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U.S. History

Doubting Thomas

Reviewed by Susan Dunn
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page BW05

JEFFERSON'S SECRETS: Death and Desire at Monticello

By Andrew Burstein. Basic. 351 pp. $25


(Ap / New York Historical Society)

JEFFERSON'S VENDETTA

The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary

By Joseph Wheelan. Carroll & Graf. 344 pp. $26

"I heard once a very old friend say," Jefferson wrote late in life, "that he was tired of pulling off his shoes and stockings at night, and putting them on again in the morning. The wish to stay here is thus gradually extinguished: but not so easily that of returning once in a while to see how things have gone on." Mentally, Jefferson was fully engaged in the world, but age was taking its toll. He still rode his horse 10 miles a day but could scarcely stroll though his mountain-top garden without fatigue. The machine was wearing out. "I am like an old watch," he wrote, "with a pinion worn here, and a wheel here, until it can go no longer."

Who was Thomas Jefferson when he died? A hypocrite? He had famously written that slavery was "unremitting despotism," and yet he owned, bred and sold slaves. An immoral impostor? He had warned against "amalgamation" of the races, but he had children with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. Duplicitous? He served as George Washington's secretary of state while spreading rumors about the general behind his back. Inconsistent? He opposed Alexander Hamilton's Bank of the United States, objecting to the idea of a national debt, and yet he died deeply in debt. He sneered at aristocracy and luxury, yet he was an art collector, a wine lover, a joyful epicurean. Was he, as some recent historians have argued, a dangerous radical exhilarated by the bloody revolution in France, in love with the "boisterous sea of liberty"?

Bashing Jefferson is an easy game. Among some historians, it's fashionable to denigrate the founder who spoke out the most passionately for democracy, equality, religious tolerance, separation of church and state and freedom of expression and conscience. But Andrew Burstein's Jefferson's Secrets takes a different tack, one that is more subtle, more penetrating and ultimately more rewarding. Focusing on the 17 intellectually rich years Jefferson had after he retired from public life, Burstein asks what Jefferson's life looked like to him. How did Jefferson make moral sense of his world? What roles did family, women, sex, slavery, health, religion and politics play in his life?

Burstein, also the author of The Passions of Andrew Jackson and a professor of history at the University of Tulsa, seeks to obliterate the cultural distance that separates us from Jefferson. "We need to find a way to approach historical problems," he explains, "without allowing our own emotional baggage to overwhelm the discussion." Only by embracing Jefferson's own perspective can we hope to have "a more honest conversation" about the great Virginian. Burstein wants to write history from the inside out, and the result is a balanced, sensitive and thoughtful excursion into Jefferson's head and heart.

For starters, there is his language, the medium through which we grasp, interpret and shape reality. Much of Jefferson's language came from the medical discourse of the day. Burstein demonstrates that Jefferson was "a politician who was in effect a medical practitioner." Jefferson had medical diagnoses for republicanism (it produces healthy and "strong spasms of the heart"; monarchy (it causes "throes and convulsions"); elitism ("The sickly, weakly, timid man, fears the people"); bigotry ("the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds"). He couched the tragedy of slavery, too, in medical terms (slavery was "incorporated with the whole [Southern] system, and requires time, patience, and perseverance in the curative process"). Even his relationship with Hemings was part of a therapeutic regimen that included a semi-vegetarian diet, physical exercise and regular sexual activity.

Jefferson's social, economic and political policies -- public education, limited industry, the franchise for white men, frugal government, freedom of conscience -- reflected his desire for human betterment through the marriage of health and reason. He was always searching for more knowledge to advance freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. But in matters of gender and race, Burstein reminds us, Jefferson was socially conservative, even for his time. Although the people closest to him in his personal life were women -- his surviving daughter Martha Randolph, his granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge and, of course, Sally Hemings -- he resolutely stood in the way of women's advancement.

Even more troubling are Jefferson's ideas about race, his aversion to blackness, his belief that blacks were not suited to live free among whites. Jefferson was indeed a racist; he could not conceive of a just, biracial society. But Burstein probes deeper, asking why he became more and more passive and indifferent to the plight of blacks in America. He explains that for Jefferson "white-on-white political tyranny" seemed a greater, more immediate threat to the republic than slavery. The nation would recover its health, Jefferson was convinced, only when Northern politicians stopped trying to increase the power of the national government and crush the culture of the South. In the meantime, benevolent slavery and a plan for the eventual mass deportation and colonization of free blacks and slaves struck him as the most practical options. Jefferson behaved as he did, Burstein comments, because his world allowed it: "Morally, he felt perfectly comfortable in the South, and distrusted the North."

As for Hemings, she was almost certainly the half-sister of Jefferson's late wife, Patty. She appeared, one contemporary said, "mighty near white." When Jefferson looked at Hemings, Burstein infers, he did not "imagine Africa." The affair was, in Burstein's opinion, an upstairs-downstairs relationship of "sex with a servant." Though his views on slavery did not change, he let two of their children "run away" and freed two others. He did not free any of his other slaves.

So was the bold author of the Declaration of Independence an idealist in words only? "We cannot expect the eighteenth-century liberal to speak the language we speak, to envision racial equality," Burstein crisply writes, "when in practical terms American society has yet to become colorblind two centuries later." Still, Burstein admits that Jefferson missed the opportunity to prove -- and improve -- himself and to meet the expectations of some of his more enlightened contemporaries.

And how did the medico-philosopher-statesman approach his death? For Jefferson, Jesus was a moral philosopher, not the savior. His God was the "mind" of the universe. The solace of his final days was not faith in an afterlife but the laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium) that his doctors administered to relieve his pain.

Before he died, Jefferson tried to shape his historical reputation, encouraging historians to view events as he had. But, finally, he left it to others to make sense of his life, so rich in accomplishments, so full of contradictions. "[I] await [God's] time and will with more readiness than reluctance," he wrote to his faithful correspondent John Adams three years before their deaths on July 4, 1826. "May we meet there again, in Congress, with our antient Colleagues, and receive with them the seal of approbation 'Well done, good and faithful servants.' "

Joseph Wheelan's Jefferson's Vendetta withholds from Jefferson that seal of approbation. Above all, Wheelan, also the author of Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror, 1801-1805, faults Jefferson for his handling of the Burr conspiracy. In 1806, Aaron Burr, the former vice president, started a bizarre, unauthorized private war against Spanish Mexico; he also seemed to want to seize New Orleans and lure Western states away from the union. Instead of using military force against Burr, President Jefferson chose to mobilize public opinion against him, and Burr's plot collapsed. Jefferson zealously sought to put Burr on trial for treason. But John Marshall, presiding over the Virginia Circuit Court and relying on a narrow definition of treason, did not find Burr guilty. Still, many historians view the collapse of the conspiracy as a triumph for the union and Jefferson.

Wheelan recounts nicely the whole strange, murky story, including the spectacular treason trial, one of the great show trials of the young republic. There was abundant evidence of Burr's plotting, but the court insisted on proof of an "overt act." (Interestingly, in January of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that no overt act is necessary to prove conspiracy. After all, "conspire" in Latin means only to "breathe together.")

Oddly, Wheelan places the onus for the whole affair on Jefferson, branding him "obsessed," "relentless" and seized with an "almost reptilian vindictiveness." The president, Wheelan concludes, waged a vendetta against Burr "without a shred of solid evidence" and orchestrated "the destruction of Aaron Burr's political fortunes." Astonishingly, it is the unscrupulous Burr who wins Wheelan's respect; Wheelan writes that the would-be conspirator tried "unfailingly" to adhere to a code of politeness and loyalty that "handicapped him in the ruthless, rough-and-tumble politics of the early nineteenth century."

Burr handicapped? In the election of 1800, he proved himself beyond all doubt the opportunistic master of rough-and-tumble politics, creating an unparalleled Republican political machine in New York City and playing a devious double game when he and Jefferson tied for president in the Electoral College. Fortunately for the survival of the young republic, a strong and able President Jefferson knew how to deal with "loyal" troublemakers like Aaron Burr. Whatever his blind spots and contradictions, it was Jefferson's Enlightenment values and forward-looking spirit -- not Burr's amorality, not Hamilton's elitism, not Adams's anachronistic political theories -- that carried the country into the future, promising a freer, more open, more democratic society. •

Susan Dunn, a professor of humanities at Williams College, is the author of "Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism."


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