I can almost hear Thomas Jefferson calling from across the tidal basin, from across the centuries: “What about me? What about me?”
I hardly give the Jefferson Memorial a second glance. I see it, like a glowing turtle that has crawled onto the bank, on the far side of the basin. Beneath the memorial’s domed ceiling—modeled after the ceiling of Jefferson’s home, Monticello—Jefferson calls, “What about me?”
It reminds me of that great little scene from “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” from season three of The Simpsons. After seeking advice and inspiration from Abraham Lincoln, who’s inundated with advice-seekers, Lisa seeks out Jefferson for advice instead. The place is deserted. “No one ever comes to see me,” a bitter Jefferson laments. “I don’t blame them. I never did anything important. Just the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, the dumbwaiter….”
Lisa, her patience already frayed, leaves him. “Wait!” Jefferson calls. “Please don’t go. I get so lonely….”
The scene always delights me—in part because of what may be an irrational grudge I hold toward Jefferson. The guy has been dead since 1826, passing away within hours of fellow Founder John Adams on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration. (It’s one of the best true stories of American history.)
So why should I hold a grudge against a guy long-dead?
I’m a John Adams man, through and through. History has proven Adams right about so many things—the need for a strong executive, the supremacy of federal over state government, the dangers of a passionate but uneducated electorate—but Adams knew at the time that history would forget him because he wasn’t flashy and because he had the unfortunate habit of calling things as he saw them.
He and Jefferson had been great friends in their early careers, although they made an unlikely pair: Adams was short and rotund and balding, Jefferson tall and thin and red-haired; Adams was a farmer-turned-lawyer, Jefferson a lawyer-turned-farmer; Adams was a self-made man from Massachusetts, Jefferson a member of the Virginia aristocracy.
Yet they saw themselves as comrades in a great struggle. Adams was the voice of the Revolution while Jefferson served as its pen. In fact, Adams was the one who suggested that Jefferson draft the Declaration. After the Revolution, serving together as ministers in Europe, Jefferson was close with the Adams family—so much so that the eldest Adams son, John Quincy, spent countless hours with the Virginia. “He seemed as much your son as mine,” the elder Adams told Jefferson.
But back in America, Adams and Jefferson found themselves on opposite sides of the political battles then waging in the early Republic. For Adams, historian Joseph Ellis has said, friendship trumped politics; for Jefferson, the opposite held true. Jefferson ultimately betrayed Adams, and the wound cut Adams deeply.
Adams eventually forgave his old friend. After twelve icy years of silence between them, and they had both retired to their homesteads, the two former presidents struck up a correspondence that has become one of the most remarkable exchanges in American history. Adams went so far to claim, somewhat disingenuously, that “there has never been the smallest interruption of the personal friendship between Mr. Jefferson that I know of.”
So if Adams could forgive Jefferson, why can’t I?
After all, despite my grudge, I do admire Jefferson, albeit grudgingly. I’ve gotta love a guy who once said, “I have sworn on the altar of god eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” He wrote that in a letter to a friend, and it’s not inscribed along the interior of the memorial’s dome.
A perfect child of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was a deep and profound thinker. Historian David McCullough likened him to “a university unto himself.” Jefferson had so many books that, after the British burned the Library of Congress in the War of 1812, the government reestablished the library by buying Jefferson’s. “I cannot live without books,” Jefferson wrote to Adams. I feel like Jefferson and I are kindred spirits in that regard; I could have his quote tattooed on my forehead.
But I’m also deeply bothered by Jefferson’s inability to face the many, many contradictions in his public and personal lives. He was always in debt, yet he spent extravagantly. He pretended to be above the political fray, yet his maneuverings would’ve taken Machiavelli to school. He opposed a strong executive, yet he unilaterally agreed to the Louisiana Purchase.
“The Jefferson style was to evade, maintain pretenses, then convince himself all was well,” Ellis has said.
And, of course, I am bothered by the fact that Jefferson, the slaveholder, had the audacity to write “All men are created equal.” Jefferson even admitted slavery was wrong, but he thought it would be up to the next generation, not his, to do something about it.
Well, it took a couple generations—four score and five years after Jefferson penned his words—but finally a whole bunch of someones did do something about it, and it cost more than 600,000 American lives.
So maybe, in some sad, terrible way, I have myself convinced that Jefferson’s words and Jefferson’s lack of moral courage led to America’s greatest tragedy.
Maybe not directly, and certainly not intentionally. But as the old saying goes, all it takes for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing. Jefferson ultimately chose to sit on his mountaintop perch and occupy himself with anything and everything except the one great question of his day.
For that reason, I suspect it would be virtually impossible to construct a Jefferson Memorial today. FDR proposed the memorial in 1934 at a time when America didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it checkered history of race relations. The memorial opened nine years later, on April 13th, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday.
It’s a beautiful location, and lit up as it is on the edge of the tidal basin, the memorial stands as one of Washington’s most distinctive pieces of architecture—which is saying something considering the fact that the capital city is full of distinctive architecture.
But it’s lonely over there, too. Jefferson is in a kind of exile, and the pillars that hold up the dome could also be great marble prison bars that hold Jefferson in place.
I’ll visit him at some point. I always do. But tonight, I’m feeling the Adams grudge. After all, my man calls out, too, from across the years: “What about me?”