Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Thomas Jefferson

I am reading Paul Johnson's big A History of the American People. I am only about a quarter of the way through, but one of the pleasures of this book is seeing how Thomas Jefferson keeps popping up. From 1776, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, through his busy years as President (1801-1809), until his influence diminished at the end of his friend James Madison's second term (1817), Jefferson managed to play a key role in shaping our nation.

I've read a lot about Jefferson before, but Johnson's history includes some facts that are new to me. For example:
  • As a result of the 1783 Peace of Paris, the United States gained a vast new tract of land, the so-called Old Northwest Territory. Jefferson, who helped negotiate the treaty, proposed dividing the territory into several new states including Metropotamia, Polypotamia, Assenisipia and Cherronesus. Fortunately, he was overruled. Instead, over time, we got Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

  • While he was president, Jefferson had an open door policy. He let it be known he would answer any letter from any citizen and he was true to his word. He answered, in his own hand, literally thousands of letters from ordinary people and he kept copies of all his correspondence. The result is a lively record of what was on the minds of both the great men and ordinary people of his day.

  • Although he was personally involved in adding the Old Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Purchase to this country, Jefferson wasn't satisfied. In 1812, he urged his friend James Madison to invade and "liberate" Canada. Jefferson and Madison expected to be welcomed by Canada's citizens. They neglected to consider the large population of loyalists who had emigrated from south of the Canadian border before, during and after the American Revolution. Even the French-speaking citizens of Quebec were not inclined to oust the British. The result was a disaster. The inexperienced American army was routed and within months the British invaded and burned Washington, D.C.
Thomas Jefferson was a leading light of the American Revolution and one of our greatest presidents. We have long admired him for his many deeds including writing the Declaration of Independence, building Monticello, and chartering the Lewis & Clark expedition. Recently, his image has been tarnished by his, to our eyes, profoundly inconsistent views on slavery. I guess this is human nature. We put our leaders high on a pedestal and then, every so often, we happily knock them off. But in Paul Johnson's hands, Jefferson emerges as a man in full. Johnson describes Jefferson's greatest achievements, his little inconsistencies, his most enduring ideas and his monumental mistakes. In the end, I am amazed not by Jefferson's inconsistencies (he was only human), but that a man of flesh and blood accomplished so much.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The so-called contradictions of people like Jefferson are mostly the result of applying modern views to a past they have nothing to do with. The Founding Fathers' definition of democracy excluded women, landless white men etc. This was the case elsewhere in those days, and very much in tune with what democracy meant in a more distant past back then. Judging one period with the criteria of another is a rather futile exercise...