Conflict Of The Colonial Creators

Over visiting a friend last night and relating to him the contents of a documentary I’d watched recently on Thomas Jefferson where they spoke of the long-term relationship he’d had with one of his slaves, a Sally Henning, and the children they had together. I was telling him how it couldn’t be a love relationship, was not today considered as such as it is recognized how the slave woman would not have had a lot of say over the wishes of the one who owned her. Ended up more of a, em, disagreement, argument, I don’t know where it would fall on that spectrum, but trying to explain to him the unbalanced relationship between a master and slave relationship in the American south.

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Public Domain – Thomas Jefferson (by Rembrandt Peale, 1800) – Created: 31 December 1799

In office
March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809
Preceded by
John Adams
Succeeded by
James Madison

Ok, backing up a bit, I guess maybe one of the reasons I keep certain people around is their ability to question my own lofty notions, and as evangelical as I can be at times when I have an idea or whatever clenched firmly in my craw, I do find I prefer the company of those who can challenge me, and who have a knowledge of history; certainly almost a requirement now as I don’t even know what to talk about with most peeps and plebs I encounter.

I think probably one of the early clues to my character as being not like the rest was probably my fascination with this history mouse cartoon from when I was young that initially peaked my historical nerdiness, as it would come on between the feature cartoons, and I remember looking forward to it more than the main cartoon. 

Actually, that hasn’t changed over the intervening years, as I am still generally more interested in the bits and bobs that fall between the cracks, where others are engrossed in zombies or some game of thrones, I’m ensconced in an exploration of early biblical history,  more interested in how things began, intrigued by dichotomy and characters of history that challenge or instruct the modern day lofty notions and prejudices, our stereotypes and expectations. 

In the end, the point my friend had been making, and I tell ya it kind of smacked me in the face a bit, and its that ALL women were slaves to men back then.

Well, ok, true enough, true enough. So that gave me pause, and quite frankly, he is not wrong. Not completely correct, but heck, certainly not completely wrong either. Women at that time had basically no say in anything really and were completely at the mercy of men. Looking at it from that angle, I guess all of us are the product of an unbalanced union of one sort or other, from men and women who were not considered equal under the law, and so where do we draw that line?

“I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.” 

Thomas Jefferson, Letters of Thomas Jefferson

And, I’d have to say that on that score I whole-heartedly agree. However, Jefferson being a character of the founding of America does not automatically make him a saint, and his drastically conflicting views kind of defines the America we have today. As Britannica puts it…” many of the Founding Fathers acknowledged that slavery violated the core American Revolutionary ideal of liberty, their simultaneous commitment to private property rights, principles of limited government, and intersectional harmony prevented them from making a bold move against slavery.

In some ways, I think Jefferson probably BEST defines the dichotomies that the U.S. was founded on, as his philosophies are a product of that time in which he lived, as the Enlightenment was changing the minds of men across the globe, and as values, norms, and the beginnings of the industrial revolution was taking shape, feudalism was dying out, and monarchies were being toppled, and new lines in the sand were being drawn, and there were those who benefited, and there were those who most certainly did not. As whole industries were disappearing and as one machine doing the work of many, and there were those who were terrified at the future they saw before them. Sound familiar?

Ebbing and flowing over the course of time, from the abolition of slavery under Lincoln to the Jim Crow laws of the south, swinging again into civil rights movements one after the other throughout the course of the 20th century, culminating in the late 1960’s, overturning laws that had been in place since the turn of the century, with decades and decades of debate until the time when finally ALL were recognized as being created equal, and not just some, harkening back to the original draft of the Declaration Of Independence, oh, the times they are changing, again.

Now, quite honestly, American history has actually never been of a particular interest, preferring the history of a more ancient time, and generally BC, and very little AD, and less and less interest as the centuries roll by.  Yeah, so the fact Jefferson was the ‘writer’ behind the Declaration of Independence was news to me. 

“It was Jefferson, not some liberal judge in the sixties, who called for a wall between church and state—and if we have declined to heed Jefferson’s advice to engage in a revolution every two or three generations, it’s only because the Constitution itself proved a sufficient defence against tyranny.” 

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream

Born in Shadwell, Virginia in 1743 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, his father, Peter “was a self-educated surveyor who amassed a tidy estate that included 60 slaves“. 

He’s become one of those central figures of history that the more I read of the more I am intrigued. I am attracted to characters with lofty ideals and stained histories, of those with exalted notions at the mercy of reality, alternately letting a certain naivete command their sometimes absent common sense, and to people that stand at the centre of things, who don’t pretend to know it all, and to those who compromise said ideals in the interests of unity. 

“When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government” 

Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence (Constitutions): Historical

He while in government was a reformer, and an advocate for the weeding out of all the forms of feudalism that others still grasped fondly too, the federalists, and others such as himself had felt was past its prime. The backbone of the Federalist opponents he faced in the burgeoning republic he helped found, and that division defined this new republic. Yet, what I find interesting is that out of all his many and numerous accomplishments, his time as President of the United States, he was the 3rd, is not counted, by him alone, as one of his greatest achievements, he didn’t even want that on his tombstone, apparently. 

Although Jefferson and Adams were bitter political enemies by the time of the presidential election of 1800, in which Jefferson narrowly defeated Adams, the two leading intellectuals and politicians of Virginia and Massachusetts had been allies and confidants during the heady, revolutionary days of the late 1770s. 

Jefferson had, actually, a lot of flaws, and was definitely a man of his time, as was Adams, and it is this relationship I find the most poignant of dichotomies, through letters over the course of 50 or so years, off and on, between two of the remaining founding fathers, Jefferson and Adams, two men that had once stood most firmly against one another. Both men died on the same day within hours of one another, July 4th, 1826.

We can look back at these men with our modern day notions and completely miss the subtle lessons these two men can impart, of how to reach across a divide towards opposite ideals, and find cohesion and I imagine a challenge.

I can most certainly identify with that, of that desire to interact with those who rather than pat our lofty notions on the back instead question and poke away at them, towards a wisdom we may not acquire otherwise. 

Perhaps as one president, Bush the 41st, passes, and as we look to the future with our current, the 45th, that these words can resonate anew, with a correspondence between two men who both founded and presided over the new United States of America they had forged, sharing divergent ideas of that new republic when in their public life. What lessons may we glean from the fragile democracy they had created, what knowledge and wisdom from these two founding fathers?

John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda. [ PUBLIC DOMAIN ]

1812, January 21: Jefferson to Adams_____________
A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us and yet passing harmless under our bark, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port. . . .
But whither is senile garrulity leading me? Into politics, of which I have taken final leave. I think little of them, and say less. I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier. Sometimes indeed I look back to former occurrences, in remembrance of our old friends and fellow laborers, who have fallen before us. Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence I see now living not more than half a dozen on your side of the Potomak, and, on this side, myself alone. You and I have been wonderfully spared, and myself with remarkable health, and a considerable activity of body and mind.


1812, February 3: Adams to Jefferson_____________
Your Memoranda of the past, your Sense of the present and Prospect for the Future seem to be well founded, as far as I see. But the Latter i.e. the Prospect of the Future, will depend on the Union: and how is that Union to be preserved? Concordia Res parvae crescunt, Discordia Maximae dilabuntur. . . .The Union is still to me an Object of as much Anxiety as ever Independence was. To this I have sacrificed my Popularity in New England and yet what Treatment do I still receive from the Randolphs and Sheffeys of Virginia. By the Way are not these Eastern Shore Men? My Senectutal Loquacity has more than retaliated your ìSenile Garrulity. . . .I walk every fair day, sometimes 3 or 4 miles. Ride now and then but very rarely more than ten or fifteen Miles. . . . I have the Start of you in Age by at least ten Years: but you are advanced to the Rank of a Great Grandfather before me.

From the Correspondence of
on Life, Religion, and the Young Republic

Adams to Jefferson, Quincy, 15 August, 1823.

Watchman! what of the night? Is darkness that may be felt, to prevail over the whole world, or can you perceive any rays of a returning dawn? Is the devil to be the “Lord’s anointed” over the whole globe? or do you foresee the fulfilment of the prophecies according to Dr. Priestley’s interpretation of them? I know not but I have in some of my familiar and frivolous letters to you told the story four times over; but if I have, I never applied it so well as now. Not long after the dénouement of the tragedy of Louis XVI., when I was Vice-President, my friend, the Doctor, came to breakfast with me alone. He was very sociable, very learned and eloquent on the subject of the French Revolution. It was opening a new era in the world, and presenting a near view of the millennium. I listened, I heard with great attention, and perfect sang froid; at last I asked the Doctor, “Do you really believe the French will establish a free, democratic government in France?” He answered, “I do firmly believe it.” “Will you give me leave to ask you upon what grounds you entertain this opinion? Is it from any thing you ever read in history? Is there any instance of a Roman Catholic monarchy of five-and-twenty millions of people, at once converted into intelligent, free, and rational people?” “No. I know of no instance like it.” “Is there any thing in your knowledge of human nature, derived from books or experience, that any empire, ancient or modern, consisting of such multitudes of ignorant people, ever were, or ever can be, suddenly converted into materials capable of conducting a free government, especially a democratic republic?” “No. I know of nothing of the kind.” “Well, then, Sir, what is the ground of your opinion?” The answer was, “My opinion is founded altogether upon revelation and the prophecies. I take it that the ten horns of the great beast in Revelations mean the ten crowned heads of Europe, and that the execution of the king of France is the falling off of the first of those horns; and the nine monarchies of Europe will fall, one after another, in the same way.” Such was the enthusiasm of that great man, that reasoning machine! After all, however, he did recollect himself so far as to say, “There is, however, a possibility of doubt, for I read yesterday a book, put into my hands by a gentleman, a volume of travels, written by a French gentleman in 1659, in which he says he had been travelling a whole year in England, had travelled into every part, and conversed freely with all ranks of people. He found the whole nation earnestly engaged in discussing and contriving a form of government for their future regulation. There was but one point on which they all agreed, and in that they were unanimous, that monarchy, nobility, and prelacy never would exist in England again.” The Doctor then paused, and said, “yet in the very next year the whole nation called in the king, and ran mad with monarchy nobility, and prelacy.

I am no king killer, merely because they are kings. Poor creatures! they know no better; they sincerely and conscientiously believe that God made them to rule the world. I would not, therefore, behead them, or send them to St. Helena to be treated like Napoleon; but I would shut them up like the man in the mask, feed them well, and give them as much finery as they please, until they could be converted to right reason and common sense.

2. Jefferson to Adams, Monticello, September 4, 1823.

Dear Sir,

—Your letter of August the 15th was received in due time, and with the welcome of everything which comes from you. With its opinions on the difficulties of revolutions from despotism to freedom, I very much concur. The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified when called on to think and provide for themselves; and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often, in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides, to defeat their own rights and purposes. This is the present situation of Europe and Spanish America. But it is not desperate.The light which has been shed on mankind by the art of printing, has eminently changed the condition of the world. As yet, that light has dawned on the middling classes only of the men in Europe. The kings and the rabble, of equal ignorance, have not yet received its rays; but it continues to spread, and while printing is preserved, it can no more recede than the sun return on his course. A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail, so may a second, a third, &c. But as a younger and more instructed race comes on, the sentiment becomes more and more intuitive, and a fourth, a fifth, or some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed. In France, the first effort was defeated by Robespierre, the second by Bonaparte, the third by Louis XVIII. and his holy allies: another is yet to come, and all Europe, Russia excepted, has caught the spirit; and all will attain representative government, more or less perfect. This is now well understood to be a necessary check on kings, whom they will probably think it more prudent to chain and tame, than to exterminate. To attain all this, however, rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over; yet the object is worth rivers of blood, and years of desolation. For what inheritance so valuable, can man leave to his posterity? The spirit of the Spaniard, and his deadly and eternal hatred to a Frenchman, give me much confidence that he will never submit, but finally defeat this atrocious violation of the laws of God and man, under which he is suffering; and the wisdom and firmness of the Cortes, afford reasonable hope, that that nation will settle down in a temperate representative government, with an executive properly subordinated to that. Portugal, Italy, Prussia, Germany, Greece, will follow suit. You and I shall look down from another world on these glorious achievements to man, which will add to the joys even of heaven…

3. Adams to Jefferson, Quincy, 17 September, 1823.

With much pleasure I have heard read the sure words of prophecy in your letter of September 4th. It is melancholy to contemplate the cruel wars, desolations of countries, and oceans of blood, which must occur before rational principles and rational systems of government can prevail and be established; but as these are inevitable, we must content ourselves with the consolations which you from sound and sure reasons so clearly suggest. These hopes are as well founded as our fears of the contrary evils. On the whole, the prospect is cheering. I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on Government There is a great difference in reading a book at four-and-twenty and at eighty-eight. As often as I have read it and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce, as well for the intrinsic merits of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of moral, philosophical, political illumination in the world, ought to be now published in America….

Adams and Jefferson reflect on the Revolution and the future of liberty (1823)

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