For the Weekend...

Weekend Reading/Hoisted: Reading the Soul of Thomas Jefferson

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E.M. Halliday (2001): Quotes from Understanding Thomas Jefferson:

p. 1: In June 1782... Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roche-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de la Fayette, was an honored guest at possibly the most lavish full-dress ball... Marie-Antoinette... had ever given at Versailles... Twenty-four, Lafayette... a general in both the American and French armies... lionized in both countries... amalgam of ultra upper-class French snobbery and passionate dedication to liberte and the rights of man, he had gone to help the American cause entirely on his own... purchasing outright... the vessel that took him there. Now... he dances a quadrille "flawlessly"... with the young queen in the Hall of Mirrors... scintillat[ing] with the light of five thousand candles. The king has gone to bed, but his twenty-seven-year-old blue-eyed consort and diamond-bedecked entourage of courtiers dance, sip, and sup the night away, finally wandering off to one bed or another...

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p. 49: Edmund Bacon... chief overseer at Monticello... hearsay account... "house servants... in the room when Mrs. Jefferson died... often told my wife [that]... she gave him directions about a good many things that she waned done. When she came to the children, she wept, and could not speak for some time. Finally... she told him she could not die happy if she thought her... children were ever to have a stepmother brought in over them.... Mr. Jefferson promised her solemnly that he would never marry again. And he never did"...

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pp. 53-4: Among the many bills [Jefferson] introduced in Congress during [1783]... was one that... required that after 1800 "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" would be allowed in any new states taken into the union.... [T]he vote could not have been closer: all the northern sttes voted aye... but one of New Jersey's two delegates... was... absent, so that state's vote was not counted, and the measure was defeated. Jeffferson... later [wrote] to a French historian, "The voice of a single individuqal... would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country. Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man..."

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pp. 86 ff.: When Abigail Adams welcomed Jefferson's eight-year-old daughter Polly into her London home in... 1787, she was surprised to discover that the child was not accompained by the "old Nurse"... [but by] a light-skinned, very pretty adolescent girl--"about 15 or 16," Abigail thought. Her name was Sally [Hemings]. Mrs. Adams's reaction to Sally is interesting... in view of her censorious attitude toward the openly sexual ambiance of Paris and her tendency to be protective of her friend Jefferson.... [T]he most sensible interpretation of Abigail's overestimate of Sally's age--for she was in fact only fourteen--is that the girl was already physically a woman.... It must have made Mrs. Adams nervous to think of this nubile creature living under the same roof in Paris with a master who, she was aware, loved attractive young women and had been without a sexual partner (as far as she knew) for a long time now.

Being Abigail, she took action.... [S]he... wrote Jefferson to bring him up to date on Polly's state of mind.... "The Girl who is with her," she went on, "is quite a child, and Captain Ramsay is of opinion will be of so little Service that he had better carry her back [to Virginia] with him."... Sally had explained to Mrs. Adams that she was the sister of James Hemings... who had come to France with Jefferson... in 1784; and it is an index of Abigail's apparent apprehension... that... she was so ready to block a brother-sister reunion....

But Jefferson made no move to follow Abigail's suggestion.... We have no account... of Sally's first impressions of life in Paris--for despite the fact that she was literally a member of the family, being, incongruously, Patsy's and Polly's half-aunt, she was still a slave, joining her brother in those muted shadows that dim so much of American black history....

In considering the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, most biographers have paid insufficient attention, I think, to the probability that some of her traits, of both appearance and character, were reminiscent of her half-sister, Jefferson's greatly beloved [late] wife [Martha].... Add to this picture [Sally Hemings's] well-attested beauty.... [T]here she was, living in his house, eating the food he provided and her brother prepared, wearing the clothes he bought her, becoming each day a more familiar part of his life as she--what?--watered plants, dusted furniture, brought refreshements... did some sewing, began to learn a little French, sang new Virginia songs with Polly on weekends as Patsy played the harpsichord?...

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p. 97: Although the DNA evidence has made it unnecessary to speculate about whether Sally and her master had a long-term love affair, it is entertaining to think about how and why it started when it apparently did--in Paris in 1787 or '88. Certainly the situation there was more congenial to it than it ever would be later in Virginia. For most of the two years of Sally's sojourn there, Patsy and Polly were away five days and nights a week at their convent school, and their half-aunt--Sally--was the only American servant in the household other than her brother James, and the only female who spoke English. Of course, Sally was just on the verge of fifteen.... [But] Jefferson's closest French friend, Lafayette... [had] taken a bride when she was fourteen; and in America... James Madison had ardently pursued a fifteen-year-old, with his friend Jefferson cheering him on....

[T]here is little documentary evidence suggestive of romantic or erotic events beneath the roof of the Hotel de Langeac during the first months of Sally Hemings's residence. There are signs that Jefferson was giving chose attention to her welfare--payi g a sizable doctor's bill to have her innoculated for smallpox, for instance. But this is the kind of thing he would have done anyhow. A very interesting exhibit, however... is a letter written by Jefferson to Maria Cosway.... Back in Paris on April 23 [1788], [Jefferson] found a letter from Maria expressing something closer to fury than to love: he had not written her for three months. "Your long silence is impardonable," she wrote. "[M]y intention was only to say, nothing, send a blank paper; as a Lady in a Passion is not good for Anything."

Jefferson was in a rare mood when he sat down to answer this on April 24. He seems to have been in a slight daze, intending to make amends to Maria, yet unable to keep his mind on it. He assures her:

At Dusseldorp I wished for you very much. I surely never saw so precious a collection of paintings. Above all things those of Van der Werff affected me the most. His picture of Sarah delivering Agar to Abraham is delicious. I would have agreed to have been Abraham, though the consequence would have been that I should have been dead five or six thousand years.

What was poor Maria to make of this? There is nothing on record to suggest that she had ever been to Dusseldorf, knew anything about van der Werfee, or had ever read or heard that Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar ("Agar"). It was almost as if he were making a diary entry about his trip rather than writing a letter. And what was the point?

Well, you can look it up (Genesis 16); and you can look at the picture.... Hagar was an Egyptian slave belonging to Sarah... and Sarah said to him, "Behold new, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid.... And Sarah, Abraham's wife, took Hagar... and gave her to her husband..." This is the poignant moment depicted in the painting....

[Jefferson] wasn't through with his letter yet. Acknowledging to Maria that he wasn't much of an art connoisseur, he adds a sentence that should give some pause to the many devotees of Jefferson as a steely, unwavering rationalist: "I am but a son of nature, loving what I see and feel, without being able to give a reason, nor caring much whether there be one." And as if to give further proof of this he goes on...

At Strasbourg I sat down to write to you. But for my soul I could think of nothing at Strasbourg but the promontory of noses, of Diego, of Slawkenburgius his historian, and the procession of the Strasburgers to meet the man with the nose. Had I written you from thence it would have been a continuation of Sterne upon noises...

What was this all about? He was talking to himself again, rather than to Maria.... The very specific allusion... to Tristram Shandy... the cited passage... sexual. Sterne, who spends a great deal of time in his lengthy novel making comedy about human genitalia... begins... "Book 4" with a... stranger who arrives in Strasbourg... sets the whole town in an uproar because of the hugeness of his nose. Everyone is in a frenzy to see it... the women... to touch it, and gradually, as the story meanders along, the conviction dawns on the reader that what's being talked about is not really a nose, but a penis.

Marie understood nothing... quite likely had never read... Sterne... sent Jefferson a squawk of outrage... "How could you... not find one word to write, but on Noses?" It was a good question; and it leads to another one: What was going on at the Hotel de Langeac that [Jefferson] should have composed such a letter?

The circumstantial context... some clues. Jefferson had just come from a seven-week trip... back to the comforts of home. He got in after nightfall... Wednesday... daughters... away at their boarding school. Sally, however, was presumabnly there.... And where had Sally come from? She had been Martha Jefferson's slave... and just as... Sarah and given her slave Hagar to Abraham, Martha had given Sally to Jefferson.... Martha was gone forever, and no longer could bring hildren to him any more than Sarah could to Abraham.... He could take Sally to his bed... without violation of his promise to Martha that he would never marry again...

The fact that Jeferson had van der Werff's painting so vividly on his mind [when he got back to Paris]... suggests that the picture may have struck him as a kind of epiphany: almost as a sanction for a sexual affair that may have begun shortly before he went on his tour, or... on the night of his return. That he felt a compulsion... to hint this... to Maria Cosway, the woman who apparently had failed to match his eager libido, is psychologically quite fascinating. She missed the point, but at least he had managed to get it off his chest....

It would seem ridiculous to claim, after reading Jefferson's letter... looking at... van der Werff... browsing through the relevant passages in Tristram Shandy that the letter writer... no longer had a personal interest in sex. Yet Dumas Malone, at the end of his chapter on Jefferson's "sentimental adventure" with Maria Cosway asserts... that 'her middle-aged admirer"... "embarked on no romantic adventure with anybody else" for the rest of his life. It doesn't sound much like the man, just turned forty-five, who---declared his willingness to have been in Abraham's shoes...

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pp. 109-110: ...shortly after Patsy came home Jefferson made entries in his account book showing a big splurge of expenditures for dressmaking materials--linen, silk, cambric--as well as for shoes and other accessories. Earlier in April, before [Patsy's] return, he had recorded a substantial sum--almost 200 francs--for "clothes for Sally"...

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p. 141: Taking note of the rebellious agitation among Virginia's political leaders against... taxes in the late 1960s... Samuel Johnson... got off a derisive question: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

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pp. 143-4: Admirers of Jefferson have often stressed that although he was a slave master, he was a kind and generous one.... [I]t is a claim easily overstated. Lucia Stanton... has shown... that while he always tried to keep his slaves healthy, fairly well fed, and contented... he was nonetheless a demanding taskmaster. A striking illustration is the nailery... [where the] workers... were "a dozen little boys from 10 to 16"... taught to hammer hot iron into nails at anvils grouped around four fires in a building in Mulberry Row.... [T][he master who prided hismelf on rising every day with the sun required his slaves to do the same.... James Hubbard, one of the nailers, was caught stealing nails... subsequently ran away... captured... ws "severely flogged in the presence of his companions".... While he was in Washington during his first presidential term... Thomas Mann Randolph... report[ed]... Cary had deliberately slugged a coworker with his hammer, badly fracturing his skull. Jefferson... ordreed that Cary should be sold to... "Georgia" or "any other quarter so distant as never more to be heard of amongt us," and it would seem to the other boys "as if he were put out of the way by death."

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p. 145: From the Virginia Gazette for September 14, 1769:

RUN away from the subscriber in Albemarle, a Mulatto slave called Sandy, about 35 years of age, his stature is rather low, inclining to corpulence, and his complexion light; he is a shoemaker by trade, in which he uses his left hand principally, can do coarse carpenters work, and is something of a horse jockey; he is greatly addicted to drink, and when drunk is insolent and disorderly, in the conversation he swears much, and in his behavior is artful and knavish. He took with him a white horse, much scarred with traces, of which it is expected he will endeavour to sipose; he also carried his shoemakers tools, and will probably endeavour to get employment that way. Whoever conveys the said slave to me, in Albemarle, shall have 40 s. rewrad, if taken up within the county, 4 l. if elsewhere within the colony, and 10 l. if in any other colony, from

THOMAS JEFFERSON

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p. 146: Lucia Stanton has woven the narrative of her monograph on slavery at Monticello around... Joe and Edy Fossett... Joe, whose mother was... Sally Hemings's half sister, was... in 1807, the plantation's head blacksmith.... [H]e had fallen in love with Edy.... When Jefferson went to White House [in 1801]... he took Edy with him for training in French cuisine.... [I]t would seem that she and Joe had gotten together now and then... by 1807 she had two small children, and there is no knowledge of any other father. There was, however, a rumor of close attention to her by some other man... conveyed to Joe... in the summer of 1806.... Joe Fossett disappeared from Monticello--much to Jefferson's dismay, since Joe had "never in his life received a blow from any one," and was looked upon ass a model slave.... Joe was apprehended [at the White House] and sent back to Monticello, but not before the young couple had patched things up.... If this were a fairy tale, their ultimately goodhearted mater would have sent them back together, with his cheerful blessing; but this was Thomas Jefferson, and he was not about to curtail Edy's education in gourmet [French] cooking for the sake of a romance... [W]hen Edy finally came back in 1809 and was made Monticello's head cook, the loving couple became mates for life, and raised a total of eight children....

Jefferson's will directed that Joe Fossett should be give his freedom, effective in July 1827--presumably because he was a favorite slave as well as Sally Hemings's half-nephew. Six months before that... his wife and his children [had been] sold to the highest bidder at the auction of Monticello's "negroes." It could have been worse: Edy and their two youngest children were bought by... Joe's brother-in-law.... Two teenaged daughters were also sold to Charlottesville residents... the Fossett family had survived the Monticello auction with only three of the children lost to an unknown fate. And ten years later Joe Fossett, free Negro, having by hard work and various financial maneuvers managed to buy back his wife Edy and the children still living with her... legally emancipated them.

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pp. 158-9: It is altogether likely.. that Thomas Jefferson learned more about the actualities of his slaves' lives... from Sally [Hemings].... She was raised differently from most of them, of course, being not just the daughter of a favored house servant but also a blood relative of Jefferson's beloved wife. Yet Betty Hemings... was surely in touch with the entire black community of Monticello, and Sally herself was by no means isolated from it. If Jefferson had done his revision of Notes on Virginia a couple of years after Sally had settled in at his mansion in Paris.... [H]e was able to write to a correspondent a number of years later [about his judgments of Black mental inferiority], "My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the developing of [African-American] genius were not favorable.... On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their reestablishment on an equal footing with the ohter colors of the human family." Amor vinciet, it seems--well, perhaps not omnia, but a good deal.

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pp. 159-60: Edward Coles... admired Jefferson... had been James Madison's private secretary... in 1814 sent Jefferson a letter... urging him to exercise ihis great prestige in leading... emancipation in Virginia.... Jefferson not only declined to actively take up the cause... but tried to dissuade the young idealist.... Edward Coles... [sold] his Virginia property... [took] his slaves to Illinois... [freed] them, and got them started as independent farmers.... [I]n 1822 he was elected governor of Illinois on an antislavery platform... in 1824 successfully defeated... a state constitutional amendment legalizing slavery...

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p. 227: AN ACT FOR ESTABLISHING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, passed in the assembly of Virginia in the beginning of the year 1786.

Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments of burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators an drulers civil, as well as ecclesiastical who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have affirmed dominion over the faith of others...

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pp. 238-9: ... in the end... he merits the most unstinting celebration for his lifelong allegiance to... freedom of thought and expression. Writing to... Benjamin Rush in 1800... he cited certain clerical "schemes" to breach the religion clause of the First Amendment... some form of Christianity as the official religion of the United States. He would oppose them with all his power, he said, "for I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." For that he deserves, at least, two rousing cheers.

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