Saturday, July 04, 2015

Thomas Jefferson, all men are created equal

     On April 29, 1962, President Kennedy hosted more than four dozen Nobel laureates at a state dinner and said, "This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
     That was an understatement. Jefferson was well-read, as his writing repeatedly showed. His library topped 6,500 volumes in 1815. He had read each one by age 80. He sold the books to the Library of Congress to pay his debts, but then he used the money to buy more books. In a letter to John Adams afterward, he lamented, "I cannot live without books."
     Jefferson was an introvert, a scholar, a refined gentleman, and a revolutionary. And sadly he did dine alone on too many nights. The love of his life had died over 40 years before he did. Of all the presidents, none was lonelier.
     By the way a man lives his life, he writes his own obituary. Thomas Jefferson actually did. The instructions for his gravestone were explicit. Jefferson wanted it to read: "Here was buried/ Thomas Jefferson/ Author of the Declaration of American Independence/ of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom/ & Father of the University of Virginia."
     As president, he bought the Louisiana Territory stretching to the Pacific Northwest from Napoleon. President Jefferson also asserted American independence on the high seas in a war against the Arabs along the Barbary Coast.
     But his obituary on that obelisk that marked his grave was most accurate. Jefferson's greatest service to the nation was founding it on the principle that all men are created equal, with rights granted them by their Creator. His task in writing the Declaration of Independence was to make the case for America in this great divorce. He did that, of course, but he also gave the nation its unusual birthright, that ours in a nation founded on liberty.
     The summer of 1776 found the Second Continental Congress doing what the first one failed to do: declare independence. Congress assembled a committee of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. In 1822, Adams wrote to Timothy Pickering to explain the selection of Jefferson as the main author of the declaration. Adams wryly said it was the Frankfort advice, to place a Virginian at the head of everything.
     But, at 33, Jefferson greatly impressed Adams.
     "Mr. Jefferson came into Congress in June, 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation -- not even Samuel Adams was more so -- that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee," Adams wrote.
     Born on April 2, 1743, under the old calendar, April 13, 1743, under the new, Jefferson's first memory was being placed on a horse by a slave servant. His father died when Jefferson was 11, but family members saw that he received an education before taking on the management of his estate. He graduated from William and Mary.
     Jefferson entered the House of Burgesses and quickly sided with the radicals in that august body: George Washington and Patrick Henry. Very quickly, they knew they could count on him.
     Jefferson met the love of his life -- Martha Wayles Skelton -- in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1768. Barely 20, she was a widow whose infant son had recently died. They made a good couple as they complemented one another. She was graceful, beautiful and popular, the sort of wife an introvert like Jefferson needed. He played violin and cello, while she played piano.
     They married on January 1, 1772, then honeymooned for two weeks at his father-in-law's estate in Charles City County. Eight miles into the trip to Monticello, the couple encountered snow up to 20 feet deep. They barely escaped on horseback. They would have six children in their 10 years together. She died from childbirth, and only one of their children lived past age 25, their eldest, daughter Martha "Patsy" Washington Jefferson.
     His wife's death likely crushed Jefferson. Out of loneliness, he took up with Sally Hemmings, a slave servant girl and fathered several children without ever acknowledging them. And in the fervor of post-revolution politics, he attacked his once champion, George Washington, as well as his friend John Adams, with whom he staged the ugliest presidential campaign in history in 1800.
     But in the summer of 1776, his nation was at its founding.
     Jefferson gave and his nation a great start: "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
     Yes he owned slaves and had one as his mistress after his wife died. No one said these men and women were perfect. In fact, their imperfections show how far they rose to achieve greatness.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.

1 comment:

  1. Are we certain that Sally's children were his? I've read that they definitely were some Jefferson's children, but not necessarily Thomas'.