The Sage and Family Man

The place was a mess. It had “fallen into ruin: windows were broken, the roof leaked, the terraces had rotted through, graffiti defaced the front of the house, souvenir hunters had chipped away at [the] burial shaft…bats and rats gamboled and searched for food in the empty dwelling.”

Good thing the owner already did. Seeing his house this way would have broken his heart.

After he finished with the Presidency, and politics, Thomas Jefferson finally completed Monticello, and did precisely what he had hoped to do before he got talked into running for president in the first place–he gave himself time to think, roam and inspect his farms, read the classics, write to friends, and, as a “hobby,” built what became the University of Virginia not far from Monticello. Like George Washington, Jefferson was constantly short on funds, the result of a slave-based farming economy that required far more personal attention than a public figure could provide, and some lousy luck.

From the University of Virginia collection

I just finished reading about 500 pages about the life of Thomas Jefferson, my third presidential biography (I hope to read at least one book about every president, which may not be so easy to do because there are gaps in the literature and gaps in my patience for some of the people who served in the office). I began with Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (Chernow wrote the Hamilton biography that inspired the musical), and continued with David McCullough’s magnificent John Adams (the basis for the HBO series starring Paul Giamatti). There are lots of Jefferson biographies, including the classic six-book series, Jefferson in His Time by Dumas Malone, and Jon Meacham’s more recent The Art of Power. I chose the new Jefferson book by Rice University Professor John B. Boles because it seemed to be fair-handed, and because it seemed to balance personal and professional life without overdoing it on the brilliance of Jefferson’s accomplishments and authorship. I am not a presidential scholar, so it’s difficult for me to evaluate the quality of the work, or to compare it with other lifetime biographies, but Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty seemed to fit the bill.

Begin at the beginning. Based upon available accounts (Boles consistently prefers available accounts to his own intuition), Thomas’s father Peter was an intelligent, well-read, ambitious man who married well, bringing the Randolph family and the Jefferson clan together in one of Virginia’s great extended families. Peter died young, and left a considerable amount of prime Albemarle County land to the family. So begins the saga of Monticello.

When he was 26, Thomas became a college student, attending William and Mary College in Williamsburg and greatly benefiting from one particular professor, Dr. William Small, a Scotsman, who focused Jefferson’s keen intellect on rational thought. Jefferson wrote that Small had been “to me as a father,” and “to his enlightened & affectionate guidance of my studies…I am endebted for every thing.” Small introduced Jefferson to two friends: a law professor named George Wythe, and the royal governor Frances Fauquier. So began Jefferson’s introduction to public life and politics–in the very small capital city of the colony of Virginia, early in the 1760s.

Through a growing circle of political connections, Jefferson made his way through the courts and eventually into the legislature. Boles presents Jefferson’s professional and personal growth by presenting the young legislator’s growth in good alignment with the colonial struggles against an increasingly aggressive England. Even in his earliest work as an attorney, Jefferson’s principles were explicit: “Under the law of nature…all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to be his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it as his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of his nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.” This was written in connection with an April 1770 case involving a complicated multi-generational question about miscegenation and slavery.

Like George Washington and other wealthy Virginians, Thomas Jefferson relied upon slaves to operate his plantations, operate small businesses, and maintain some degree of economic stability (not his strongest suit). Wisely, Boles does not allow the chronological storytelling to become bogged down in lengthy inquiries into Jefferson’s philosophies about slavery in general or his own slaves in particular. It’s well known that Jefferson has more than a personal stake: his decades-long relationship with Sally Hemmings–and the majority of slaves under Jefferson’s control were members of the large Hemmings family. That discussion is reserved for chapter 29, after Jefferson has reconciled differences and renewed friendship with John Adams, after Jefferson’s 90-plus year old body finally gave out. Boles allows Jefferson a fair amount of latitude here. Basically, the author presents Jefferson as man of his time, and at the time, his behavior was considered perfectly reasonable–despite the fact that Jefferson’s outlook on slavery in general was restrictive. In essence, Jefferson hoped that his decisions and his writings would begin a long movement in which slavery would be eliminated in due course, not as the result of any single action.

There is a great deal of story in these 500+ pages–life in Paris (which he adored), returning to the U.S. and reluctantly becoming the nation’s first Secretary of State, his complete and all-encompassing love for his daughter and so many family members (most of all, Jefferson was a family man), his philosophical differences and battles with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, his love for and extreme distaste for politics, his raw ambition and relentless curiosity, his utter disappointment with Merriwether Lewis who utterly failed to document the science and much of the detail in his documentation of the famous expedition with William Clark, and his ability to manage an astonishing range of interests and activities that can be experienced, at least in a cursory way, by a largely rebuilt Monticello estate.

So it’s off to James Madison for me. I need to decide whether to pick things up with the Lynne Cheney biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, or the Kevin R. C. Gutman biography, James Madison and the Making of America (which seems to be very focused on the U.S. Constitution, and less on the man’s whole life)This decision is made more complicated because of a weak link in the chain: of the two James Monroe biographies that might follow, neither is likely to suit my purpose. Suggestions are welcome.

 

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“Confidence in Government Was Abysmally Low”

“The rump end of the Continental Congress still wobbled along in New York City, where it had met since 1785, but it hadn’t achieved a quorum since October. Its secretary, Charles Thompson, buttonholed members on the street, when he could find them, and dragged them into his office so that he could claim in his records that they had technically, “assembled.”

The people had elected a President, but nobody was sure what the man was supposed to do. People from Pennsylvania considered people from New England to be their enemies, and the feelings were mutual. Southerners trusted no one except themselves. The states didn’t want to work together, not that this seemed especially likely given the “the yawning listlessness” and “over-refining spirit in relation to trifles” exhibited by Congress’s first members. Apart from a few clerks, the Federal government had no employees. And almost no money. There was no Supreme Court, and there no lower courts. There were more than fifty different currencies in use, plus plenty of counterfeit currencies. There no political parties, but there were Federalists, who believed in the potential of a powerful central government, and Anti-Federalists, who did not. The Anti-Federalists were ready to take apart the new U.S. Constitution and start over, this time favoring these States, not a unified nation.

And we’re only a dozen pages into the book, “First Congress” by historian Fergus M. Bordewich. As a modern reader, the dysfunction is almost beyond comprehension. Not only was nothing much done in preparation for operating a nation, there were almost no likelihood that  the First Congress would accomplish anything in particular. And the only guy who could pull the whole country together—George Washington—expressed tremendous apprehension about becoming the President, or the King, or whatever the leadership role might be called. George had his doubts, but he really, really wanted the job and needed to be careful about seeming too anxious. (Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography “Hamilton” on which Broadway musical is based, also wrote a great bio book called “Washington: A Life” which is heavy on George’s constant internal conflicts. Bordowich does not as deeply here because he has other territory to cover.)

So it’s James Madison—whose story ought to follow “Hamilton” as a Broadway musical—who convinces George to man-up, and run the country. Hamilton is also in a leadership role, convincing Congress that the new country ought to set up a bank, assume the states’s debts, and establish a meaningful credit rating. But everything in those early days seems more like an informal startup company than the beginning of the richest nation on earth. “There was also John Jay who ran the Confederation’s Department of Foreign Affairs from his law office, and Henry Knox, who presided over the War Department from rented rooms at a Water Street tavern.”

Look into his eyes. This is James Madison, a politically savvy man who convinced George Washington to lead the new nation.

Look into his eyes. This is James Madison, a politically savvy man who convinced George Washington to lead the new nation.

Eventually, they got to work. Madison was the first congressman to propose a law so that the new country would have some revenue, and control its coastlines. And then, everybody argued, and protected their regional interests. And besides, nobody was clear on how these new rules could possibly be enforced.

With or without proper tariffs, Vice President John Adams “tirelessly repeated that Europeans would never take the United States seriously unless its chief executive was endowed with the trappings of sovereign grandeur…At minimum, he considered His Highness or His Most Benign Highness as the barest acceptable forms of address for its president. He…scathingly dismissed President as appropriate for ‘Fire Companies & of a Cricket Club.’ Any member of Congress willing to settle for less he considered a ‘driveling idiot.” Everything was new, nothing was settled, and everybody carried a strong opinion of how things must be done. Still, they were not without humor: Ben Franklin, who was always good for a laugh, called Vice President Adams “Your Superfluous Excellency,” while others looked at his widening girth and favored, “His Rotundity.” (I found Franklin’s comment on the web, not in the book).

Did the First Congress get anything done?

The surprising and overwhelming answer is “yes!” In surprising chapter by chapter, Bordowich leads us through one astonishing accomplishment after another. Congress establishes itself as a powerful legislative body. They manage to keep the government running at a time when it appears as though George Washington will not survive an illness. They worked out the Bill of Rights. They figured out where to place the new nation’s capital—a  major political accomplishment because of the many competing interests. While busy complaining about how little they understood about finance, they did not stop Alexander Hamilton from establishing the U.S. as a viable financial operation—a capitalist one at that. They worked on a reasonable solution for slavery—but failed in the attempt. They—and Adams gets much of the blame for this—managed to make the Vice President an ineffective leadership role. They invented the President’s Cabinet and its various departments—and convinced a very reluctant Thomas Jefferson to leave his lovely Paris mansion and lovelier lifestyle to return home and establish the State Department. They learned to deal with lobbyists (Quakers were the first lobbyists).

“Men who had seen themselves primarily as citizens of their individual states had now mostly come to see themselves as the common citizens of a nation and embraced their new government as their own in a way they had never done before.”

“Public opinion now mattered. Newly emboldened newspapers brought the doings of government to the door of every citizen, including the illiterate , who gathered in urban taverns and frontier hamlets to avidly hear reports read to them by their literate neighbors.”

A new nation had begun.
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