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Breakfast with Thomas Jefferson
A reflection on the "Apostle of Freedom" on America's birthday
For a number of years, I have established a simple ritual I perform on the morning of the Fourth of July.
I sit down for a quiet breakfast with Thomas Jefferson, reading the Declaration of Independence over coffee, contemplating the audacity of my fellow Virginian’s still elusive vision. What to make of these enthralling words written by a man who extoled agrarian values, in the era of artificial intelligence? Would he celebrate or recoil at America circa 2023? Why is it that many of us still celebrate him as a brilliant if deeply flawed prophet of liberty, while others still recoil at his jarring contradictions and duplicity—most notably his lyrical and intellectual obsession with freedom versus his living reality as the owner of a large mountaintop slave colony that built him his beloved Monticello?
I follow the reading of the Declaration with a solo drive, usually on the bucolic roads of the Shenandoah Valley, with the wind in my faced and Muddy Waters reaching deep into the agony of his ancestors and belting out with ecstasy “Everything's gonna be alright this morning.” And I find myself saying to myself: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, Virginia, and the blues—it does not get any better than this, as if I have touched the essence of America with all its glorious promises, tragic paradoxes, its never-ending yearning for freedom, its never realized pursuit of virtuous happiness.
The never-ending metamorphosis of Jefferson
Despite some claims to the contrary, historians never write definitive histories. Just as you cannot cross the same river twice, you cannot write the final history of anything or anyone. Historians constantly revise even the most revisionist of revisionist history.
Of all the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson was the one most revered, even worshiped, then reviled and buried with shrieks of condemnations. He has been “revised” and “deconstructed” ad nauseam, then resurrected with hymns of praise and/or with endless caveats. At one time or another Jefferson has been admired by revolutionaries and reactionaries alike: die-hard crusaders for the rights of “everyman” against the entrenched interests of the moneyed class and industrialists drew inspiration from Jefferson, while his obsession with liberty and education made him a champion for liberals and his defense of small government and state rights made him an icon for conservatives. No wonder that presidents as different as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan both counted themselves among Jefferson’s disciples.
This fascination with Jefferson as a political and cultural phenomenon has constantly evolved in different and contradictory directions ever since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC on April 13, 1943 amidst the most ferocious struggle against tyranny in the twentieth century. “To Thomas Jefferson,” Roosevelt proclaimed, “Apostle of Freedom, we are paying a debt long overdue.” None of the country’s other founders—neither George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, nor Alexander Hamilton—has had such a profound grip on the collective imagination of generations of Americans as well as legions of admirers overseas.
As the political philosopher who authored the Declaration of Independence and Notes on the State of Virginia, statesman, revolutionary, architect, inventor, naturalist, founder of the University of Virginia and most importantly as the tireless Apostle of Freedom, Jefferson occupies a lofty place in the pantheon of American statesman that not even Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of American presidents, has managed to reach.
And our changing biases and sensibilities…
Since the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial, hundreds of books, conferences, documentaries, symposia, exhibitsm and movies, have been authored, organized, and produced about the contradictory faces and various lives of Thomas Jefferson. These works ranged on a spectrum from Jefferson as the embodiment of American enlightenment to Jefferson as the embodiment of American depravity and everything in between. The more the interpretations, the more mysterious the enigma became. That’s why Jefferson has “remained the American Sphinx,” as historian Joseph Ellis correctly described him.
What’s clear, though, is that our changing understanding of Jefferson is also a function of our own evolving political preferences, present day biases and concerns, our expanding conception of democracy and human rights, and our own cultural sensibilities and aesthetics.
When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, a copy of the ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca’s work was found open on his bedside table. One could only imagine our third president, an unabashed connoisseur of fine French wine, spending his evenings after his dinner guests left Monticello enjoying his wine quietly while reading Aristotle’s Politics, Virgil’s Aeneid, or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations in the original Greek or Latin. One of Jefferson’s famous paradoxes is that his fondness of sensuous pleasures, particularly those he indulged in during his sojourn in Europe—food, wine, and sex—did not steer him away from his intellectual yearning to attain the happiness found in the virtuous life that Aristotle and particularly Marcus Aurelius sublimely wrote about and yearned for.
While Jefferson made occasional forays into hedonistic territories and enjoyed what they offered, he certainly did not take “the pursuit of happiness” to mean as the pursuit fleeting pleasures. Influenced by Aristotle and Stoicism, Jefferson developed a “classical” understanding of happiness as synonymous with leading a virtuous life. As he wrote to a friend, “Health, learning, and virtue will ensure your happiness; they will give you a quiet conscience, private esteem, and public honor.”
In the beginning was the Declaration…
If I were to put together a secular American Bible, the sacred texts would of course include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and its Amendments, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address (commonly known as the “Four Freedoms” speech), and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The framers of the Constitution wrote an audacious political document that was alien to the governing documents of European nations when they proclaimed that political power in the new republic would reside in “We the people of the United States…”
The words of Lincoln and King confronted the continuing political and social ravages of America’s original sin of slavery in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and transformed America in fundamental ways, even if the full promise of freedom is yet to be realized. Roosevelt’s speech about the “four freedoms”— freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear—proclaimed to the American people and the world that the America was committed to the struggle to preserve and protect these freedoms from the totalitarian powers that threatened them. The principles pronounced by Roosevelt were the foundations that undergirded the Atlantic Charter of 1941, the United Nations Declaration the following year, and then the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 overseen by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Whatever image of Jefferson may be fashionable at a given time—a visionary revolutionary or an atavistic farmer living off of human bondage of others, an enlightened political thinker, a duplicitous political schemer, or a brilliant practitioner of the “art of power” as historian Jon Meacham saw him—one cannot but agree that those prescient texts written by Jefferson’s successors were inspired by what Martin Luther King called these 35 “majestic words”:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This sentence should be the beginning of America’s secular political Bible. No historian worthy of the name—and certainly no politician driven by political expediency, or any activist bereft of a sense of history and particular understanding of the South into which Jefferson was born in 1743—can deny him that pride of place. Jefferson’s complexity and contradictions certainly render him susceptible to one-dimensional caricature. Given the intense debates about race and gender in recent years, it is easy to see how Jefferson can be casually taken out of his historical context—and how the one-time champion of the common man is now vilified as a heartless slave-owner, how the enlightened theorist of liberty and equality was the actual abuser of Sally Hemings, and how his depravity prevented him from freeing his own enslaved children.
Jefferson as one of those famous “dead white men”
Yet the very contradictions of Jefferson and the myriad strictures of his time cry out for a more comprehensive and holistic rendering of this unique man, who was, like all great men that preceded him, simultaneously very prescient and very much ahead of his time while remaining a prisoner to some of the codes of conducts, standards, rules, and values of his epoch. There’s nothing intellectually rigorous in judging a man born in the eighteenth century strictly by the standards and values of the twenty-first. Looking at all the great men and women in history through this lamentable prism, we would have to conclude that every important “dead white man” from Plato to Saint Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli to Nietzsche, Cervantes to Dostoyevsky and on to T.S. Eliot were all guilty of committing or tolerating grave political, religious, ethnic, or gender offenses by our lights.
It took me a while to admire the genius of Dostoyevsky free from his corrosive Slavic atavism. Nietzsche’s writings captivated me as an undergraduate student, but I anguished over his appalling hatred of Judaism and Christianity and their adherents—although I was intrigued by his enthusiastic embrace of Islam as manifested by “the wonderful Moorish cultural world of Spain.” That sensuous Islam in Spain, in Nietzsche’s view, “said Yes to life.” I admit that I remember cringing, then smiling the first time I read Nietzsche despising the supposed weakness of Judaism and Christianity before shouting: “Islam presupposes men…”
I have long made my peace with these dead white men, and I barely notice the juvenile epithets thrown at the man from Monticello in recent years—particularly from the far left—as the father of white supremacy. The cottage industry of reinterpreting Jefferson and the issues he creatively confronted or abjectly ignored will continue as it should. America’s history, to paraphrase Faulkner, is not dead: “It’s not even past.” We have periodicals devoted to the study of the Civil War, which lingers on in our imagination like no other conflict in our history.
Jefferson still lives because we have not settled some of the issues that haunted him. We continue fighting the Civil War politically and culturally, and we spill blood occasionally. Witness the sharp debates over the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials and the racist, violent riot at Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, where former president Donald Trump saw “good people” among that hateful congregation of far-right fanatics. These debates and struggles persist because some of the promises of full equality and liberty of the Declaration and the Constitution have not yet been achieved, and because Lincoln’s proposition “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” is still not fully in our grasp.
How would Jefferson judge us today?
Let’s assume that through an intelligent application of artificial intelligence, we could have a séance with Thomas Jefferson. He would almost certainly be amused by the way we are still obsessed with him. He would be appalled that, despite all the fundamental positive changes we achieved since he left us when it comes to race and gender relations, not all Americans assume that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are an integral part of their “inalienable Rights.” Jefferson would likely be outraged that many states impose diabolically creative administrative and procedural rules and impediments to intimidate and prevent some strata of voters from exercising their rights. He would denounce any federal or state restrictions on civil liberties, including draconian restrictions on the right of a woman to seek abortion pushed by a number of right-wing extremists.
Jefferson would reject out of hands attempts by states or private groups to diminish or blur the clear boundaries separating religion and state, no matter the reason. He would be relentless and unforgiving in his opposition to any form of thought control or censorship of ideas and the free exchange of ideas, and would not fathom the notion of banning or burning of books. As someone aware of the religious intolerance and persecution Jews have suffered in various societies, and as a proponent of state protection of people’s religious and civil rights “by putting all on an equal footing,” one can only imagine his grief at rising anti-Semitism and violence against Jews in recent years in America. Jefferson owned and read a copy of the Qur’an, and he and other founders—principally George Washington—spoke openly about welcoming peoples from all nations and religions. Jefferson stated that the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom of 1786 was written “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Muslim, the Hindu, and infidel of every denomination.” This enlightened view towards believers in other religions and atheists remains jarring to those who erroneously subscribe to the vision of an immutably white and Christian America.
But Jefferson would probably reserve his strongest opposition to the oppressing role of the federal government in the lives of the citizenry, and as we can extrapolate from his famous conflict with Alexander Hamilton, the colossal size of the federal government and its vast powers to levy taxes, regulate businesses, its tight monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force to secure order in the land and its ability to initiate conflicts overseas, would frighten him in the extreme. And one could only imagine his chagrin at the deep influence of large banks and corporations in the private lives of Americans—despite his use of federal power to massively expand the territory of the United States via the Louisiana Purchase.
In these perilous times, when frenzied fears and hatreds of other fellow citizens are whipped up, when American flags are not defended for the values they represent but used as weapons to attack other citizens and defend a would-be usurper and autocrat, let us reflect on Jefferson’s sober words to John Adams, on August 1, 1816: “bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education & free discussion are the antidotes of both.”
Until we meet again next year, so long Thomas Jefferson—and happy birthday America.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and the Washington correspondent for Radio Monte Carlo in Paris, France.