Mr. Jefferson Maligned
At the same time, experience has brought a bit of wisdom, a bit of understanding that our heroes are simply representative of moral lessons. I first realized this seeing a documentary that mentioned Rousseau, and the fact that he abandoned his own children to foundling hospitals. Rousseau was a major proponent of natural education (he would have hated today's overcrowded public schools and standardized testing) and breast-feeding. He's a hero to (European-style) Montessori schools and nursing moms everywhere. That's because a person's ideas are more important than his personal life. The person dies, but if his/her ideas are extraordinary, have moral or universal meaning, than they live on for generations.
Thomas Jefferson is one of my heroes. This is true even though I often disagree with him (for example, I think the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional). And lately, there seems to be a trend of Jefferson-bashing.
Alan Pell Crawford's current book, Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, examines Jefferson's final 17 years and apparently marks him as a doddering, misguided, delusional man who left a huge debt for his family to clean up. The Washington Post review says Jefferson is described as a "hypocrite and possibly a swindler". The review in The Week (I'm sorry the review itself isn't online) points out that after his death, Jefferson's creditors had to sell off his 130 slaves to help defray $150,000 of debt created because he bought too many books and dresses for his grandchild, and built stairs to Sally Heming's bedroom. The classically liberal Cato Institute is a little kinder, saying the book notes he "dealt with illness and debt" and "corresponded with the leading figures of the revolution". But even they slam him for the Embargo of 1807 (which I researched many years ago and declared as the cause of American industrialization).
Well, thanks very much, but I preferred the image of Jefferson sitting at his ingenious double-copy writing desk, corresponding with John Adams, to imagining a 70-year-old man dragging himself up the stairs to sleep with his black mistress.
I thought there might be more hope for Jon Kukla's new book Mr. Jefferson's Women. I have read a number of Jefferson's letters to women, and found all of them delightful and intimate. His "felicity of expression" (as John Adams put it) was just as apparent in personal correspondence as in the Declaration of Independence. Yet Kirkus Reviews describes the book as "An enticing, relentlessly driving exposé of a Founding Father's private and public misogyny". Reviews on the author's website accuse Jefferson of predatory sexual behavior, and rebuke him for not giving women full liberties in the new republic.
Well, my goodness. It wouldn't be until 1792 that Mary Wollstonecraft would write A Vindication on the Rights of Women. In Jefferson's day, women were treated like both angels and children, given no more political thought than we give kids today. They were to be protected and cherished. And judging by the letters many women wrote to Jefferson, I think "predatory" is a ridiculous description of a man who enjoyed and loved a number of women.
How do you do? How have you done? and when are you coming here? If not at all, what did you ever come for? Only to make people miserable at losing you. Consider that you are but a day from Paris. If you come by the way of St. Omers, which is but two posts further, you will see a new & beautiful country. Come then, my dear Madam, and we will breakfast every day a Angloise, hie away to the Desert, dine under the bowers of Marly, and forget that we are ever to part again.
This is from a letter to Maria Cosway in 1787. Most of his letters to women, and from women, are sensual and tender.
Have concerns about Jefferson owning slaves? Take them up with the man himself. Jefferson was honest, and as inconsistent as any of us are who truly examine our own beliefs in writing. He was a symbol of intellectualism and diversity of interests: gardener, statesman, traveller, journalist, lover, politician, agriculturalist, inventor, revolutionary, diplomat, governer, president, philosopher and (as he wanted on his tombstone) father of the University of Virginia. So why is everyone trashing Jefferson now? It's not just myth-busting: we did the Sally Hemmings thing years ago in Fawn Brodie's 1974 book, based on an unlikely source by their "son". The abuse seems particular to now, and I think it's a combination of celebrity bashing (oh do tell me what Britney's done now!) and the painstaking effort of conservatives to keep their platform of security (Jefferson preferred liberty). Guess I'll get back to reading Notes on the State of Virginia now....
Image source: http://classroom.monticello.org