Thomas Jefferson has not come out well in our black-and-white age. Once upon a time, we defined him as one of the courageous and eloquent founders of the U.S.A., the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and the designer of the University of Virginia. A man who was twice President, too.
But there was another side of him, not so rosy or principled — including actions that have darkened and complicated our opinions.
He enslaved people and broke up families when selling some of them.
He was the lover of one of those kept in bondage, Sally Hemings, beginning a sexual relationship with her five years after the death of his wife.
Jefferson loved fine wines and books but left many debts owed to unhappy creditors.
The word genius is diminished when we compare several of today’s “geniuses” to this former President.
John F. Kennedy invoked his predecessor’s brilliance when he held a dinner in 1962 for the Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere:
I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.
And yet, if we admire him, we live uncomfortably with his contradictions. For the most part, he did not share all our discomfort and therefore is called a hypocrite and worse. Yet, the same man wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
How does this involve you and me?
One of the (shall we say) truths many believe is that the real heroes are pure or close to it. Having encountered a few thousand people in my professional and private life, I am waiting to meet someone kind, brave, knowledgeable, self-aware, generous, and every other positive quality in one body full time.
However, I will say I endured a few too many who were far lower on the evolutionary ladder: cheats, liars, bullies, molesters, bigots, and even murderers. Nor do I always rise to my standards and, occasionally, have fallen well beneath them.
We live with ourselves — at least most of us — by avoiding the shadowy parts of our behavior and rationalizing much of what others might deplore.
If we and the planet are to be civilized, we need laws, courts, and judges. But the ice is thin beneath us when our tendency toward heated finger-pointing often fuels us to vilify the part of humanity we believe is inferior to ourselves.
Nothing I can write here will persuade you to give up your self-satisfied certainty if you are one of those who feed on the rage in the world.
For the rest of you, let me remind you of a comment made by a 20th-century investigative journalist, I.F. Stone. The writer was asked how he could be sympathetic to Thomas Jefferson in light of his slaveholding.
Because history is a tragedy, not a melodrama.
Think about those weighty words. The Collins English Dictionary tells us that a Greek Tragedy “is a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.”
Oedipus and Antigone are examples.
Melodrama is a different story.
According to Kyle DeGuzman, “Melodrama is a dramatic work in which events, plot, and characters are sensationalized to elicit strong emotional reactions from the audience. In literature, theatre, and cinema, melodramas are focused on exaggerated plots rather than characterization.”
As Stone suggested, history displays various versions of our all too human failings, especially if we are trying to live “good lives.” Our hearts break at the fault line where such an individual is overcome by his weaknesses and external forces bigger than he is.
Melodrama is not a tragedy. It is an exaggeration and overstatement intended to take our emotions to extremes, even to the point of overpowering our judgment with anger and other feelings.
An ancient Greek view of Jefferson’s complex life is more likely to recognize his imperfections than any melodramatic rendering of his biography set 200 years ago in circumstances we can only imagine.
To me, he was a greatly flawed great man, though I would like to think I might have lived some of his actions differently than he did.
The truth is, however, I don’t know.
Below the Jefferson painting are Scales of Justice by Johnny_automatic. The latter was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.