Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Jefferson, Monticello, and American Identity

Myron Magnet writes a thoughtful, rigorous and lovely reflection upon Jefferson--considering the man alongside his castle. Do go read it.  

Discussions - 15 Comments

This is rather chastening:"The students turned out to be not so much an aristocracy of virtue and talent as a gang of rowdy young men with a taste for drink, gambling, breaking windows, firing guns into the air, and thrashing professors who tried to stop them. The horrified Jefferson came down from his mountain to Charlottesville to reprimand them. Flanked by his dear friends and fellow trustees, James Madison and James Monroe, the frail 82-year-old patriarch drew himself up to his full six foot two, began to speak, and burst into tears."

"Hamilton gestured toward Jefferson’s beloved portraits of Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and asked who they were. “My trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced,” Jefferson replied, naming them. Hamilton paused a moment. “‘The greatest man,’ said he, ‘that ever lived was Julius Caesar.’

Precisely the two things I thought most memorable about the piece. Good calls. And "chastening" is a good word.

Someone (Ryan?) can correct me if I'm wrong, but when I visited Monticello, I noticed a bust of a man with a Ceaser-like haircut, robe, and pose, in the main foyer. The guide told me it was of Hamilton. I was surprised, and I should have found another guide to confirm--the likeness wasn't decisive. But if this guide was right, Alexander's little (and really, irresponsible) gibe got him immemorialized in Monticello as Ceaser. A monument as telling about Jefferson's passionate mind as his portraits of Newton, Locke, and Bacon, particuarly the last.

It is a fine article. Magnet does claim that the Hemmings DNA question is now laid to rest...TJ's the dad. Not quite my impression of the debate as it stands...anyone have the authoritative Jefferson-Hemmings line circa 2007? Has the "Jefferson's the father" camp made a slam-dunk?

The last I heard was that all they could prove was that it was a male from the Jefferson family. It could be either Thomas or his brother Peter, which was another hypothesis. Something about needing male heirs to check the DNA and TJ had none so all they could prove was a family link, not an definite link to TJ.

Personally, I would like to believe that it was his brother and not him...TJ is my favorite founding father..

Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow is sceptical of the veracity of Jefferson's self-serving vignette of AH, as am I. Jefferson never passed up an opportunity to accuse AH of being a proto-Caesar, and kept a notebook full of Hamilton gossip to use against him. The evidence against it is also based on the fact that Hamilton always, throughout his career, and in the Federalist, reads Caesarism properly as the gravest threat to republicanism. In fact, he saw the Jeffersonians as more Caesarist in their willingness to flatter the people. I also wonder when this might have occurred. Of course, Hamilton could have done it just to rile Jefferson, in disgust at Jefferson's unholy trinity. Also, I notice that Carl pietistically spells Caesar as Ceaser!

Yes, AH may have praised the British Constitution as the best in the world but he knew enough Plutarch to despise Caesar.

My understanding is that the DNA proves only that some male in the Jefferson clan was responsible. What is interesting is that Douglas Adair in the 1960s (long before DNA tests) did remarkably careful detective work that made a very strong case for TJ's nephew Peter Carr as the culprit. That case is just as possible now after the DNA tests as before and in my view strengthened if anything by them. Adair's article should be read by anyone who cares to do anything aside from slandering Jefferson. Adair, by the way, argues intelligently that Carr was married and father of his own family, and that TJ knew well that he was responsible but would not say anything publicly (in spite of the press' libels of the day against TJ) in order not to destroy Carr's marriage.

Here is the research from the Monticello website. As the Magnet essay suggests, it is not just a matter of the DNA, but also a matter of Sally's probably dates of conception and TJ's presence. Together, those make his paternity a probability. How much does it matter in the context of Jefferson's contribution to the nation?

Sorry, "probable" dates.

Of course, Hamilton could have done it just to rile Jefferson, in disgust at Jefferson's unholy trinity. In my reading of it Robert, I assumed he had! Rather like the bumper sticker I saw and admired some months back: "Republicans for Voldemort!" Sadly, our ideas of villainy seem to have degenerated as much as our notions of nobility. Modern fairy tales and pop culture and paternity suits replace a rigorous reading of our history and philosophy.

I was a monticello interpreter (guide) for awhile. Magnet's piece was pretty good. It actually read like he had been on a tour recently (which is very likely considering he thanked the Thomas Jefferson foundation which owns Monticello). BTW there is an excellent book, "Jefferson and Monticello," which explores the same theme: the man as reflected and/or understood in light of the home he built and rebuilt the whole of his adult life.
Re Jefferson's relationship w/ Sally Hemmings. It has been several years since I looked at the evidence, but my conclusion then was that it was very likely that Jefferson was the father of at least some of her children. (this is also the conclusion of the Thomas Jefferson foundation, and interpreters are required to say this on every tour.) Magnet laid out the most pertinent evidence (though there is more evidence out there). the DNA narrows the field to eight men, proximity narrows the list to Jefferson and Peter Carr. Chronology pretty much leaves you with Jefferson.
Some folks didn't like hearing this during the tour and would let me know, others loved it and wanted to discuss the relationship at length.
I didn't enjoy talking about the relationship, but it was right that we mentioned it. this sort of thing was among the many great evils of slavery and, equally important, Sally Hemmings'es children deserve to be recognized as Jeffersons as much as Martha's children.

Megadittoes, Tony and Julie. And Julie, I suppose he could have been thinking as he said it: politics, you fool, is more important than science, or, greatness is found more in politics than science. The more I think about it, the more I hope the moment occurred.

The more one learns about these men; what they thought, what they did, what animated them, and what (and who) they loved, the more convinced one becomes that the whole enterprise would have been far less worthy were any one of them absent from the equation. It is "chastening" to think how complicated things must be in politics in order to produce so vast a good. But it is heartening to consider that such imperfect material can, when combined and directed to the purpose, still do great things. Perhaps it is not a bad thing that people are no longer of a mind to be worshipful of these men. Worshiping them may paralyze and shrivel our own politics--as if we could not rise to the same level of greatness and ought not to try. But it is worse to be self-righteously petulant and bitterly disillusioned because we now see that--for all their greatness--these were still just men. We do well to remember that hypocrisy is the respect vice pays to virtue. Besides, their accomplishment is greater than the sum total of its founding parts. We ought still to maintain an appropriate level of awe and respect for the work they did and, thereby, do our best to be worthy of it, perpetuate it, and tighten up the bits that the effects of time have slackened. The towering ambition of our day need not look for some achievement to rival theirs--there is enough work and glory in encouraging a people live up to this timeless achievement.

Sorry but the Hemmings connection -- promoted even by the Jefferson Foundation -- is a piece of political correctness to which I see our "conservatives" are not immune. Personal behavior like that charged to him is profoundly dishonorable. Impregnating your slave woman is not romantic, it's an abomination. Our conservatives sign off on it, frankly, because the right has always had a Jefferson problem with his unorthodox Enlightenment religious beliefs. Because he was deistic, I think orthodox conservatives suppose that his morality cannot have been decent. That's patently unjust and inconsistent with everything Jefferson ever said or wrote about morality. Worst yet, in the likelihood that Jefferson was taking press hits while his silence protected his nephew's marriage and children, the injustice we conservatives are visiting on him by repeating media gossip is appalling. I expect nothing from the left since they have a vested interest in dishonoring all the Founders along with the founding itself. But conservatives shouldn't be playing that game.

Ryan, what I really want to know about is that Roman bust...is it really of Hamilton?


dennis, did you read the link Kate provided? I did, and it's hard to escape the conclusion the foundation and Ryan come up with. Again, I don't think we're yet at the slam-dunk stage, and particularly because I recall hearing that some of the Hemmings' descendants refused to submit samples fo testing. (Does anyone know about that?) Less convincing, but still doubt-causing, is the fact that we can't rule out the presence of Randolph Jefferson at Monticello during Hemmings' contraception windows. Jefferson, it should be remember, denied it all, to close friends.


Muy embarrassed, Robert, to be caught using the spelling of my UVA boss, Jim E-before-A CEASER, author of essential books like Liberal Democracy and Political Science instead of the correct spelling for that old dead guy whose tedious latin-class book consists of one battle after another with crazed barbarians in trackless wastelands. For this you get to be emperor?

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