How could I not like a guy who kept pet mockingbirds because he cherished their music? My Florida book group discussed Jon Meacham’s wonderful book last Saturday morning and pondered which was the greatest of Jefferson’s many achievements. At his request, his tombstone lists only “author of the American Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, and founder of the University of Virginia.” What about Envoy to France, first Secretary of State and third President? But it was his dazzling leadership in purchasing the Louisiana Territory from cash-strapped Napoleon that impressed me most. This timely, delicate action doubled the size of our young country and gave rise to the American Dream of finding new opportunity in the West. I appreciated Jefferson when I read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West and when I took my 2005 trip to Montana “In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark.” I appreciate him now more than ever.
Jefferson’s multiple interests and talents, his fear of failure, and his sensitivity to what others thought of him could have made his life difficult and often did. His worst migraine headaches plagued him in the White House. Meacham, however, focuses on his gift for listening to and graciously getting along with people, the true source of his power. Beloved by his family and friends, he could also charm Federalists who vilified him. Dedicated to the principles of democracy, he knew when to compromise short-term objectives for long-term benefits. Our group compared him with 20th century master politicians like FDR, LBJ, Reagan and Clinton. One of his few weaknesses was public speaking, but his gift for writing more than made up for that. He wrote the Declaration of Independence when he was 33.
Jefferson’s most egregious flaw was endemic to Southerners in his time. He knew early in his life that slavery was corrupting, yet he couldn’t give it up, nor could her resist taking advantage of the enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, his wife’s half-sister, with whom he had five children. I had read Annette Gordon-Reed’s throughly-researched and wonderfully-written The Hemingses of Monticello: an American Family and was glad to see that Meacham acknowledged her contributions to Jeffersonian scholarship. Jefferson was a great man, but he was also a human. At least, Sally Hemings had the courage to make him promise to free her when he died, and he did.
It has been my joy often to visit places that Jefferson designed: the University of Virginia campus, where Lilli studied architecture, Shelby, law, and Sean, business; Monticello, where every tour brings new insight; and the octagon room at Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, where Shelby’s wedding photos were taken and where the Kenridge golf tournament has taken us annually since 1990. Jefferson has particular meaning for Shelby and Sean. Sean proposed to my daughter on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial; they named their second son Thomas Joel and call him TJ. Shelby and her boys and I once picked peaches on Carter’s Mountain, which was Jefferson’s retreat during the Revolutionary War. My friend Elizabeth gave me a tour of the appropriately-named Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology ten years ago when she was the Principal. Two of my best piano students attended TJHSST. This book recalled all these pleasant associations and deepened my veneration of this towering figure of world history. I just wish every struggling new country could have a man with such wisdom, vision and grace.
Our book group agreed that this quote in the frontispiece of the book neatly captures Jefferson:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
President John F. Kennedy, at a dinner in honor of all living recipients of the Nobel Prize, 1962