Sunday, May 30, 2021

Thomas Jefferson: A Life by Wlllard Sterne Randall

Let those flatter who fear: it is not an American art… ~ Thomas Jefferson

A thorough, thoughtful, biography of a fascinating, complicated man.


As he neared death, Thomas Jefferson, wrote his own epitaph:


Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

and Father of the University of Virginia


He apparently didn’t think President of the United States was quite on par with those distinctions.


He was an accomplished violinist, a serious botanist and naturalist, amateur architect, lawyer, horseman, statesman diplomat, and of course politician. He nearly doubled the territory of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, and was the impetus to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.


He established the republican government of Virginia on Four Cornerstones:

Repeal laws of entail and primogeniture

Religious Freedom

Free public education

Streamline the judicial system and liberalize the brutal penal code


Oh and…he could write. Describing his writing style, the author says…


His writing style gives us the sharpest self-portrait of the man: soft in tone and gracious in sentiment when he spoke of human rights, angry and self-righteous when he catalogued the crimes of a tyrannical king, magnificently Roman when, forging in a single paragraph the creed of a free nation…


His personal life was tragic. He outlived his siblings, his wife, all but one of his children, and many of his grandchildren. His wife Martha died at the age of 33. Thomas outlived her by over 40 years, but would never remarry. 


Of course, he was not without sin. He was a slave owner. This seems a glaring contradiction in the life of the man who wrote


…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…


During his political career, Jefferson would time and time again fight for the abolition of slavery, and decry it with righteous passion:


I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.


It seems grossly hypocritical for a slave owner.


However, things were not so simple as we think. For much of his life, it would have been impossible for Jefferson to free his slaves. Virginia law forbid it until 1782.


Jefferson inherited his first slaves from his father, and Virginia law prohibited an individual slave owner from freeing his slaves. 


To compound the problem, Martha later inherited, from her father, the majority of Jefferson’s slaves. They were encumbered as “property” Thomas held in trust; that had to be passed to Martha’s heirs.


But later in life, the laws changed, and he could have freed at least some of them…why not then? According to the author


…he considered mass emancipation impossible and believed it his burden of duty to care kindly for his slaves, freeing them individually as they became skilled enough to find jobs.


…he considered it irresponsible, indeed cruel, to turn loose his slaves until they were self-sufficient and prepared to remain free. 


I do not endorse his slow methodical approach of emancipation, and in spite of his words, I still suspect some hypocrisy, but I can believe, that in his own mind, he believed it reasonable. He could have, indeed should have done better, but it has taken humanity 6,000 years to collectively repudiate the evils of slavery. I don’t expect a man born to an age when it was a sanctioned institution to have sorted it all out perfectly. 


And then there was the election of 1800. The first true two-party election, and it was ugly, even by today’s standards. It was at times heartbreaking to read, knowing of the close friendship and mutual respect he and John Adams once shared.


But on a cheerier note…Bravo to Jefferson’s lifelong friend Benjamin Rush, who urged retired Jefferson to write his old friend John Adams. The two were reconciled and began a genuine and affectionate correspondence until both of them would die on the 4thof July, 1826…the 50thanniversary of the signing of The Declaration of Independence.



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