Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In Memoriam: Thomas Jefferson

Few presidential legacies are as troubled as that of Thomas Jefferson; on one hand he was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence which famously declared that 'all men are created equal', on the other he was a holder of slaves. One of only two people* to date to hold the so-called Triple Crown - having served as President, Vice-President, and Secretary of State - as well as doubling the size of the country thanks to the Louisiana Purchase and providing for its exploration by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, recent evidence that he may have fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings points to a snarl of hypocrisy and ambivalence at the centre of an otherwise elegantly wired mind.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1743 to a prominent Virginia family, Jefferson inherited the estate that would become Monticello when he was 14. At sixteen he entered The College of William & Mary, earning highest honours upon his graduation just two years later. While at university he was a member of the Flat Hat Club, a secret society that was not unlike a fraternity, except that their meetings tended to involve philosophical discussions rather than binge drinking.

In 1772 Jefferson married his distant cousin, the 23-year-old widow Martha Wayles Skelton; during the decade of their marriage she bore him six children - Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772–1836), Jane Randolph (1774–1775), a stillborn or unnamed son (1777), Mary Wayles (1778–1804), Lucy Elizabeth (1780–1781), and Elizabeth (1782–1785) - dying after the birth of the last. She had also had a son from her previous marriage who died at the time of her engagement to Jefferson. After his wife's death he never remarried and in fact persisted during the earliest years of his political triumph both as governor of Virginia and Founding Father despite suffering from a deep depression.

Jefferson's method for overcoming his grief seems to have involved becoming a workaholic; although this tendency first asserted itself at a young age, it would remain constant throughout his life. An active role in politics from the early days of his marriage led to his appointment to the Continental Congress as a representative of the Commonwealth of Virginia, then to his service as governor of Virginia, and thence his appointment as Minister to France (thanks to which he missed such highlights of the American Revolution as the Philadelphia Convention) although he seems to have consoled himself by having an affair with the married artist Maria Cosway while there.

He returned to the US to serve as the country's first Secretary of State under George Washington, during which time he sparred with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton over fiscal policy, a clash between two polymathic geniuses that alas wouldn't be likely to occur in the modern-day District of Columbia. Between 1793 and 1796 Jefferson was out of office, during which time he cared for his estate and wrote. Despite Washington's urging to the contrary, political parties began to form at this time; the country's long descent into divisive partisanship had its beginnings as long ago as that, with Alexander Hamilton and his flunky Vice-President Adams representing the Federalists, Jefferson and his successor James Madison the Democratic-Republican Party. Jefferson is also considered the father of American exceptionalism, a way of thinking that was entirely valid in the days when the country was young, but which becomes less so with each passing year.

In 1796 Jefferson became Vice-President to John Adams, and following the disputatious 1800 election was appointed President by Congress (at about the same time Rembrandt Peale painted the portrait of him, shown above). For his first Vice-President Jefferson chose Aaron Burr; following the duel at which Burr fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton, he was dropped in favour of George Clinton.

Jefferson's presidency was the first to begin and end in the White House (then called the Presidential or Executive Mansion) and was concerned principally with defending the fledgling nation from British and French incursions against its sovereignty, as well as with expansionism and exploration. Jefferson favoured small government, considering it the basis of freedom.

Following his retirement, Jefferson went on to found - as well as design and execute - the University of Virginia, one of the first with a campus centered on a library rather than a church, in keeping with his deeply held faith in the separation of church and state; in fact, his original designs made no accommodation whatsoever for a chapel. Following the burning of the Library of Congress by the British in August 1814, Jefferson offered his personal holdings (some 6,487 books) to begin rebuilding it, for which he was paid $23,950.

Thomas Jefferson died on the Fourth of July 1826, fifty years to the day after his Declaration of Independence was adopted; he is buried at Monticello and commemorated throughout the United States in place names, on Mount Rushmore, and within the nation's capital itself**. Likewise his portrait adorns the little used US $2 bill and the nickel. He's also been portrayed on the silver screen by Nick Nolte (an improbable bit of casting) in the 1995 film Jefferson in Paris by James Ivory, a heavily fictionalized account.

*The other was Martin Van Buren.
**300 years after leaving office Thomas Jefferson and his legacy are still making news; references to the 3rd president have been struck from Texas school books, a move expected to see him removed from the curricula across the country.

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Seumas Gagne said...

The Jefferson Memorial, though grand from a distance, is in a sad state of repair, much like the government itself.

michael sean morris said...

Too bad. My sense is that the grand monuments of Washington are well kept, but it may be just those on the Mall that are.