Why are Americans so fascinated with our third President? What did Jefferson’s contemporaries think of him?
Robert McDonald joins us this week to talk about the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson.
Show Notes and Further Reading
McDonald’s book is Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time (2016).
There is a conception that politics was more civil at the turn of the 19th century; this Reason.tv video proves otherwise.
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts for Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Robert McDonald, a professor of history at US Military Academy at West Point, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and the author of the forthcoming Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Rob.
Robert McDonald: Yeah, thank you Trevor.
Trevor Burrus: So this is – we’re talking mostly about Jefferson today and sort of the founding era but that’s your big passion is for Jefferson. I think your son is named Jefferson, correct?
Robert McDonald: Yeah, that is true.
Trevor Burrus: So he’s not lying. He puts his money where his mouth is.
Robert McDonald: My wife and I met at Monticello. I got my job teaching at West Point. And I’m supposed to say by the way, my views don’t necessarily represent those.
Trevor Burrus: The US Military?
Robert. But yeah, I got my job teaching at West Point. It was fantastic. But I was single and there wasn’t great dating scene at the United States Military Academy for professors. And I met my wife who is a researcher at Monticello. The following summer, I got a research fellowship and my joke is she is the first and last person upon whom my – I study Thomas Jefferson pick-up line and actually worked, and yeah.
Trevor Burrus: I guess, yeah. That’s probably good. And Monticello is a good place to meet.
Robert McDonald: That’s right. That’s right.
Trevor Burrus: Excellent. So why were you so fascinated with Thomas Jefferson do you think?
Robert McDonald: I think there are a lot of different reasons why a person might be fascinated by Thomas Jefferson. I mean Thomas Jefferson was a true polymath. He was a person who was interested in a lot of different things and he was able to develop specialized knowledge and expertise in a lot of different fields.
Jefferson, of course, was a statesman but he was an architect. He was a musician. He was …
Trevor Burrus: What did he play?
Robert McDonald: He played the violin or the fiddle.
Trevor Burrus: I’m picturing like Sherlock Holmes kind of playing the violin.
Robert McDonald: He and his family, they’d have jam sessions and that’s how he courted his wife. I mean I think she was very impressed by his ability.
Trevor Burrus: Well, his wife, it has always been the case. He picked up the guitar or the string as he picked up women.
Aaron Ross Powell: So he’s the other guy who did Jefferson pick-up worked.
Robert McDonald: I guess so. I guess so. Yeah. He could just play that violin really, really well. So he’s in many ways somebody who thought deeply but also broadly. And I admire that. I also admire Jefferson’s statements about liberty and that that is the source of my initial fascination.
But it doesn’t take long once you start reading about Thomas Jefferson to realize that his deeds didn’t always measure up to his words and he lived as we do in a complicated time, oftentimes, where the principles will compete with one another. On side of an equation, a certain set of principles might be in the balance but there are other principles that are competing with those. And seeing him deal with those conflicts I think is really fascinating.
Another thing that’s fascinating about Jefferson is that he was in an era where the rules of political engagement were very much in flocks. And the way politics were practiced in 1776, they weren’t practiced the same way 50 years later. And he’s in the middle of that transition and how he grapples with those changing rules as sort of a political athlete I think is fascinating as well.
Aaron Ross Powell: What does that change look like? So what were he transitioning from and towards as well as the middle of?
Robert McDonald: Yeah. So in many respects during the colonial era, America is still an aristocratic society and we have politics that emphasized things like the difference of the public toward the people they entrust with positions of power. People who stay in for office, I almost had run for office. But no one does that in the 18th century. You don’t campaign, right?
Trevor Burrus: I’ll forego the dentistry and the antibiotics discovery back to a time where no one was running for office.
Robert McDonald: So people might realize that they are candidates for office, that they are being put forth for office but by no means will they campaign and say, “If you vote for me, I will do this for you.” I mean that was considered to be the definition of corruption.
Voters in the 18th century largely were entrusted to assess the characters of the people who stood for office and to judge the wisdom of someone, the impartiality of someone, the ability of someone to make a sound decision based on what was the just thing to do, what was the right thing to do. And once you entrusted that person with power, the ethic was that you were going to preserve that trust and allow them to make the decisions that they wish to make.
Things get much more democratic with a small D during the course of Jefferson’s lifetime. Politics become much more competitive as a result of the fact that we have this new government under the Constitution. We have people like Alexander Hamilton who are arguing for essentially an expansion of federal power during the Washington administration.
And people like Jefferson and his chief ally, James Madison, are doing far more strict interpretation of the Constitution. Hamilton and his party, if you want to call it that, The Federalists, are going to increasingly do battle with Jefferson and Madison and their party, The Republicans. And a lot is at stake. I mean the future of America is at stake.
And Jefferson and Madison in some respects view Hamilton and Adams and other Federalists as counterrevolutionaries who are going against the spirit of ’76 and want to roll back all the progress that has been made and fought for at great cost to people’s lives and fortunes. And yet, Hamilton, I think he views his project as consolidating this new nation that he and Washington have hoped to establish and secure. And the fear of the Federalists is the Jefferson and Madison might in fact be more like French revolutionaries than American revolutionaries.
Trevor Burrus: And they were kind of fans of the French Revolution, at least Jefferson was a pretty big fan of it. He was there right when it started happening.
Robert McDonald: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I mean – and who wouldn’t be a fan? I mean in this world where the new United States has the geo-political significance of a fairly minor country, France and Britain are the world’s two great superpowers. And to see one of them turn away from absolutism and apparently embrace liberty and fraternity and equality, I mean that’s quite a wonderful development. And it makes the American revolutionaries feel as if their ideas are spreading.
Aaron Ross Powell: So how does someone like Jefferson get to revolution? Because I mean – so we, at the Cato Institute, gripe about the state of government all the time.
Trevor Burrus: But I haven’t taken up arms yet.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, we’re pretty down on it. And a lot of our complaints, I mean in a lot of ways, we think it’s worst today than it was when the colonies decided to rebel. But we don’t – no one seems, no matter how mad people seem to get about politics, we never jump to, “OK, let’s take up arms or let’s strike out on our own.” And it’s such a big jump. So how do you get there?
Trevor Burrus: Or even, “Let’s take up arms against the most powerful military on the planet,” which at the time was the British and would be the American government. It seems also crazy.
Robert McDonald: Well, in a way, it was crazy. But in another way, they thought that it would be crazy not to. And I’ll make the problem even more complicated. Sure, Britain was the most powerful nation on the planet especially after the Seven Years’ War. That was pretty clear. It was also the richest. And what’s more, it was also the freest.
I mean Britain and I don’t think that those two things are unrelated by the way; freedom and prosperity and power I think you could argue go hand in hand. And to decide to divorce America from Great Britain was not an easy decision to make. And it wasn’t one that was made at the spur of the moment.
I mean there was a long extended imperial crisis that really begins in the aftermath of the French and Indian war. This war that the British win ant yet it causes the British to double their deficit – I’m sorry, their dead doubles during the course of the French and Indian war known globally as the Seven Years’ War.
The British would like to avoid a future expensive war and so they draw the Proclamation Line of 1763 telling the colonies that they can’t set a West of the Appalachian Mountains. They also …
Trevor Burrus: What was the – that was to keep them out of conflict?
Robert McDonald: It was – yeah, exactly. It was to keep them out of conflict with the Native Americans. I mean the French military is vanquished from North America after the French and Indian war as the Seven Years’ War is known. But the Native Americans who were the allies largely of the French, they’re still here and the British wanting to avoid a future expensive realize that colonies if they move West, they’re going to come to conflict with those Indian nations. And good fences made good neighbors. That’s essentially their thought.
They also think that maybe it’s time to start raising some revenue from the colonies so the Stamp Act is passed followed by the Townshend Duties. These taxes were not all that burdensome upon the colonies and yet, the colonies, they were represented in parliament. They had their own legislators. They had, in Virginia, the House of Burgesses or the Massachusetts Assembly or what have you.
They understood that they could be taxed by those local assemblies but to be – when people – what do we call it when someone takes your money without asking?
Trevor Burrus: Theft.
Robert McDonald: Yeah. It’s stealing, right? So the parliament can’t ask them. There’s no one to ask in parliament. They haven’t consented to the election of members of parliament. So they’ve viewed it as theft. And the whole point of government as good British people believe in the 18th century, as John Locke says when he explains the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that’s legitimate because government’s function is to protect life and liberty and property.
And if government is not protecting their property but instead stealing their property, it’s not doing the job of government. And if government is sending troops to live among them as the British government does when they arrive in Boston, if those troops are leaving Boston and going out to Lexington on their way to concord to take their weapons away, it’s imposing tyranny upon them.
When the British government in response to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 a couple of months later, it passes what the British government calls The Coercive Acts, what the colonies called The Intolerable Acts, shutting down Boston Harbor, banning their local town meetings, preventing the Massachusetts Assembly for meeting.
What Patrick Henry down in Virginia said is we’re in a state of nature. It’s like there isn’t a government. It’s as if the British have declared independence from us because they’re not performing those essential functions, the protection of life and liberty and property that government is supposed to protect.
Trevor Burrus: So how did Jefferson himself experience those? Where was he at those times? How did he get revolutionized and radicalized I guess would be the term now? At some point, he decided that it was time to break away. But what was his thought process like?
Robert McDonald: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean I think in some respects, Jefferson is born at just the right time to be a revolutionary. He comes of age as a young man in Williamsburg, as a student at the College of William & Mary. He is mentored by George Wythe who is a noted Virginia jurist and a professor of law at William & Mary. He is fully immersed in the principles of British liberty and law and constitutionalism.
And so, it’s very clear to Jefferson as it’s clear to other political thinkers in America, as it’s clear I think to many Americans, regular Americans that what we thought the British government stood for, the British government no longer stands for. And the liberties that we thought were guaranteed to us as Englishmen are now jeopardy. And if we really value these liberties, if we really want to preserve our rights, it’s not going to be under the authority of the British government. It’s only going to be if we seize authority for ourselves and declare independence.
Trevor Burrus: And of course, Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence, which is …
Robert McDonald: Right.
Trevor Burrus: Why was he chosen before that of all the people at the Continental Congress?
Robert McDonald: Yeah, right. And so I mean it seems an unlikely choice. Jefferson was 33 years old. He was one of the youngest members. He was fairly obscure. He’s not among the more well-known. The committee that is selected by the Congress to draft the Declaration includes him probably because he’s a Virginian.
They were looking for some geographical diversity. You have Ben Franklin, the most famous member of the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania, there is John Adams from Massachusetts, Roger Sherman from Connecticut, Robert Livingston from New York.
Jefferson thinks John Adams should write the Declaration. And Adams has been a strong advocate for independence for months. But according to Adams when Jefferson makes that suggestion, Adams response that there are three reasons why Jefferson should do it. He said, “Number one, you’re a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to be at the head of this business.”
In other words, the blood of people from Massachusetts has been spilled. New Englanders were very much involved in the war for independence that began in 1775. New England had lots of skin in the game. But a Virginian perhaps could cause other delegates to the Congress to see this truly as a continental struggle.
In addition, Adams said, “You could write ten times better than I can.”
Trevor Burrus: Which is kind of interesting because Adams was not a humble person.
Robert McDonald: He wasn’t a humble person and he wasn’t a bad writer. He was a great writer. So that’s a great compliment. The other one he paid was sort of – he was being quite humble when he said, “Hi, John Adams. I’m obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. And you are very much otherwise.”
And I think he meant that he was obnoxious in pursuing independence that maybe people were tired of hearing his arguments within the Continental Congress and that Jefferson would bring sort of a freshness to this process that might be beneficial.
Aaron Ross Powell: On the Declaration, I mean one of the things – we recently had episodes with our colleague, Roger Pilon and just yesterday, we recorded an episode with Legal Scholar, Randy Barnett and both of them made the argument that the Declaration, the opening of the Declaration contains kind of the core founding political philosophy of the United States and that there’s a very coherent argument about the origins of legitimacy of government and how that legitimacy operates.
Is that representative – so is that contrast – was Jefferson setting out to articulate a coherent political philosophy from which to then derive the need for a new system of government? And if he was, how shared was that? Is there such a thing as like this is the core founding idea or principles of America or was this more his thing and everyone else was like, “OK. What we’re really concerned about is the litany of abuses and why we should rebel.”
Robert McDonald: Yeah. Jefferson later wrote that he wrote the Declaration to be an expression of the American mind. And when you think about it, this is a corporate document. This is a statement made in behalf of the Continental Congress. And when finally New York could receive instructions to vote for independence and the Declaration was inscribed on parchment, it was described the Unanimous Declaration of the United States of America.
So it’s not Jefferson’s opinion. This is a shared opinion and he’s trying to in some ways been truly politicized the American people. We know that not all Americans supported independence. Adams guessed that about a third were still loyalist, maybe a third sat on the fence. But this was designed to try to cause Americans to rally around that proposition.
And when you think about, Jefferson has essentially two test of legitimacy. Everyone knows the famous sentence about how all men are created equal. They’re endowed by their Creator with certain and unalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What follows is a statement that, “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
So there are two tests of legitimacy; to be legitimate, a government has to secure these rights and it also has to derive its powers, its just powers form the consent of the governed. So a government that protects people’s individual’s rights and is based upon their consent, if those two things are present, it’s legitimate.
What Jefferson is arguing is that for the colonies, soon to be free independent Americans, their rights are not being secured and their consent is not being sought. They don’t have the representation that would render government in America legitimate.
Trevor Burrus: Do we know or do you know, I actually have never encountered this in all my historical reading, how the Declaration was delivered to the King? I mean there were some things about what the King said when he read it. But did they make a copy and put it on a ship and say, “Take this to the King,” or anything or did they just let him find out himself or do you know?
Robert McDonald: Yeah. Well, I mean the Declaration says that a decent respect for the opinions of mankind is one of the things that bring about the need to make this Declaration. George the III is a member of mankind. I’m he is one of the people who reads. He has a compelling interest in it. But he rejects it of course. He has been rejecting all of their petitions.
Trevor Burrus: All the branches?
Robert McDonald: Yeah, all of the branch petition from a year earlier or something that he initially didn’t even think it was necessary to issue a response because he didn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Continental Congress.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, interesting. Now, during the war, Jefferson, does he pick up a gun at all or is he doing other things during the war?
Robert McDonald: So Jefferson like John Adams is someone who is going to leave Philadelphia after the Declaration is passed, not immediately but shortly thereafter. And Adams goes back to Massachusetts and he helps to write the Constitution. Jefferson goes back to Virginia.
Trevor Burrus: The Massachusetts Constitution.
Robert McDonald: Right. That’s right. Yeah, which in fact our Constitution is in some ways modeled. But Jefferson goes back to Virginia. He reforms the laws of Virginia. I mean this is an amazing moment of creativity. I mean this is an opportunity for people in all of the 13 state capitals to make things right, to throw off the yoke of British government under which they had been forced to labor and to republicanize, with a small arch, republicanize their laws and their constitutions. Jefferson is going to serve as the wartime governor of Virginia.
So for two years including when Virginia is invaded by the British, Jefferson will be the governor. He’ll relocate the capital to Richmond in part because he thinks it’s a more defensible location than Williamsburg. That’s probably true. But it wasn’t defensible enough. The British take Richmond. The Virginia Assembly retreats inland. They meet for a while in Charlottesville, Jefferson’s hometown. As the British marched West, Jefferson sends the legislature to Staunton, Virginia further to the West. He can see through his handheld telescope the British coming.
Trevor Burrus: From Monticello.
Robert McDonald: Yeah. I mean he’s standing on top of Monticello. Virginia has its own pole rear viewer, a guy named Jack Jouett who alerts people that the British are on their way. Jefferson doesn’t wait too much time. As the British are at the foot of his little mountain, he mounts his horse and rides away. He’s not going to be captured. He’s nobody’s fool.
So that’s sort of the closest he ever comes to combat. But yeah, I mean he’s very much in the thick of things.
Trevor Burrus: Now, Monticello winded – he was born close but not on Monticello, correct?
Robert McDonald: That’s right, yeah. So his father’s plantation is called Shadwell and it’s on property that Jefferson inherited that’s essentially at the base of the mountain. Jefferson increases his land holdings. Building Monticello on top of a mountain, building a house on top of the mountain is somewhat impractical thing to do.
There are a lot of practical considerations that would mitigate against that or militate against that, the idea that bringing up water supplies. But it’s a very practical location for Jefferson at the moment that the British are coming because he has the high ground and he could see them.
Aaron Ross Powell: On Monticello, how did he get involved in – he was the architect of it.
Robert McDonald: Yes.
Aaron Ross Powell: So I just earlier this year visited Monticello for the first time and had shortly before that been to Mountain Vernon with my daughter on a field trip and it’s striking how different the two homes are and how much Jefferson’s home feels modern and feels – it feels much more like the kind of place you’d want to live than Washington’s home. And it’s just so radically different from what was common at the time. But at the same time like most people feel like, “I’m going to design my own home.” I mean being an amateur architect, we’d say, “That’s probably not a good idea.”
So how does he get just involved in doing that and where does that sense of – I mean it just feels very contemporary to us come from?
Robert McDonald: So yeah, Jefferson described Monticello as his essay in architecture. And I think it is an essay in that the rooms worked together. They fit together almost like the paragraphs in a finely crafted essay. And the house has a flow to it and an energy to it. And you’re right, it has sort of a modern sensibility to it. It has skylights.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, it feels very spacious and light.
Robert McDonald: It’s fantastic. And you know it’s interesting house. And Jefferson wrote a lot about it but there’s a lot that’s left unsaid. It’s interesting because when you took the tour and entered, you entered through the side that most people would enter Monticello when Jefferson lived there, the east front, and if you stand on the steps of the portico there and you look to the east, you have what Jefferson called his sea view because you look into the land, the flat land that goes out toward Richmond and Williamsburg and it kind of disappears in this bluish haze. It almost looks like you’re looking at the ocean and you’re looking back at civilization, because Monticello was built essentially on the edge of the wilderness.
And when you walk into that eastern side of the house, you’re confronted with a bunch of artifacts from the American West, Lois & Clark brought the mounted antlers of various animals and Indian artifacts, native American objects that were put on display.
The room that is opposite that on the western side of the house, this is the front of the house that’s on the nickel, is a room that in some ways, very much brings the east to the west. It brings Western civilization to the American frontier. And Jefferson has hangings on the walls of his parlor a number of portraits of Great Enlightenment Thinkers including the three he called his Trinity of Mortals. There was Bacon, and Newton, and Locke. There are portraits of Washington and Benjamin Franklin and others.
And yet from that side of the house when you look out, you take in the vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains and all that is beyond, which I think for Jefferson was really the future.
Trevor Burrus: During the – after the Continental Congress, a lot of people don’t realize, I, often when I teach I often have to correct people and say that Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention. He had no direct hand in writing The Constitution.
Where was he during that time? And then also, do we have an idea what he thought of The Constitution at least immediately after when he heard about it and read it and what his idea of whether that was a good constitution?
Robert McDonald: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So Jefferson had – he was the person who succeeded Benjamin Franklin as our Ambassador to France. People in France sometime said to Jefferson, “Oh, you are Franklin’s replacement.” But they love Franklin by the ways. And Jefferson really ingratiated himself to them by saying, “No one can replace Franklin. I’m merely his successor.”
Trevor Burrus: Well, Franklin loved being in France.
Robert McDonald: Yes, he did.
Trevor Burrus: Bon vivant is a good word for what he did when he was there.
Robert McDonald: And Jefferson did two, I mean interestingly. I mean he as a man, very much a Virginia and in some ways, his sensibilities are very provincially. He thinks very highly of Virginia but he’s thrilled to be in France and to be exposed to the culture and the knowledge of enlightenment in Europe. Sure.
He’s in correspondence with James Madison throughout his time in France. And Madison of course, the Father of the Constitution, is decisively engaged in the process of shaping that that document. And ultimately, he’s going to send a copy of it to Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson reads it and he writes back to Madison that he thinks it’s fantastic. He has done an excellent job and he is very pleased with this and he hopes that it will be ratified.
He has two principle objections to it. One is that the president originally was perpetually re-electable. And Jefferson really feared that we would develop a tradition where our presidents will presidents for life. So he called for some sort of amendment that would limit the president’s time in office.
The other thing that Jefferson objected to was initially the Constitution lacked the Bill of Rights and he hopes that a Bill of Rights would be added.
So, both of Jefferson’s objections frankly have been answered. We now do limit the president’s time in office and we have a Bill of Rights that was added in 1791. So I think you could say, you can make the claim at least that through his association with Madison and because of his influence upon Madison, he helped to shape the Constitution as well.
Trevor Burrus: You mentioned this earlier. We’re talking about the politics that emerged after the Constitution was ratified.
Robert McDonald: Right.
Trevor Burrus: What is Jefferson’s role in the new government when he takes over? And then if you could elaborate a little bit on that debate that starts emerging between – would it be safe to say that Jefferson hated Alexander Hamilton by the end? I mean I have to take – I’ve always wondered that and then how did that develop?
Robert McDonald: Hate is a strong word. But maybe in this case it would apply. I think you could certainly say that Alexander Hamilton hated Thomas Jefferson. The book I finished that is just coming out called Confounding Father, one of the reasons that Jefferson is a confounding father in the eyes of Americans is that opinions of him are so divided. The book is really about this dual image of Thomas Jefferson that begins to emerge in the 1790s when Jefferson becomes a member of Washington’s administration and Secretary of State. Hamilton of course is Secretary of the Treasury.
And initially, Hamilton will start to propose measures that Jefferson is hesitant about. Soon he’s going to become outright hostile to him. He thinks that Hamilton is hatching a plan that is counterrevolutionary in nature that is going to make the United States government unlike the way that it was set out to be in the Constitution that will cause it to become more like the British government. Hamilton, for example, proposes a national bank that’s not explicitly authorized in the Constitution.
And Jefferson and Madison too were going to take up the charge against Hamilton’s measures, and that leads to a bunch of fights in the newspapers. Hamilton will try to describe Thomas Jefferson as un-American, as more of a French revolutionary than an American revolutionary. The fact that Hamilton embraces for himself and his allies the term “Federalist” is interesting because the Federalist of course in the 1780s had been people who were in support of the ratification of the Constitution, chief among them, James Madison, as Hamilton well knew and Thomas Jefferson as well.
Now he’s implying, Hamilton is, that Jefferson and Madison were somehow against the Constitution, opposed to the Constitution. The charge of Jefferson being somehow un-American is answered by the Jeffersonian Republicans in I think a pretty convincing way although it certainly didn’t convince all the Federalists. This is when it became revealed that this corporate document, this document that Jefferson wrote for the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence was in fact drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, they didn’t know that?
Robert McDonald: They didn’t know. And when you think about …
Trevor Burrus: I’ve never heard that. So when it was issued that they never said who actually wrote it.
Robert McDonald: Right.
Trevor Burrus: And they brought it up in the 1790s as to counter this un-American …
Robert McDonald: Yeah, especially in the election of 1796. I think you could say that that’s when many Americans first heard that Thomas Jefferson’s hand drew the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton and others were trying to charge that Jefferson was really French revolutionary, a dangerous, radical, French revolutionary. What better response to that? And what better way to establish his sort of American revolutionary chops than to take note that he in fact was the author of the Declaration of Independence. Increasingly, that word and that claim is going to be made.
Aaron Ross Powell: On this fight on the newspapers between Hamilton and Jefferson, we hear a lot today about how dirty and ugly politics is and how people are fighting with each other and we long for this return to when things were better. And so, is politics – are these fights at the time like the charge of un-Americanism, is it better, more civil, mover elevated back then?
Robert McDonald: I think it would be difficult to sustain that view. One of the reasons that politics back then were so dirty, I mean they were really dirty and they were really personal, is that so much seem to be at stake. I mean these were a number of people who – and I think Trevor, you’re the one who used the word crazy. I mean was it crazy to declare independence from Great Britain? At one level, maybe it was. And yet, they had done it and a great risk to their lives and their fortunes. They had secured independence.
And yet now, this experiment seemed to be in danger of unraveling. If you were a Federalist, you feared that the Jefferson and Republicans were going to take us in a radical, new direction along the lines of the French revolution. If you were a Jeffersonian Republican, you feared that the Federalists were really crypto monarchist, counterrevolutionaries who want to roll back the clock to before 1776 and model this new government under the Constitution after that of Great Britain.
So a lot was at stake. And this two-party system that has existed in America for so long was then a very new thing. The Constitution did not anticipate partisanship. The legitimacy of partisanship was something that was very much up in the air. I think that Jefferson didn’t even consider himself to be a partisan. He thought that the Federalists were a party or a faction. I think the Federalist considered the Jeffersonian Republicans to be a party or a faction.
But everyone, every person, considered himself to be a representative of America as a whole and the good of America as a whole.
Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned at the beginning that people didn’t run for office. They stood for office and then the public judge them not on, “I’ve got to set up policies I’m going to lay out,” but on their character. And so, did that – if we’re going to judge people – candidates on their character, does that then – how does that play into the dirtiness of it? Because if I’m going to attack your character if I don’t win as opposed to saying as we might now ideally that specific policies you’d like aren’t going to be as effective?
Robert McDonald: Absolutely. I mean it personalizes politics. It personalizes the charges against people who are put forth as candidates for office. One of the charges that was frequently made against Thomas Jefferson was that he was hostile to Christianity, that he was an atheist. And the evidence that Federalists had for this charge were some of Jefferson’s own writings. He published a book called Notes on the State of Virginia. And in that book, he makes arguments for religious toleration. He argues for example that, “It does mean no injury if my neighbor believes that there is no God or that there are 20 gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
So we could read that as a classic statement of live and let live as long as someone else doesn’t violate my rights, they have the right to do whatever they wish to do and believe whatever they wish to believe.
But for a Federalist, that’s a radical statement, to have such disregard for the souls of your countrymen, they said, was itself a very dangerous thing. And of course, the French Revolution which began in many respects, an anti-Catholic movement because the Catholic Church had been in leagued with the French monarchy spiraled into an anti-religious movement.
And so, Jefferson’s association with that fairly or unfairly seemed to bolster their claim that he was hostile to religion in America.
Aaron Ross Powell: Was he an atheist or at least a non-Christian?
Robert McDonald: He I think can best be described as Deist and that he did believe in God. He did not seem to believe that God intervened in the affairs of men. He questioned things like – here’s another thing that got him in trouble in his Notes of the State of Virginia, he wrote about the story of Noah’s Arc and he calculated that if all the water vapor that was in the atmosphere somehow was converted into liquid that it would raise sea levels maybe a few dozen feet but it wouldn’t cover all of the mountains. It wouldn’t cover the entire surface of the planet.
And I again, I mean this was viewed as sort of a radical stuff. Jefferson described himself as a Christian but he did it in a very idiosyncratic way. Jefferson said that he thought that Jesus was the greatest philosopher who ever lived. And later in his life, he wrote to his friend, Benjamin Rush that he subscribed to Jesus every human excellence believing that he never claimed any other. So Jefferson calls himself a Christian but he seems to reject a pretty basic tenant of what most people would describe as the foundational philosophy of Christianity that Jesus is divine.
Trevor Burrus: As we’re getting into the 1790s era, we are discussing attacks and how politics was pretty vicious, that’s seem like the right time to get into especially in the 1790s and getting into election of 1800 right after that when the Sally Hemings’ allegations really start coming out. And I’m not sure if it’s actually true that James Callender as a pamphleteer, you can talk about that, very strange interesting guy but was the first person who publicly raised these allegations that Jefferson had been sleeping with his young enslaved, Sally Hemings. And I guess another sort of factor in this is I mean Jefferson’s wife had died in – what year did she die?
Aaron Ross Powell: I think it was 1780.
Trevor Burrus: 1780, yeah.
Robert McDonald: He was about 40 years old when his wife died. Jefferson and his wife, Martha, had a very – so far as we can tell, a very intense, very loving marriage. In 10 years of marriage, she was pregnant 6 times and we know that he was very much grief-stricken when she died. He soon thereafter accepted the appointment as our Ambassador to France. I mean he left for France. He first worked as Benjamin Franklin’s understudy and then eventually he was elevated to that post.
Trevor Burrus: And he brought Sally Hemings to France, correct?
Robert McDonald: Yeah, basically, that’s correct. He first brought his eldest daughter and he left his younger two daughters behind in Virginia. I said that his wife was pregnant 6 times. Not all those pregnancies were successful. It was basically complications of childbirth that caused his wife to die so far as we can tell.
But back in Virginia, his youngest daughter then died. And so, Jefferson sees his family just falling apart and he wants to reunite what’s left of it. So he writes home to the relatives in Virginia who were watching after his surviving daughter in Virginia and he asked that she be sent to France. And by name, he requests an elderly and slaved woman to accompany her on the ocean voyage and she is not available. She is ill. And so, the family in Virginia decides that as a babysitter, they’re going to send along Sally Hemings.
Now, Sally Hemings has even before Thomas Jefferson is introduced into the story, she has an interesting connection to the Jefferson family. Sally Hemings is Jefferson’s late wife’s half-sister. So relationships between black people and white people, between white people and especially in enslaved black people they owned are not uncommon. They’re not uncommon in Virginia. They’re not uncommon wherever slavery exists.
And so, Jefferson’s father-in-law, his late father-in-law is …
Trevor Burrus: Who is a Randolph, correct? The family for Martha’s, they were Randolph’s?
Robert McDonald: Well, they’re all Randolph’s, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that’s a big Virginian name so …
Robert McDonald: His wife’s father is John Wayles.
Trevor Burrus: John Wayles, OK.
Robert McDonald: And John Wayles has relationship it seems with a Elizabeth Hemings who was the mother of Sally Hemings. And Elizabeth Hemings herself is according to the Hemings family and their knowledge of their lineage, she is half white and half black. So Sally Hemings is three quarters white, one quarter black. She is Jefferson’s late wife’s half-sister.
By some accounts, she resembles Jefferson’s late wife. His wife, according to Jefferson’s family on her deathbed asked Jefferson that he would never remarry. In part, because John Wayles did remarry after his first wife died, Martha’s mother, and it seems as if she was not treated as well as the daughters that that woman had through a previous marriage.
Trevor Burrus: So is that a pact? Did she ask him not to marry?
Robert McDonald: Well, it’s a longstanding tradition that’s documented within Jefferson’s white family, his descendants.
Trevor Burrus: OK.
Robert McDonald: So that – if we accept that as a given, Jefferson is never going to remarry. Here comes along Sally Hemings with whom it seems at some point, he begins a relationship, he cannot legally marry Sally Hemings because she is legally black. But maybe she resembles his wife. And certainly, when we think about what interest Thomas Jefferson and what interest Thomas Jefferson about women, he seems to like women who have an uncommon degree of sophistication.
And I think a lot of people unfairly discount the degree of sophistication that Sally Hemings is able to gain while she is in France. Most Virginia women, white or black, slave or free probably never go more than 20 miles from the place where they’re born. Here is Sally Hemings who is with Thomas Jefferson in Paris. She is legally free while she is in France. The relationship probably begins while she is with Thomas Jefferson in France.
There’s a little bit of uncertainty about when their first child is born because if they have a first child who is conceived in France, that child doesn’t survived. But the children that they do appear to have together are born over the span of years and it appears as if this is an ongoing monogamous relationship. Thomas Jefferson was a very eligible bachelor. He could have married lots of different women had he chosen to break that pledge he had made to his wife.
The fact that he stopped with Sally Hemings, I think that says something about the nature of their relationship.
Trevor Burrus: And when does this become an item that was discussed by people of the day.
Robert McDonald: Well you brought up James Callender and Callender is an interesting character. So he is born in Scotland. He comes over to America and is initially a Jeffersonian Republican. And he writes some very critical pieces against the administrations of both George Washington and John Adams. He is jailed under the Adams’ administration Sedition Act.
When Jefferson becomes president, he is released. He believes that Jefferson owes him something more than just his freedom. He asked for a job as Post Master in Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson denies him that job. That’s when he seems to turn his back on Thomas Jefferson and he starts writing in behalf of the Federalists.
So in September of 1802, that calendar in a newspaper called The Richmond Recorder launches these charges. He says the people in the vicinity of Charlottesville have long known that the man whom – that the light of the people to honor for many years has kept as his concubine one of his slaves, her name is Sally. And those charges were vibrated throughout the Federalists press. Jefferson never really issued a response. Silence was a pretty strong response. He responded also by returning to Washington, D.C. from Monticello, his two surviving daughters soon joined him.
Jefferson sometimes would miss church services before. He seemed never to miss them after, always with his daughters in tow. The presence of his daughters within the small society of the small fledgling capital of Washington, D.C., I think put a damper on some of the gossip. And in the election of 1804, it wasn’t really a big issue. It was one that had passed.
Aaron Ross Powell: What should we today looking back and judging Jefferson’s legacy and his historical significance and knowing the words that he wrote in the Declaration make of both the Sally Hemings relationship but then more broadly, his ownership of slaves?
Robert McDonald: Sure. I mean it’s worth saying that it’s difficult to know what to make of the Sally Hemings relationship because we don’t know definitively what that relationship entailed. I mean master-slave relationships could quite easily be and oftentimes were raped. A slave did not have the ability to refuse her master.
On the other hand …
Trevor Burrus: She was very young too when they started.
Robert McDonald: Well, when she arrived in Paris, she was 14. We don’t know exactly when the relationship began. But she was in her late teens. And there was a disparity in age although again, we shouldn’t be too confused by her own modern sensibilities. When Madison was 31 years old, he was engaged to a 15-year-old.
Trevor Burrus: And Madison married – Dolley was 17 years younger than him I believe.
Robert McDonald: That’s maybe the case, yeah. The 15-year-old he was engaged to essentially dumped him. And then later on, he became engaged to Dolley Payne Madison.
So yeah, I mean to whatever degree this relationship was consensual, the more consensual it was, the more loving it was. I think that might reflect well upon Thomas Jefferson. I mean we know for a fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder. I don’t think he gets much worse than that. If Thomas Jefferson actually had a capacity or developed a capacity to see very fully the humanity of someone like Sally Hemings maybe even to feel some real affection for Sally Hemings. I think that would reflect well on him, not negatively.
The fact that he was a slave holder is for me the thing that is maybe most troubling. And it’s troubling for me in part because I have the good fortune to live in the 21st century. And Jefferson is a literal product of the 18th century. His first memory as a 3-year-old is being carried on a pillow and looking up into the face of an enslaved man who was carrying him. I mean it was a part of his life. It was a part of his family. It was a part of his world.
I wish that Jefferson did more to prioritize ending slavery. But he at least did something. He did some things to try to diminish the influence of slavery in Virginia and within the United States. I mean as President, he signed the law that ended the legal importation of new slaves from Africa.
As a member of Congress under the Articles Confederation, he proposed in his Ordinance of 1784 a provision that would ban slavery in all of the Western territory, all the territory, West of the Appalachian Mountains, East of Mississippi from the Great Lakes all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. If Jefferson had his way in 1784, slavery would not be allowed to take root there.
When he was in Virginia, he proposed a bill for gradual emancipation that was defeated his first public act. As a freshman member of the House of Burgesses in 1769, was the co-sponsor of bill that would have made it legal to emancipate your own slaves. That wasn’t allowed in Virginia until much later.
So he did do some things. But did he do enough? And did he prioritize slavery as highly as he should? I think that people of Jefferson’s generation oftentimes compromise on slavery because they think it’s more important first to secure independence from Great Britain then they will compromise on slavery because they think it’s more important to sustain the union. They’ll think it’s more important to hold together their partisan alliance as the do battle against the Federalists. They think it’s more important to pursue other goals, and slavery is always this can that they seem to kick down the road.
Trevor Burrus: And a big thing looming over them that’s very hard to just address in a very simple way. But the end of his life though, do we know – I mean by the last decade or so around the Missouri Compromise and things like this, did he see bad things coming? Did he write – did he think about slavery in 1820s or anything about what was going to happen?
Robert McDonald: Sure. Right. So the Missouri Crisis, when many Northerners did not want to admit to the Union, Missouri which was applying for admission as a slave state, Jefferson wrote that he saw that it was like a fire bell on the night. And think about in 18th or early 19th century, how terrifying a fire bell, a fire alarm, and the night would be – I mean this is a world made of wood and we don’t have modern fire departments that are going to rush to the scene. This, he thought, was the knell of the Union, the death knell of the Union.
There’s some question about the degree to which Jefferson was sincere in statements like that. At the same time that the Missouri Crisis in unfolding, Jefferson is trying to establish in Virginia a university, what would become the University of Virginia. And Jefferson oftentimes writes to Virginians letters that make panic pronouncements about the dangers of sectionalism.
One of the arguments that he makes for the University of Virginia was that, “We’re sending our sons to these Northern seminaries, to Harvard and Yale and our children are developing these Yankee principles.”
When he writes to people who aren’t Virginians, when he writes to people on other states and especially when he writes to foreigners, he tends to minimize these sectional differences and describe them as ripples on the sea of liberty. So there’s some question about exactly what Jefferson thought and how panicked he truly was. But certainly, sectionalism was a rising problem and it was one that troubled him.
Trevor Burrus: After his presidency, which is an interesting presidency, he has the Louisiana Purchase which of course is quite a huge deal, to say the least. He also I think strangely embargoes most of New England …
Robert McDonald: Right.
Trevor Burrus: … which is probably a bad idea thinking that he can hurt the British by making it illegal for New England to trade with the British, which is – but it’s interesting. But does he just go home then after in 1808 and just kind of retire from public? Does he ever do a public life thing again after 1808?
Robert McDonald: So he retires under truly the best of circumstances because James Madison who has been his key ally, his best political friend, their relationship begins in 1776, he is able to pass the baton to James Madison, his successor. When Madison is inaugurated on March 4, 1809, there is a reception afterwards that Jefferson attends.
And Jefferson was friends with a woman named Margaret Bayard Smith who was the wife of Samuel Harrison Smith. He was the editor of the Jeffersonian Republican National Intelligence or the big newspaper in D.C. at the time. And according to Margaret Bayard Smith, Jefferson had a big smile on his face and she said to Jefferson, “You look like a man much relieved in his responsibilities.” “Yes, I am. And at this moment, I am much, much happier than my friend.”
So Madison was the one who got to assume this burden. And I think Jefferson really tried to respect Madison’s independence and he had a lot of trust in James Madison as well he should have.
Aaron Ross Powell: Did Jefferson have a sense of his historical significance?
Robert McDonald: I think he did. I think one of the things that you perhaps noticed when you visited Monticello and when you stood in the suite of rooms that Jefferson called his sanctum sanctorum, it’s his library and his office and his bedchamber. You see on his desk this really neat contrivance, this machine that he called a polygraph.
And essentially, it allows him to make copies of his letters. You write with one pen and then it’s connected to another pen through a series of pulleys and it makes an exact duplication of the letter the Jefferson would write. And he did that because if you didn’t have a copy when you send your correspondence out, you lose it forever. But he was able to keep his correspondence, not only the letters that he received but also copies of the letters that he sent.
And I think he did that in part because he understood his place in history. He understood that he was central to this American experiment, that he was a central figure in the revolutionary project. And I think he hoped at least that future generations would take great interest in the revolutionary generation and the nation that they established.
Trevor Burrus: What kind of lessons, I mean for you having studied Jefferson so much and admire him so much, what kind of lessons do you think we can learn individually and even maybe as a nation from him?
Robert McDonald: So yeah, I think it’s fair to say that I do admire Thomas Jefferson on many levels. But I’ll say this. The more you study Thomas Jefferson, the more you study anyone, the more you realize that they are flawed people and Thomas Jefferson wasn’t perfect. I’m not sure that Thomas Jefferson always made the right decision. But I do believe that Thomas Jefferson carefully weighed his decisions. He tried to do what was right. He tried to do his best.
And he lived in an imperfect world and he dealt with a number of different challenges and a lot of times, he found that his principles were in conflict. I mean you mentioned Louisiana and the embargo, the Louisiana Purchase is a fantastic opportunity for America to double the size of the country without firing a shot.
And yet, the Constitution doesn’t contain a provision that allows the national government to add new territory. If that’s the case, how do you do this the right way? I mean Jefferson thought about it. He drafted a Constitution Amendment that would explicitly authorize the purchase of Louisiana.
Albert Gallatin, his Treasury Secretary, James Madison, his Secretary of State, ultimately talked to him out of it. They said, “Look, we appreciate your constitutional scruples. We share them. But if we delay this, if France reneges on this deal, if it’s not authorized by three quarters of the States, this opportunity will be lost forever.”
And this is an opportunity not only to double American territory. This is an opportunity to keep, they thought, they hope America at peace just as the Atlantic Ocean was a moot separating us from the troubles of Europe. This would be a land moot in the West that would insulate us from invasion and international strife. And this land would allow our nation which was doubling in population every 20 years to continue on as a nation of virtuous farmers who were their own bosses, who were self-sufficient and self-reliant.
So there is a lot good arguing for Louisiana. But then there was the Constitution. And Jefferson I think ultimately, he had to swallow hard and make the best decision that he could. So, I appreciate the fact that he truly grapples with those decisions. Again, maybe he made the right choice, maybe he made the wrong one, but he was very thoughtful about how he made it.
Trevor Burrus: And in Jefferson’s last years to the – something we hadn’t brought up actually was that Jefferson-Adams’ correspondence which is an interesting …
Robert McDonald: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: I assumed you read most of those or a lot of those letters.
Robert McDonald: There are a lot of letters to read, I’ll tell you that.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
Robert McDonald: But they’re fun to read because Jefferson and Adams write about all the things that we’re not supposed to discuss, right? We’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion or what have you. And they talked about all of it and they talked about history and they talked about the future. And these guys are classic sort of frenemies. They were close allies in the Continental Congress. They were friends as understudies to Benjamin Franklin and France as diplomats. Their relationship came under great strain during the partisanship of the 1790s. They were opponents in the elections of 1796, 1800.
When Jefferson was inaugurated, Adams has left town the night before. He wasn’t even present for Jefferson’s inauguration. But they patched up their relationship and resumed their correspondence after Jefferson retired from office. And I think they saw their attempt to reunite and reconcile not only as a way to validate their friendship, but also to validate the American Union, to validate the fact that people from the North and people from the South could rally around the shared cause of liberty.
And I think it’s fair to say too that they were writing to each other but they knew that they were preserving their letters. I think it’s fair to say that they knew that they’d be writing to us as well. So yeah, I recommend that people read the letters. They’re really great.
Trevor Burrus: Thank for listening. If you enjoyed Free Thoughts, please take a moment to rate us on iTunes. Free Thoughts is produced by Mark McDaniel and Evan Banks. To learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.