Tue 20 Jun, 2006 12:06 pm
The popular image of Jefferson is built up from his many achievements, such as authoring the Declaration of Independence, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, authorizing the Lewis and Clark expedition, coining the phrase "separation of church and state," and establishing the University of Virginia. While I'm aware of detractors who decry his ownership of slaves, his public conduct seems largely beyond reproach as far as John Q. Public is concerned. In this thread, I invite contributors to flesh out the picture with significant facets of his public career that are omitted or glossed over in popular accounts.
First, i would point out that much of what Jefferson is credited with writing, and in particular, the Declaration of Independence, does not represent the expression of original ideas, even though the choice of words to express the ideas was sometimes somewhat novel. Jefferson had a nack for restating ideas he learned from others and presenting them as his own. In the case of the Declaration of Independence, it was much more prolix in his draft than the final version--it had been a task given to a committee, who, mercifully, used the blue pencil freely.
Apart from that, Jefferson was often a political weathervane. His political ideals did not lead him far enough to participate in the Revolution, either as a soldier (such as little James Madison) or a foreign envoy (such as John Adams). After the Continental Congress at which he helped to draft the Declaration of Independence (as much as amanuensis as in any other capacity--his florid passages about natural sympathies between peoples betrayed were ruthlessly slashed, thank heavens), he almost drops off the national stage entirely. When he reappears, he is an envoy to France, from which the nation derived no real benefit, if at least suffering no decided harm. He was deeply sympathetic to the French Revolution (and probably genuinely so, if in an ill-considered degree), although continuing to live the life of and to support the concept of landed aristocrat ruling as of right and a matter of social duty. He accepted the post of Secretary of State in Washington's government, and then worked mightily at cross-purposes to Alexander Hamilton, without having the honesty to come out and admit that he disliked Hamilton personally, that he and Hamilton squabbled privately over the French Revolution, and without acknowledging to Washington that he worked against Hamilton's financial program behind the scenes until he (Jefferson) finally resigned in 1793.
As President, Jefferson had some disasterous notions of republican ideals which were to cost the nation much in the war of 1812. Jefferson allowed the first-class Navy which Washington and Adams had carefully built up to fall into decay, espousing a belief that the nation could be defended by gunboats in the coastal waters. In the War of 1812, sailors and Marines did great service in artillery batteries and in the infantry firing line on land--because their gunboats had been sent to the bottom by the Royal Navy, or had been captured by ships' boats from the Royal Navy. Those vessels of the Navy built by Washington and Adams which were well-handled gave great service against what was then the most powerful navy in the world.
Jefferson also had the quixotic notion that the nation could be protected by the militia alone, and saw no middle ground between that and the threat of tyrrany from a standing army. In the War of 1812, the United States went from one disaster to another--Detroit, Queenston, Bladensburg--in which superanuated Revolutionary officers with political connections combined with the militia to lose nearly every major engagement. In two cases only did United States forces shine in that war on land--Lundy Lane and New Orleans. In the former case, officers of the Regular Army depending upon enlisted men of the Regular Army and volunteer regiments fought the British to a standstill near the scene of the 1812 Queenstown debacle--and probably would have been able to claim a victory, if Winfield Scott had not been wounded and carried from the field, at which point his replacement withdrew from the high ground, giving up the British guns Americans had spent so much blood to capture. At New Orleans, Jackson, fresh from his Creek War victory, and with many Kentucky and Tennessee voluteers from that war, combined with the Crescent City militia fighting in defense of their homes, and sailors and Marines from the latest example of Jefferson's sunken gun boat navy to hand the veterans of the Penninsular War against Napoleon a stunning defeat which saw their commander shot down on the battlefield.
That's enough for now. Jefferson has enjoyed one of history's great PR jobs--i personally don't think he deserves it.
thanks, Set. i was at least aware that the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness line (if you substitute property for pursuit of happiness), as well as the right & duty of citizens to overthrow tyrannies, came from Locke. but about the only thing i remembered about the war of 1812 was that the US didn't lose.
Thanks, Set, for a good start. Notice my location below my avatar.
I waded through the (to me) definitive biography of Jefferson by Dumas Malone (5 volumes, as I recall). But that was perhaps 15 years ago.
I take folks up to Monticello on a regular basis. Usually, I sit in the gardens rather than do the interior tour for the 100th time. But I do take the tour periodically and, to their credit, the guides are much more willing to discuss Jefferson's flaws, including the slavery issue and the Sally Hemmings controversey.
Anyway, I was just intending to bm. If any of yall are planning to come to Cville, let me know.
I declare. I admired the man for more than just his political achievements.
Failures occur in every presidency, yit.
His inventions; his architecture; his university; his firm believe in the non-transferable rights of human beings are note worthy. I am citing this from memory, so please be kind. The issue of slavery was discussed, and most of the delegation wanted to consider some way to work its dissolution into the declaration but were afraid that it might be disadvantageous at that time, just as Lincoln excluded the border states from The Emancipation Proclamation. Politics is, after all, a part of every presidency.
This from my oldest sister, so I can't verify it. Thomas Jefferson co-signed a note for someone who later declared bankruptcy and it left Jefferson destitute. I do not know the details, but he must have known in advance that he had much to lose, and yet went ahead with it. To me, that denotes compassion at his own expense.
We must always look at negative institutions within the framework of the times, but I won't go into that.
Monticello is amazing for the trouble he took to keep the slaves out of sight--it seemed to be a neurotic fixation with him--automatic opening doors, the dumb waiter, storm windows--the kitchen and scullery completely underground, even an underground passage to the spring on the hillside so the "house niggers" could draw water without being seen on the lawn.
A very strange man, indeed.
Setanta, the institution of slavery is far older than the United States. As for Monticello, I have never been there so I cannot comment. I do think that George Washington was possibly our finest president, but if you recall, although France helped us in the American Revolution, he eschewed foreign entanglements and would not get involved in the French Revolution.
Letty, i had never heard of his outstanding debt. in several sites i googled, the amount is given as $100,000, an enormous sum at the time. even if the circumstances were as described by your sister, seems unlikely it was all due to one loan he cosigned. i emphasized his public career, because what he did privately was his business, but have no wish to exclude any topic, including institutions and their framework. i'm personally fascinated to learn about his finances.
As I said, I am relying on the acumen of my oldest sister. I find her to be generally accurate in these matters. Actually, yit, the private lives of famous folks tell a lot about their stature as the leader of a country; however, history should not judge the failures or achievements of a leader based solely on what he did outside the seat of government.
Now, now, Setenta. I think you are getting a bit carried away. Storm windows being a neurotic fixation?
The nuts and bolts of running a place like Monticello were in the "basement" because there wasn't refrigeration back then. So the hams were hung in one area and another was the root cellar. The kitchen would logically be adjacent to the food. I have never heard of the underground passage to the spring story, nor of his ever making reference to "house niggers."
certainly, limiting discussion to official acts is too restrictive. officials don't cease to become public figures the instant they leave office. for example, a discussion of Al Gore that leaves out his efforts to raise awareness of global warming would shortchange him. likewise, excluding John McCain's service, on the grounds that it took place before he entered politics, would be extremely arbitrary. on the other hand, politicians' alcohol use or infidelity is immaterial to me, provided there's no public denial or attempted coverup.
I would like to say this, Yit. I think what we have seen here is a great discussion based on our personal history as well as the written history. Thank you for starting the thread.
you're most welcome. thanks to you & everyone else for participating, and invite observers to join in, as long as civility is observed.
TJ did ave a lot of financial problem towards the end of his life. His salvation was his library of books. He sold them to the US government.
rjb, given his financial woes, it seems somewhat appropriate that his image graces the seldom seen two dollar bill.
A slice of humble pie for realjohnboy. The parents of one of my employees are in town and they went to Monticello. I mentioned the comments made here and they asked the tour guide about the notion that TJ didn't like the slaves in his living space.
I was pretty much right about the working areas being below ground, because they were working areas. Where the food and kitchen were. But, indeed, TJ did, according to the guide, have an aversion to having slaves in his living area. Hence the dumb waiter and the revolving door.
rjb, we have TJ's on words on the occasion of a proposal he favored for the emancipation of slaves:
The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarfskin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oran-ootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.
one could own slaves & not detest them, but perhaps not TJ.
one could own slaves & not detest them, but perhaps not TJ.
I tried, yitwail, to wade through TJ's writing from more than 200 years ago. Tough reading. I am not sure I understand your conclusion quoted above. Certainly, by today's standards, TJ thought blacks/ slaves were inferior to whites, but in the final few sentences of the UofChicago documents, he seems to be making the argument that emancipation was inevitable and necessary. Failure to realize that, or resistance to it, could have serious ramifications.
Am I reading too much into that?
I admit that History is not my longest suit.
certainly, that's in there as well, but i've come across several critiques of Jefferson that point out that Jefferson tried to be all things to all people. but you don't need to digest the lengthy quote to reach my conclusion. to be blunt, he found blacks ugly and foul-odored, and i conclude that's why he wanted them out of sight at Monticello.