Monday, February 20, 2017

Thomas Jefferson

After a nearly two year absence, the Canned Historian is back! And just in time for President's Day once again! Since you're not able to go to the bank, post office, school, or video store (though most of the latter are closed 365 days a year anyway), you might as well stay in and read my continuing series on the U.S. Presidents! And when you're done, check out my previous histories on George Washington and John Adams, since they did some presidential things as well.
Fig.1: Jefferson doesn't even need to sign the waiver to
order the ghost pepper wings anymore.
Everybody knows Thomas Jefferson: author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the Democratic Party, third President of the United States, patron of the University of Virginia, sage of Monticello, and world record-holder of most hot wing challenges beaten in the former Thirteen Colonies (fig.1). But are we getting the full story here? Does Jefferson really deserve all the accolades that historians, politicians, and third-grade biography-report-writers heap upon his powdered head? Just like with George Washington, many are beginning to take a more skeptical view of Jefferson's contributions; unlike Washington, however, this skepticism is 100% deserved. Upon a closer glance, turns out that Thomas Jefferson is nothing but a liar, cheater, plagiarizer, credit-stealer, backstabber, profligate, and womanizer who pioneered for future American politicians to be all those things as well! So allow me to expose this fraud, whose face should be plastered on signs that read "Do Not Accept Checks from This Man" as opposed to national monuments.

Jefferson's life began innocently enough. He was born in 1743 as the third of ten children to Peter and Jane Jefferson, the former being a map maker who obviously made more than just maps after having ten kids. As the Jeffersons were wealthy plantation owners in central Virginia, they could afford to give Thomas the best education tobacco could buy. At age 16, he enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg (home of the best brickmakers), where in two short years he mastered Latin, Greek, French, the law, philosophy, mathematics, and the violin (yeah, but did he ever go streaking through the biology labs like I did in college?). Jefferson became a lawyer in 1767, becoming known as a fierce defender for slaves who were legally fighting for their freedom; it should be noted, however, that he did this at the same time his own slaves were building him a mansion for his 5,000-acre plantation called Monticello. He also reportedly tried to start an affair with Betsy Walker, wife of one of his college friends, by passing her a note in the classic "Check Yes, No, or Maybe" format, but she emphatically turned him down. Eventually he would marry his third cousin Martha Skelton in 1772, but these examples would only be the beginning of Jefferson's issues with slaves, women, and both of the above.

Fig.2: I notice "wife-stealer" isn't listed,
but I suppose Jefferson only wanted to be
remembered for the things in which he
was actually successful.
The trajectory of Jefferson's life changed with the outbreak of the American Revolution. During the 1760s and 1770s, colonists in British North America were upset about everything from sugar to tea to soldiers at their houses using all their sugar and tea, and many wanted to take action against the motherland. In it was in this climate that Jefferson was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775. While in Philadelphia, he made fast friends with delegates who favored independence, including Benjamin Franklin and resident second-banana John Adams. Jefferson was chosen to compose the Declaration of Independence (which made King George III awfully annoyed), but it should be noted that Adams had to convince him to write it, Franklin came up with many of the document's oft-quoted phrases ("self-evident," for example), and most of it was practically copied straight from George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights composed earlier that year. Nevertheless, Jefferson happily took all the credit for his Declaration, eventually listing it as his first accomplishment on his gravestone (fig.2), and bragged about it to anybody at the local tavern who was just trying to enjoy his inalienable rights in peace.

Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia in 1779, just in time to help the state government move from Williamsburg to Richmond (his back was still in good shape to do the heavy lifting, what with the slaves doing all the work on the plantation and all). Unfortunately for him, a British legion led by professional jerkwad Benedict Arnold captured the new capital and forced Jefferson to run back to Monticello in his night-breeches. This lovely image stuck in voters' minds when they decided not to re-elect him to another term as governor the next year. To add to Jefferson's misery, his wife Martha died in 1782 at age 33, leaving him with three daughters to raise and so much hair to clean up in the bathroom. Luckily for him, his (mostly-failed) efforts during the Revolution paid off, and after his Declaration of Independence was affirmed on the battlefield (with no help by him), he was granted the (relatively cushy) position as U.S. Minister to France from 1784 to 1789. While in Paris, Jefferson wasted no time forgetting about his dead wife; he had an affair with Maria Cosway, a married artist who definitely took her paintings more seriously than her wedding vows.

While Jefferson was living it up in France, real Americans were getting things done across the Atlantic without him. The Constitution was written, signed, ratified, and hung on every icebox in the country by 1789, with George Washington being elected this newfangled thing called President of the United States. Washington nominated Jefferson to be the first Secretary of State; it was his job to ensure good relations with the governments of other countries around the world, which was much easier before North Korea existed. Unfortunately, Jefferson clashed early and often with Washington and his Secretary of the Treasury, that guy on the $10 bill that everybody's singing about nowadays. Jefferson openly supported France, despite its recent proclivity for beheading its citizens, over his President's preference for the more stable and trade-happy Great Britain, creating more diplomatic confusion than Twitter does today. He also disagreed incessantly with the administration over states' rights, the power of the federal government, assumption of state debts, the northern location of the capital, and who got to drop the mic at the end of the cabinet meetings (sadly, Attorney General Edmund Randolph never got a turn).

Fig.3: Jefferson's constant cry of, "Mr. President, the Secretary of the Treasury keeps putting his feet 
on my chair!" really hampered policy-making during Washington's first administration.
Fed up with Washington and the guy who was not going to throw away his shot, both of whom were beginning to be called Federalists, Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State and began forming his own political party, known as the Democratic-Republicans (sounds super bipolar, I know). Though he lost to John Adams in the Election of 1796, finishing second meant that he was elected Vice President, which is something that would have made the Election of 2016 even more awkward. Because Adams agreed more with the Federalists about the need for a strong central government (though I don't believe Adams truly ever fully agreed with anyone else about anything), his VP did everything he could behind-the-scenes to destroy him. Jefferson stirred up so much opposition, especially through the press, that he practically dismantled their friendship; Abigail Adams later wrote to Jefferson that his actions "have my utter abhorrence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny and foulest falsehoods." Man, if more people insulted like that nowadays, I might actually read the comments on my YouTube videos.

Jefferson was successful in 1800, defeating Adams and the Federalists in the presidential election. Confusingly, Jefferson received as many electoral votes as Aaron Burr, the Democratic-Republican candidate for Vice President; Congress ended up choosing Jefferson in a tie-breaker, and Burr would eventually get a Tony Award as a consolation prize. Like the hypocrite that he is, President Jefferson proceeded to do everything he complained about during Washington's and Adams's years in office:

  • Despite his belief that a standing navy was unnecessary, he used the power of that navy to respond to attacks from North Africa during the Barbary Wars. This was the first act that the U.S. government took against Muslim-majority countries, though they would only do that sparingly for the next 200+ years.
  • Despite his belief that the government should strictly follow the powers outlined in the Constitution, he orchestrated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, even though the Constitution said nothing about the government's ability to make such deals. Because of the Louisiana Purchase, states like Arkansas and Nebraska are allowed to exist, so yet another couple of strikes against Jefferson.
  • Despite his belief that "all men were created equal," he continued policies regarding slavery, even as it was getting worse thanks to the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney (another one of history's jerks). Jefferson also supported state policies to kick out as many Native Americans as possible, cause, you know, it's not like they were there first or anything.
  • Despite his belief that the federal government should not interfere in the economy, he forced Congress to pass an embargo against British goods entering the country. Jefferson supported the embargo after Great Britain kept seizing American sailors from their merchant vessels, which eventually caused one of the dumbest conflicts in history with the War of 1812. Even the sucky things that happened after Jefferson's presidency are all his fault!
  • And despite his belief that Jess was a bad influence on Rory when she was in high school, he wanted them to get together in the latest episodes. I don't care if he's more mature now; he's a punk and he'll always be a punk! I'm not saying Logan's much better, but she deserves someone more stable in her life. If only things worked out with Dean...

Fig.4: The fa├žades of Monticello (left) and the Rotunda
on the University of Virginia's campus (right) proves
that Jefferson was even willing to plagiarize himself!
Anyway after eight years of a mismanagement, Jefferson ensured the election of his new best friend James Madison to succeed him (who is America's biggest flip-flopper, though you can read all about that next year in his history). He retired to Monticello, which had been undergoing constant renovations over the last thirty years, much to the dismay of anyone in the area who disliked the sound of jackhammers. Jefferson spent much of his time writing to old friends, including Adams, whose friendship was rekindled through a correspondence totaling 158 letters (I'm lucky if I have that much in my spam folder). Jefferson also found the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which might have been impressive if the main building on campus didn't look pretty much like Monticello (fig.4). While some people might believe that Jefferson was a master of politics, architecture, and hiding his gingerness, there is one thing all historians agree that he sucked at: managing his money. Jefferson was a lavish spender all of his life, wasting away his money on wine, books, parties, furniture, poor investments, and all those renovations (his slaves might have been doing the labor for free, but the materials to build dome rooms don't pay for themselves). By the last year of his life, it was estimated that he was about $100,000 in debt, the rough equivalent of $2 million today. Not even auctioning off most of his property, selling his book collection to become the Library of Congress, or holding his own lottery made a dent in his financial burden. It's quite the irony that his face is on the least-circulated denomination of U.S. currency in the $2 bill, since everyone was able to get their hands all over Jefferson's real money.

Speaking of not keeping your hands to yourself, no summary of Jefferson's faults can be complete without a discussion of Sally Hemings. Hemings was a slave which Jefferson inherited from his father-in-law, John Wayles, as part of the custom "Thank you for taking my daughter off my hands" present. It is believed that Sally was fathered by Wayles himself, making her a half-sister to Jefferson's wife Martha; this creepy connection might help explain Jefferson's attraction to Sally after Martha's death, despite the thirty-year age difference (as well as the freedom difference) between them. When their "relationship" began is unclear, but Hemings had six children between 1795 and 1808, many of whom were suspiciously redheaded like Jefferson. According to one of her sons, Jefferson promised Hemings that he would one day free her children if she continued to be with him, which is something a psychopath definitely wouldn't say. While Jefferson was President, a story broke in the news (written by the same guy who Jefferson used to ruin Adams, as it was have it) about his affair with Hemings. However, since Jefferson wasn't married at the time, and slave-slaveowner relations were as common as Netflix cheating today, it was quickly replaced as a front-page story by whatever Napoleon was up to. Jefferson was true to his word and freed the surviving Hemings offspring in his will, and even Sally herself was allowed to leave the plantation by the time she approached her sixties (at least some slaves had a retirement age). DNA testing with descendants of Hemings and Jefferson in 1998 proved that there were some matching genes between them, but Thomas had a few brothers, cousins, and nephews who lived nearby that could have been frisky enough to father some children instead of Thomas. Historians are still debating Jefferson's true relationship with Sally Hemings, but since Jefferson did plenty of other shady stuff, I'm inclined to believe that he probably impregnated every woman (free or slave) in Albemarle County.

In U.S. history's greatest coincidence, Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, which was not only the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, but also the same day that John Adams died as well. (Personally I wouldn't put it past Jefferson to have his death hidden from the public until that date in order to make a scene about it, the show-off.) Unlike Washington, who at least tried to free his slaves in his will, Jefferson held onto all of them (except his probable children) in order to sell and pay off more of that debt. Alas, Jefferson's legacy has lived on well past this death, though in pretty much every crappy thing that every happened in America. His support of states' rights became the basis for the creation of the Confederacy during the Civil War. His quote that, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," has been used to perpetrate terrorist acts by the KKK, as well as the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing. Even the Democratic Party, which emerged from Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans, have distanced themselves from their founder, though they might want to do some other things to help them get more votes from time to time. Deservedly so, Jefferson is finding his mantle, built from fraud and hypocrisy, beginning to crumble in recent decades.

Fig.5: I can't wait for Hamilton to call Jefferson a 
"slaver," and say that Virginia's "debts are paid cause you 
don't pay for labor!" History rhymes are the best rhymes.
I guess Jefferson did do some good things for the United States. Yeah, his eloquent prose in his Declaration put into words what many Americans were fighting for during the Revolution. And I guess his beliefs and policies during his time as a delegate to Congress, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President ensured the U.S.'s stability and standing within a rapidly changing world. And okay, sure, his ideas of democracy and the rights of citizens continues to be the model on which successful republican forms of government continue to thrive today. But, you know, I just can't get over how much of a jerk he is in Hamilton. He was just so smug and annoying! It gets my blood boiling just thinking about it.  Daveed Diggs's portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical (fig.5) will stick with me longer than anything else I will ever read about the man, regardless the credibility of the other authors. Hey, if I'm going to be an American about this, I have to believe the first thing I hear about something and then be stubborn about it for the rest of my life. That's how we do it in the US of A!

If you're interested in learning more about Thomas Jefferson than just what a musical (with several historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, btw) says about him, check out this Canned Historian approved book that was used to conduct more research on this topic:

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham
Published: 2012; Hardcover: 759 pages
Canned Rating: 3 out of 5 Monticellos

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