I can’t get enough of the Founding Generation. Every year, I pore over several biographies. This year alone, I’ve read Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton,” Harlow Giles Unger’s “The Last Founding Father” about James Monroe, Joseph Ellis’ “The Quartet” about John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and James Madison, Sarah Vowell’s “Lafayette and the Somewhat United States,” and “The Portable John Adams.”
The men and women who forged our country had fascinating foibles and flaws, as well as insights and glories. I’ve come to admire so many of them, save one.
Try as I might, I can’t bring myself to like Thomas Jefferson.
I’ve read a handful of biographies and books that deal with different aspects of Jefferson. I try to like him. I try to see the good in him, and I’m better at it than before. Of course, I adore the writing of the Declaration of Independence, particularly the early parts, before it becomes a list of grievances against the king.
But the recent books I took up on Lafayette, Adams and Hamilton have brought back the worst in me.
I’m back to thinking of Jefferson as a first rate writer, a seventh rate thinker, a rank coward and likely the most profoundly hypocritical human being to ever walk the face of the earth. Earlier this year, I was talking with two of my nephews, who are profoundly bright. I said I think of Jefferson like the expanding mind meme.
In the first frame, you have the idea that Jefferson was a heroic Founding Father who wrote the Declaration of Independence and got the Louisiana Purchase accomplished. In the second frame, you realize he wrote “All men are created equal,” while owning some of those people who were equal to him. The third frame says he was a man of his times and tried to outlaw slavery in the northwest ordinance. But the fourth and final frame is when you realize he likely repeatedly raped his slave Sally Hemmings, he fled his state while he was the governor, and he doubled down on slavery later in life – at a time when other countries and slave owners were reforming their views on the matter.
Yeah, I know I’m supposed to hold him in the same regard I do Washington, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Hamilton and the rest. But I can’t bring myself to do it.
Part of it is politics. I admire pragmatic politicians. People who hold their ideals close, but don’t fear compromise. I don’t think he had the political capabilities of a Franklin, Hamilton or Madison. I think Jefferson fit his times, but unlike many of the other hallowed fathers, he wasn’t as visionary. I know it’s a shocking statement to say that about the man who wrote the Declaration. However, the future that arrived after Jefferson fit far more in line with what was expected by the likes of Hamilton and Adams. I don’t think Jefferson had the capabilities to see what they did.