Posted in Books & Reading, tagged book reviews, books, history, Jefferson, non-fiction, presidents, Sally Hemings, the presidents, Thomas Jefferson on June 6, 2013|
Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection. link
This post is long overdue. I am currently reading about Teddy Roosevelt, almost a century beyond Thomas Jefferson in my quest to read about each U.S. President. I had hoped to write about each President, but at this rate, I may be dead before I get to Obama! Anyway, without further ado….
Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson left me puzzled about one of the most revered leaders of the revolutionary era. Jefferson is an enigma, a complex amalgam of the best and the worst of American characteristics, a man to both revere and despise.
Known as he “the Sage of Monticello” and “the Apostle of Democracy”, Thomas Jefferson gets no shortage of encomium. Politicos of all stripes love to quote Jefferson, rallying the illustrious founder from his long dirt nap in support of or opposition to the cause du jour. His face is on Mt. Rushmore, and he has his own monument in Washington. Cities, counties, streets, highways, schools, particle accelerators, and even swimming pools are named in honor of the third president. But I think the most fitting tribute to Mr. Jefferson is his portrait on the face of the two dollar bill.
The Jefferson two dollar bill is legal tender, for all practical uses as good as George Washington’s greenback dollar. But we rarely see two dollar bills. Once I get one in my wallet, I’m torn. Should I hold on to it for its rarity, or try to get rid of it as fast as I can, because it is so…weird? And so it is with Mr. Jefferson, people either love him or hate him.
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John Adams, from the collection of the New York Public Library
If you haven’t heard from me on this site in a while, it is not because I haven’t been reading about the Presidents! I started writing this post after reading McCullough’s “John Adams” in January. Alas, many, many things prevented me from completing this post until now. Enjoy!
Poor John Adams! Reading David McCullough‘s remarkable John Adams, you feel a little sorry for the guy. He was a hard-working, diligent public servant, a man of humble beginnings and humble means. Frugal, industrious, and dutifully loving towards his soul-mate Abigail, he really had few faults as a man. Yet, he never seemed to measure up in the eyes of the public.
He served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, esteemed by his peers for his eloquence in the cause of liberty. He risked his life crossing the Atlantic to serve as an ambassador in France. On his second trip to France aboard the Sensible, the ship sprung a leak. Passengers and crew worked hand pumps night and day to keep the ill-fated vessel afloat as it limped to port in Spain. Undaunted by this detour, Adams and his entourage scaled the Pyrenees in winter by mule train. After a thousand mile journey, they arrived in Paris late, but unharmed. To say that this goes above and beyond the normal call of duty seriously understates his commitment to service.
In Paris, Benjamin Franklin, the famous and flamboyant American diplomat, ostracized Adams. At that time, Franklin was a somewhat doddering old man well past his prime. If his fractious relationship with Franklin hurt him, his pain was soothed by his growing friendship and affection for Thomas Jefferson. The two forged a life-long bond that would eventually be torn asunder over politics, but in their older years rekindled via a series of remarkable letters between the two founders. Adams went on to secure financial backing for the American cause from the Dutch government and financiers in Holland, bolstering the war effort financially.
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