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.

The echoes from Jefferson’s hymns in praise of agriculture and rural life prevented him from hearing the voices from the other side of his mind which might have told him that he was not really a very good farmer, that his acres were too scattered, that he gave insufficient attention to his crops, and that in fact farming bored him. The one activity at Monticello that came close to being economically successful—and had nothing to do with agriculture—was the small factory he set up there to make nails. In the spirit more of the Yankee mill owner than of the gentleman planter, he supervised every step himself, lining up the slave boys in the morning, handing out the nail rods, setting them all to work, and weighing up the results at nightfall.

A striking peculiarity of his mind was that one side of it could weave great enveloping abstractions while the other, beyond the great divide that lay in between, could linger over minutiae and fuss over trifles. What gave him perhaps as much pleasure as anything at Monticello was his endless tinkering and constant redesigning and rebuilding of his house. The picture of timeless order we get from a visit today is a hopeless illusion. There was scarcely a time during Jefferson’s own tenancy when the place was not torn apart because of its owner’s latest whimsies for improvements. This compulsion for perpetually adjusting his personal accommodations to make them just so, regardless of cost, accompanied him everywhere he went.

He was forever tossing off homilies on thrift and simplicity, and his First Inaugural included a pious phrase about “a wise and frugal government.” Yet in his own case, despite the crushing debts he inherited from his father-in-law, he could never discipline himself to live within his means or his expense accounts. The bills he ran up for wines, books, and furnishings at home and abroad were enormous, but the prim meticulousness of the accounts he kept somehow persuaded him that he was not running away from anything, that he was holding it all under control.

It did begin at some point to dawn on him that the interest on his indebtedness was compounding at a rate beyond the payments he was making, or could make, on the principal, and that there was a fair likelihood of his ending life as a bankrupt. But concurrently he possessed and exercised the inner capacity, almost to the end, to shield himself from the ultimate implications. Some form of rescue had to be just around the corner: amended arrangements with his creditors, improved techniques of cultivation, a grand lottery—all mirages. And perhaps the most ethereal of all his utopian conjurations—the inspired argument that “the earth belongs to the living”—derived much of its shape and urgency, perhaps its very origin, from the specter of debt perennially lurking in the shadows. The idea was that no generation (a period he calculated as lasting about nineteen years) has the right to bind succeeding generations, that its laws, its debts, even its constitutions should ideally expire after that time. His friend James Madison tactfully pointed out the outlandishness of such a scheme, and Jefferson never mentioned it to him again. But he continued to bring it up in letters and conversations with others to the end of his life.


Other writers have been exceedingly stern with Thomas Jefferson regarding his record on slavery.3 Jefferson as a young man had ostensibly gone on record as an enemy of slavery and as believing that it should and would shortly be done away with. But after his return to America from France in 1789 he took no further steps, publicly or privately, toward the advancement of that end, his main excuse being that since public opinion was still so far short of tolerating a general emancipation there was no choice but to wait until it caught up.

In his old age, greatly agitated by the Missouri debates of 1819-1820 over the admission of slavery into newly formed states, he even went so far as to insist in his correspondence that the best way to hasten the elimination of slavery would after all be to let it spread into the western territories, thereby both diluting it and preparing people’s minds for dispensing with it altogether. (His proposed Ordinance of l784 had been intended to produce similar results by keeping slavery out of the territories.) Moreover, to the extent that the term “racist” can be applied with any precision to an era before the word was invented, it would not be out of order to pin it on Thomas Jefferson. He did not believe blacks to be the equal of whites in intelligence; he was repelled by miscegenation; he was certain that the two races, both being free, could never coexist peaceably; and he thought the only way to keep emancipation from being followed by race war was to deport all newly freed slaves to some distant country.

Ellis acknowledges all this; he goes into it in some detail himself. Yet he is also aware that whatever is to be said on Jefferson and slavery from either an accusatory or a defensive standpoint has largely been said already. His approach is essentially clinical rather than moral, and actually seems on balance more humane than either of the others. Jefferson’s conviction that it was George III and his predecessors who were responsible for fastening and maintaining the curse of slavery on America; his horror of direct contention; the sorcery of words—his words—that could make anything truer or falser than it was before; the irremovable fact that his own slaves were his most valuable asset and that his style of life would be impossible without them; the reassurance he could take from being an exemplary slavemaster caring for his extended family against the day of their liberation (which for all but a very few would in fact never come); the mighty mechanisms of denial: all this and much else we have been taught by this remarkable book makes it evident that his mind was well short of being its own master, and that we have for our consideration a man who in all likelihood simply lacked the capacity to act in regard to slavery very differently from the way he did.

A final topic—the one that perhaps most justifies the word “Sphinx” in Ellis’s title—is the question of Thomas Jefferson’s sexual character. I so phrase it because this has to be the intermediate term in any consideration of the never-to-be-settled case of Jefferson’s alleged connection with his slave Sally Hemings, or of his romantic interlude in Paris with the vivacious and beautiful young married Englishwoman Maria Cosway.

Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton, whose dowry more than doubled his holdings in land and slaves, at the age of twenty-eight. Martha’s death in 1782 made him a widower at thirty-nine, and in the remaining forty-four years of his life he never remarried. He had fathered seven children, though only three daughters survived infancy. But what this paternalizing activity does not rule out—especially with his subsequent state of perpetual widowerhood taken into account—is the likelihood of a sexual constitution in some way inherently impoverished. This is the line Ellis takes, and it strikes me, all else considered, as the simplest and most sensible one. It is true, one might add, that Jefferson as a young bachelor had made unwanted advances to a neighbor’s wife. But whether he yet knew himself well enough to project what might—or mightn’t—have taken place if she had accepted them is another question. It is, of course, one that has confounded the experience of many a youth before and after Thomas Jefferson.

Ellis assumes, rightly I think, that the Sally Hemings rumor and the Cosway episode need to be viewed within a single context. The encounter with Maria Cosway in 1786, while Jefferson was serving as America’s minister to France, certainly has its appealingside. The evidence suggests that the two were much attracted to each other, and during the six weeks or so following their introduction they were together nearly every day. But their meetings struck a sudden hiatus when Jefferson broke his wrist while leaping over a low fence on one of their strolls along the Seine. Confined to his quarters, he set to brooding, and took to his laptop desk. The outcome was a letter to Maria, so stupefyingly lengthy that commentators in later times have understandably tended to treat it as one of his major papers, “The Dialogue Between My Head and My Heart.” By the time he wrote it the Cosways had departed to England for the winter, though she had promised they would return in the spring. Head and Heart go at it for many pages, Heart with extravagant protestations of his desolation at the parting, Head lecturing Heart in suspiciously rational terms about the unwisdom of allowing oneself to be governed by the emotions.

Whether or not Head actually wins the debate it is at least a standoff, which must under the circumstances come to pretty much the same thing. Maria was evidently gratified by Heart’s flourishes but sufficiently mystified by the elaborate dialogue format that in her reply she did not mention Head at all. She did not much care for her monkey-faced little husband, and some years later she actually left him. Whether she might have been amenable to doing it then and there is impossible to know, but although she and Jefferson would go on corresponding, the intervals grew longer and longer, and she came to conclude that he had been mostly leading her on—that he was, after all, just a great tease, and she in effect told him so. Words, words: Thomas Jefferson may have been briefly in love, but largely in the safe realm of his own words.

The mulatto house slave Sally Hemings had been sired by Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles, and was thus a half-sister of the deceased Martha Jefferson. Sally gave birth to several very light-skinned children at Monticello over the space of some eighteen years; the father’s identity has remained undetermined to the present day. In 1802 a notoriously shady hack journalist named James Callender got wind of their existence and created a sensation by announcing in a Richmond newspaper that they were all the work of President Jefferson. (Four years previously Callender had published a pamphlet smear of John Adams and other Federalists, abetted and in fact subsidized by Jefferson, but when he failed to receive the postmastership of Richmond as his reward he turned all his venom upon his one-time benefactor.) The story, picked up by gleeful Federalist editors, spread across the country in no time.

The evidence for either side of the case is fragmentary, indirect, and inconclusive.4 On the one hand, Jefferson happened to have been at Monticello nine months before each of Sally’s deliveries. But on the other hand, Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr and Peter’s brother Sam were there all the time, and there is hearsay evidence that while Sam was taking his pleasure with one of Sally’s sisters Peter was regularly doing the same with Sally herself. There is another hearsay tradition, only recently announced by a man claiming to be one of Sally’s descendants, that Thomas Jefferson was indeed his ancestor.

Ellis concedes that we will never know for sure, unless someone can dig up a piece of Jefferson’s DNA and test it against that of any known Hemings survivors. He is nevertheless skeptical of the entire story. The furtive specter of Thomas Jefferson slinking in and out of the slave quarters night after night over all those years, eluding the eye of anyone in the extended Monticello household who might catch him at it or gossip about it, is a picture he finds hard to envision. The reasons for doubt can even omit Jefferson’s revulsion against racial mixing as a factor in what was in all probability a protracted celibate existence. They go deeper: as in the case of Maria Cosway, he was simply not up to it.

Anyone fascinated by the Jefferson legend would do well to read Ellis’s extraordinary book. It may not overturn the legend—no sophisticated historian really wants to destroy myths, in view of the underlying truth in most of them—yet it must certainly modify and deepen the way we think about this one. And there are ways and ways to do such thinking. Thomas Jefferson himself, as Ellis has shown, was a master of denial and self-deception. But such mechanisms were hardly unique to Jefferson. His most comprehensive biographer, Dumas Malone—a winsome, generous, and scrupulous man whom anyone that knew him remembers with the deepest affection—must have had them too, or he could not have stuck with his subject to the end as he so admirably did. And with the figure of Jefferson no longer as numinous as it was, those who all along may have been less than captivated by the legend can be a bit more mellow about it now. It too has its truth. For example, the sentiment in Jefferson’s First Inaugural that Americans may “think freely, and…speak and…write what they think” had not hitherto been official doctrine, and certainly not when coupled with what followed:

If there be any among us who wish to dissolve this union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed, as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is free to combat it.

True, Jefferson did not deny that there was such a thing as seditious libel, and the time came when he would have welcomed a few selected prosecutions for libels against his own administration. An even more inclusive truth of which he was without doubt the leading exponent was that, as Ellis puts it, “consent had replaced coercion as the operative principle of government, and political power, if it aspired to become legitimate authority, needed to pass muster with a majority of the citizenry.” These are facts worth a great deal, even if Jefferson also observed that “a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom.”

This Issue

April 24, 1997

  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. 

  3. 3

    Most notably John C. Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (Free Press, 1977); and Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Slavery: ‘Treason Against the Hopes of the World,”‘ in Peter S. Onuf, editor, Jeffersonian Legacies (University Press of Virginia, 1993), pp. 181-221. 

  4. 4

    Efforts to make terms one way or the other with the Sally Hemings story include Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President: First Term 1801-1805 (Little, Brown, 1970), pp. 494-498; Virginius Dabney, The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal (Dodd, Mead, 1981); and Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Historians and the Enterprise of Defense (University Press of Virginia, 1997).