Arts/Literature

D.C.—part two: "What about me?"

JeffMemI 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?

adamsI’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?

JeffersonStatueAfter 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.

JeffersonBarsBut 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?”

13 replies »

  1. My dad’s an Adams man as well. However, his Alien and Sedition Acts has led me to wash my hands of both Adams and Jefferson.

    I’ll have to drop by the Jefferson Monument sometime. I’ve only been to DC three times, and I’ve missed it each trip.

  2. Beautifully written, Chris. Like you, I find Jefferson to be a man of very strange contradictions. He professed love of the common man and the simple, rural life, yet seemed most at home in Paris.

    Still, he is one of the rocks of religious freedom. He may well have been an agnostic, or even an atheist. We’ll never know. We do know that he penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and that he founded the first secular university in the US, which had as its architectural nexus a scale model of the Roman Pantheon — not a church. And in this scale model was — a library.

    I think Jefferson fell too far under the influence of French philosophers like Rousseau for his abstract reasoning, but somehow knew, in his heart, that the world works more the way Machiavelli saw it.

    He was a very flawed man, but he was also one of the few American political geniuses to obtain international stature. I think he deserves his monument, but that’s just me.

  3. I agree, he does deserve his memorial. (I’d like to see the Adams family get theirs, too!) I also contend that Jefferson’s home, Monticello, qualifies as one of the must-see places in America. That, even moreso than his memorial in D.C., stands as a beautiful testament to the man.

    I like how you mention the Virginia statute. That was one of the three things Jefferson was most proud of and had inscribed on his tombstone (along with “Author of Declaration of Independence” and “founder of the University of Virginia”–he left “President” off).

    As you can probably tell, I could go on about the guy for hours. Thanks for taking the time to add some great comments, JS.

  4. I gotta tell you, Chris, when you attend the University of Virginia, Mr. Jefferson is never quite out of sight or mind. His ghost permeates the place from the Rotunda to the serpentine walls he built to maintain stability while saving bricks. Still, I don’t revere Jefferson like many other alums do. I think, like you, that he was both great and greatly flawed.

    Thanks again for a great piece.

  5. I have read McColloughs book on Adams as well as seen the miniseries. I have yet to find a book equal to that on Jefferson. Any suggestions?

    The founders as a group fascinate me becuase they got so much accomplished without neccessarily agreeing. Could guys like Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton etc exist in todays culture and be effective or would the talking heads and media spotlight doom them to partisan ineptitude?

  6. Not that my poetry is terribly relevant here, per se, but I really appreciate your struggle with TJ’s contradictions.

    Raven, February Moon

    Full moon. Snowfield, vast
    beneath the mountain:

    to understand the
    truth of people, study
    their contradictions.

  7. I share the contradictory feelings about Jefferson, more so since i recently finished a book titled Friends of Liberty (which i’m hoping to bang into review/rumination shape shortly).

    The book focuses on a not overly well-known event in Jefferson’s life: when he became executor of Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s will. TK had to wait a while, but the US finally paid up for his services during the Revolution, including (if this is new to anyone) building the fortifications at West Point. The estate was to be used to purchase, educate and free slaves. Jefferson delayed and delayed and finally relinquished the position of executor because he claimed he was old, tired and didn’t have the energy…though he did so during the period when he was working so hard to build the university.

    I think he may get more of a free ride on the slavery issue than he deserves.

  8. @ Bob:

    I can’t speak to entertainment value, but for completeness, I think the gold standard on Jefferson is still the series by Dumas Malone. I think there are six volumes, all quite weighty. Hope that helps.

  9. @ Bob: For books about Jefferson, I’d recommend Joseph Ellis’s American Sphinx. It won the National Book Award and, like most of Ellis’s stuff, is highly readable. I’d also recommend Ellis’s Founding Brothers, which ranks as one of my all-time favorite books. It looks at the Founders as a family of squabbling brothers and provides great insights into their interpersonal and political dynamics. The book’s a Pulitzer winner, too.

    @ libhomo: Remember, there was no such thing as unconstitutionality at the time Adams approved the Alien & Sedition Acts. Judicial review had not yet been established, and the First Amendment was not revered then the way it is today. Also, the Founders were still making up the rules of governance, so I’m not sure “contempt” is the right word. Having said that, though, the acts were still a bad idea–even Adams later admitted so. I decline to judge Adams on that basis alone, just as I decline to judge Jefferson on the slavery issue alone.

  10. Thanks for the tips. I read “American Creation” and like you said it was an easy read. In fact that wa the book that started my fascination with the founders and the process they went through. In fact I ended up using it as an example of the Kotter 5 Step Change model for an HR Class a few years later.

    I will definately give the other two a look.

  11. Jefferson was a real piece of work, there’s no doubt about that. In the end, though, I think the historical reputation of most presidents rises and falls on whether he got the big things right. In Jefferson’s case, he did, and rightly earns his place as one of the greats.

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