Thursday, March 22, 2012

Thomas Jefferson: A Critical Analysis

For History 207A With Dennis Judd

     This essay is supposed to be about Founding Father of the United States Thomas Jefferson. The assignment is to create an essay based upon a power-point presentation created by our instructor that is not supposed to be a rote biography listing all the now nearly hackneyed facts of his life that we have heard over and and over all our lives. But rather this power-point presentation addresses the axis of Jefferson with the topics of slavery, his role in government both domestic and foreign as well as his relationship with women (yes, we will have to get Freudian). We are to be necessarily "critical" which I interpret to mean "analytical" as opposed to "negative" which I interpret to mean "judgmental" in our assessments. For me as a 41 year-old Free Thinker I perpetually try to follow such a tact as a course of policy. I abhor oversimplifications and over-reactions as well as absolutes such as "always" and "never". At the same time I eschew moral relativism and reject the false labeling of objective analysis that comes to a necessarily negative conclusion as being merely high-minded judgmentalism, a tactic used by those in the wrong (or their apologists) as a fig leaf to cover sin (in a non-spiritual interpretation of that expression). What I fear when composing such a treatise is that the person grading my work will be brain-deadened by proof-reading all the other essays by students with the same assignment. Thus my composition will get mentally blended in with the others and get lost in the background noise of many seemingly similar essays essentially saying the same thing. Lastly, and as sort of a footnote, I have had a lifelong struggle attempting to use an economy of words to efficiently convey ideas with minimal words. Clearly I have already gotten off on the wrong foot avoiding that here but I am using this assignment as a test of how much I can improve upon this.

     Thomas Jefferson's relationship with women seems to have been a typically complicated and nuanced one for such an atypically complicated and nuanced man given the complexity and nuanced nature of women and of female-male relationships. Based upon my own analysis, Jefferson seems to have had a healthy relationship with his mother (I warned you I'd get Freudian). Unsurprisingly, he grew up to have a healthy marriage (starting in 1771 when he was 28) to Martha Skelton, a previously-widowed then-23 year-old woman. Their happy marriage only ended when she tragically died giving birth to their sixth child 11 years later (the child survived the birth). Some might regard his written comments concerning his sisters (and lack thereof in some cases) as being a sign of indifference to these significant women in his life. However, my read of this is that he was like that about everybody else in his life, female or male. Emotive expression was not encouraged in the culture of 18th century Virginia elites or for men of elite status anywhere in the English-speaking world at that time which is still much the case to this day. In this regard Jefferson was probably quite typical for his station. Indeed, for the reserved and emotionally-restrained Jefferson, in his reference to losing his beloved wife Martha he admits to possessing "a stupor of the mind" and being "as dead to the world as she whose loss occasioned it" belies his strong love for her and the emotional devastation her loss engendered upon him.

After the death of his wife he got into a relationship (probably more an emotional affair than a bona fide romance with a physical element) with one Maria Conway, a married artist. This occurred while he was the U.S. representative to France. It is worth noting that he took Sally Hemings with him to France even though there is no indication the two of them were yet involved at that time. My own interpretation of Jefferson is that he seems to have respected women to a greater degree than many of the other Founding Fathers some of whom themselves seemed to hold women in higher esteem for their time than might otherwise be expected even while in some cases sexually exploiting them and in turn being sexually exploited by them. Jefferson himself might be considered by some as having exploited at least one women, his slave Sally Hemings. However, that is not my "critical" interpretation of what happened. I feel that the older white male widower fell in love with a beautiful younger mixed-race, light-skinned black woman who happened to be his slave. Hearts and hormones then proceeded to do what God designed them to do. Jefferson never remarried after the death of Mary, but seems to have participated in an affair with Hemings (who was 3/4 white to 1/4 black and a close relative of his late wife) for the rest of his life which spanned parts or all of four decades. My own analysis of this situation is that Jefferson would have married her had the social mores of my own historical context existed in the time and place of Jefferson. In this regard he himself was a slave to his time and place just as I am to mine. As the saying goes, "when in Rome do as the Romans do."

Where I do find no fault with Jefferson as it pertains to women  I do find a degree of hypocrisy in his attitudes about race and by extension, slavery, and by further expansion, religion (as a devout Christian I would not go so far as to call it "faith" when talking about Jefferson). I acknowledge that Jefferson's views on slavery changed over time and were complex and nuanced and contained internal contradictions. He clearly believed in the freedom inherent to each and every human being as perfectly described in his famous reference to "inalienable rights" and before that the comment that "under the law of nature all men are born free." It is also clear from his own comments that he did not feel that black human beings were fully human but that they were biologically different than white folks while somehow the "Indians" were equal to whites but merely coming from an environmentally different context which explained (said he) how they were different to whites.

Jefferson, despite being the rational and scientific-minded man he was who was so influenced by John Locke and the Enlightenment, never sought nor offered empirical evidence to support his views about race. He grew up to challenge his "momma's religion" and to become a deist and an unbeliever in the full legitimacy of the Bible. Yet, he seems to fully embrace his "momma's views on race", to wit, that black and white human beings were not equal. Yet, he seemed to struggle with the justice of his unjust views on the matter of race and by extension, slavery and by the time of his death those views had liberalized quite a bit. To his credit on more than one occasion throughout his life he fought for the freedom of blacks such as when in 1769 while still believing in black inferiority he unsuccessfully attempted in the House of Burgesses to make it legal to free one's slaves if one so chose. Later, in 1807, he helped write laws that formally criminalized the international slave trade. He also once stated in reference to slavery "My heart trembles for my country when I reflect that God is just and his justice can not sleep forever... the almighty has not attribute which can side with us in such a contest." In reference to the 27 slaves he lost during the Revolution when the British Cavalry Colonel Banastre Tarleton raided Monticello he stated "Had he carried off the slaves to give them freedom, he would have done right". Yet, throughout his life including even in later years he was hardly the most vocal opponent of slavery with these notable exceptions. This demonstrates his own slavery to cultural values of the South to which he himself was a slave.

Thomas Jefferson led a rather remarkable career as a politician and diplomat what is way too filled with events and intrigues as to be adequately addressed in this multi-topic essay. However, a quick outline analysis here will have to suffice. As with many/most of the successful and notable Founding Fathers of the United States he was well-educated and a lawyer by trade. However, in his case he did not follow his law practice to the degree of enthusiasm one sees in the careers of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, for example. Jefferson first got into the political game by joining the House of Burgesses representing his native state of Virginia. During the American Revolution he became a member of the new Virginia state legislature and then became governor later as the Revolution progressed. Between his stint as a member of the House of Burgesses and his being a member of the nascent Virginia legislature he served in the Second Continental Congress becoming the primary author of the Declaration of Independence although with much input from others such as his friend John Adams and also notably Ben Franklin.

Next, Jefferson was a member of the Congress of the Confederation and then was sent to France to succeed Ben Franklin as Minister to France where John Adams was also located at that time. He then later returned home and became the first American Secretary of State under the first American President, George Washington, where he spent much of his time opposing Alexander Hamilton's Federalism and Anglophilia and closeness to banks and industry to which Jefferson was culturally opposed. During that period he formed the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose his boss's Federalist Party. It was his opposition to Hamilton's First Report on Public Credit and Second Report on Public Credit (and the festering effect of Jefferson's letter to Mazzei critical of Washington that was made public) over which he eventually felt compelled to resign Washington's cabinet and for which Washington never forgave him nor talked to him again.

When Washington retired from politics Jefferson ran for office against his friend John Adams to whom he was a political foe which started a long period of estrangement between them. Adams won but Jefferson became vice president. The XYZ Affair politically weakened American Francophiles like Jefferson and empowered the Federalist Anglophiles like his friend President Adams. During his tenure as vice president he opposed Adam's and Hamilton's Alien & Sedition Acts by co-writing the Kentucky & Virginia Resolutions. One election cycle later Jefferson ran again and won in the "Revolution of 1800" as Jefferson viewed it. In actuality, his Presidency was the "3-vote Presidency" and almost didn't happen with fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr nearly taking it from him were it not for Burr not campaigning for himself and Burr's fierce opponent Alexander Hamilton campaigning for Jefferson (ironically both men being fierce opponents of each other). The Jefferson Presidency was marked by fierce political strife with the Federalists to whom he was rabidly opposed and his success against them was a mixed bag as was his success in general as a President of the United States. While he succeeded as President in expanding the new nation's frontier with the Louisiana Purchase and then sending Lewis & Clark to explore the new territory as well as sending U.S. Marines into Tripoli to deal with Barbary Pirates whom European governments merely bribed in order to keep at peace, Jefferson did less well at home although he did establish West Point Military Academy.

Jefferson failed on many of his domestic policies from Dambargo of 1807 which backfired and hurt the economy of New England and hurt him politically in the North and guaranteed he would be a one-term President. In the Chase Impeachment Trial he attempted to stack the U.S. Supreme Court in his favor which would have worked had Vice President Aaron Burr not opposed his unethical and undemocratic effort which a fair-minded analysis of the matter must necessarily conclude was hypocritical on the part of Jefferson given his opposition to centralized power. In Marbury vs. Madison he attempted to subvert the will of the previous President and created a Constitutional crisis that only the brilliance of Chief Justice John Marshall avoided coming to a head and in the process strengthened the power of the Federal Government by way of enabling the genesis of the legal precedent of "judicial review" by the U.S. Supreme Court which was counter to his anti-Federalist views.

It is my own analysis that Jefferson made a far more effective revolutionary than leader and a far more effective diplomat abroad than politician at home. And like all great men he was a complex man and like all human beings he was quite capable of falling short of his own claimed ideals and values causing him to be guilty of hypocrisy at times and he like most of us was a slave to and product of his time and place.


  1. Interesting, factual, unbiased, and well written. You get a big fat "A" from this professor!