Really, TJ?


I must confess crushes on dead men.  The list goes on and on.  George Gershwin, Humphrey Bogart, Sam Phillips . . . .  Maybe it’s all those black and white photos  of men with slicked back hair that would make anybody look yummy.  Maybe it’s the fact that their whole lives and accomplishments are weighed and presented in full balance, and you don’t have to see gross gut shots in People magazine as they romp in neon swim trunks in St. Tropez.   Any time in the past when I announce to my girlfriends that I have a new crush, they ask, “Alive or dead?”

So, Thomas Jefferson.  Obviously, no black and white photos of him, more’s the pity. Here’s what I like about him:  tall, rangy, red haired, great writer, musician, thinker, horseman, wine connoisseur, architect, a shy man compelled to play out his convictions in fields of law and politics, which was incredibly grating to someone with his thin skin.  His wife thought he was hot, too.  Every time he returned to Monticello from the stage of national politics, she got pregnant.  Finally,  after one childbirth too many, she weakened and died.  In 1782 on her deathbed, Martha Wayles Skelton wrote out an excerpt from Tristam Shandy:

Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return–
more. Every thing presses on–

Thomas Jefferson finished it in his own hand:

and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!

Sigh.  Martha had suffered the dominion of a stepmother from hell, and she extracted a pretty harsh promise from TJ that he would never remarry, so their own children would never endure the same treatment.   Hence, his long relationship  — and  more children — with one of his black slaves, Sally Hemings, the only physically intimate relationship he could pursue without dishonoring his wife’s memory.  So, here’s what’s not to love about Thomas Jefferson: slaveowner.  There are exhaustive discussions that place him as a man of his times, and plenty of evidence to suggest that he truly believed slavery was wrong, that he freed some of his slaves, that he attempted to introduce anti-slavery legislation early in his career as a Virginia politician.  The reality of it, however, was that his entire way of life revolved around slavery.
Last fall, my friends Heather and Patricia and I visited Monticello.  The tour of Mulberry Row and its slave quarters is incredibly thought-provoking and sensitively presented.  I thought so, anyway.  Heather said the whole thing gave her the heebie jeebies.  We looked out over the gorgeous valley and farmland of Monticello, and I wondered things like,  “How can I have a “Sublime Men” board on Pinterest and have both Thomas Jefferson and  black jazz genius Dizzy Gillespie, for instance?”  As a southern woman with slave owning ancestors, I cannot truly even explain or excuse my own complex attitudes about interracial politics and relationships.   I asked myself if I would allow such a romantic fascination with TJ if I were black.
A few months later,  I’m driving to North Carolina, listening to Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson and the Art of Power on CD.   Discussing Jefferson’s engineering of the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent settling of the West, Meacham indicates that Jefferson assumed Native Americans would happily assimilate into white society within a decade or so, and if they didn’t, then blast them to hell and relocate their asses (which Andrew Jackson was only too happy to do).  This wholesale trompling over Native American lands, this assumption that the entire western United States was ours to claim, is ironically echoed in the grand reception room of Monticello.  The room that greeted Jefferson’s visitors and now greets tour groups is covered with Indian artifacts — skins, attire, weapons, etc…..  Jefferson collected the trappings of their culture as an object of study.   This attitude of objectification is the indirect reason why Vail, Colorado is  now a luxury ski resort and why many Native Americans are driving around in old pickup trucks on reservations, eating government cheese, unless they’re part of a minority casino-powered elite.
As the framing author of our Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had foresight and thoughtfulness.  He knew slavery was wrong.  I just find it puzzling that he didn’t extend the same thoughtfulness to Native Americans.   He found it upsetting when people chopped down trees all around Washington, D.C., but as president, he did nothing to stop them because he respected their individual freedom to acquire, settle, and shape land as they saw fit.  What about the freedoms of the original people of America?  What about the trees that they grew and loved?
People are complex.  Many Native Americans were slave owners.  It’s unfair to judge people by the way their political maneuverings play out after their deaths.  But still.  Soon after Jefferson’s death, the Trail of Tears manifested as a tragic result of westward expansion:
In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.
—- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America[
Would Thomas Jefferson have been affected by this scene?  Probably.  Would he have been upset that his beloved trees were used to lynch black men in the Jim Crow south?  I’m sure.  Do I excuse his attitudes?  No.  I think,  “Really, Thomas Jefferson?”  Do I still think he was brilliant and complex.  Yes.  Will I read another book about him?  Yes.
If I had one of those imaginary dinner parties where I could invite anybody from history,  I would probably
still include Jefferson.  And Dizzy Gillespie.  (Not Miles Davis, because he was just too angry, and would kick TJ’s ass.)  And Flannery O’ Conner.  And Frank Lloyd Wright (even at the risk of that know-it-all dominating the conversation).  Elsa Schiaparelli, maybe.  All these people are capable of discussing art and music without arguing politics.  And I, for one, would be eager to get TJ’s opinion of The Prisoner  and other wines under the Orin Swift label.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (Photo credit: cliff1066™)


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