What Thomas Jefferson has done and achieved for his country knows no limits and boundaries, and yet, the man also has some failings and shortcomings. How could he possibly oppose slavery and yet keep his own six hundred slaves? Why did he not take a more decisive and aggressive stance on the matter, especially since he himself stated that all men were created equal?
Moreover, how come he never openly disclosed but effectively downplayed and hushed the fact that he had an intimate relationship and children with his slave Sally Hemings, his wife’s half sister? This fact was corroborated through DNA evidence of 1998 causing a pent-up backlash of criticism and creating a well of doubt vis-à-vis the cherished founding father.
These were questions that preoccupied me as well and I was hoping that Jon Meacham’s bestselling book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power would address and perhaps even answer some of them. And it did.
His book is not only a fascinating and enthralling read - it borders on and comes close to a historical novel - but it also gives a panorama of the life and times of the man; they were at time in opposition to each other, while at other occasions, he simply echoed and embodied the zeitgeist and was the product of his times.
There are also recurring real-life historical figures who either helped or opposed Jefferson and his plans and ideals – and in some cases, like John Adams, were fluctuating and pending between both poles. The fact that my knowledge of American history and politics is limited was actually not an impediment in understanding the issues presented in the book; in fact, it only served to enhance and magnify my enjoyment as I was often surprised or shocked about facts and issues hitherto unknown to me.
I am wholeheartedly recommending this book, and would like to share some of my personal highlights and observations with you here. They are limited in terms of scope and depth, but I would also like to draw and underscore parallels between the foundation period and the current political climate in the United States.
It might explain or at least shed some light on the divisions and the divisive nature of what is currently happening in the country. In fact, bitter ideological partisan rifts and rivalry among political factions are nothing new and they existed also in the heydays of American politics, which even included talk of impeaching the very first American president George Washington!
As someone who loves, appreciates and practices psychoanalysis, I am even more cognizant and aware of the important effects of the past and history upon the present experiences and worldview, and it is my belief that by understanding, acknowledging and appreciating that link and connection, one can pave a better, more confident and assured path into the future.
Before I delve into some of the facts about Thomas Jefferson, I would like to give a brief psychoanalytic overview about tendencies that will hopefully help us understand him a little better. There are indeed two poles in his life that keep recurring at various moments and instances, and they - at least subconsciously - influence his outlook as well as actions.
On one hand, there is the strict and demanding father who instills both fear and respect. This is projected by Jefferson not only upon his own family, but also upon his political career, and it is further reflected within his fears and anxieties toward the British king and the potential threat and take-over of the mother country.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is his love of and appreciation for his mother, which is extended to his country and his fellow citizens and adds a need to protect and take care of loved ones.
The paternal aspect comes out in the hard work and discipline that has always characterized Thomas Jefferson and that has to a large extent been adopted by the country he helped shape. Jefferson would work frantically and would always try to improve upon his skills and knowledge as he considered laziness and idleness a sin. Health permitting, he would study fifteen hours a day by reading up to 2 am; when in office, he would work over ten to thirteen hours per day.
Jefferson was afraid of and looked up to his father throughout his life. He admired his father’s physical strength but had also adopted and instilled Peter Jefferson’s strong sense of authority and responsibility as well as his democratic ideals and aspirations.
When Jefferson was ten years old, Peter Jefferson sent him to the woods, all alone and armed with a gun and his “assignment" was to prove to his father that he could survive on his own in the wild. He ought not to come back without having a hunted animal to show for.
Peter Jefferson was a staunch Whig supporter and that means he was more inclined towards the people and the parliament as opposed to the more conservative Tories who upheld the king. These democratic beliefs and notions alongside the belief of independence from authority and authority figures were passed onto his son.
As a result, Jefferson himself would not only wish to encourage and propel self-government, but he was also constantly paranoid about the British king potentially taking over his mother country. It was this looming threat that shaped and characterized many of his political fears and decisions.
When Jefferson was fourteen, he had his first overwhelming sense of being in charge after his father suddenly passed away at the age of 49. This made Jefferson, the eldest son, all of a sudden the man of the house, and he had to quickly copy and pattern himself after his father’s model. This stern sense of command alongside the necessity of discipline and hard work were embedded into the fabric of his personality and outlook.
The mother, on the other hand, is exemplified in his love for his native country. Incidentally, he considered it a duty to be subordinate to the mother country, while also explicitly stating and affirming that without liberty, there was no life.
Jefferson was close to his mother throughout his life, and in fact, he lived at a close distance to her: it was only a half an hour drive from his estate Monticello, Italian for little mountain, to his mother’s abode.
His mother Jane Randolph Jefferson played an important role in his life, and her death affected him very deeply. It came at a tumultuous time: He was 33 and he was working on the Declaration of Independence. This signified a full break from his parents and of being thrown into complete independence, a struggle that was reflected in his quest for independence from British colonialism.
To Jefferson, federalism, a paternal symbol, would always be considered a looming threat to the status quo. This fear would haunt him all his life and would often put him at odds with some of his fellow founding fathers, including George Washington and John Adams.
Jefferson feared federalism because of its ties to Britain and the royalty, namely its king. Independence for him meant breaking off the ties and chains to the former father country, and that the ex-colony would become independent and self-sufficient by walking and acting on its own and out of and for its own self-interest and benefit.
It is important to note that federalism was not an imagined threat. The British continued to be present up north in Canada and they could have invaded and attacked the United States at any point, even long after the US had attained independence.
Moreover, in Jefferson’s native country, there were continuous factions between the two different parties regarding that matter and it so happened that even within his own party, there tended to be disagreements on that topic.
It was Jefferson’s profound belief that to keep his country with its experiment in liberty and democracy safe, alive and thriving, this entailed keeping hereditary rights and privileges at bay; this would be, according to him, the best way to ensure and guarantee people’s democratic rights.
Nonetheless, at times and undertaken with conscious and deliberate political intent and motivation, these freedoms and rights had to be curtailed by the government and authorities themselves. That may make Thomas Jefferson appear hypocritical, but it was indeed the inherent nature of the game and the art of politics, which is a complex and delicate endeavor.
For instance, the hesitation of downright outlawing and abolishing slavery was driven by various issues and considerations. First off, at its onset, there was significant resistance from the union regarding that issue. The South, which was making steady use of the practice, was actively and ideologically opposed to the freedom and emancipation of slaves.
In order to get them onboard with his ideals, Jefferson had to make a sacrifice and reduce some of his demands. This led to slavery being allowed below the 36th parallel (with the exception of Missouri) but it was effectively outlawed any farther north.
This was a compromise that Jefferson had to accept since there was the danger that Southern states could break off from the rest of the union, and even worse, perhaps join the British, all of which would have put Jefferson’s achievements and strive for unity into jeopardy.
There was also a different kind of compromise, the constitutional three-fifths clause, which meant that for purposes of more balanced electoral representation, a slave was calculated and counted as three-fifths of a person. This clause upset many federalists, and they called Jefferson, who ended up winning the election, the “Negro President” as that was purported to tilt the presidency in his favor.
Furthermore, from a more personal standpoint, Jefferson himself had a lot to lose as he had about six hundred slaves working for him at Monticello. Abolishing slavery would have significantly cut down his income, and this was an important matter because of his constant expenses.
He may have appeared frugal in office, by not wearing the prescribed gowns and not abiding by regal formalities, such as forgoing the sword-swearing ceremony that his predecessors had embraced and selling Adams’s coaches and silver harnesses, but he had expensive tastes in his private life, whether it came down to gourmet food, drink, wine and coffee, or paintings and decorations in his office and on his estate.
In the end, it was the sad irony of his life that he would end up dying in debt, and his beloved Monticello and his slaves (whom he had not freed with the exception of the Hemings’ line) had to be sold after his death.
Yet he remained steadfast and true to being modest and humble since there was nothing showy or grand about his coffin or his burial, and he was laid to rest in his cherished retreat from the world on the slopes of Monticello, right next to his mother and his wife.
When it come to democratic precepts and actions, Jefferson would occasionally feel it necessary to cheat a little to get things done. This is apparent with the Louisiana purchase. As it was a significant if not surprising offer by France, he had to act fast.
It was a time-sensitive matter; there was no time for necessary constitutional amendments, so Jefferson jumped a few democratic procedural hoops to be able to sign the treaty in time by holding a quick congressional vote instead. It would be a matter of means justifying the end, a motif that would appear at various times during his life making some of his actions and decisions questionable.
Jefferson would also make unilateral decisions without the previous approval of congress, such as ordering the military to be ready as a result of the attack on the USS Chesapeake in 1807, which was deemed an act of war and which led to an embargo aimed at harming the British.
Furthermore, Jefferson refused to testify in person at Aaron Burr’s trial, his previous Vice President who had killed ex-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton during a duel and who was arrested for charges of treason in 1807.
Despite being subpoenaed by the US attorney George Hay, the president did not appear in court as he did not want to set a precedent. This essentially signaled that Jefferson saw himself beyond and above the law. Burr was eventually acquitted, which went against the wishes and desires of President Jefferson.
Politically, the foundation years were strange and volatile times. The country as a unified whole had to balance and weigh various decisions and strategies to remain strong and to be perceived as powerful and to be taken seriously as a budding new nation. They would have to flex muscles without embroiling themselves in military conflict that they would not be able to sustain or win.
At the same time, more than ever before, the United States needed to find strategic allies to support their cause and ideology in the world. Jefferson’s battle against monarchy and monarchical tendencies was life-long, and he tried hard to ensure that his achievements and accomplishments would be safe and secure even long after his lifetime; as a result, he trained and put people of confidence in important political positions.
The times were also filled with strife, intrigue as well as manipulation and fake news. Jefferson, who was a strong believer in freedom of the press, had to endure calumny through politically motivated rumor, gossip, and misinformation. For instance, on the fourth of July in 1800, the Baltimore American published that he had died at Monticello. This was not true, but eerily enough he would end up dying on the same date and at the same place twenty-six years later.
Even during the early days of the American nation, there was a divided and divisive culture and environment, while newspapers would tend to publish opinions instead of facts. In addition, political conspiracies and maneuvering that were led and bolstered by political ideological factional differences between parties resulted in entrenching and further dividing the nation.
The election process was also far from ideal. For instance, there was no campaigning at the time. Moreover, during the presidential votes, until the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, the first placed would become president, while the second would automatically qualify as vice-president, regardless of their political persuasion or party. That could potentially create uncomfortable and untenable dynamics, which would lead to friction within each administration.
Jefferson’s life-long relationship with his slave Sally Hemings was a driving force in his personal life but it was also fraught with complications and contradictions. When his wife Patty died, Jefferson, who has 39 at the time, was forced to make an oath to never remarry, and the solemn pledge was incidentally witnessed by a then ten-year-old Sally Hemings.
As he was a man of his word, Jefferson would not remarry. Yet that did not stop him from engaging in a long-term relationship with the significantly younger Sally Hemings, the half-sister of his wife and his personal slave.
When Jefferson was living in France as the American ambassador under the George Washington administration, he asked his daughter Polly with her teenage caretaker and servant Sally Hemings to cross the ocean to come and stay with him. In Paris, Jefferson must have been taken in by Sally’s beauty, and he began a long-lasting romantic relationship with her.
Yet it came with a caveat. When they were about to return to the United States, Sally, who was pregnant at the time, expressed a desire to stay in France with her brother James, who was staying at the Hôtel de Langeac.
The issue was the following: Since France did not have or allow slavery at the time, she and her brother could both apply for their liberty and become free citizens in the country regardless of what their master thought about it.
That is when Jefferson offered a deal to sway her decision and to make her change her mind. If Sally agreed to return with him to Virginia, he would allow her children to become free at the age of twenty-one. She agreed, and Jefferson would as a matter of course keep his word and promise.
This shows his willingness to compromise, but at the same time he had his own interests in mind, while probably being left with no other or little choice in the matter. Apart from the Hemings’ family, Jefferson would not free any other of his slaves, whereas Sally herself was declared free upon his passing.
One of the other constants in his life was his love and admiration for France, which he considered the "most agreeable country on earth” and only second to his native home. Although his ideology was largely influenced by the Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment, there were quite a few French thinkers that must have influenced his outlook as well, such as Montesquieu Montaigne, and Voltaire.
But with France he had an important political and ideological ally. In the heydays of the American Revolution, France was strategically positioned against the British Empire. The latter tried hard not to lose their colony by even siding with slaves, promising them freedom if they enlisted in the fight against Americans, while the French used their connections with Indians to ensure that the British would not succeed.
There was also significant financial and even military support from the French to help the American colonies. For instance, Marquis de LaFayette enlisted in the war against the British. The outcome of the American revolution set the stage for the experiment in liberty, as it not only removed royalty from the throne of government but it also nullified or erased hereditary rights and privilege and put in place a new experimental system, self-government through democracy.
This made an impact on French society and politics in more ways than imagined. First off, the financial support and aid that the American union received from France brought about economic hardship for the French. Circulating ideas of democracy and individual human rights combined with widespread hunger and anger over the wealth being concentrated in the hands of the nobility managed to topple the monarchy via France’s very own revolution of 1789. This was to a large extent inspired and brought about by the Americans who had essentially paved the way with the previous financial and military aid and support provided by France.
Secondly, the emancipation and independence of colonies and the widely influential French Revolution came back to haunt France in Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, where its enslaved residents headed by a former slave revolted against French occupation to gain liberty and to abolish slavery. The political and economic instability in the region further weakened France’s position in the New World and was a contributing factor for Napoleon selling off the state of Louisiana to the Americans.
Interestingly, LaFayette ended up fighting in both revolutions, while Jefferson had a hand in penning both. After the storming of the Bastille, Lafayette was in charge of writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was influenced and inspired by the Declaration of Independence, while he personally sought Jefferson’s help and counsel who was stationed in Paris at the time. It shows how intricately woven and interconnected the two governments and revolutions were.
Jefferson himself was also a lover of French art, food and wine. He would have French cuisine served at his estate and during government dinners. At times and more pronouncedly during his later years of political management, he was forced to strategically side with the British, but in general, he remained quite loyal and faithful to France as well as French culture and tradition.
Finally, when we look at and talk about Jefferson or any historical figure for that matter, we must take into consideration their time and context as well. Before we state that Jefferson is a hypocrite, we must consider him also as a fallible human who lived in tumultuous times of gradual change. His ideas were generally good and inspirational, but the truth remains that he did not go far enough, nor did he enforce them sufficiently.
Jefferson often claimed that more needed to be done in regard to slavery but that this was something later generations needed to tackle for themselves; he used this statement as a means of and excuse for postponing his own involvement and action on the issue. Jefferson himself could not envision colored and white people living together in peace, and he often toyed with the idea of resettling black residents somewhere across the ocean.
Like any politician, he had to make strategic and politically motivated decisions that were meant to appease some and not offend others. There were often compromises that needed to be made, even if they were far from ideal.
Apart from this, he lived in different times. He wanted to protect his ideas and had to face and endure serious oppositions and challenges from others. To keep the union intact and in harmony, he often had to make decisions that went against his own wishes and desires.
Finally, he had his fair share of personal trauma and suffering. His wife died young, and he made an oath that essentially barred him from later marriage. He also lost various children to disease, something that was quite common in those days where science and medicine were not as developed or as effective as they are today.
Then he also had his own medical conditions, such as unbearable periodical migraines that appeared during and were conditioned and propelled by times of stress and turmoil, which at times made it impossible for him to work and function in daily life.
It is my guess that Jefferson must have been an HSP, a highly sensitive person. Since these persons are wired differently, neurologically speaking, they are not only more perceptive, but also acutely sensitive and emotional and prone to worry, anxiety, and restlessness. As a result, they tend to be more empathetic, which is why they are often referred to as empaths.
Since Jefferson felt his emotions more strongly, be it pleasure or pain, he would have more empathy and consideration for others as he would intuitively know what it feels like to suffer or to feel rejected. At the same time, empaths are more susceptible to any forms of criticism and will try hard to please others to gain their approval.
It cost him a lot of effort – through a vast amount of energy and self-discipline - to control his emotions and reactions, while it was difficult for him to accept and swallow criticism, disapproval, and animosity. In fact, HSPs prefer avoiding any types of conflict as they strive for order and harmony in their personal as well as professional lives as much as possible.
In conclusion, here we have a founding father who has shaped the country in many influential and inspiring ways. He had like many of us flaws and weaknesses, and like many of us, he has made errors in judgment, but his influence on the nation’s fabric and soul is beyond doubt and question. Jefferson was much more than a president; he actively participated in the shape, form and maintenance of his beloved country.
Ironically, he died on the same day as John Adams, which turned out to be the fiftieth anniversary of independence. Jefferson was quite ill at the time, but in a typical combination of discipline and willpower, he kept himself alive long enough so that he could experience that moment of celebration, and this only serves to underscore his symbolic association and personal entanglement with his beloved country, the United States of America.