Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stay Positive: Biographies

I've gotten into biographies again. This week I finished Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life, which by most critics' accounts appears to be the definitive biography of that troubled bard. I've always enjoyed his lyrics, but I had little knowledge about his life story. He was a typical example of the genius type who people quickly recognized as a powerful artist, but God he was a horrible father and husband. 

One quotation from Guthrie that Klein uses at an opportune time in the book is this one: "A man's most basic character, most basic wants, hopes, and needs come out of him in words that are poems and explosions." 

Now I'm on to Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. While I'm only about a third of the way through the book, I wish Meacham would have provided more details about his work in the Virginia House of Burgesses and his ill-fated tenure as Governor of Virginia, but I realize that the author only wrote a one-volume biography. If he gave me the kind of detail I'm hankering for, I would probably need to read a multiple-volume biography of Jefferson. 

As founding fathers go, I've always been drawn to Jefferson. Over a decade ago, I read the entire Notes on the State of Virginia and selected letters in a large volume edition that collected a big chunk of Jefferson's writing. I've found it interesting how people from various political stripes interpret Jefferson how they want to interpret him. 

For the left, he's a protector of individual freedoms, especially his various statements that lean toward a strict separation between church and state. He valued reason above everything else, a man of the Enlightenment to his bones. As he wrote his nephew, "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear" (qtd in Meacham p. 169). Since Jefferson was essentially a deist, he was friendly with Thomas Paine after that fellow published The Age of Reason, a book that showed Paine as an apostate. 

As much as folks today take umbrage that Jefferson owned slaves, considering that he was part of the wealthy planter class in Virginia in the 18th century, I think it's highly improbable that he wouldn't have owned slaves considering his position and means of wealth. It's not like he tried, as a Virginian no less, to root out slavery through various moves early on in his political career, all moves that didn't work at all. In 1769 in the House of Burgesses, he tried to make it legal for individual slave owners to be able to free slaves. They put the kibosh on that idea quickly. He also tried to persuade leaders for gradual emancipation and deportation back to Africa (an idea Lincoln considered heavily if I remember right), which was a very progressive position for its time, but that didn't happen. Of course, if anyone has read the early drafts of the Declaration of the Independence, he didn't have good things to say about the peculiar institution of slavery and slave owning (and also made similar statements in Notes on the State of Virginia) and laid the blame on England and George III. They cut all that out of the Declaration, of course. Later on he fully supported the Ordinance of 1784, which would have terminated the expansion of slavery into new US territories, but the bill didn't pass because a Congressman from New Jersey didn't vote because he was sick.  

Of course, there's his relationship with Sally Hemings that we can mostly speculate about. And it's a shame we don't know more about it. Jefferson burned a great deal of the  correspondence between him and his wife, so it's no surprise historians don't have much to go on about the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship other than that she traveled with him to France and back and all that DNA evidence. But there's also the creepy fact that Sally Hemings was his wife's half-sister. I'd have to drink a lot of Madeira wine, Jefferson's favorite, to make that seem right. Even with such lubrication, I still don't think it would. 

With all that out of the way though, I'm looking forward to reading about his work and arguments with Hamilton during Washington's presidency, his disputes with his friend John Adams (who was painted a little more positively than he deserved in the HBO series for my liking), and his trials and tribulations as President. 

Vote Jefferson in 1800. 

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