Unstable in All His Ways: A New Life of Thomas Jefferson
Reviewing Thomas S. Kidd’s Biography of America’s Double-Minded Third President
Thomas Jefferson represents the most emblematic of America’s Founders. Also the most enigmatic, and it’s the enigma that informs the emblem.
A man of multiple contradictions, Jefferson was like the nation whose freedom he signaled in his greatest contribution to human letters—the Declaration of Independence. Committed to belief in God, Jefferson held to a deity roughly as idiosyncratic as himself. An advocate for republican virtues, Jefferson lived embarrassingly deep in debt. A champion for individual liberty, Jefferson never dealt justly with the people he enslaved.
Thomas Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University, explores these tensions in his new portrait, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh. Kidd works with original sources and subsequent analysis to offer an unflinching but fair-minded picture of one of the most singular and significant men of his generation, someone as enigmatic to his contemporaries as he remains to us.
Take religion. Some people today insist Jefferson was a Christian. It’s not quite right to say he asserted clockwork deism; he accepted some level of divine intervention and providence. He read the Bible. He also encouraged public expressions of religious devotion in certain contexts. But much more than that sent his eyes rolling. He disbelieved the Trinity, denying Jesus the divine status affirmed in the traditional creeds. Instead, he concocted his own brand of Unitarianism.
Regarding Jesus in particular, he came in the second half of his life to see his teaching as the highest and best moral framework ever teased from human experience and compiled for our edification. But Jefferson thought Christ’s biographers—the four evangelists—muddled his message with made-up stories. He eventually collated his own version by cutting and arranging passages from the gospels, leaving out whatever he deemed outlandish.
He was very reluctant to let anyone know about these views in his lifetime. Jefferson’s enemies all suspected this much and far worse; rivals assumed he was a full-blown atheist. But, no. He was a new and distinctly American kind of believer.
In 1985, sociologist Robert Bellah and his coauthors famously told the story of an interview subject, Sheila, who described her faith like so:
I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice ... It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.
Jefferson’s version was more hard-nosed for sure, but he strikes me as a proto-Sheilaist. His “own little voice” guided the selections he clipped from the gospels and the religious books he arranged in his library and recommended to others.
This is true for us all to some degree—see, for instance, the helpful work of another sociologist, Alan Wolfe. Unlike many unconscious adherents to Sheilaism today, however, Jefferson was well aware of the system he’d created for himself and where it diverged from that of his neighbors; that’s why he mostly wanted it kept from public view.
One thing on full display in Jefferson’s life were his purchases, especially clothing, lodgings, furnishings, wine, and books. Despite his vaunted republican values of simplicity and economy, Jefferson was a profligate spender on the finer things. The trouble? He could rarely afford it.
Kidd documents debt after debt, Jefferson artfully shifting obligations this way and that to settle accounts before opening others. “He could never reconcile the genteel demands of office and home with his longing for financial independence,” explains Kidd.
One moment at the end of his presidency can be taken as typical of many others before and after. Says Kidd,
As he was leaving Washington, he got [his friend and incoming president James] Madison to co-sign a new loan for him, drawn ironically from Hamilton‘s brain child, the bank of the United States.
Ironically because Jefferson openly opposed Hamilton’s bank.
Jefferson sent a sheepish letter to Madison about the loan, saying that he received it “willingly altho’ painfully, notwithstanding a fixed determination to take care that at the termination of my duties at Washington my pecuniary matters should at least be square.” They would not be square.
And they never were.
I’d always assumed when hearing Jefferson had donated his personal library to Congress he’d done so out of generosity. But that’s not true; he did so to settle debts.
Jefferson built his library over many decades, acquiring books whenever and wherever he traveled. He retained the services of agents to purchase volumes when he couldn’t get them directly. And he regularly incurred debt to purchase more; once, for instance, he bummed $98 from Madison to buy books.
The end result was a glorious collection—one he’d never get to the end of and which represented an asset too valuable to keep in light of his obligations. So after the British torched the original congressional library in 1814, Jefferson offered to replace the loss. Congress acquired nearly 6,500 volumes, and Jefferson pocketed $23,950 to satisfy his creditors.
While his papers show Jefferson eventually slowed his purchase of luxury goods, his book habit was compulsive. He kept buying books from dealers in Paris, London, and Philadelphia after liquidating his library. In 1816, for instance, he purchased the remains of a library owned by theologian and natural philosopher Joseph Priestly.
Jefferson hoped to endow his life’s great passion project—the University of Virginia—with the new collection. Alas, no. Or not fully, at any rate. His debts caught up to him in death. “He intended to donate the books in his will,” writes Kidd, “but his creditors’ claims superseded the donation. His final library was auctioned off in 1829.” Some books indeed went to the university, as Kidd also notes, but it wasn’t the grand bequest Jefferson had in mind.
When the author of the Declaration of Independence breathed his last, Kidd notes, he was in hock more than $100,000, a couple million-plus in today’s dollars. The balance had immediate effects on the most vulnerable people in Jefferson’s life, the people he held in bondage.
Kidd’s treatment of Jefferson’s double-minded response to slavery is very revealing. He shows instance after instance in which Jefferson publicly denounced the practice, discussing the degrading effects on both parties—the enslaved and the enslavers. Yet Jefferson seemed paralyzed to do much of anything about it.
For one, he thought newly freed peoples must be resettled away from whites like himself; he feared race riots and worse—similar to what happened in Haiti (1791–1804). It was easier to leave people enslaved than sort that out. Then there were local laws that discouraged manumission. Jefferson also deemed black people inferior to whites; even an intellect like Benjamin Banneker, a freed black farmer and naturalist with whom he corresponded, failed to impress.
But the true bottom line? Financial need trumped his supposed principles. Without the bonded bodies and free labor of black men and women, Jefferson couldn’t raise the money from his lands to satisfy his taste for gentility or the debts he incurred paying for it all.
Jefferson bought his houses and finery, his wine and books, with the sweat of slaves. And he sold that sweat cheap. That meant he was unable to free the majority of his slaves when he died; instead, his estate sold a hundred and thirty people after his passing to pay down his mountain of debt.
Jefferson did formerly free some people very close to him, as Kidd notes, including the children he fathered with Sally Hemings. She was informally emancipated and moved out of state following Jefferson’s death.
The conclusion is far from satisfying, but the Hemings relationship actually simplifies Jefferson’s complicated views on slavery. After his wife died, he availed himself of a woman in a coercive relationship—many times over many years. If we take that one relationship as symbolic of all, Jefferson prioritized his immediate desires over his stated philosophy.
In many ways Jefferson’s double-mindedness foreshadows our own era’s difficulty with racial justice. And the same might be said for our ongoing religious conflicts and refusal to live within our means. Thomas Jefferson provokes fascination to the present day because, for better and worse, we are Thomas Jefferson.
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