Story type: Essay
If I could not go to Heaven but with a Party, I would not go there at all.
—Jefferson, in a Letter to Madison
William and Mary College was founded in Sixteen Hundred Ninety-two by the persons whose names it bears. The founders bestowed on it an endowment that would have been generous had there not been attached to it sundry strings in way of conditions.
The intent was to make Indians Episcopalians, and white students clergymen; and the assumption being that between the whites and the aborigines there was little difference, the curriculum was an ecclesiastic medley.
All the teachers were appointed by the Bishop of London, and the places were usually given to clergymen who were not needed in England.
To this college, in Seventeen Hundred Sixty, came Thomas Jefferson, a tall, red-haired youth, aged seventeen. He had a sharp nose and a sharp chin; and a youth having these has a sharp intellect–mark it well.
This boy had not been “sent” to college. He came of his own accord from his home at Shadwell, five days’ horseback journey through the woods. His father was dead, and his mother, a rare gentle soul, was an invalid.
Death is not a calamity “per se,” nor is physical weakness necessarily a curse, for out of these seeming unkind conditions Nature often distils her finest products. The dying injunction of a father may impress itself upon a son as no example of right living ever can, and the physical disability of a mother may be the means that work for excellence and strength. The last-expressed wish of Peter Jefferson was that his son should be well educated, and attain to a degree of useful manliness that the father had never reached. And into the keeping of this fourteen-year-old youth the dying man, with the last flicker of his intellect, gave the mother, sisters and baby brother.
We often hear of persons who became aged in a single night, their hair turning from dark to white; but I have seen death thrust responsibility upon a lad and make of him a man between the rising of the sun and its setting. When we talk of “right environment” and the “proper conditions” that should surround growing youth, we fan the air with words–there is no such thing as a universal right environment.
An appreciative chapter might here be inserted concerning those beings who move about only in rolling chairs, who never see the winter landscape but through windows, and who exert their gentle sway from an invalid’s couch, to which the entire household or neighborhood come to confession or to counsel. And yet I have small sympathy for the people who professionally enjoy poor health, and no man more than I reverences the Greek passion for physical perfection. But a close study of Jefferson’s early life reveals the truth that the death of his father and the physical weakness of his mother and sisters were factors that developed in him a gentle sense of chivalry, a silken strength of will, and a habit of independent thought and action that served him in good stead throughout a long life.
Williamsburg was then the capital of Virginia. It contained only about a thousand inhabitants, but when the Legislature was in session it was very gay.
At one end of a wide avenue was the Capitol, and at the other the Governor’s “palace”; and when the city of Washington was laid out, Williamsburg served as a model. On Saturdays, there were horse-races on the “Avenue”; everybody gambled; cockfights and dogfights were regarded as manly diversions; there was much carousing at taverns; and often at private houses there were all-night dances where the rising sun found everybody but the servants plain drunk.
At the college, both teachers and scholars were obliged to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles and to recite the Catechism. The atmosphere was charged with theology.
Young Jefferson had never before seen a village of even a dozen houses, and he looked upon this as a type of all cities. He thought about it, talked about it, wrote about it, and we now know that at this time his ideas concerning city versus country crystallized.
Fifty years after, when he had come to know London and Paris, and had seen the chief cities of Christendom, he repeated the words he had written in youth, “The hope of a nation lies in its tillers of the soil!”
On his mother’s side he was related to the “first families,” but aristocracy and caste had no fascination for him, and he then began forming those ideas of utility, simplicity and equality that time only strengthened.
His tutors and professors served chiefly as “horrible examples,” with the shining exception of Doctor Small. The friendship that ripened between this man and young Jefferson is an ideal example of what can be done through the personal touch. Men are great only as they excel in sympathy; and the difference between sympathy and imagination has not yet been shown us.
Doctor Small encouraged the young farmer from the hills to think and to express himself. He did not endeavor to set him straight or explain everything for him, or correct all his vagaries, or demand that he should memorize rules. He gave his affectionate sympathy to the boy who, with a sort of feminine tenderness, clung to the only person who understood him.
To Doctor Small, pedigree and history unknown, let us give the credit of being first in the list of friends that gave bent to the mind of Jefferson. John Burke, in his “History of Virginia,” refers to Professor Small thus: “He was not any too orthodox in his opinions.” And here we catch a glimpse of a formative influence in the life of Jefferson that caused him to turn from the letter of the law and cleave to the spirit that maketh alive. After school-hours the tutor and the student walked and talked, and on Saturdays and Sundays went on excursions through the woods; and to the youth there was given an impulse for a scientific knowledge of birds and flowers and the host of life that thronged the forest. And when the pair had strayed so far beyond the town that darkness gathered and the stars came out, they conversed of the wonders of the sky.
The true scientist has no passion for killing things. He says with Thoreau, “To shoot a bird is to lose it.” Professor Small had the gentle instinct that respects life, and he refused to take that which he could not give. To his youthful companion he imparted, in a degree, the secret of enjoying things without the passion for possession and the lust of ownership.
There is a myth abroad that college towns are intellectual centers; but the number of people in a college town (or any other) who really think, is very few.
Williamsburg was gay, and, this much said, it is needless to add it was not intellectual. But Professor Small was a thinker, and so was Governor Fauquier; and these two were firm friends, although very unlike in many ways. And to “the palace” of the courtly Fauquier, Small took his young friend Jefferson. Fauquier was often a master of the revels, but after his seasons of dissipation he turned to Small for absolution and comfort. At these times he seemed to Jefferson a paragon of excellence. To the grace of the French he added the earnestness of the English. He quoted Pope, and talked of Swift, Addison and Thomson. Fauquier and Jefferson became friends, although more than a score of years and a world of experience separated them. Jefferson caught a little of Fauquier’s grace, love of books and delight in architecture. But Fauquier helped him most by gambling away all his ready money and getting drunk and smoking strong pipes with his feet on the table. And Jefferson then vowed he would never handle a card, nor use tobacco, nor drink intoxicating liquors. And in conversation with Small, he anticipated Buckle by saying, “To gain leisure, wealth must first be secured; but once leisure is gained, more people use it in the pursuit of pleasure than employ it in acquiring knowledge.”
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Had Jefferson lived in a great city he would have been an architect. His practical nature, his mastery of mathematics, his love of proportion, and his passion for music are the basic elements that make a Christopher Wren. But Virginia, in Seventeen Hundred Sixty-five, offered no temptation to ambitions along that line; log houses with a goodly “crack” were quite good enough, and if the domicile proved too small the plan of the first was simply duplicated. Yet a career of some kind young Jefferson knew awaited him.
About this time the rollicking Patrick Henry came along. Patrick played the violin, and so did Thomas. These two young men had first met on a musical basis. Some otherwise sensible people hold that musicians are shallow and impractical; and I know one man who declares that truth and honesty and uprightness never dwelt in a professional musician’s heart; and further, that the tribe is totally incapable of comprehending the difference between “meum” and “tuum.” But then this same man claims that actors are rascals who have lost their own characters in the business of playing they are somebody else. And yet I’ll explain for the benefit of the captious that, although Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry both fiddled, they never did and never would fiddle while Rome burned. Music was with them a pastime, not a profession.
As soon as Patrick Henry arrived at Williamsburg, he sought out his old friend Thomas Jefferson, because he liked him–and to save tavern bill. And Patrick announced that he had come to Williamsburg to be admitted to the bar.
“How long have you studied law?” asked Jefferson.
“Oh, for six weeks last Tuesday,” was the answer.
Tradition has it that Jefferson advised Patrick to go home and study at least a fortnight more before making his application. But Patrick declared that the way to learn law is to practise it, and he surely was right. Most young lawyers are really never aware of how little law they know until they begin to practise.
But Patrick Henry was duly admitted, although George Wythe protested. Then Patrick went back home to tend bar (the other kind) for Laban, his father-in-law, for full four years. He studied hard and practised a little betimes–and his is the only instance that history records of a barkeeper acquiring wisdom while following his calling; but for the encouragement of budding youth I write it down.
* * * * *
No doubt it was the example of Patrick Henry that caused Jefferson to adopt his profession. But it was the literary side of law that first attracted him–not the practise of it. As a speaker he was singularly deficient, a slight physical malformation of the throat giving him a very poor and uncertain voice. But he studied law, and after all it does not make much difference what a man studies–all knowledge is related, and the man who studies anything if he keeps at it will become learned.
So Jefferson studied in the office of George Wythe, and absorbed all that Fauquier had to offer, and grew wise in the companionship of Doctor Small. From a red-headed, lean, lank, awkward mountaineer, he developed into a gracious and graceful young man who has been described as “auburn-haired.” And the evolution from being red-headed to having red hair, and from that to being auburn-haired, proves he was the genuine article. Still he was hot handsome–that word can not be used to describe him until he was sixty–for he was freckled, one shoulder wets higher than the other, and his legs were so thin that they could not do justice to small-clothes.
Yet it will not do to assume that thin men are weak, any more than to take it for granted that fat men are strong. Jefferson was as muscular as a panther and could walk or ride or run six days and nights together. He could lift from the floor a thousand pounds.
When twenty-four, he hung out his lawyer’s sign under that of George Wythe at Williamsburg. And clients came that way with retainers, and rich planters sent him business, and wealthy widows advised with him–and still he could not make a speech without stuttering. Many men can harangue a jury, and every village has its orator; but where is the wise and silent man who will advise you in a way that will keep you out of difficulty, protect your threatened interests, and conduct the affairs you may leave in his hands so as to return your ten talents with other talents added! And I hazard the statement, without heat or prejudice, that if the experiment should be made with a thousand lawyers in any one of our larger cities, four-fifths of them would be found so deficient, either mentally, morally or both, that if ten talents were placed in their hands, they would not at the close of a year be able to account for the principal, to say nothing of the interest. And the bar of today is made up of a better class than it was in Jefferson’s time, even if it has not the intellectual fiber that it had forty years ago.
But at the early age of twenty-five, Jefferson was a wise and skilful man in the world’s affairs (and a man who is wise is also honest), and men of this stamp do not remain hidden in obscurity. The world needs just such individuals and needs them badly. Jefferson had the quiet, methodical industry that works without undue expenditure of nervous force; that intuitive talent which enables the possessor to read a whole page at a glance and drop at once upon the vital point; and then he had the ability to get his whole case on paper, marshaling his facts in a brief, pointed way that served to convince better than eloquence. These are the characteristics that make for success in practise before our Courts of Appeal; and Jefferson’s success shows that they serve better than bluster, even with a backwoods bench composed of fox-hunting farmers.
In Seventeen Hundred Sixty-eight, when Jefferson was twenty-five, he went down to Shadwell and ran for member of the Virginia Legislature. It was the proper thing to do, for he was the richest man in the county, being heir to his father’s forty thousand acres, and it was expected that he would represent his district. He called on every voter in the parish, shook hands with everybody, complimented the ladies, caressed the babies, treated crowds at every tavern, and kept a large punch-bowl and open house at home. He was elected. On the Eleventh of May, Seventeen Hundred Sixty-nine, the Legislature convened, with nearly a hundred members present, Colonel George Washington being one of the number. It took two days for the Assembly to elect a Speaker and get ready for business. On the third day, four resolutions were introduced–pushed to the front largely through the influence of our new member.
These resolutions were:
1. No taxation without representation.
2. The Colonies may concur and unite in seeking redress for grievances.
3. Sending accused persons away from their own country for trial is an inexcusable wrong.
4. We will send an address on these things to the King beseeching his royal interposition.
The resolutions were passed: they did not mean much anyway, the opposition said. And then another resolution was passed to this effect: “We will send a copy of these resolutions to every legislative body on the continent.” That was a little stronger, but did not mean much either.
It was voted upon and passed.
Then the Assembly adjourned, having dispatched a copy of the resolutions to Lord Boutetourt, the newly appointed Governor who had just arrived from London.
Next day, the Governor’s secretary appeared when the Assembly convened, and repeated the following formula: “The Governor commands the House to attend His Excellency in the Council-Chamber.” The members marched to the Council-Chamber and stood around the throne waiting the pleasure of His Lordship. He made a speech which I will quote entire. “Mr. Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Burgesses: I have heard your resolves, and augur ill of their effect. You have made it my duty to dissolve you, and you are dissolved accordingly.”
And that was the end of Jefferson’s first term in office–the reward for all the hand-shaking, all the caressing, all the treating!
The members looked at one another, but no one said anything, because there was nothing to say. The secretary made an impatient gesture with his hand to the effect that they should disperse, and they did.
Just how these legally elected representatives and now legally common citizens took their rebuff we do not know.
Did Washington forget his usual poise and break out into one of those swearing fits where everybody wisely made way? And how did Richard Henry Lee like it, and George Wythe, and the Randolphs? Did Patrick Henry wax eloquent that afternoon in a barroom, and did Jefferson do more than smile grimly, biding his time?
Massachusetts kept a complete history of her political heresies, but Virginia chased foxes and left the refinements of literature to dilettantes. But this much we know: Those country gentlemen did not go off peaceably and quietly to race horses or play cards. The slap in the face from the gloved hand of Lord Boutetourt awoke every boozy sense of security and gave vitality to all fanatical messages sent by Samuel Adams. Washington, we are told, spoke of it as a bit of upstart authority on the part of the new Governor; but Jefferson with true prophetic vision saw the end.
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One of the leading lawyers at Williamsburg, against whom Jefferson was often pitted, was John Wayles. I need not explain that lawyers hotly opposed to each other in a trial are not necessarily enemies. The way in which Jefferson conducted his cases pleased the veteran Wayles, and he invited Jefferson to visit him at his fine estate, called “The Forest,” a few miles out from Williamsburg. Now, in the family of Mr. Wayles dwelt his widowed daughter, the beautiful Martha Skelton, gracious and rich as Jefferson in worldly goods. She played the spinet with great feeling, and the spinet and the violin go very well together. So, together, Thomas and Martha played, and sometimes a bit of discord crept in, for Thomas was absent-minded and, in the business of watching the widow’s fingers touch the keys, played flat.
Long years before, he had liked and admired Becca, gazed fondly at Sukey, and finally loved Belinda. He did not tell her so, but he told John Page, and vowed that if he did not wed Belinda he would go through life solitary and alone. In a few months Belinda married that detested being–another. Then it was he again swore to his friend Page he would be true to her memory, even though she had dissembled. But now he saw that the widow Skelton had intellect, while Belinda had been but clever; the widow had soul, while Belinda had nothing but form. Jefferson’s experience seems to settle that mooted question, “Can a man love two women at the same time?” Unlike Martha Custis, this Martha was won only after a protracted wooing, with many skirmishes and occasional misunderstandings and explanations, and sweet makings-up that were surely worth a quarrel.
Then they were married at “The Forest,” and rode away through the woods to Monticello. Jefferson was twenty-seven, and although it may not be proper to question closely as to the age of the widow, yet the bride, we have reason to believe, was about the age of her husband.
It was a most happy mating–all their quarreling had been done before marriage. The fine intellect and high spirit of Jefferson found their mate. She was his comrade and helpmeet as well as his wife. He could read his favorite Ossian aloud to her, and when he tired she would read to him; and all his plans and ambitions and hopes were hers. In laying out the grounds and beautifying that home on Monticello mountain, she took much more than a passive interest. It was “Our Home,” and to make it a home in very sooth for her beloved husband was her highest ambition. She knew the greatness of her mate, and all the dreams she had for his advancement were to come true. With her, ideality was to become reality. But she was to see it only in part.
Yet she had seen her husband re-elected to the Virginia Legislature; sent as a member to the Colonial Congress at Philadelphia, there to write the best known of all American literary productions; from their mountain home she had seen British troops march into Charlottesville, four miles away, and then, with household treasure, had fled, knowing that beautiful Monticello would be devastated by the enemy’s ruthless tread. She had known Washington, and had visited his lonely wife there at Mount Vernon when victory hung in the balance; when defeat meant that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington would be the first victims of a vengeful foe. She saw her husband War-Governor of Virginia in its most perilous hour; she lived to know that Washington had won; that Cornwallis was his “guest,” and that no man, save Washington alone, was more honored in proud Virginia than her beloved lord and husband. She saw a messenger on horseback approach bearing a packet from the Congress at Philadelphia to the effect that “His Excellency, the Honorable Thomas Jefferson,” had been appointed as one of an embassy to France in the interests of the United States, with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane as colleagues, and, knowing her husband’s love for Franklin, and his respect for France, she leaned over his chair and with misty eyes saw him write his simple “No,” and knew that the only reason he declined was because he would not leave his wife at a time when she might most need his tenderness and sympathy.
And then they retired to beloved Monticello to enjoy the rest that comes only after work well done–to spend the long vacation of their lives in simple homekeeping work and studious leisure, her husband yet in manhood’s prime, scarce thirty-seven, as men count time, and rich, passing rich, in goods and lands.
And then she died.
And Thomas Jefferson, the strong, the self-poised, the self-reliant, fell in a helpless swoon, and was laid on a pallet and carried out, as though he, too, were dead. For three weeks his dazed senses prayed for death. He could endure the presence of no one save his eldest daughter, a slim, slender girl of scarce ten years, grown a woman in a day. By her loving touch and tenderness he was lured back from death and reason’s night into the world of life and light. With tottering steps, led by the child who had to think for both, he was taken out on the veranda of beautiful Monticello. He looked out on stretching miles of dark-blue hills and waving woods and winding river. He gazed, and as he looked it came slowly to him that the earth was still as when he last saw it, and realized that this would be so even if he were gone. Then, turning to the child, who stood by, stroking his locks, it came to him that even in grief there may be selfishness, and for the first time he responded to the tender caress, saying, “Yes, we will live, daughter–live in memory of her!”
* * * * *
When two men of equal intelligence and sincerity quarrel, both are probably right. Hamilton and Jefferson were opposed to each other by temperament and disposition, in a way that caused either to look with distrust on any proposition made by the other. And yet, when Washington pressed upon Jefferson the position of Secretary of State, I can not but think he did it as an antidote to the growing power and vaunting ambition of Hamilton. Washington won his victories, as great men ever do, by wisely choosing his aides. Hamilton had done yeoman’s service in every branch of the government, and while the chief sincerely admired his genius, he guessed his limitations. Power grows until it topples, and when it topples, innocent people are crushed. Washington was wise as a serpent, and rather than risk open ruction with Hamilton by personally setting bounds, he invited Jefferson into his cabinet, and the acid was neutralized to a degree where it could be safely handled.
Jefferson had just returned from Paris with his beloved daughter, Martha. He was intending soon to return to France and study social science at close range. Already, he had seen that mob of women march out to Versailles and fetch the King to Paris, and had seen barricade after barricade erected with the stones from the leveled Bastile; he was on intimate and affectionate terms with Lafayette and the Republican leaders, and here was a pivotal point in his life. Had not Washington persuaded him to remain “just for the present” in America, he might have played a part in Carlyle’s best book, that book which is not history, but more–an epic. So, among the many obligations that America owes to Washington, must be named this one of pushing Thomas Jefferson, the scholar and man of peace, into the political embroglio and shutting the door. Then it was that Hamilton’s taunting temper awoke a degree of power in Jefferson that before he wist not of; then it was that he first fully realized that the “United States” with England as a sole pattern was not enough.
A pivotal point! Yes, a pivotal point for Jefferson, America and the world; for Jefferson gave the rudder of the Ship of State such a turn to starboard that there was never again danger of her drifting on to aristocratic shoals, an easy victim to the rapacity of Great Britain. Hamilton’s distrust of the people found no echo in Jefferson’s mind.
He agreed with Hamilton that a “strong government” administered by a few, provided the few are wise and honorable, is the best possible government. Nay, he went further and declared that an absolute monarchy in which the monarch was all-wise and all-powerful, could not be improved upon by the imagination of man.
In his composition, there was a saving touch of humor that both Hamilton and Washington seemed to lack. He could smile at himself; but none ever dared turn a joke on Hamilton, much less on Washington. And so when Hamilton explained that a strong government administered by Washington, President; Jefferson, Secretary of State; Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury; Knox, Secretary of War; and Randolph, Attorney-General, was pretty nearly ideal, no one smiled. But Jefferson’s plain inference was that power is dangerous and man is fallible; that a man so good as Washington dies tomorrow and another man steps in, and that those who have the government in their present keeping should curb ambitions, limit their own power, and thus fix a precedent for those who are to follow.
The wisdom that Jefferson as a statesman showed in working for a future good, and the willingness to forego the pomp of personal power, to sacrifice self if need be, that the day he should not see might be secure, ranks him as first among statesmen. For a statesman is one who builds a State–and not a politician who is dead, as some have said.
Others, since, have followed Jefferson’s example, but in the world’s history I do not recall a man before him who, while still having power in his grasp, was willing to trust the people.
The one mistake of Washington that borders on blunder was in refusing to take wages for his work. In doing this, he visited untold misery on others, who, not having married rich widows, tried to follow his example and floundered into woeful debt and disgrace; and thereby were lost to useful society and to the world. And there are yet many public offices where small men rattle about because men who can fill the place can not afford it. Bryce declares that no able and honest man of moderate means can afford to take an active part in municipal affairs in America–and Bryce is right.
When Jefferson became President, in his messages to Congress again and again he advised the fixing of sufficient salaries to secure the best men for every branch of the service, and suggested the folly of expecting anything for nothing, or the hope of officials not “fixing things” if not properly paid.
Men from the soil who gain power are usually intoxicated by it; beginning as democrats they evolve into aristocrats, then into tyrants, if kindly Fate does not interpose, and are dethroned by the people who made them. And it is not surprising that this man, born into a plenty that bordered on affluence, and who never knew from experience the necessity of economy (until in old age tobacco and slavery had wrecked Virginia and Monticello alike), should set an almost ideal example of simplicity, moderation and brotherly kindness.
Among the chief glories that belong to him are these:
1. Writing the Declaration of Independence.
2. Suggesting and carrying out the present decimal monetary system.
3. Inducing Virginia to deed to the States, as their common property, the Northwest Territory.
4. Purchasing from France, for the comparatively trifling sum of fifteen million dollars, Louisiana and the territory running from the Gulf of Mexico to Puget’s Sound, being at the rate of a fraction of a cent per acre, and giving the United States full control of the Mississippi River.
But over and beyond these is the spirit of patriotism that makes each true American feel he is parcel and part of the very fabric of the State, and in his deepest heart believe that “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
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