiding from us or was he hiding from himself? Over the years I have attempted several times to make a list of the ten most revealing things Jefferson ever wrote. It reveals a great deal about Jefferson to conclude that you have to look hard and with a great sense of nuance to excavate any very revealing sentence from his eighty volumes of writings. It is easy to distill Jefferson’s vision of America from his works, for he is the most articulate of visionaries, but very difficult to know much about the actual human being who sat down at his exquisite writing desk.

Naturally, I have theories about all of this, but for the moment I want to address the question of his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia.

Jefferson wrote Notes on Virginia, mostly in 1781, at one of the darkest moments of his life. He had fled away from Monticello just ahead of a British arrest party, led by Bannastre Tarleton. He had abandoned his governorship at a time when the people of Virginia were desperately in need of a strong and persevering executive. Then he fell from a horse and broke his wrist.

His 32-year-old wife Martha was ill and clearly moving towards an early death. Meanwhile, the people of Virginia, or at least their representatives in the House of Delegates, believed that his behavior as governor had been so inadequate that he must be formally investigated for malfeasance and, in the minds of some, cowardice. Jefferson spent the summer of 1781 brooding and nursing his wrist. He managed at the next legislative session to clear his name (it didn’t hurt that the war was now over and we won), but he told his protégé James Monroe that the distrust of his fellow Virginians “had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.”

He was holed up through the summer and fall of 1781 at his second plantation (Poplar Forest), but long before he built his elegant octagonal experimental house there. His most sensitive biographer Fawn Brodie believes that at this nadir of his political career Jefferson was so full of rage, bitterness, self-pity, and self-doubt that he wrote a much more candid treatise than he would have written at a more serene and confident period of his life. In his own mind he was not writing a book at all, but merely answering queries sent to him by a French diplomat, filling out a questionnaire as it were. He did not expect the manuscript to be published. He was writing unguardedly, because his carefully constructed public persona had been shattered by revolutionary events, because he reckoned his political career was over, because he felt misunderstood and wanted to explain himself, because he needed the catharsis, and because he had passionate ideas about the future of Virginia and the United States.

Jefferson’s unguardedness in 1781 is most fortunate for us, for in Notes on the State of Virginia we have the most revealing document he ever wrote. It is amazing how many of the most important pronouncements of his life were made in this seemingly dry as dust almanac: 21 answers to 21 queries about climate, manufacturing, rivers, animals, plants, minerals, population, and the Virginia legal system.

No wonder Jefferson had the book privately printed in a limited number of copies in Paris, and then fretted and agonized when it finally got itself published into the world in 1787. He had, for a few months in the wake of his ignominious departure from the governorship, in the presence of a frail wife he must have known he was going to lose, let down his guard and written what he actually felt and thought about a wide range of subjects, and he knew that what he felt and thought was going to upset people around him.

He paid a significant price for his rare interlude of real candor. His critics quibbled with all sorts of passages in Notes on Virginia, and two of them have haunted him ever since. The first one comes from Query XVII, Religion, one of the greatest pronouncements ever made about freedom of conscience. In a very unguarded moment, Jefferson wrote, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Righteous evangelicals pounced on this statement immediately and their tribe (as Jefferson might put it) has been pouncing on it righteously ever since. It is, in fact, one of the most quoted passages in Notes on Virginia. You can even imagine opposition research today constructing attack ads on Jefferson in a presidential race. “An atheist and infidel for President. Think about it. Is this what God wants for America?”

The other haunting passage is Jefferson’s pseudo-scientific dissertation about black people in Query XIV, Laws. It is too horrible to quote. You can, if you wish, read it for yourself.

We know Jefferson was conflicted about race and slavery. I always wonder where was the psychological fallout from this most profound contradiction of his life—the slaveholder who can write “all men are created equal”? Most of the time Jefferson seems not to have experienced any psychic fallout over the hypocrisy that the greatest American champion of liberty bought and sold other human beings, had them whipped, at times bred them for market, sold them to pay his wine bills, and took one sexually. His equanimity and cheerfulness in the face of the appalling issue of race in Jefferson is almost impossible to understand.

Frankly, I think the psychological fallout came screaming out in Query XIV—a kind of dark racist diatribe against African-Americans, a subterranean fantasy projection of Jefferson’s guilt, anger (including self-anger), eroticism, self-protection, and what is known as casuistry—making the case for something you know is wrong. In this unguarded moment, while he was at his lowest ebb of self-confidence, Jefferson opened the iron gates of his Id and let his most reptilian energies pour out onto the page. Apparently, he can only live with slavery if he can convince himself that black people are inferior and are therefore beneficiaries of white supervision (i.e., slavery). He pretends he is making a sober, even cautious scientific analysis of the distinctions between black and white people, but in some sense he is projecting his massive self-disappointment (for being a slaveholder, of all things) onto the very people he has enslaved. It’s hard reading and nothing Jefferson ever wrote in his long and exceedingly verbal life has damaged his reputation as much as this spasm of naked race aggression.

And, if it is possible to make things worse, Query XIV’s dissertation on race ends in a fantasy of monstrous hostility dressed up as routine laboratory procedure. “The opinion, that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination,” Jefferson writes, “must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining.”

Solvents (by which he means acid), the laboratory oven, and the anatomical knife. How, asks Jefferson, can we understand black people without these scientific tools? All you can ask is, where did this Freudian moment come from?

Fortunately, Notes on the State of Virginia has scores of great passages, poetic invocations of America, idealistic essays about republican forms of government, paeans to the agrarian way of life, spirited, often humorous defenses of America against its European critics, and dozens of paragraphs that represent the best of Thomas Jefferson, the best of America, and the best of the Enlightenment.

Still, Fawn Brodie is right. If you want to understand the man behind the serene and neoclassical mask, you have to read Jefferson’s only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, with great care.