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Portrait of an Enigma

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

by Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf, 365 pp., $26.00


Up until a few years ago differences of view regarding Thomas Jefferson, to the extent that they existed, tended to occur among scholars within a professional community rather than between professionals on the one hand and voices from the lay public on the other. The latter mostly took their cues from the former, and the resulting majority view of Jefferson was one of fairly solemn and generally undiscriminating veneration.

The variables in that equation appear to be working somewhat differently now. Jefferson’s across-the-board ratings by historical scholars have dropped noticeably from what they once were at the hands of such magisterial tenders of the flame as Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, and Julian Boyd. A fair number now seem to be running out of patience with the swooping discrepancies in Jefferson’s character—between words and acts, between some words and other words, between bland exterior and covert vindictiveness, between the man’s lofty conception of reality and the way it actually was.

Among the general public, on the other hand, Jefferson’s standing is higher than ever; a pro-Jefferson exuberance squirts out all over. Joseph Ellis in his new book refers to this as “the Jeffersonian Surge.” The “Surge” came partly as a byproduct of the 250th anniversary in 1993 of Jefferson’s birth, though underlying it was a dynamic that had been inherent from the beginning. Expressions of the surge have included William Jefferson Clinton’s 1993 inaugural journey from Monticello to Washington, intended to show where the President saw his spiritual roots to lie; the Merchant-Ivory movie about Jefferson’s (purported) love life in Paris; Ken Burns’s recent celebratory documentary on Jefferson; and the great success of a Jefferson impersonator named Clay Jenkinson, who has entertained many audiences with accounts of his subject’s life and afterward skillfully parried their questions about how he (Jefferson) would have handled various public issues of present-day concern. Academics have understandably looked on much of this with a sardonic eye. We could have the makings here of a distinct Two Cultures situation.

Ellis begins his own consistently good-humored scrutiny of Jefferson with an arresting insight into what it is in the Jefferson legacy that best accounts for the uncanny phenomenon making the surge possible—that in the sayings of Jefferson, to a degree beyond anything construable from any American statesman’s utterances since, there is something for just about everyone and support for almost any cause. Many illustrations of this marvel may be pointed to, but Ellis locates the kernel of it in the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration in fact underwent a fair amount of editing by the Continental Congress, including the line in question, which now falls a trifle off from the way he originally phrased it.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

His own version had read:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & unalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.

Not drastically different, perhaps, though two nudging, even italicizing words—“independent” and “preservation”—had been struck out. But either version contains two soaring implications. One is that in any society, whatever its condition and however organized, the individual is the sovereign unit, his natural state being one of equality with—and independence of—everyone else. The other is that restrictions on this natural order—on the individual’s rightful activity in preserving life, liberty, and happiness, which covers pretty much everything—are in some degree violations of what the Creator intended; freed from such restrictions, individuals will intermingle and produce without external coercion a happy and harmonious community.

On the one hand, Ellis observes, the message with its magical prescriptions is simply too good to be true; on the other, it’s a recipe for anarchy. Yet the radiant promises float high enough above the real earth that their arrant contradictions may be happily overlooked, indeed unnoticed. And that is why Americans of flatly opposing ideological persuasions, pursuing wildly divergent and mutually exclusive versions of happiness, may all appeal to Jefferson for the ratifying of what their Creator self-evidently intended for them. They may thus proclaim either the right of any woman to the inalienable control of her own body, or the inalienable right of any fetus to life, and eventually to liberty and happiness. They may declare that all have the right to publicly supported health care and a clean environment—or that the regulations thereby entailed would infringe the rights (and happiness) of people in their midst (real-estate developers, oil drillers, HMO managers?) under the alien and restricting hand of Big Government. They may insist that women and blacks have a right to special attention as an offset to present and past injustice—or that affirmative action programs violate the very principle of equality itself. Thomas Jefferson thus comes across—as I once put it myself in these pages,1 though less elegantly than Ellis does—as the serene philosopher of having your cake and eating it.

Ellis’s book goes on from there, and does something essentially new. An extraordinary proportion of Jefferson scholarship has hitherto been preoccupied with “the Jeffersonian mind”—but in the form of Jefferson’s ideas, actual or supposed, which isn’t quite the same thing. Were they or weren’t they “Lockean”—or were they more a product of the Scottish Enlightenment? What books did he or didn’t he get them from? The pursuit has gone round and round, seemingly with no end in sight. Ellis’s strategy cuts across most of this; his interest in Jefferson is fixed not so much on the ideas as on the mind itself—the way it actually worked, and how Jefferson used it.

Though Thomas Jefferson appears to have had more shortcomings than we once supposed, he can in no sense be charged with being a seeker of power. His actions, his temperament, and his thinking all point otherwise, adding up to a case—indeed a problem for analysis—that is in all ways unusual. I believe Ellis has grasped more of its permutations than anyone else has so far done. It was taken for granted in colonial Virginia that young men of talent and intelligence situated, as Jefferson was, in the upper reaches of that society should accept public responsibilities when pressed to do so, and for the most part Thomas Jefferson did what was expected of him. But he never actively pursued any of the offices he held, and he took little pleasure in the performance of their duties, in several cases with consequences less than creditable to himself.

Yet his very conception of government, as intimated above, was of a truly radical sort. Government was at best a necessary evil, and “necessary” only to the extent that people refused to visualize the felicity that could issue from the endeavors of individuals acting in concert on their own free will. In any case, the less of it the better. Even as president, Jefferson began with a sincerely meant resolve to reduce in every way he could the powers of the government he had been elected to administer.

Other aspects of his personality were quite compatible with this inclination, reinforcing and even contributing to it. He was shy and frightened of speaking in public; he would not or could not stand up to other men in debate. He sat mute through the sessions of the Continental Congress, and years later, except for reading his two inaugural addresses in an inaudible voice, he made no speeches during his entire presidency. As a young lawyer he found it painfully difficult to extemporize in the courtroom, and even more so to address juries. He shrank from face-to-face adversarial encounters, and although he found criticism of himself scarcely bearable he would not respond to it in his own voice.

Actually he did not need to; the friends who understood him best were generally there to do it for him. He was not above attacking others, but secretly and in disguise. (In 1793 he drew up a series of charges against Alexander Hamilton, all baseless, in the form of resolutions to be presented by a Virginia congressman, culminating in a call for Hamilton’s dismissal as secretary of the treasury. He expected them to fail, as they did, but there they were, on the record, and of course still are.) Though he held the titular rank of colonel in his county, Jefferson never took the field in a military capacity. His mind, for all its range, was never truly engaged by problems of a military or naval character.

Jefferson did, however, possess one towering resource, cultivated from an early age and bringing him early recognition, that would somehow blanket and make up for all the rest. This was WORDS: not spoken words but words carefully brought into being through pen and ink. In the written medium Thomas Jefferson was the most accomplished rhetorician of his time. His cockpit, so to speak, was a portable writing desk, a kind of laptop contrivance he took with him everywhere he went. Before it, he could shut himself off anywhere for hours on end and allow his spacious mind to take flight. And the words he fashioned there could make things happen, or seem to happen, as they might not otherwise do; the words could coax plausible fact out of rarefied visions and entice into view ideal states of civic existence in an ideal republic. It is for this extraordinary variant of power, and not for any ordinary worldly acts—surprisingly few of which could really be called successful—that Thomas Jefferson lives on.2

I admit,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in 1801, urging that Jefferson’s claims to the presidency, for all his faults, were superior to those of Aaron Burr, “…that he is a contemptible hypocrite.” But this is another charge against Jefferson, made many times since, that Ellis argues is fundamentally unfair. Jefferson harbored within himself the most prodigious mechanisms of denial, which he may well have been powerless to understand, and which sheltered him from the incongruities between his ideal constructs and the world around him, prevented conflicting voices within him from hearing each other, and assisted him in keeping secrets from himself. Sincerity cannot be an issue here. It was rather, as Ellis puts it, “the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart.” It foreclosed, in any event, the least touch of humor, the smallest shred of irony.

He could, under certain circumstances, relish scenes of violence—but on paper and at a distance. With the entire country apprehensive over what the next turn might be in Shays’s Rebellion, the debtor uprising that agitated western Massachusetts during the winter of 1786-1787, Jefferson airily wrote Abigail Adams from Paris, “I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.” Also from Paris, he put it even more strongly to Abigail’s son-in-law William Stephens Smith: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” But a few years before in wartime Virginia, in the face of the British invasion of 1781, Governor Jefferson’s thirst for the blood of tyrants had not been so evident. Counting the days when his term would be over, and though no successor had been named and the legislature was in full flight to the relocated temporary capital at Staunton, Jefferson, when the hour struck, was offin the other direction for Monticello. The movement for censure which followed, and which might have disgraced him forever, was happily muted by the patriots under General Washington overcoming the tyrants at the Battle of Yorktown.

  1. 1

    The New York Review, June 11, 1992, p. 37.

  2. 2

    Jefferson appears to have been acutely aware that his handling of written words, free from any environing interference, was not only his principal armament but also the primary claim he could make for his posthumous as well as contemporary reputation. (Of the only three achievements he wanted listed on his tombstone, two—the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty—involved a monumentalization of his own words. The third was his fathering of the University of Virginia. He wanted no mention of his political offices—governor of Virginia, secretary of state, or even president.)

    As noted above Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration underwent a good dose of editing. Most of us who traffic in words recognize that the relationship of author and editor is inevitably an adversarial one, but we grudgingly concede its necessity and that our words are almost always the better for it. Not Thomas Jefferson. He wanted no adversaries and nobody tampering with his words; though the Declaration’s edited version appears on comparison more directly suited to its object than his original, Jefferson sat in mute rage while others “mangled” his work. To the end of his life he never forgave them for it.

    His special attitude relative to his own words, as well as the real skill with which he shaped them, tended to endow them with a certain autonomous impermeability. When Jefferson became the first secretary of state, the problem in external relations most vital to the nation’s interests was that of reaching an understanding with Great Britain on the various unresolved issues hanging over from the peace treaty of 1783, and to resolve those matters would have required an extensive amount of face-to-face haggling. The British minister George Hammond arrived in 1791 eagerly expecting to do just that, but Jefferson stopped him short by announcing that their transactions would be conducted entirely in writing. Nothing came of them, but Jefferson, with his lengthy treatises on America’s wrongs at British hands, at least had the last word. Even as president, Jefferson preferred to do departmental business in writing instead of holding cabinet meetings. (Ellis refers to this as the “Textual Presidency.”)

    The words of others were not quite as inviolable as his own. A widespread practice in his day was “commonplacing”: copying out in a notebook passages from the writings of eminent persons. Jefferson did it too, though he was not averse to altering the quotations to make them better suit his own tastes. He kept every scrap he himself wrote, with the evident intention of leaving posterity as full a record of himself as possible. But late in life he doctored some of his own correspondence to make himself appear less swept up than he was in the excesses of the French Revolution.

    Ellis’s management of this theme of Jefferson’s “words,” and his correlating it with other elements of Jefferson’s personality without the least touch of psychobabble, is something of a tour de force.

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