(ed. note: Several readers and colleagues have asked that I post my speech on Thomas Jefferson. So ... here it is. gn)
Thomas Jefferson: Southerner & Literary Man
I was asked to make my remarks on Jefferson tonight from the perspective of a Southerner. Which I suppose I am. Certainly I am not a Vermonter, having lived here a mere 33 years, during which time my two children and two grandchildren were born in Bennington. So I am a perpetual newcomer and flatlander and I still occasionally get asked, “Where do you come from with that accent?”
I’d never been to Vermont in my life before my first trip, in my mid-twenties, when I came on a journalistic assignment. I was here to interview Milton Friedman. I stayed two or three days and I’d never in my life heard so much good sense being talked. Perhaps that is why I moved here for good a couple of years later. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard that much good sense talked in Vermont in all the time since.
Anyway, I’ve been asked to stand up here and explain Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian, to a room full of Vermonters. And having presented my credentials, it’s probably time to get on with it.
know Jefferson most emphatically, of course, as the writer of these
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.Most of us still feel chills upon reading those words. They are truly immortal and if Jefferson had never written anything else … by virtue of those words alone he would deserve a special place in history.
But … one thing that has always struck me about that passage is that Jefferson didn’t claim to have suddenly arrived at “these truths.” Or to have reached them through some laborious exercise of logic or have had them delivered to him carved into stone tablets.
Instead, they were “self evident.”
Obvious, in short, to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to comprehend and beyond argument. Now, once you have established something as self-evident, the question becomes, “Okay, then, what next?”
For Jefferson and the rest of the founders the immediate answer was – concluding favorably that messy business with the English king and his soldiers, writing a Constitution, building a nation, and other monumental challenges that still inspire us to marvel that they were willing even to take them on, much less to accomplish them with such transcendent, lasting success.
But that was action. On the thought side of things, the issue was settled. These truths were self-evident and … case closed.
Jefferson, in fact, later defended himself when it was suggested that the Declaration was not an original work and that he had, to put it charitably, “borrowed” from the writings and speeches of others:
So with the transcendent political question of the age now settled, Jefferson went on to other things. Many, many things. He was never – and this is crucial to why Jefferson is important to us, even today – was never a man totally consumed by the political. He was the voice of what was arguably the only successful political revolution of the last three centuries but he never became that horror, the total political actor.
This was the object of the declaration of independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All of its authority rest, then, on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sydney, &c.
Even before he wrote the Declaration, Jefferson had been described by one biographer as
A gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin."He was, arguably, the purest embodiment of a type, sadly gone … the enlightenment polymath, interested and learned in everything. Curious, literate, educated. For Jefferson, there was much more to life than politics or even political philosophy where the answers to the biggest question had, after all, been settled as self-evident.
We could spend all night talking about the pursuits of Jefferson; of the things that captured and held his interest. After I was invited to give this address, I spent some time researching the subject. One of the more charming items I came across was that Thomas Jefferson introduced the waffle iron to America.
Where would the Republic be today without the waffle iron? The imagination trembles.
He also introduced Neapolitan "macaroni" – I believe that’s what we now call “pasta” – to America and served "French fries" with beefsteak. Some say that while he was in France, Jefferson obtained recipes for ice cream, although Dolly Madison frequently gets credit for introducing ice cream to the White House. I think we should be charitable and let Dolly have that one. It is a direct line, after all, from ice cream in the White House to Ben & Jerry’s and you could imagine how Jefferson would feel about having that on his resume.
While I was working on this talk, I looked around the internet to see if I could find something to validate a story I remembered reading somewhere about how Jefferson had smuggled some particularly desirable tomato seeds out of France under pain of death. I like the idea that he was always getting over on the French.
Couldn’t find it, though.
It was easy, however, to find material on Jefferson the architect. The astronomer. The botanist, geologist, & paleontologist who, at one point, had the East Room of the White House covered with mastodon bones.
Even if he hadn’t stiffed the French on some tomato seeds, he was a passionate and consummate gardener and he did have a fondness for tomatoes which he used in, among other things, gumbo.
And how Southern is that?
Thomas Jefferson, in short, was a complete man. He was not a member of that dreary species that makes life so dull and oppressive these days – the total political animal. One would never have been tempted to say to Thomas Jefferson – as he would, for instance, to Bernard Sanders – “Hey, man, why don’t you just get a life.”
In 1962, when he entertained 49 American winners of the Nobel Prize at a White House dinner, President John F. Kennedy said,
"I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”It is a good line, often quoted. But there is a detail from that evening that is often overlooked or forgotten. One of the conspicuous no-shows at that dinner was William Faulkner, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature who was, at the time, a writer in residence at the University of Virginia which had been founded by … Thomas Jefferson. It was one of the three accomplishments Jefferson wished mentioned on his tombstone. The others were his authorship of the Declaration and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.
When asked why he did not attend the White House dinner, Faulkner said, “"Why that's a hundred miles away. That's a long way to go just to eat."
I like to think that Jefferson would have approved, since Faulkner was declining to take part in a ritual that would have thoroughly pleased Jefferson’s old rival Alexander Hamilton. The Kennedy administration represented the triumph of the Hamiltonian notions of strong government, central banking, big cities, heavy industry, foreign adventures, and the rest. That evening was a pure expression of the pomp and glory of political power and seductive as the vision was – and remains – to some, it was deeply contrary to the spirit of Jefferson as many of us from the South view him. Jefferson might have written that all men are created equal but his life established that this concept could carry you only so far. Hardly anyone, after all, was Thomas Jefferson’s equal. He may have been a natural aristocrat but he was deeply suspicious of the elites … especially of the urban, moneyed kind.
Now Jefferson was many, many things and the contradictions and tensions appear everywhere in his biography. We all are familiar with the most critical fault lines. There was slavery, of course, where both his thinking and his actions were grievously flawed. And there was the matter of the French Revolution which he endorsed far too long and embraced far too tightly, inspiring him to write a line that still seems impossibly immoderate for such a civilized temperament:
"My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it now is."The French Revolution turned bloody, you could argue, because it took what Jefferson believed was a self-evident fact and turned it into an abstract goal of political action. The French and – later and with even more ferocity – other revolutionaries have made this sense of equality into something pure, abstract, and ideal. Something to be imposed by as much force, and with as much bloodshed, as necessary.
Jefferson realized this late in his life when writing about the French Revolution, he deplored
He certainly called that one.
"those enormities which demoralized the nations of the world, and destroyed, and is yet to destroy, millions and millions of its inhabitants."
Jefferson, for all his ability to grasp the abstract, was happier, I think, with the concrete and the particular. And this is what Southerners read into his life and his work.
Like any Southern man who has made good and accomplished something in life, what Jefferson really wanted to be was … a farmer. Of the sort, anyway, who rode horseback most of the day, overlooking his holdings and the work going on there and keeping journals and ledgers and observing the changing of the seasons and the constancy of the earth.
He wrote, in one of his books,
"Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."Those sentiments were picked up, a little over 100 years after Jefferson’s death, by a few literary Southerners who called themselves the Agrarians and published a book with the title “I’ll Take My Stand,” a literary manifesto, of sorts, arguing for the virtues of a rural culture that was disappearing under the expansion of heavy industry and mass market commerce and finance capitalism.
It was – is – a lovely vision and it didn’t – doesn’t – stand a chance.
That does not, however, mean it dies and vanishes.
Our friend Faulkner, who couldn’t be bothered to drive 100 miles to eat dinner – he probably called it “supper” – at the White House, once described himself thusly: “I’m just a farmer who likes to tell stories.”
After his second term as President, Thomas Jefferson returned to Virginia and lived the life of … what? Well, none could say he was a farmer any more than Faulkner was. But his attachment to the land he rode and had cultivated by his slaves was undeniable.
"From breakfast, or noon at the latest, to dinner, I am mostly on horseback, Attending to My Farm or other concerns, which I find healthful to my body, mind, and affairs."His attachment to the land and his rejection of the urban trajectory of his own day resonated with Southerners of the Agrarian movement and even, still, with a few fugitive literary southerners today.
Nobody believes that these sentiments about yeomanry and rural culture will prevail. This is a tragic vision and, for all of his gifts to the enlightenment, there was a tragic element in Jefferson’s writing and thought. Which is why he is the only President to have inspired a literary movement.
As a literary man, he would know these lines from Ecclesiastes and they would resonate for him:
of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.Hamilton wins. Hamilton always wins. But Jeffersonian ideas and attachments never quite die.
… For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge[also] increaseth sorrow.
William Faulkner almost decided not to attend the ceremony in Stockholm where he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He was afraid it might conflict with deer season in Mississippi so he would not be able to spend time at deer camp. Something Vermonters would understand. Something I understood even before I moved here.
But Faulkner went to Sweden and accepted the award and spoke these words,
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
days before he died, Jefferson wrote that
These sentiments, from a couple of Southern men of letters, are not that far apart in spirit.
"the general spread of the light of science ... laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God."
We celebrate Jefferson and his birthday not entirely because he was a great president … and he was. Or because he was a fascinating man, which he plainly was. We celebrate him, I think, because he represents something that endures in the American spirit – that sense that being created equal is merely the beginning and that if we are content to leave it there, then we are missing something crucial and essential about what it truly means to be born free.