Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

The legacy of the Declaration of Independence

…is the subject of this meditation from historian Gordon Wood, which is well worth reading.

Hat tip to The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

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Better living through willful ignorance

One of the things you didn’t do during the American Revolution was question George Washington’s integrity.  You could criticize his judgment, but not his character.

Once he assumed the presidency, of course, Washington’s character did become a target.  Serious differences about the direction the new nation should take emerged among the generation of men who made the Revolution, and these differences were the genesis of the first American political parties.  Despite Washington’s wish to appear above the fray, he ended up choosing a side, and that side was the one in favor of a stronger central government, a more modern financial system, and commercial relations with England.  Washington aligned himself with Hamilton and the other Federalists, and in so doing he opened himself to criticism from Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues who thought this vision of America threatened the Revolution’s legacy.

Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

During the war Washington had been the embodiment of virtue, but to the Republicans it now seemed he was supporting men and measures that were undermining everything his generation worked to build.  Yet he was still George Washington. Perhaps this contradiction explains a conviction that appears in Jefferson’s writings from this period.  If you relied solely on Jefferson’s appraisal of Washington, you’d come away with the impression that the Father of his Country was basically a dupe.  For a time, Jefferson thought Washington supported Hamilton and the Federalists because he was being misled and deceived.  By relying on Hamilton to shape financial policy, Washington was supposedly letting himself be dragged along by a scoundrel, simply because he didn’t know enough about running the country to rely on his own judgment.

Washington was a shrewder customer than Jefferson gave him credit for.  How could somebody who worked with Washington misread him so badly?  I’ve started to suspect that part of the explanation is psychological.  During his second term, Washington became fair game for every sort of outlandish, slanderous charge imaginable—monarchism, Anglophilia, even treason during the war.  But other observers remembered Washington as America’s Cincinnatus while simultaneously seeing that he was taking the country down a path they believed to be wrong.  How to reconcile his virtue and his supposed lack of prudence?  The explanation had to be that Washington was in the dark, and therefore at the mercy of the unsavory characters who had his ear.

If this story sounds a little familiar, it should.  This was the same narrative Americans had been telling themselves a couple of decades before, except at that point it had been the King of England, rather than Washington, who was the dupe.  Americans believed that a plot was underway to enslave them, and they knew that English politicians and some of the king’s advisors were in on it.  But at first they were reluctant to implicate the king himself.  They assured themselves that his ministers were misleading him, and that if they could get the truth about America’s plight to the throne, then he would alleviate their situation.  Eventually they learned that he wasn’t as in the dark as they’d thought, and that in fact he wanted his subjects to submit to the same policies that they found oppressive. For many colonists this discovery was a profound disillusionment, and it was a crucial step in their eventual decision to break from England completely, a process Pauline Maier outlines in her study of the evolution of America’s protest movement.

It’s a richly ironic situation.  By psychologically preserving Washington’s integrity, Jefferson had to assume that he was fundamentally ignorant.  And in so doing, he recapitulated a pattern Americans had first applied to the same king against whom Washington led a revolution.

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Everything I need to know about American history, I learned from anti-Catholic conspiracy theories

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you THE TRUTH AT LAST!

Tobias Lear, personal secretary to George Washington, was an assassin in the employ of the nefarious Jesuit Order who poisoned the Father of our Country, and Thomas Jefferson was probably in on it!

As President, Jefferson used his office to promote Jesuit infiltration of the United States!

George III was a Jesuit puppet, and his invasion of the colonies to suppress the rebellion was in reality the result of a scheme to eradicate Protestantism!

Those countless hours I spent as a grad student, trying to learn what made the Revolution tick…and it was all for naught.  All for naught.

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Fly on the wall (2)

While we’re on the subject of credibility in historical films, there’s another scene from HBO’s John Adams that’s worth looking at, one which illustrates authenticity of a different kind—the authentic depiction of historical personalities

Before watching the scene, we’ll set the stage with a few descriptions of the characters involved.  Here’s David McCullough describing Jefferson and Adams in the book on which the series is based: “Where Adams stood foursquare to the world, shoulders back, Jefferson customarily stood with his arms folded tightly across his chest.  When taking his seat, it was as if he folded into a chair, all knees and elbows and abnormally large hands and feet” (p. 111).

Joseph Ellis describes Jefferson as “a listener and observer, distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, shy and nervous in a distracted manner that was sometimes mistaken for arrogance” (p. 32).

Finally, here’s Edmund S. Morgan on Benjamin Franklin: “[He] could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick.  He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why” (5).

Now here’s the scene, with Adams and Franklin critiquing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence:

I’d say these guys did their homework. 

Good writing, good acting, and good direction can bring us as close as we’re likely to get to seeing historical figures in the flesh, and when it happens, it magic.

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Macaroni a la Monticello

In honor of the excellent Italian cuisine I enjoyed this evening, I humbly direct your attention to this highly unexpected item from the Thomas Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress.

“[P]rovided the flour be of a good quality, & not ground extremely fine, it will always do very well.”—TJ, the Martha Stewart of the eighteenth century

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History in your veins

Here’s an interesting news story, via a blog devoted to John Brown, about an event attended by descendants of Brown and his followers.  One of the attendees was Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter, Alice Keesey Mecoy of Allen, Texas.

For some reason the notion that I’m sharing the planet with John Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter struck me as pretty darn cool.

I had a similar feeling a few years ago when I saw a local TV spot here in East Tennessee.  It was a campaign ad for Andrew Jackson VI, who was running for a judgeship in Knox County.  The background music was an instrumental version of “The Battle of New Orleans.”  I had no idea there was an Andrew Jackson VI, and I certainly didn’t know he lived in Knoxville.  But lo and behold, it was true.

Technically, of course, he’s not a biological descendant of Andrew Jackson, who fathered no kids of his own; he’s descended from Rachel Donelson’s nephew.  But Old Hickory adopted the nephew and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr.  That’s good enough for me.

I actually met a John Sevier descendant once.  She was a delightful lady, and strikingly resembled the Peale portrait of him.

I decided to see what I could find out about people who are carrying history around in their genes.  Web browsers make it a lot easier to indulge this kind of idle, unproductive curiosity.

  • News story about the release of the John Adams dollar coin, with a picture and quote from a seventh-generation descendant.  I think he looks more like Sam Adams than John, but that’s just me.
  • Jefferson descendants have their own organization.  Benefits include burial at Monticello.  Last I heard there was a Hemingses-need-not-apply policy, but that might have changed by now.
  • Madison’s relatives also have a group of their own, with a spiffy website.
  • There’s also a group for Washington relatives, although His Excellency (like Jackson) had no biological children of his own, and thus no direct descendants. 
  • No Lincoln descendants left either, though if I had one of those John Adams dollar coins for every time somebody told me they were in Abe’s direct line, I could buy an original Gettysburg Address.  But here’s an item about a modern-day Abraham Lincoln who claims a distant relation.  Imagine the trouble this guy has passing checks.
  • Back in May, a Virginia reporter caught up with U.S. Grant’s great-great-grandson—who’s a Confederate reenactor.
  • A fellow named David Morenus has a website on his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma, Pocahontas.
  • Davy Crockett’s descendants and relatives are taking applications for new members at their website.
  • If you’re one of the millions of Mayflower descendants, maybe you’ll be interested in joining this group.  Given the math, though, this is about as exclusive as having your name listed in the white pages.
  • Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, runs a foundation that opposes modern-day slavery, which seems very appropriate.
  • Here’s an old news item about an event with appearances by various relatives of Ohio’s presidents.  One of the guests of honor was a guy named Rick Taft, great-grandson of you-know-who.  According to the news item, he’s a lawyer and software developer.  Here’s a picture and blurb from his company’s website. 
  • The same event also hosted Stephen Hayes, great-great-grandson of Rutherford B.  He’s a consultant with one of those firms which have really impressive-sounding names, the kind for which you see commercials on television that never actually explain what service they offer.  I think this one finds people to run companies.  (Wouldn’t it be easier to just promote somebody from the ranks?)

And finally, for the rest of us whose family trees are undistinguished, weep no more.

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Get your very own Thomas Jefferson decoder ring!

Actually, I just wanted you to read this article about a cipher found in Jefferson’s correspondence.  A Princeton mathematician has cracked it using a computer algorithm, and it’s pretty interesting stuff.

This is one sub-discipline of history I won’t be working in anytime soon, and anyone who’s seen my math scores on the GRE can attest to it.

Thanks to Neela Vaswani for pointing this out to me.  (I mean pointing out the article, not the fact that I can’t do math.)

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