Thomas Jefferson

July 12, 2008 at 7:20 am | Posted in History, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

(February 5, 2008)

Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello by Andrew Burstein, published 2005.
I started reading presidential biographies to learn more about their lives and divert my attention away from celebrity scandals.  Imagine my surprise when I found some tabloid-worthy dirt about Thomas Jefferson!  It turns out he’s more than just the face on the nickel.  I even learned more about some of our other Founding Fathers.
The first thing I learned about Jefferson was that he had been married.  Patty died 10 years into their marriage, long before Thomas became president.  He kept a lock of her hair in his nightstand for the next 40 years.  They had two daughters together.  So Jefferson was the first president who remained unmarried while he held office.  I had always assumed he was a bachelor, because we hear so much about Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison that you’d assume Patty Jefferson would have made the list too.  But she wasn’t a First Lady.
Speaking of Martha Washington – did you know that she had a half-sister who was a slave?  And she owned her?  Hooo boy, would that make for an interesting historical novel!
In that vein, here is the biggest scoop about Thomas Jefferson.  You may have heard a rumor to the effect that he had children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.  Well, in 1998 that theory was supported by DNA testing.  Specifically, at least one of the three Hemings children was fathered by “a Jefferson.”  Since TJ never had a son, his father was deceased by that point and TJ did not yet have grandsons, the only other option was his brother Randolph.  [“Ma!  Randy impregnated my slave!”  “Did not!”  “Did too!”]  Certainly the rumor was widespread in Jefferson’s lifetime, one of the Hemings children claimed he was told TJ was his father, and the Hemings slaves received special treatment.  Sally Hemings and her brother, the Monticello chef, also accompanied Jefferson to France, where they became eligible for freedom but chose to return to slavery in Virginia.
Jefferson was not a fan of slavery – or of blacks, a quandary that seems peculiar to us now.  He believed that slavery was wrong (“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just”), but that free blacks at large in the US would lead directly to mass racial violence.  Therefore, freed slaves should be sent elsewhere to start afresh.  His writings about black racial inferiority do not leave much to the imagination.  So we wonder, what was he doing fooling around with a slave girl?  (She was 16 at the time they traveled to France).  Evidently, Sally Hemings was not only 3/4 white – she was his own wife’s half-sister!  Jefferson’s Secrets shows an excerpt of a letter in Jefferson’s handwriting, with a lengthy mathematical formula “proving” that a child who was 3/16 black crossed back over the line to white.  Indeed, the light-skinned, straight-haired Sally gave birth to a red-haired child the spitting image of Jefferson himself.
On another note, Jefferson, like John Adams before him, had monster debt problems.  Possibly the main reason Jefferson never freed his slaves was that he couldn’t afford to – he was forced to sell them all, along with his library, to pay down his debts.  Can you imagine if Monticello had been sold to a private homeowner back in the 1800s?  We have to wonder whether it would still be standing, much less remain as a national treasure.  Poor Jefferson was such a disaster at financial planning that, after being forced to sell his precious library (to the Library of Congress) to pay some of his debts, he not only started buying more books but started building a second house, too, plunging yet further into debt.  So far, we’re three for three for presidents with debt problems – George Washington stands alone in his ability to stop incurring debt, pay stuff off, and actually save a little.  This is interesting because the fledgling United States also labored under a heavy debt load; by Jefferson’s presidency the Revolutionary War had not yet been paid off.
Jefferson served as vice president under John Adams, just as John Adams served under George Washington. This was awkward, because Adams was a Federalist and Jefferson founded a new party, the Democratic-Republicans.  The debate centered on whether power should be centralized at the federal level or within the states.  Jefferson argued that the Federalists wanted a monarchy – and he had a point, because Adams wanted the president and VP to be referred to as “Your Majesty.”  Given this, it’s hard to imagine two such different political figures sharing an administration, much less being close friends.  It’s truly touching that the two of them managed to patch things up after a horrible political disagreement drove them apart for years.
The first vice president under Jefferson was Aaron Burr.  Now, sit up straight, class, and check this out:  Aaron Burr killed a man in a duel while he was vice president!  Not only that, but it was Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury.  OMG, imagine a sitting vice president shooting somebody… oops, sorry, Vice President Cheney, no offense.  (On 2/11/06 Vice President Cheney accidentally shot a 78-year-old man in the face while hunting quail, and the poor guy had a heart attack, though he lived). 

Like Washington, Jefferson was popular after his presidency.  Until the end of his days, visitors came to see him at Monticello.  (John Adams was not as much of a people person, and nobody really went to see him).  Now, paparazzi are one thing, but can you imagine if manners dictated that you feed lunch to these lookie-loos?
Here’s the final scandalous thing I’ll share today.  Thomas Jefferson died of… diarrhea.  Ugh.  Can you imagine?  If I ever felt lucky to live in the 21st century, I did after reading that.
Jefferson was a fascinating figure.  Like all the Founding Fathers, he accomplished a vast array of things in his lifetime.  Aside from writing the Declaration of Independence and serving as governor of Virginia and Secretary of State, vice president, and president of the United States, he had a law practice, served as minister to France, wrote a book, founded a university (even designing the buildings), read Greek for fun, and, get this, invented the swivel chair.  (Are you sitting in one right now?  I am).  It’s hard to imagine anyone today with a resume like that.
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