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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

the way you think about Thomas Jefferson

If the story of the Sally Hemings liaison be true, as I believe it is, it represents not scandalous debauchery with an innocent slave victim, as the Federalists and later the abolitionists insisted, but rather a serious passion that brought Jefferson and the slave woman much private happiness over a period lasting thirty-eight years. It also brought suffering, shame, and even political paralysis in regard to Jefferson's agitation for emancipation.

Eric McKitrick has written perceptively that "the values of Thomas Jefferson's career are basic to the entire system of American culture," and "the way you think about Thomas Jefferson largely determines how you will think about any number of other things." But the way one thinks about Thomas Jefferson is conditioned as much by what others have written about him as by the inner needs of the reader in search of a hero. It makes some difference to the hero-seeker whether, on the one hand, he is convinced by the so-called historical record that Jefferson was indeed a brooding celibate Irish clergyman "holding down the lid in the parish"--in Carl Becker's words, "a man whose ardors were cool, giving forth light without heat" -- or whether, on the other hand, he considers him a casual debaucher of many slave women, as some blacks today believe. There remains, however, a third alternative: that he was a man richly endowed with warmth and passion but trapped in a society which savagely punished miscegenation, a man, moreover, whose psychic fate it was to fall in love with the forbidden woman. The fault, it can be held, lay not in Jefferson but in the society which condemned him to secrecy.

Once one accepts the premise that a man's inner life has a continuing impact upon his public life, then the whole unfolding tapestry of Jefferson's life is remarkably illuminated. His ambivalences seem less baffling; the heroic image remains untarnished and his genius undiminished.

From Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History by Fawn Brodie p.17-18

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