Thomas Jefferson was a genius and he was also an eccentric. It didn’t really matter that he was odd in his own time because the average American didn’t really know anything about Jefferson, except perhaps that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, lived on a mountain in Virginia and was more “for the people” than most of the other politicians of his time.
He dressed down as the third president of the United States. This offended some, like the British ambassador Anthony Merry, and raised the eyebrows of others, but most Americans would not have known this about him, and they would probably have been grateful that he erred on the side of shabby chic rather than dressed in some quasi-imperial manner.
Jefferson was a master of political theater. He walked to his first inaugural. His speech on that occasion was a masterpiece — one of the handful of greatest inaugural addresses in our history — but he spoke in so humble and low a voice that those in attendance were straining to try to hear what he had to say. Afterward, people obtained printed copies on the street.
When the inauguration was finished, Jefferson walked back to the boarding house where he had been staying during the transition, and took his accustomed seat at the dining table far away from the warming fireplace. When a woman who was also a guest tried to get up to yield her better seat to the new president of the United States, Jefferson politely declined to switch places. You just know that story traveled instantly across a wide geography. That’s why we know the story today.
The way Jefferson greeted Anthony Merry at the White House — down at heel, linen none too clean — was political theater, too, a little sartorial lesson in democracy for a haughty diplomat representing a snobbish nation.
Some of the things Jefferson did were not designed to make a statement about democracy or self-government. In some respects, Jefferson was just weird. All the gimcracks at Monticello — the wine dumbwaiter, the lazy Susan pantry door, the doors into the parlor that open simultaneously as if by magic, the calendar clock that required him to drill holes in the floor so the weights could dangle into the cellar, the whirligig clothes hangers — these things just seemed to please Jefferson somehow, but he wasn’t inviting the national media, such as it was, to come to Monticello to report his eccentricities. He had a pet mockingbird named Dick that he allowed to fly around freely, sit on his shoulder, pick crumbs from his lips, including in the White House. That wasn’t political theater. That was just Jefferson’s odd personality and one of his many bemusements.
If you have seen the great miniseries on John Adams, you see Jefferson sitting at Cabinet meetings in the Washington administration at odd angles, nothing like the stiff Jane Austen novel posture that you would expect of the American Secretary of State. After hearing the secretary testify at a congressional hearing, Pennsylvania Sen. William Maclay said, “Jefferson is a slender man; has rather the air of stiffness in his manner; his clothes seem too small for him; he sits in a lounging manner, on one hip commonly, and with one of his shoulders elevated much above the other; his face has a sunny aspect; his whole figure has a loose, shackling air.”
In one of the later episodes of “John Adams,” Jefferson is home at Monticello during his retirement years. He’s wearing a strange tall hat and some sort of a striped waistcoat. He looks to me a little like the Cat in the Hat.
There is a possibly apocryphal story about President Jefferson traveling to or from Washington, D.C., with no security detail, no imperial costumes, in a public coach, side by side with other travelers, none of whom he knew. They did not know they were riding with the sitting president of the United States. One of the passengers was apparently a high Federalist. He spent a fair amount of time denouncing President Jefferson and listing Jefferson’s many misguided policies, as well as his general political outlook, with a number of ad hominem attacks on Jefferson’s private character. Jefferson made no attempt to argue with the rude passenger and he did not identify himself. In fact, he asked follow-up questions to make sure he understood the citizen’s full antagonism.
When the coach reached its destination, Jefferson quietly excused himself and went about his business. When the outspoken citizen was informed that he had been sitting with the president of the United states, he was, of course, abashed and deeply embarrassed, but the stoic and placid Jefferson was, as usual, unfazed.
Jefferson was a cash-poor tobacco farmer who built his home not on the James River, which was the interstate river highway of Virginia. Instead, he built his neoclassical villa on top of a mountain, a design whim that forced him to begin by leveling the summit and then have an expensive system of roads constructed just to get to the portico. Whenever it didn’t rain for a few weeks his wells ran dry. He caused his slaves to build a thousand-foot garden terrace on the south side of the mountain, something that would not have been necessary had he constructed Monticello on the banks of the James or even the Rivanna River. Nobody would call such a man a pragmatist, and this is just one of many reasons Jefferson was bankrupt for much of his later life.
When Anna Thornton visited Monticello in 1802, along with her husband, William (and others), she found everything so strange, notional and even gothic that she found it hard to accept that Jefferson actually chose to live in what was still an active and often loud construction site with such inconveniences as the narrow stairways that lead from the first to the second floor. She concluded that “everything has a whimsical and droll appearance,” and she was not using those adjectives in a positive way. Not knowing that Monticello would never, in fact, be finished in Jefferson’s lifetime, but perhaps sensing as much, she concluded that Mr. Jefferson is “A very long time maturing his projects.” Indeed.
He told his friend, Margaret Bayard Smith, who had a huge, wonderful platonic crush on Jefferson, that any unnecessary felling of a tree “seems to me a crime little short of murder, it pains me to an unspeakable degree.” He grew and fussed over flowers in his White House study. When he left the presidency in 1809, he gave a geranium to Smith, who breathlessly carried it away as if it were a nail from the cross at Golgotha.
He was in love with charts, questionnaires, grids, lists, queries and tabulations. To be sure, he had a kind of obsessive commitment to order and regularity, not beginning his day until he had bathed his feet in cold water. Winding his calendar clock at the same time on the same day every week, etc. But one senses that even Jefferson’s love or order was subordinate to his need to count, label and catalog.
It is possible that Jefferson today would be diagnosed as somewhere at the high-performance end of the Autism-Asperger’s Spectrum. In my view, such labels hardly matter and they don’t really help us much. It’s enough for me to know that he was a genuinely odd human being — eccentric, whimsical, droll. I like him more for his quirks. Give me a president who likes pets, who has a heart big enough to nurture something beyond his own ego. Margaret Bayard Smith summed him up: He could not live without something to love.