Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Jefferson, a shady character in the Hamilton bio-pic

If it's natural for a sympathetic biographer to view the world from the perspective of his subject, then it should be unsurprising that Thomas Jefferson comes off badly in Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson was, after all, one of Hamilton's archest arch-rivals.

Chernow clearly loves Hamilton, but he's not blind to his faults -- I hate fawning biographies, and would have dropped this one in 50 pages had it been of that ilk. And he's basically persuaded me about Jefferson.

There can be no doubt that Thomas Jefferson was brilliant, and that his was a towering acheivement in the founding generation. He did two great things, either one of which would have earned him his place in U.S. history.
(1) writing the Declaration of Independence;

(2) pushing through the Louisiana purchase and following that up by commissioning the exploratory mission and appointing Merriweather Lewis to lead it.
But now let's get a look at some of Jefferson's shortcomings. As unsavory as it may be, I'm not going to get on his case for schtupping his slave Sally Hemings, even though she was only about 14 or 15 when they started.

Nor am I going to get on his case for not being a fighting man -- for sitting out the Revolutionary War behind the lines while many of his peers, including Hamilton, were getting their butts shot at. (Jefferson was 33 in 1776). Instead:

(1) As governor of Virginia in 1779, he failed to organize the militia to defend Richmond, and fled the city on the approach of a smallish British force, leaving a huge arsenal and government archive to be captured.

(2) He managed to absent himself from any sort of positive leadership role from the time he penned the declaration in 1776 until he assumed the post of Secretary of State in 1790.

(3) As ambassador to France, he flitted around Paris high society (1785-1790) while failing to perceive or understand much of anything that was going on around him. He was oblivious to the violent underpinnings of the French revolution as it was happening, and reported back that France would make a peaceful transition to a democratic republic.

(4) He flip-flopped on several vital issues of nation-building in the first Washington administration, and spent much of the second Washington administration secretly intriguing against Washington's policies. He justified this by claiming in essence that Washington was senile and unaware of how he was being manipulated by Hamilton -- which was BS.

Jefferson was a romantic idealist whose vision of himself and of the world ignored a lot of reality. He extolled virtuous republican simplicity while tending himself toward living a spendthrift, if not sybaritic lifestyle that kept him in debt and made it financially impossible for him to free his slaves, despite his supposed opposition to slavery.

His political vision for America consisted of a citizenry of independent yoeman farmers who had no dependence on cities, manufacturing or creditors. This was the material basis for his opposition to Hamilton's economic policies. Yet he and his peers built their lives on a dependence on credit, imported manufactured goods and, of course, slave labor.

As a politician, he was something of a snake, telling people what they wanted to hear, going behind their backs, and withholding his own true views.

Don't get me wrong: these failings are outweighed by his achievements. I don't believe in the kind of simplistic revisionist history that tears down our past leaders. I just don't believe in marble statues either.

You're actually making me want to read (or listen to) this Hamilton biography that you've been reading (or listening to).

By the way, did you know that there's a great Lewis and Clark exhibit at the Smithsonian. Here's the link.

And here's my word verification -- whiyzarx -- which seems wasted on me because I don't know what to do with it.
I'm beginning to understand the "Jefferson" part of William Jefferson Clinton.

For Tonya...
whiyzarx (WISE-arks): a smarter version of the Ozarks.

For me...
kujmpi (koo-JIMPY): delectable, though live, seafood.

In 2007, when you finish listening to this and all the other currently open books on your desk and in your cd-player, you might enjoy picking up Scandalmonger by William Safire, a terrific novelization of the Hamilton/Jefferson split with a focus on the secret sex scandals of the time that threatened Hamilton and exacerbated his problems with Burr as well. It's a first class read.


gwrvrs -- george washington's rivalries!
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