American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis

We don’t know much about Thomas Jefferson when he was young due to a fire which destroyed many early records. There’s disagreement amongst people who met him over whether he had clear or freckled skin, whether he had blue, hazel, or green eyes, and whether his hair was sandy red or reddish blond.

We do know he was born to a wealthy family. His father died when he was 14 and he was estranged from his mother. After graduating from the College of William and Mary, he became a lawyer, mostly handling cases involving land claims and titles. He played the violin and was nearly always humming or singing to himself. Building and rebuilding his Monticello estate, which was located on top of a mountain, was a lifelong project.

He took a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1769. He was shy and nervous in the spotlight, so he didn’t talk much as a member of the House. He was also tongue-tied around women, although he did manage to get married in 1772. Like George Washington, he married a wealthy widow named Martha, which doubled his land and number of slaves. Also like Washington, he was a fan of Madeira and liked animals (he stocked his private park with domesticated deer).

Jefferson was an idealist. He invented an idyllic version of Saxon England in his head and insisted that was the way things were supposed to be. He was a vey black-and-white thinker and thin-skinned whenever criticized. He got migraines throughout his life whenever he felt pressured.

He was selected to serve on the second Continental Congress in 1775. He couldn’t make public speeches, but he was a strong writer. He wrote both the Virginia constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In an earlier draft of the Declaration, he blamed George III both for slavery, and for attempting to free the slaves, indicating his muddled thinking about topic. He wanted to blame England for starting slavery, while also absolving the colonists for continuing it.

Jefferson was accused of plagiarism so often, he had a standard reply. (He didn’t claim to be original, but rather explained that his writing was inspired by numerous sources.) The most famous lines from The Declaration of Independence about all men being created equal and the right to life, liberty, and happiness were, in fact, present in George Mason’s preamble to the Virginia constitution, although Mason himself was paraphrasing John Locke.

Jefferson was governor of Virginia between 1779 and 1781. During this time, the British burned the capital at Richmond to the ground and nearly captured Jefferson himself. He was forced to flee on horseback, which some viewed as cowardly. The Virginia Assembly even called for an investigation into his behavior. This event came back to haunt him when he later ran for president.

After being governor, he published Notes on the State of Virginia in which he called for the end of slavery. It was the only book he published. Due to the public response, he changed his position and said Emancipation would have to wait for public opinion to catch up.

In 1782, his wife died after giving birth for the seventh time during their ten year marriage (only three of the children survived, Martha called Patsy, Maria called Polly, and Lucy who only lived a few years). Her death hit him hard. He sobbed through the night for six weeks and never remarried.

In 1784, he tried to pass an ordinance which would require all new states to not have slavery, but it lost by one vote. He also failed to replace the English system with metric. 

He became minister plenipotentiary to France in 1784. His daily regiment included four mile walks and soaking his feet in cold water every morning. In France, any slave brought into the country could claim his freedom, but Jefferson didn’t let his personal slave James Hemings know about this.

Future presidents and fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe were both Jefferson’s proteges and friends. John Adams was an on-again-off-again friend to him as well and Jefferson was a kind of second father to John Quincy Adams during their stay in France. Jefferson also flirted a bit with Adams’ wife Abigail.

After five years in France, the only thing he accomplished was a slight reduction in the tariff for American whale oil. Europe didn’t take the American diplomats seriously since the American federal government was too powerless to get the states to do anything. While he supported states rights, Jefferson realized foreign policy required a strong federal government.

While in France, he put both his daughters in a convent so they wouldn’t be influenced by the learned Frenchwomen who didn’t limit themselves to the domestic sphere. He wasn’t worried it would make them Catholic until Patsy expressed her desire to be a nun. He immediately picked her up and made plans to return to America.

While in France, Jefferson wrote many love letters to married women and widows. He seemed to be most in love with Maria Cosway and somehow broke his wrist trying to vault over either a kettle or fountain to impress her, an injury that would trouble him the rest of his life.
In 1789, he thought the French would become free without bloodshed. He even declared the French Revolution over the day before it exploded into violence. Later, when history had proved him wrong, he doctored his letters to make it seem like he saw violent revolution as a possibility.

Jefferson was idealistic and made many grand proposals. He once proposed that all laws and debts should expire every 19 years so the next generation can make their own laws and be free of debt. Even though he owned thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves, he’d inherited so much debt from his father-in-law, he was never able to repay it. (He acquired additional debt through his own through lavish living as well.)

After leaving Paris, he became secretary of state for George Washington. Along with Madison, he established the Democratic-Republican party (pro-France, anti-England, against a strong federal government), opposing Federalists such as Washington and Hamilton who were pro-England, anti-France, and in favor of a strong federal government.

In 1790, during a conflict between England and Spain called the Nootka Sound Crisis, Jefferson took a belligerent stand against England that risked war.

He retired to be a farmer in January 1794. He was 51 years old and considered his best years behind him. His two surviving daughters married men he approved of. Polly/Maria died during childbirth in 1804. He was unlucky as a farmer with drought, early frost, and the Hessian fly destroying his crops several years in a row. Like most Virginia planters, he was deeply in debt and tried to make profit in other ways such as having his slaves make nails, by selling land, and by renting his slaves out. Although he praised the farming life, he was personally bored by farming and spent most of his time working on his house.

The Jay Treaty, which allied America with England, infuriated Jefferson enough to make him come out of retirement. He lost the election to John Adams, who was a Federalist, but didn’t mind being vice president because Adams hated Hamilton as much as he did and being vice-president allowed him to remain semi-retired. Also, Washington was so well beloved, whoever followed him would be assured to fail.

He ran for president again four years later. Because there wasn’t yet a way to distinguish votes for president from vice president, Aaron Burr and Jefferson had the same number of electoral college votes. Even though Burr was supposed to be Jefferson’s vice president, he didn’t defer and The House of Representatives took 36 ballots to decide the tie in Jefferson’s favor.

When he delivered his inaugural address, Jefferson was so quiet most people couldn’t hear him. Due to his poor public speaking, the only public speeches he gave as president were his inaugural addresses. He carried out his office almost exclusively by writing letters.

He wanted to decrease the power of the federal government, letting states have most of the power, but being an idealist, he didn’t consider how this would work out practically or consider the specifics. He was a big idea guy, not a detail guy.

Jefferson took over the presidency at the most stable and peaceful time in US history. His main concern as president was eliminating the national debt. He reduced the size of the army and navy to save money. In his opinion, having a military didn’t prevent wars, it caused them.

Many politicians, including in his own party, viewed his determination to get rid of the debt as extreme. Ironically, he racked up personal debt while reducing the government’s, spending almost ten thousand dollars on wine during his first term as president and continuing to renovate Monticello.

Thanks to economic gains, Jefferson was able to eliminate internal taxes by 1801. In an idealistic move towards smaller government, he wanted to eliminate American embassies in other countries, but ended up keeping them. He wanted to get rid of the national bank created by his enemy Hamilton, but had to keep it because it was cost effective.

During his Presidency, he waged a small scale war in the Mediterranean against Barbary pirates. He also deported massive segments of the Native American population west of the Mississippi.

When Spain ceded Louisiana to France and the port of New Orleans was closed to American commerce, Hamilton and Congress called for war, but Jefferson chose diplomacy instead, perhaps saving tens of thousands of lives. Luckily, the resumption of the Anglo-French War meant Napoleon needed money more than he needed the land, so he was willing to sell Louisiana to America. Also, the army Napoleon was going to send to New Orleans was decimated by the slave revolt in Haiti, prompting him to cut his losses.

The size of America doubled with the Louisiana Purchase. It’s ironic that a man opposed to a strong federal government ended up needing it to make the Louisiana Purchase happen. He also betrayed his party’s republican principles by appointing a governor and unelected council to govern French-speaking Louisiana, not allowing them to govern themselves.

Ellis, at least at the time he wrote this book, didn’t think Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. (This book was written before DNA evidence convinced most historians that he did.) He claimed doing something like that would go against Jefferson’s character, even though the rest of the book points out how hypocritical Jefferson was regarding other aspects of his life. 

Ellis admits the man who accused Jefferson of fathering children with Hemings was right about Hamilton’s affair and a previous Jefferson affair, but says he was wrong this time. He says Hemings’ children obviously had a white father and bore a resemblance to Jefferson, but says the father was one of Jefferson’s relatives. Descendants of Sally Hemings named Jefferson as the father, but descendants of Jefferson’s family said he wasn’t. He admits that Hemings’ pregnancies coincided with times Jefferson was at home and she didn’t get pregnant when Jefferson was away, but he dismisses this as circumstantial.

When newspapers made the Sally Hemings allegations, Jefferson had second thoughts about freedom of the press, urging his party to sue editors for libel, which at least wasn’t as bad as Adams’ Sedition Act.

The economy went well during his first term due to luck, but that turned to bad luck in his second term. England and France, once again at war with each other, scooped up American vessels. Jefferson’s previous decision to largely do away with the navy was now a problem because American merchant vessels were left without protection.

His response to the seizure of American vessels was to pass the Embargo Act of 1807, closing American ports to foreign trade. Instead of hurting England and France like he intended, this only hurt America’s economy. Also, the act of enforcing the embargo caused Jefferson to go against his principles of small government.

John Marshall, who Adams selected as chief justice of the Supreme Court, was an even bigger enemy of Jefferson than Hamilton was. Jefferson was offended by the very idea of a federal court system, wanting to leave everything up to the states. When his former vice president, Aaron Burr, tried to set up an independent nation state in the American Southwest, Jefferson was willing to violate the constitution to convict Burr of treason, but John Marshall prevented this and found Burr not guilty.

During his retirement, Jefferson organized footraces for his grandchildren, but gave everybody a prize (pieces of fruit) whether they won or not. So Jefferson was apparently a fan of the participation trophy.

Tourists visited Monticello so often, there were sometimes as many as 50 overnight guests. Jefferson would sometimes go to another of his estates to escape the crowd.

The Missouri Question (whether it should be a free or slave state) troubled Jefferson. He was opposed to slavery, but kind of wished it would go away on its own. He came to view the Missouri Question as a conspiracy. The antislavery people weren’t really against slavery, he decided, they just wanted to bring about a consolidated government. He also claimed the federal government’s improvement of roads and canals was part of the semi-monarchist conspiracy, even though it began under his administration!

Some historians think him going off the rails like this was due to the financial panic of 1819 which ensured Jefferson would never pay off his lifelong debt. He owed $100,000 (several million in today’s money) by the time he died.

Jefferson freed five members of the Hemings family (although not Sally) shortly before his death to keep them from being auctioned off. After he died, the rest of his slaves and estate were sold at auction. However, the auction didn’t make enough money to keep his heirs from inheriting his debt.

Establishing the University of Virginia was his main project towards the end of his life. Nearly all colleges at the time had a religious affiliation. The University of Virginia not only didn’t have one, but theology was banned from being taught there. (To charges that he was an atheist, Jefferson claimed to be a real Christian, that is, he didn’t believe in the supernatural, but he liked the ethical teachings of Jesus.) He was opposed to the censorship that religious institutions often engaged in, although he did want students be indoctrinated to his way of thinking when it came to political matters. (Madison got him to change his mind on this.)

He received over a thousand letters a year. He spent hours each day trying to respond to them all. (Adams joked he avoided this by having the foresight to be unpopular.) While they were enemies when running for president against each other, Jefferson and Adams became friends again in retirement and exchanged over a hundred letters. They both died on the same day on July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

So, was Jefferson a good president or a bad president? I think the best way to measure this is to count how many deaths he contributed to versus how many lives he saved.

Ellis doesn’t mention this, but one of the best things Jefferson did was to ban the US from importing additional slaves from overseas. Many slave owners were against the continued importation of slaves because this reduced the value of the slaves they already had, so he may have been doing the right thing for the wrong reason, but he still deserves some credit for this.

Also, while he was in Congress, Jefferson was instrumental in banning slavery from several new states (the Northwest Ordinance). In his book Presidents’ Body Counts, Al Carroll estimates that Jefferson saved between 3,300 to 9,000 lives a year by banning the importation of slaves and by making several states free states. However, according to Wikipedia, the import ban didn’t have much of an effect since smugglers kept importing slaves anyway, so perhaps the number of lives saved is less than this.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British Navy impressed foreign sailors into their military and even fired upon and boarded US ships. Some Americans called for war, even though the US didn’t have much of a navy at the time. I guess you could say he saved thousands of lives by not going to war against England, but only a fool would have went to war being so outmatched.

When Spain ceded Louisiana to France and the port of New Orleans was closed to American commerce, Hamilton and Congress called for war, but Jefferson chose diplomacy instead, perhaps saving tens of thousands of lives and making the Louisiana Purchase as well. This was definitely a good thing.

On the minus side of the equation, he deported massive segments of the Native American population west of the Mississippi, which resulted in much suffering and likely some lost lives. He didn’t allow the people of Louisiana to govern themselves, which is a blow to freedom. He waged a small scale war against the Barbary pirates called the First Barbary War which resulted in 35 American deaths and an unknown number of foreign deaths. He could have saved dozens of lives by paying the pirates a tribute instead of going to war, but maybe he considered the lives lost worth it.

I’m not an expert in this area, so I could definitely be wrong, but it seems like Jefferson saved more lives than he ended, which is more than many presidents can say.

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