Archive for the ‘A HIGHLY SECRETIVE MAN’ Tag


John Chuckman



“Hofstra University Students Demand Removal of Thomas Jefferson Statue”


No matter Jefferson’s many high-sounding phrases about freedom and liberty, this man was perhaps the greatest hypocrite in American history, although competition for that particular title is pretty fierce.

His much-quoted words on freedom and government and other matters serve as advertising slogans for his legacy. He did not follow them in his own life.

He was a pretty unethical character, too. He lived off the labor of more than 200 slaves his entire adult life.

He never truly earned his own living despite all his education. He spent great efforts on obtaining the latest fashions and fads and on carrying on as a great man of leisure. And he borrowed heavily from friends whom he sometimes never paid back, and he died a bankrupt.

He started a relationship with a young slave girl, Sally Hemings, when she was only thirteen. She reputedly was the illegitimate child of his father-in-law by a slave (such were the weird results of the institution of slavery). Jefferson’s wife had died, and Hemings replaced her, said to resemble her somewhat. They had several children. It was all treated as a deadly secret, another aspect of Jefferson’s penchant for secrecy I discuss below.

Jefferson had an unquenchable thirst for luxury – in everything from silver-buckles for his shoes and fancy new carriages to the never-ending costly construction of Monticello, which has a lot to do with why he died a bankrupt. All Europe’s latest fads, from ice cream to macaroni, were eagerly seized upon by Jefferson. For his ice and ice cream he had a 150-foot large stone well built at Monticello to keep it cold at the bottom. Rather remarkable for a man with virtually no employment income.

Monticello, which I’ve visited as well as read about, was a very impractical house in many ways, including one stairway that is a hazard to life and limb and a very odd treatment of the upstairs windows for the sake of a certain effect.

He was a man of deep resentments and unrelenting antipathies, as he amply demonstrated in his bitter associations with Aaron Burr and some others. He never forgave Burr for what he regarded as his humiliation in the 1800 election where the Electoral College succeeded in producing a political mess between the two men running for president.

He was a hypocrite in many matters, as he showed by acts as president, acts in direct opposition to some of his high-blown written words.

He was, by the way, the very man Dr. Samuel Johnson had in mind when he wrote the famous line about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels.

Johnson also wrote of the word “liberty” being mouthed by “drivers of negroes.”

Jefferson in his little book, “Notes on Virginia,” makes it startlingly clear that he regarded blacks as simply inferior.

He was an absolute coward. He proved it many times.

While he pretended in all things to be with Europe’s Enlightenment thinkers, we have testimony from some that in private he was a considerably less large figure. For example, one visitor to Monticello recorded in a letter or in his diary that he looked out his window one day and saw Jefferson seriously striking a slave.

Once, when he was Governor of Virginia during the Revolution, a troop of British cavalry, lead by the dashing Banastre Tarleton, headed to Jefferson’s plantation to capture him. Jefferson hurriedly got on a horse and rode off on a long, mad ride to seek a place to hide. He was something of a laughingstock for a while in Virginia through stories repeated about the event at taverns.

When the Continental Congress wanted an ambassador to Europe to discuss peace terms, they tried appointing Jefferson first. He declined out of fear he might be captured on the high seas by the British. Redoubtable old Ben Franklin accepted the task and bravely did his duty.

His famous advertising lines about the Tree of Liberty needing a replenishing of blood every so often was in real life matched to a man who never picked up a musket during the entire Revolution.

Jefferson was remarkably ignorant of economics. At times he sounded almost like an early version of Pol Pot advocating a society of sturdy yeomen farmers as the best possible. He very much disliked industry, and he understood little about finance. The brilliant Alexander Hamilton, whom he disliked, could run rings around him.

Hamilton served George Washington and had great influence on him, advising on many matters and writing many of his speeches, including his famous farewell address. Jefferson, who was Secretary of State under Washington, secretly worked to discredit the Father of the Country because he so disagreed with some of his policies. Jefferson hired a scandalous writer, a man named Freneau, to run a little partisan newspaper which regularly contained quite nasty things about his boss, the President.

When Jefferson was President, the slaves of France’s colony, Haiti, revolted, eventually creating a new country. Napoleon was determined to crush them, and Jefferson actually assisted him in the effort. Napoleon failed largely because tropical disease killed off his troops in the thousands. But Jefferson sure showed where he stood on freedom and rights for blacks.

Jefferson broke many of his own professed principles while President. In his embargo of the British for a period, he was quite ruthless in enforcing it against small traders and merchants who depended upon British connections, seriously tracking down violators and punishing them. More police state stuff than blithe lover of freedom.

By the way, when he was working on building Monticello, the United States for a time had an embargo on certain British goods, including window sashes. Well, that didn’t stop Jefferson from obtaining the English ones he wanted.

Even in the story of the Declaration of Independence, whose first draft he wrote, we can see a lot about Jefferson’s character. He wrote a much too long draft, busying himself mightily over things like blaming Britain for the slave trade, ignoring the fact that it takes buyers and sellers, supply and demand, to make a market. Odd charges, too, coming from a lifetime beneficiary of slavery. Of course, greed might have been at work. A reduction in the slave trade would have raised the value of his own human holdings, but I’m not sure he understood economics enough to know that. But this position against the British slave trade certainly enabled him to keep up his confusing Enlightenment pretenses with a bit of, “Well, if it wasn’t for the damned British!” Jefferson always maintained a rather severe prejudice against Britain. He liked to call British people “Anglomen.”

The famous opening statements of the Declaration were slightly modified by Franklin to make what we read today. Much of the body was modified by the Congress, and it was considerably shortened. Jefferson was mortified. He was very vain, and for years he refused acknowledging his role in the first draft. Later, when the Declaration had become widely accepted as a founding document, he had his authorship engraved on his tombstone.

Monticello, the estate he designed and never stopped playing with until he died, displays a lot about his character, too. While interesting and sometimes beautiful, the house displays features signalling a man deeply concerned with secrecy. For example, in the dining room there is a dumbwaiter in the wall near the table which goes down to the basement which is connected by tunnel to the outlying kitchen. By having dishes sent up this way, he was able to have some discussions with table guests with no servants present as witnesses. And the tendency to secrecy was confirmed by many of his behaviors in office.

Jefferson is regarded as being scientific, but he largely was not, having some very odd theories and beliefs ranging from the benefit of soaking his feet each morning in a tub of cold water to his explanation of the origin of certain rock formations in the area. He was a tinkerer with gadgets, and while some of them are amusing, they mostly are quite impractical, even pointless, such a bed that went up into the ceiling on pullies. Many of his “inventions” are just plain quirky, reflecting an affluent self-indulgent man amusing himself.

Jefferson seriously raised the specter of secession, half a century before the Civil War, in 1798, with his Kentucky Resolutions. He was rightly against President John Adam’s ugly Alien and Sedition Acts, but he was completely against the Supreme Court having any right to decide their constitutionality. He very much regarded that as the prerogative of individual states. He was opposed in general to the possibility of the Bill of Rights being interpreted by a national court and enforced.

Until the Civil War, America remained in a very murky and uncertain set of practices with regard to States’ Rights versus the sovereignty of the federal government. The work of men like Jefferson very much contributed to that often-pathetic situation. Lincoln’s main achievement in the Civil War, indeed the war’s overriding purpose, was to sweep much of that away. States still kept significant rights, but the federal government became preeminent in many domains. America became a unified nation rather than a cooperating association of mini-nations.

Of course, all of that pre-Civil War confusion was even further deepened by the existence of the ghastly institution of slavery, again something to be credited to Jefferson’s account. Many great controversies arose out of the coexistence of “free” and “slave” states. The Supreme Court, once having established its right to interpret the Constitution, saw cases over such matters as fugitive slaves and the laws governing them. The decisions today are an embarrassment to read given America’s claims about liberty and rights. It should be remembered though that the Civil War was not about slavery, as is often claimed, and even Lincoln for a while was quite willing to end the war by rejecting secession and keeping slavery, though that institution’s fate was eventually decided by it.

Jefferson, being a strong defender of states’ rights and a defender of the right of secession, something he referred to several times over the years, and a supporter of slavery, would have rejected all of Lincoln’s positions during the Civil War. He almost certainly would have regarded the South as having the legitimate right to secede as well as to keep its institution of slavery. In this, there was something genuinely parochial about Jefferson.

From many of his beliefs and characteristics, it is easy to see why Jefferson is often regarded as a kind of secular saint by America’s extreme political right-wing. Today’s Alt-right loves quoting him, seeming to give an imprimatur to their views. Few such quotes or discussions evince a lot of knowledge about Jefferson in total, but it is remarkable that almost two hundred years after his death, he has this special status.

Interestingly, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington was built under Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and was dedicated by him in 1943. So, it isn’t just the right-wing which uses Jefferson. The memorial is literally a temple to a secular saint, the walls covered with engravings of Jefferson’s legacy advertising slogans about liberty and government. Not a word about any of the darker stuff. Not a word about slavery. Not a word about secession. Not a word about black inferiority. Not a word about an extravagant lifestyle he couldn’t afford. Not a word about stiffing friends from whom he borrowed. Not a word about a pedophile relationship with a slave girl. Not a word about cowardice.

There are still other generally-disregarded characteristics which could be cited, Jefferson’s life providing a deep reservoir of material. I regard him as a powerful example of what favorable publicity can do for an historical figure, of the way politics and agendas can twist past events almost beyond recognition. He has always been granted far more credit than he deserved in almost anything, especially when it came to matters of human rights and high governing principles.

But myth-making plays an important role in the business of building a world empire. It’s handy to be able recite high-sounding scripture while you bomb the crap out of people ten thousand miles away.

Posted April 3, 2019 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,