Friday, April 2, 2010

The Unfinished Autobiography of… Thomas Jefferson

A review of the Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (1821 original printing) (2005 current printing)

(Rating:4 of 5)

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, is one of the most important men in the history of the world and one of the most hard to study. James Madison*, Jefferson’s secretary of state and successor as president, warned future scholars who would try to study the author of the Declaration of Independence that he was a man of many contradictions and is extremely hard to nail down**. No one who can be in public life as long as Thomas Jefferson was and do so without some sort of inconsistency, since no one stops learning and changing, but Jefferson jumps around more issues then most. Some of his contradictions are extremely famous. Jefferson was a champion of small federal government and more local state power. Nevertheless, he would become one of the presidents most responsible for the increase in federal power with the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson was also a man who detested slavery to the point, as president, abolishing the overseas slave trade in America, and yet he was a man who owned slaves all his life. In this work, Jefferson tells his own story. Unfortunately, like dear Dr. Franklin before him, he does not get to complete his tale.

Jefferson grew up in a world that was changing all around him, born in the middle of the Enlightenment; the old ways were constantly being challenged by new ideas and ways of thinking. Jefferson himself would play a major role in the ever-changing world that he was a part of. As a young man, the American colonies’ crisis with their mother country grew larger and Jefferson was a passionate advocate for the American cause. In this work, he lays out the argument of the colonies against mother country.

“In this I took the ground that, from the beginning, I had thought the only one orthodox or tenable, which was, that relation between Great Britain and these colonies was exactly the same as that of England and Scotland, after the accession of James, and until the union, and the same as her present relations with Hanover, having the same executive chief, but no other necessary political connection; and that our emigration from England to this country gave her no more rights over us, than the emigrations of the Danes and the Saxons gave to the present authorities of the mother country over England.” p. 7

Basically, what Jefferson brilliantly explains was that the only thing the colonies had in common with Great Britain is that we shared the same king. Other then the shared monarch, we had no other legal connection. This is why the Declaration of Independence targets King George III personally, because from the American position he was the only link we had to break.

My favorite part of the autobiography is when Jefferson gets distracted and starts complaining on how infective legislatures can at times be. What starts out as a topic on the Articles of Confederation’s treaty ratification methods, becomes a rant on his poor colleagues.

“Our body was a little numerous, but very contentious. Day after day was wasted on the most unimportant questions. A member, one of those afflicted with the morbid and copious flow of words, who heard with impatience any logic which was not his own, sitting near me on some occasion of a trifling but wordy debate, asked me how I could sit in silence, hearing so much false reasoning, which a word should refute? I observed to him, that to refute was easy, but to silence was impossible; that in measures brought forward by myself, I took the laboring oar, as was incumbent on me; but that in general, I was willing to listen; that if every sound argument or objection was used by some one or other of the numerous debaters, it was enough; if not, I thought it sufficient to suggest the omission, without going into a repetition of what had been already said by others: that this was a waster and abuse of the time and patience of the House, which could not be justified. And I believe that if members of deliberate bodies were to observe this course generally, they would do in a day, what takes them a week; than may at first be thought, whether Bonaparte’s dumb legislature, which said nothing, and did much, may not be preferable to one which talks much, and does nothing. I severed with General Washington in the legislature of Virginia, before the revolution, and, during it, with Dr. Franklin in Congress. I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point, which decides the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points knowing that the little ones would follow themselves. If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise, in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour? That one hundred and fifty lawyers should do business together, ought not to be expected. But to return again to our subject.” p.52-3

In addition to being a leader in the American Revolution, Jefferson was also on hand in France to witness the emerging French Revolution. Jefferson would be a defender and cheerleader for the French Revolution long after he actually should have been. One of the most interesting parts is he blames the entire event of Queen Marie Antoinette.

“The King was now become a passive machine in the hands of the National Assembly, and had he been left to himself, he would have willingly acquiesced in whatever they should devise as best for the nation. A wise constitution would have been formed, hereditary in his line, himself placed at its head, with powers so large as to enable him to do all the good of his station, and so limited, as to restrain him from its abuse. This he would have administered, and more than this, I do not believe, he ever wished. But he had a Queen of absolute sway over his weak mind and timid virtue, and of a character the reverse of his in all points.” p.92

Jefferson telling his own tale is a fascinating read, it is so sad they did not live long enough to finish the whole thing. It would have been nice hearing him describe his time as the first secretary of state, second vice president, and third president. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable work.

* As fond as I am of Mr. Jefferson, I really feel that Madison was the greater of the two but that is a story for another time.
** I am not quoting Madison directly, but paraphrasing. However I think you, the reader, can get the main idea.

{Video taken from the classic 1776 musical from 1972.}

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