The Magazine

Jefferson Revised

Was the architect of liberty our first limousine liberal?

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson (long married to her cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph) and children of both were at Monticello to greet Jefferson when he came home for the last time, after having retired the presidency in March 1809. In today's world Jefferson would have written his memoirs, joined corporate boards, made speeches, and settled into life as a millionaire super-celebrity. In the world of 1809 he went back to farms that had suffered as a result of his absence, inside a larger plantation economy that was entering a period of economic decline.

It was a bad situation that he made even worse. A rich man's son, he had always spent lavishly, and refused to adjust to conditions, or even acknowledge them. Money continued to flow, on fine wine, thoroughbred horses, books, clothing, silk dresses, and musical instruments for his army of grandchildren, and of course, constant improvements made to his house. Aware of the debts he already shouldered, he began building a new house on his property, in spite of the fact it would double his debts. Periodically, he made sporadic attempts in questionable taste to pay off his burdens: He sold lands belonging to his friend Philip Mazzei and never sent him the money; he sold his books to the Library of Congress; near the end, he was trying to float the idea of a state-sponsored lottery, by which the citizens of Virginia (presumably in gratitude) would band together to pay off his debts.

Nothing helped. In 1815 visitors to Monticello found the beloved house in the process of falling to pieces, with slaves busily boarding up broken windows and the chairs in the drawing room "completely worn through." Ten years later the family's plight had become the talk of the county, with friends and family members suggesting such remedies as closing off half the great house and renting the farms. As a last resort Jefferson pulled his grandson and heir--Martha's oldest son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph--away from his studies to come home and work as a general overseer, ending the boy's hopes for a professional or political career. Caught in a spiral of downward mobility, other grandchildren talked about taking in boarders. One granddaughter "wished she could support herself .  .  . instead of .  .  . keeping house here, but I suppose not until we sink entirely will it do for the granddaughters of Thomas Jefferson to take in work or keep up a school."

The financial woes intensified all of the strains in the family, which were trying enough on their own. Daughter Martha, who had married in haste and spent the rest of her life repenting at leisure, was a permanent houseguest with most of her children, fleeing the stresses of life with her husband, an unstable man of erratic temperament whose resentment of the emotional ties between his wife and his lionized father-in-law had made him a difficult mate. Eventually, it would be found that Randolph had run up on his own a debt of between $20,000 and $30,000, to add to that already carried by Jefferson, leaving some of his children to sue him to avoid being carried down in his wake.

His grandson's role as the family member chosen to shoulder the burdens not borne by his father and grandfather continued to rankle: "Jefferson Randolph's life during his years as his grandfather's tenant farmer was not what he had imagined for himself," Alan Pell Crawford tells us, with some understatement. "Almost overnight [he] had 'gone from being a student .  .  . to being a glorified farm hand. Compelled to throw my books aside and devote myself, mind and body .  .  . to the care of my grandfather and his affairs.' " In his memoir Jeff Randolph would write of years spent rising before dawn and coming home after nightfall, traveling 30 miles or more to inspect far-flung holdings, returning home after dark in inclement weather, swimming his horse across rain-swollen streams.

In 1819 he was attacked by a brother-in-law, who stabbed him repeatedly, nearly killing him, and almost cost him the use of one arm. As his reward Jefferson would one day hang his grandson's portrait in the second tier of his gallery at Monticello, telling him he was not fit to hang with his heroes--Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette among them--because he had not finished school.

The deterioration in Jefferson's approaches to finances and family carried over to public affairs. When the Missouri Compromise was announced in 1820, he was alarmed, largely by the declaration that the states north of the 36-30 border would always be slavery-free. Jefferson, Crawford says, "now found himself favoring the spread of slavery into the territories .  .  . [and] also hoping for the creation of new slave states if only to counter the growing power of the north." So morally obtuse was he at this point that he considered the north's antislavery protests to be a "mere party trick," a stalking horse for the Federalists he had fought in Washington to further their plans for a strong central government. He left no doubt he would favor secession to further submission to northern and federal power, as further attempts to regulate slavery would "render separation preferable to further discord."

Jefferson may have reflected the views of the majority of planters in his state and region, but among the Founders he had always been the exception, far more comfortable with the "peculiar institution" of slavery than George Washington, George Mason, or James Madison, not to mention northerners such as Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, and John Jay. There is no doubt that, had he lived decades later, Jefferson would have been in the forefront of those defying Abraham Lincoln. The most progressive of the Founders in 1776 had become the most reactionary 40 years later, clinging hard to an unlovely past.

Kukla, who writes from the viewpoint of an ardent NOW booster, makes a case, based on Jefferson's dislike of Marie Antoinette, certain French socialites, and Elizabeth Merry (wife of the British ambassador during Jefferson's tenure in the White House), that Jefferson was afraid of and hostile to intelligent women, and took care to suppress their political aspirations.

The first part of this claim is complicated by his fondness for Abigail Adams and Angelica Church, among others, and by Crawford's statement that, at Monticello,

The "accomplished" women spoke as freely as the half-educated men. .  .  . Martha and her daughters spoke their minds, even on matters that on other plantations were reserved for men only. At Monticello, women were encouraged to enter into serious conversation by Jefferson himself. .  .  . Throughout his retirement years, Jefferson's closest and most trusted advisor was clearly Martha, whose judgment he esteemed above that of most men.

As for the second, too much is made of the moves of the widowed president in eliminating the twice-weekly soirees held by first ladies Martha Washington and Abigail Adams in favor of working dinners restricted to male politicians, as there were no female officeholders in Washington in the 1800s and there was no first lady or hostess at hand.

What would Jefferson do in 2009, faced with a Hillary Clinton or a Condoleezza Rice? We don't know. Nor can we know his emotions when engaged in his most problematic affairs. Was Jefferson a predator who took advantage of a woman he owned, as did many slave owners? Or was he a lonely man, badly bruised by loss and rejection, who struck a bargain with an attractive young woman, whose conditions he honored, and kept? Was he indifferent to the pain and strain he was causing Elizabeth Walker? Or was he ashamed and caught in an obsession he had tried, and failed, to control?

What we can know is how Jefferson behaved in retirement, and on that score the verdict is clear. He was, in effect, our first limousine liberal, a child of privilege who fancied himself the voice of the people, laid out ideals that he failed to live up to, and imagined a life far more high-minded than the one that he managed to live.

He was a man of the future who impoverished his children; a prophet of freedom who opposed its extension; and one of the architects of a great and powerful union who admitted, years later, that he would not take it badly if it were to be broken apart. Old age did not become Thomas Jefferson, who was in the end a bad friend, a bad patriarch, and a bad friend to union and liberty.
It is not enough to blot out the many great things that he did for his country, but it is sufficient to make one think twice when one looks at his lovely memorial. Or thinks of the writing therein.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.