I recently returned from visits to Scranton, Williamsport, and Wellsboro, PA, and from 4th of July at Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota and opened up the internet to see the following headline and article from the Washington Post writer, Britni Danielle
Sally Hemings wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his property.
After portraying Mr. Jefferson to these various audiences, then reading Ms. Danielle’s expression of outrage towards historians and commentators who did not share her anger on behalf of “the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children,” I felt sorry for the younger generation.
I do not criticize Ms. Danielle’s perspective. Mr. Jefferson’s historic persona has been justly modified to highlight his failure to personally back up his lofty rhetoric with action, a process that has been going on since 1802, and intensifying over the last twenty five years. Jefferson’s image, more than any other figure in American history, constantly changes, being reshaped by the particular needs and desires as dictated by the events of the day.
No, her comments were not what saddened me. What does is the fear that because of our focus on his personal failures we fail to grasp the enormity of what he and his fellow “Founding Fathers” did accomplish in the face of odds that exceed modern understanding.
The audiences that I spoke to, as Mr. Jefferson, were not unsparing of his hypocrisy, and he “had to get out of the scrape” as he could, to use his words. Nevertheless, they did not “disavow” the gifts that he did bequeath to this country, foremost them, the ideal of a government based upon the equality of people.
But perhaps I am being too pessimistic about the Internet headline generation. Perhaps Ms. Hemings has done us all a great service. Scandal always sells, keeping Jefferson in the headlines, and her timeless story is particularly appealing to those who feel mistreated. Maybe there will be some among the younger generation who do get curious as to why this slaveholder continues to command so much attention. His failures and successes have contributed to the American character, and if we are to follow the old adage, “know thyself,” digging beyond the headlines will be more useful than simply enjoying the passing thrill of scandal.
I have the privilege of reenacting Mr. Jefferson both individually and with an outstanding group called the League of Most Interesting Gentlemen. As a group we have performed from Plattsburg, NY to Fort Defiance, NC, with most of our work conducted from Charlottesville, VA, to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, PA. We meet people young and old at historical sites, art centers, wineries, museums, and banquet halls, transporting everyone back two hundred or more years. Often the reactions that we get during our performances confirm what we all have come to understand; history touches our emotions as much as our thoughts, even for those who view history as something taught in a boring history class or read from a dry academic essay.
“How’s Sally doing?” people often ask Mr. Jefferson. They are referring to Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave who is believed to be the mother of six of his children. That controversy has been publicly boiling since 1802, so that historical information is not new or shocking to anyone. Mr. Jefferson’s reaction, however, does startle everyone. Textbooks can quote, historians can tell, but saying this to a historical figure, as interpreted by someone portraying him in the first person, is equivalent to verbally attacking someone in front of a group. History brought life leaves a completely different impression than hearing lecture notes or reading it from a book.
Thankfully, Mr. Jefferson, Dr. Franklin, Mr. Madison, Mr. Gallatin, and the “Natural Philosopher,” who constitute the League of Most Interesting Gentlemen, have a fascinating assortment of stories, opinions, commentary, and experiences to offer those who are willing to “suspend their disbelief” for an hour or so, combining “fleckless mirth” with historical scholarship into an experience not found in any museum.
Shocking History at Sweethearts and Patriot Ball, Washington, D.C.
Art Depuy, a guest at the Fox Meadow Winery, said it best when he wrote this to the League,
I never cared for history but as I reflect, I didn’t care for most classes plus I don’t like to read. Over time I have discovered I do like history but I am a very visual person. At Fox Meadow and Hiddencroft [Wineries] I found myself totally engaged listening in on four men enjoying a pleasant afternoon sharing old stories, historical events, laughing and joking while talking about their past. And I realized that this is something I probably do when I have the opportunity to spend an afternoon with several of my old friends. But you men were our founding fathers of this great country called America and I felt transported back in time.
I have been offering a first-person portrayal of Thomas Jefferson since 1987 and the experience continues to amaze and fascinate me. (Hopefully my audiences share a bit of these feelings.) The founding era of our country has attracted me since I began reading the black silhouetted biographies in third grade with such titles, as best I can recall – George Washington: Boy Leader, Ben Franklin: Boy Printer, Thomas Edison: Boy Inventor, etc. The fact that current electronic and paper headlines still contain stories about that era demonstrates to me the accuracy of William Faulkner’s observation, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Passing history on to the next generation, courtesy of the New York Historical Society
Nevertheless, history seems to be dying. Ask the accountants at Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., or the antique dealers at Sotheby’s; the relative dollars coming in cannot match those of ten or twenty years ago. The Broadway show, Hamilton, has contradicted that trend. However, the blend of 21st century style, a timeless story, and the potency of an explosion of African-American perspective in the current culture make it an attractive anomaly for many, not a trendsetter. Television does present assorted stories of the past, several of them quite compelling, but fewer and fewer kids are drawn to the mythology of our founding.
Logically, this makes perfect sense. That mythology was flawed, therefore academic and popular historians, and the artists who convey history to the coming generations, have worked hard to show that these “Founding Fathers” possessed prejudice, greed, parochialism, and pride that existed within the terms of their enduring accomplishments. The popular phrase is, to demonstrate that “they were human.” And it cannot not be denied that they were, and that we should be aware of their failings so that we do not repeat the same errors.
But we pay a price for this correction, the loss of awe at how our country came to be. Adults who have an interest in such things grasp this contradiction and accept it as part of human nature. Kids do not deal with such subtleties. Those people were good or they were bad, and the stories that we tell them have to reflect that clarity, particularly when they were both good and bad.
Portraying America’s most controversial “Founding Father” to a young audience gives me the opportunity to shape how they will view American history as they mature. Through conversation, stories, and a sense of formality so removed from our contemporary times, kids have an opportunity to play “pretend” and step back into time when the man can speak for himself. They are often better at such games than adults and it is at these moments that history can become a part of their futures. I do not take this responsibility lightly.
According to the last words of his mentor, friend, and political opponent, John Adams, “Jefferson lives.” Jefferson and Adams both died on the same day, July 4th, 1826 – 50 years to the day from the approval of the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, these men maintain a presence in our culture and our media to this very day.
We’re surrounded by history all the time, particularly here in Virginia. Modern people draw from the past and interpret it from their own contemporary perspectives. Scholars and historians delve into the esoteric details of historical events and figures from an academic point of view. However, modern-day tourists go on guided tours through their homes and properties, trying to get a sense of what life was like during those historical times. Nevertheless, it is always difficult to truly view the world through their eyes, no matter how hard we try.
For the last 30 years, I have attempted to offer my interpretation of how Thomas Jefferson saw the world, and to convey that message to those who have an interest in American History. Now, thanks to Phil Jaderborg from PJ Networks (and a former student that I counseled in high school), I am continuing this effort in a 21st Century medium.
I hope the be blogging regularly in the future, and if you are interested in any of the topics or articles that I present to you, I encourage you to contact me via the contact form at the bottom of my website. Also, please feel free to share any of my posts or the link to my website with friends and family members who may share a similar interest.
As Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
Your humble servant,
Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
–Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57
“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
–Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.