Confounding Founding Father: Thomas Jefferson

I frequently come across people today who say, “Have you ever seen a President being attacked like this one is being attacked?”  These people are usually supporters of President Trump who have been angered by the government, politicians, and the media for years.  Pres. Trump, better than any politician in the last 36 years, was able to tap into that anger and surprise everyone in November of 2016.  The President’s actions, words, attitudes, and tweets have continued to create a firestorm of protests, complaints, and anguish.  The election results shocked the nation and embarrassed the pollsters.  Efforts to calm the raging storm for the past eleven months have been few.

But let’s go back to the question:  Has any President ever been so viciously attacked? The answer is yes.  The President to start with is George Washington.  The first President is iconic and marble-like that it is hard to fathom how mean-spirited and cruel some of the attacks were on him.  The short, unhappy presidency of John Adams was a time of immense criticism for the chief executive.  Adams’ support of the Alien and Sedition Acts didn’t do much to deflect such criticism.  He could, on occasion, be his own worst enemy, but he had no lack of other enemies snapping at him.

Thomas Jefferson also endured a long string of attacks over the course of his career.  A survey of attacks on presidents could cover the whole gamut of men who served in the Oval Office, but we will focus on Jefferson.  The book Confounding Father:  Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Robert M. S. McDonald is about Jefferson’s dealings with the press, his image, and the spin give on his actions on the American political scene.

On the one hand, Jefferson was statesman like in his bearing, his labors, and his overall contributions to America.  It was his pen that produced the Declaration of Independence.  He served in a number of political posts, both elected and appointed.  Just dwell over his resume:  Member of the Continental Congress, member of the committee to draft a Declaration of Independence,  governor of Virginia, foreign ambassador to France, first Secretary of State, Vice President, President, and founder of the University of Virginia.  Most of these posts are associated with great accomplishments.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are .”

“We are all Federalists.  We are all Republicans.”

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

These quotes, and many more could be added, testify to Jefferson the statesman, Jefferson the scholar,  Jefferson the philosopher/king.  He truly had some real nobility in his actions and devotions to the things he believed.

Image result for two sides of thomas jefferson

One the other hand, Jefferson was one canny politician.  In the legendary Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler,” it says, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run….”  That wisdom has its own application in the political world.  Jefferson could cut an enemy without ever weilding a weapon himself.  He used newspapers, friends, and circumstances to advance himself and detract from his opponents.

One of the more unusual traits of our politically ambitious founding fathers was their ability to appear totally disinterested in political office, such as the presidency.  Presidents Washington and Jefferson were both masters at that ploy.  Maybe they would have been perfectly happy never to have been the President, but one suspects they wanted the job as much as candidates do today who seek the office.  But mouthing about ambition was not acceptable in their time.

Jefferson ably presented his better side to the voters.  There were troubling issues, largely personal.  Frequently, Jefferson was attacking for cowardice (fleeing from the British during the War for Independence), for having a slave mistress, and for not being an orthodox Christian.  He did, in fact, flee from the approaching British army (led by Benedict Arnold) while he was governor of Virginia.  It was perhaps more prudence than cowardly.  The question of a slave mistress (namely Sally Hemings) was not broached by the man himself.  Due to a tendency among southern plantation owners to be involved with slave women, it was not a touchy issue in the southern states.  Jefferson was not the raging atheist who threatened the Christian religion, but he was not orthodox either.  To a large degree, he let his enemies vent on these matters without engaging in what we call “gutter politics.”

Comparing the past with the present is always a risky matter.  Putting Jefferson side by side with the four most recent Presidents creates some weird mental vibes.  At the same time, Jefferson–for all his indisputable brilliance–was a man of his time.  He owned slaves; he very likely had an adulterous relationship with one of his slaves;  he naively fell for much of the rhetoric of the French Revolution;  he was not at all loyal to President Washington; and he played political hardball.  In terms of wily political maneuvering, he was the equal to or superior to either Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.  In terms of being a man of distinction, he deserves all the honors that have come his way through the decades.

Perhaps what was most stunning to me as I started reading this book was the fact that Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence was not widely known for years.  Can you imagine any modern politician–or his campaign managers–missing out on such a “photo and media op”?  It was a different world, a different playing field.

Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time is a wonderful way to enter that world so much like our own and so different from our own.

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