CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Abigail Adams: Awesome And A Little Frightening

My daughter and I were wandering about the J.P. Morgan Library in New York City last week, vaguely looking for whatever they had about Edward S. Curtis, the Seattle photographer who took those incredible black-and-white images of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908. "Mandan man wrapped in buffalo robe standing on cliff overlooking the Missouri River." (From Wikimedia Commons.)
Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908. “Mandan man wrapped in buffalo robe standing on cliff overlooking the Missouri River.” (From Wikimedia Commons.)

We saw a range of amazing things in two hours — one of the Morgan’s three copies of the Gutenberg Bible, a manuscript page from Goethe’s “Faust” in Goethe’s hand, a first edition of one of the most influential books ever written, Rousseau’s “Essay Concerning the Inequality of Mankind,” a life mask of George Washington and the Enlightenment’s greatest sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s greatest sculpture, his bust of Benjamin Franklin.

We oohed and ahhed and gasped and nodded and whispered our sense of wonder that one of the richest men of his time chose not to buy gold faucets and giant inlaid bathtubs, but instead gave a portion of his vast fortune to the acquisition of some of the greatest rare books, art treasures, and manuscripts in the world.

My daughter, Catherine, hissed me over to a little glass case. And there was displayed a letter by Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, dated May 20th, 1804. This was the letter of condolence that Mrs. Adams wrote to her old friend, now enemy, Jefferson, after she learned from the newspapers that his younger daughter, Maria, had died at Monticello a month previously.

Because my daughter did not know the story, I had the joy of explaining the importance of the letter to her. When Maria sailed from Virginia to Europe in 1787 to join her father and her older sister, Martha, the ship stopped first in England, where Abigail and John Adams took the 9-year-old child under their wing before sending her on to Paris.

At the time, Abigail was rather pointedly annoyed that Jefferson did not come himself to Britain to get his daughter, who, after all, had crossed the entire Atlantic more or less alone — and Jefferson apparently was too busy to cross the English Channel to collect her in person.

Maria had been chaperoned on that immense voyage by none other than 14-year-old Sally Hemings, although in his defense, it must be said that Jefferson had asked that the chaperon be an elderly black woman who had survived a bout of smallpox and was therefore immune. When Abigail met Sally Hemings in London, some little red flag popped in her sharp soul, and she recommended that Jefferson send Sally back to Virginia on the return voyage. But no.

Now, 17 years later, Maria Jefferson Eppes was dead, at the age of 25, and Mrs. Adams knew that Jefferson was overcome with grief.

So she broke a self-imposed silence. She no longer trusted Jefferson. She no longer liked Jefferson. She blamed him for some of the newspaper attacks that had been made on her husband in the lead up to the 1800 presidential election. She saw Jefferson as an unprincipled demagogue, an ambitious, unscrupulous, duplicitous politician who loved power more than he loved virtue and certainly more than he loved his old friend, John Adams, whom he had unfairly displaced from the presidency.

Abigail did not unload on Jefferson in this famous letter. She provided a few carefully veiled hints of her dark feelings about Jefferson and admitted that nothing but Maria’s untimely death could have moved her to write a letter to a man she now detested.

At the end of the letter, just to dick with the Deist Jefferson, if I may use that colorful but accurate term, she urged Jefferson to take comfort “from that only source calculated to heal the wounded heart — a firm belief in the Being: perfections and attributes of God.” And to top it all off, she ended the letter by calling herself one “who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself your Friend.” Ouch.

What a letter! Nobody talked to Thomas Jefferson that way! And there it was, the original, in Abigail’s clear penmanship, under glass, at the J.P. Morgan Library.

Now if Jefferson had had an ounce of good sense, he would have written a brief, polite reply thanking Mrs. Adams for her sympathy. But that’s not what he did. In his reply on June 13, 1804, Jefferson stupidly brought up a grudge he still nursed about President Adams’ conduct during the last weeks of his one-term presidency.

“I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only,” he wrote, “ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind.” He complained to Mrs. Adams that John’s appointment of judicial officers after the election results were known — the so-called “midnight appointments” — gave permanent government offices to men who were sworn enemies to the “second American revolution” Jefferson had in mind.

All you can say to this is “Oh boy.”

When Abigail Adams replied, on July 1, 1804, she ripped him a new one, as we like to say in our vulgar era. First she gave Jefferson a little lesson in U.S. Constitution 101: Until the end of a person’s administration, she explained, he has not only a right but a constitutional duty to fill federal vacancies. Think about this. This is Abigail Adams lecturing the great Jefferson about the clear meaning of the U.S. Constitution.

And she was only getting warmed up. Now that Jefferson had made the mistake of opening old wounds, Abigail vented “her” two grievances. First, when Jefferson canceled as many of the midnight appointments as he legally could, one of those appointments was for Abigail’s son, John Quincy Adams. Jefferson later protested that he was unaware that J.Q. Adams was one of those on the chopping block, and Abigail seems to have believed him. But her larger wrath involved Jefferson’s encouragement, including financial encouragement, of the muckraking hack writer James Callender, who had published all sorts of ugly, unfair and untrue attacks on the life, career and character of John Adams, including calling him a hermaphrodite wholly unfit for high office.

Mrs. Adams made it clear that she knew Jefferson had sponsored Callender and egged him on, had given him relatively large dollops of cash and that he done nothing to curb the ruffian’s verbal excesses.

Barely able to modulate her wrath and bitterness, she wrote, “this Sir I considered as a personal injury — this was the sword that cut asunder the Gordian knot, which could not be untied by all the efforts of party Spirit, by rivalship, by Jealousy or any other malignant fiend.”

And just to make sure Jefferson knew how bitter and angry she was, Abigail decided to remind him that she was well aware that Callender had later turned on him and broken the Sally Hemings story to the world:

“The serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you sufficient specimens of his talents, his gratitude, his justice, and his truth.”

There’s more to the story, but I will leave it there. The correspondence sputtered on for a few more exchanges until Abigail essentially told Jefferson to go jump in a lake. Jefferson attempted to explain and exonerate himself about Callender, but we know that he was lying, and she knew he was lying, and he knew that she knew he was lying.

Jefferson wrote 26,000 letters altogether and received even more in the course of his amazing life. I can say this with categorical confidence. Nobody else ever dared to write to Jefferson in this way, nobody else assailed him so directly and with such laser-like aggression. And nobody who wrote to him in even milder rebuke could expect to remain his friend.

Somehow Abigail Adams and Jefferson got through this moment of volcanic tension, though it was 10 years before either of them dared write to the other again.

There is something breathtaking about Abigail Adams. She is one of the few people who ever made Thomas Jefferson wince. He would not have wanted to be married to such a woman. It’s remarkable that he even wanted to know a woman so outspoken, direct, and unrelenting in her righteousness.

John Adams was unaware of this epistolary exchange at the time, in the spring and summer of 1804. When he read the exchange years later, he did some wincing, too.

To see the letter that touched off that wild correspondence, with my fabulous daughter, at the Morgan Library, was one of those moments I will never forget.

I hope two things. First, that she models herself (to a considerable extent) on Abigail Adams. Second, that I never receive from her a letter of such extraordinary disenchantment.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Exploration Legacy Is Not Over Yet

As perhaps you know, I’m now the editor of the quarterly journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, “We Proceeded On.” That’s one of the refrains of William Clark’s journal of the 28-month expedition that was the brainchild of the great Jefferson. Whatever else was true, virtually every day (there were 1,123 of them), Clark announced that “we proceeded on” — from St. Louis to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

The journal comes out four times per year. My fourth issue will appear in about a month. I’m so excited about it that I want to tell you what we have discovered, and I want to urge you to become members of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and in so doing subscribe to the journal, which we Lewis and Clark obsessives call WPO, we proceeded on.

Lewis and Clark were explorers, which meant that they regarded themselves as the first white people to see whole swaths of the American West. Lewis, in particular, wanted to be first — first to see the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers; first to view the Great Falls of the Missouri, which Lewis regarded as second only to Niagara Falls in sublimity; and maybe greater, first to bestride the source of what he called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” They were traveling through what Lewis called a landscape “2,000 miles in width upon which the foot of civilized man has never trodden.”

The word “discovery” is now pretty suspect. One person’s new discovery is another’s ancient homeland. Lewis and Clark were not traveling in a vacuum, no matter what they wanted us to believe. They depended on Native American informants, Native American guides (and I don’t mean Sacagawea), and Native American maps drawn with sticks and mud on the ground, or with charcoal on animal skins, and occasionally on paper.

Cartographers have identified at least 10 places in the journals where the captains talk about the maps that their Indian hosts produced to help them figure out the lay of the land and to know which tributaries and mountain ranges stood in their path to the Pacific.

A couple of years ago, a graduate student named Christopher Steinke, then at the University of New Mexico, discovered one of those maps. It was stored in the archives of the Bibliotheque nationale de France in Paris. Steinke was not a Lewis and Clark scholar. He was searching for North American indigenous maps at the Bibliotheque nationale when he stumbled upon one by an Arikara man named Piaheto or Arketarnarshar or Too Né. He wrote an article about it, with more emphasis on indigenous than on Lewis and Clark, in the outstanding William and Mary Quarterly.

As you know, every year I lead a cultural tour on the Lewis and Clark Trail in Montana and Idaho. We canoe through the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River east of Fort Benton, Mont., for three days, and then — after a hotel room and hot showers — we spend another three days hiking up on the Lolo Trail, the most pristine part of the entire national Lewis and Clark Trail. One of my favorite young guides, an archaeologist named Kevin O’Briant, told me at a place called Eagle Camp that he wanted me to see a map he had come across.

I was stunned. The map was made by Too Né, who traveled with the expedition for a few weeks in the autumn of 1804 in what’s now North Dakota. He went upriver with Lewis and Clark to try to make peace with the Mandan Indians, with whom the Arikara had been at war. He tried to inform Clark of some of the important landmarks, including sacred places, on that stretch of the Missouri River between today’s North Dakota and South Dakota border and the earthlodge villages at the mouth of the Knife River in central North Dakota.

In his journal Clark said he was indifferent to the geographic, historical and sacred information Too Né was explaining to him through an interpreter. But the discovery of the map shows that Clark was listening more closely than he let on, and Too Né’s information did actually find its way into Clark’s journal.

All of this is spectacular news. It’s one of the most important discoveries in Lewis and Clark studies for a generation, since folks in Louisville, Ky., found a packet of 51 William Clark letters in an attic in the late 1980s. It may be more important because it sheds important light on the expedition’s dependence on Native American maps, on the previously neglected role of Too Né as a Native American guide, interpreter and diplomat and on the significance of the expedition’s encounter with the Arikara in northern South Dakota.

When Kevin showed me the map, I immediately decided to dedicate a full issue of “We Proceeded On” to the Too Né map. I asked Kevin to write the lead article. He has written a wonderful essay about the ways in which Native American maps read the land differently from Euro-American Enlightenment maps. We’re publishing the map in a pull-out centerfold. I call it Lewis and Clark porn.

I asked the two leading Lewis and Clark cartographers, both eminent individuals, Herman Viola and John Logan Allen, to assess the map. Before fulfilling my request, they made me send them wonderful huge laminated copies of the map. Their assessments are amazingly generous and insightful.

I interviewed Chris Steinke, the discoverer of the map. I found Jefferson’s letter of condolence to the Arikara — Too Né visited the Great Redheaded Father in Washington, D.C., and unfortunately died there on April 6, 1806. And I found a multipage description of Too Né in the nation’s capital by a painter, man of letters, playwright and actor William Dunlap. And I wrote an essay about the ways Too Né’s map tracks with Clark’s journal from Oct. 8 to Nov. 10, 1804.

This will be one of the most important issues of “We Proceeded On” in a very long time, perhaps forever. I even got an artist friend of mine, Katrina Case-Soper, to paint a courtroom-like watercolor of Too Né in the Washington boarding house where he stayed in the weeks before his death.

You can sense how excited I am about this and how proud I am to serve as editor for this critically important moment in the long history of Lewis and Clark studies. I hope you will subscribe to WPO starting immediately. Just go to the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage website. Their headquarters is in Great Falls, Mont. You will find more information about all of this on our website.

A couple of weeks ago I made a pilgrimage to one of the sacred places on Too Né’s map. It’s called Medicine Rock, located near the Cannonball River in southwestern North Dakota. It’s a lonely outcropping in the middle of the middle of nowhere. Virtually no non-Indian North Dakotans know that Medicine Rock exists.

It was a windy, cold, gray, winter day on the northern Great Plains, with ground blizzarding on the narrow two-lane roads, followed by gravel roads, followed by a two-trail path in the middle of an immense grassland. I had to walk a mile into a stiff wind, wind chill about 10 below zero, to get to the sacred place. And there, in this nondescript bit of sandstone in the infinite expanse of the Great Plains, where a protective chain link fence surrounds the perimeter of the Medicine Rock site, I found prayer bundles — thumb-sized plugs of tobacco wrapped in bright cotton handkerchiefs — tied to the fence.

Think about this. It’s the second decade of the 21st century, and I got to the site partly by using the Google earth app on my smartphone. We need these  reminders that there are still sacred places all around us and that the white history of America, particularly the Great Plains, is very recent.

Robert Frost was right. “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — What Could We Possibly Really Know?

I get so tired of the Sally Hemings story. At almost every public presentation I give in the costume and character of Thomas Jefferson, someone sashays up to the microphone in the aisle and says, “Tell us about Sally Henning” or some other slight botching of her name. “Or tell us about your family, and I mean all of your family?”

I go ahead and provide an answer in character, but I want to ask, “What do you know about this exactly and why do you care and what do you think it means for our understanding of Thomas Jefferson?” But I don’t.

Some people think Jefferson raped Sally Hemings, repeatedly, over a period that may have amounted to 34 years. If you listen to this program you know Jenkinson’s law: All bets are off below the waist. So I could not swear that Jefferson did not rape Sally Hemings.

Once you learn that the sportcaster Marv Albert likes to bite his lovers on the backside, that presidential consultant Dick Morris enjoyed sucking the toes of the prostitutes he hired and that Bill Clinton liked to play hide the cigar with Monica Lewinsky, you just have to accept that human beings are aroused by a very wide and strange set of practices (of which these examples are in fact tame).

Still, I find it virtually impossible to imagine that Jefferson ever forced himself on Sally Hemings. But we weren’t there, of course, and we have no way of knowing what went on behind those tightly closed doors. It seems to me that slavery had to produce psychological damage in a highly evolved human being like Thomas Jefferson. It may have played itself out sexually in ways that we would rather not know or face.

The British explorer John Speke, one of the questors for the source of the Nile, like to eat the fetuses of the big game animals he killed in Africa and India.

De gustibus non est disputandum. There is no accounting for taste.

Jefferson may not have forced himself on Sally Hemings, but it depends on what you mean by force. He owned her. She was his property. He could sell her at any time. He could whip her. He could give her as a hospitality token to his male guests for the night. This very often happened in the plantation South.

Look at it this way. If Jefferson made it clear that he intended to have sex with Sally Hemings, but never would have overpowered her with his physical strength, it could still be rape — if she didn’t want his sexual attention. It might be rape even if she did, given the vast differential between his status and hers, the profound difference in power and freedom of movement and action, the implicit threat of what might happen if you disappoint the master and the myriad ways in which the slaveholders were able to coerce their slaves to conform to their habits and notions.

It may have begun in France with some tacit coercion — what choice did she really have, so far away from the enslaved community in Virginia? — and over time morphed into something that can be said to resemble “consensual intimacy.” Or she may have been both vulnerable and impressionable when it started — more seduction than coercion.

She was after all just 14 years old when she arrived in Paris. Jefferson was 44. He was a famous man, a great man, the ambassador to France, the author of the celebrated Declaration of Independence. It might have been intoxicating to receive the attentions, possibly romantic attentions, of one of the most elegant and fastidious men of the Enlightenment.

In our time and according to our codes, a 44-year-old man having sex with a 14- year-old girl is regarded automatically as rape — statutory rape. Think of the revulsion most people felt when they learned of Roy Moore’s alleged statutory proclivities in Alabama.

Today we automatically think 14 is too young for consensual sex with an adult, and we have a special place in our Inferno for men who prey on young impressionable women and men: preachers, priests, college professors, politicians, coaches, team doctors, Scout leaders.

I’m with John Adams, in this as in almost all of his judgments about human nature. When he read about the Sally Hemings story in the newspapers — this was THE scandal of the years 1802-04, during Jefferson’s first term as president, he said he could not of course be sure that Jefferson was guilty of this transgression. And in fact, it seemed out of character for the graceful and exquisite Jefferson.

BUT it was, said Adams, precisely what one would expect in the miasma of slavery. Owning another human being had its implications, all transgressive, and there was no good reason to try to draw some sort of line at the sexual frontier.

 

 

That seems right to me.

My own theory, and I do not say this to try in any way to exonerate Jefferson, is that Sally Hemings was a shrewd young woman. Her mother had been the mistress of a white man. Her grandmother had been the mistress of a white man. By making herself available to Jefferson, she increased her status and improved her life: better clothing, better food, a better job at Monticello (housekeeper inside the mansion), better sleeping quarters, some spending money, better doctors, etc.

And we know from the testimony of her son Madison, from his 1873 interview in an Ohio newspaper, that his mother struck a hard bargain with Jefferson while they were still in France, where she was free under international law, and therefore did not have to return to Virginia with her master Jefferson. According to Madison Hemings, Jefferson agreed to free her brother, James, once he taught other slaves the art of French cookery, and he agreed to free any children he might have with Sally Hemings.

And he did. Two walked away from Monticello and passed seamlessly into the white world. The other two were freed in Jefferson’s will.

In other words, I give Sally Hemings credit for being savvy and strategic.

That doesn’t mean she didn’t love Thomas Jefferson or learn to love him. But she knew how to look out for her interests and particularly those of her children.

If this is true, it doesn’t exonerate Jefferson from abusing his power and status to take as bedfellow someone who had very limited options in that situation and someone who today would be regarded as criminally too young to enter into such a bargain, no matter how shrewd she was. In other words, it might still be rape in some sense of that term. If true, it certainly reveals something fascinating and very troubling in Jefferson’s sexual persona and indeed character.

We need to be troubled. But we also need to be fair, circumspect and to seek understanding rather than to swagger in judgment. The DNA makes it a near certainty that Jefferson was the father of one or more of Sally Hemings’ children, but the genetic code does not get us very far into this story because it does not tell us anything about that most mysterious of human mysteries, just what their relationship was behind doors that we have not been invited to open.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Conflict Of Interest

Thomas Jefferson had many opportunities to speculate in western lands. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, were engaged in land speculation beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Jefferson quietly refused because he knew that at some point he might have to “legislate” for the public domain, and he did not want to be guilty of conflict of interest or even to give the appearance of possibly being guilty of conflict of interest.

An exaggerated image of Jefferson’s Mammoth Cheese.
An exaggerated image of Jefferson’s Mammoth Cheese.

Jefferson needed the money that such speculation might have brought to his always troubled finances, but he chose to stay aloof from such temptations.

When Elder John Leland of Massachusetts sent President Jefferson the world’s largest cheese in 1802 — 1,235 pounds, 4 feet wide, 15 inches thick — Jefferson immediately sent the pastor a check for $200.

Not the largest, but world’s dumbest cheese.
Not the largest, but world’s dumbest cheese.

Jefferson understood that the so-called “mammoth cheese” was an innocent and lovely gift, a kind of gimcrack or prodigy, and that Leland had no political agenda (unlike today’s American Dairy Association, for example), but he wanted to maintain his principle of not accepting gifts, however whimsical or harmless, because A, it would set a bad precedent, and B, accepting such gifts might constitute a slippery slope. Integrity and republican virtue were the very basis of Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a republic.

These are just two examples of Jefferson’s lifelong habit of ethical high-mindedness as a government official. He understood what is at stake in a republican society.

So:

  • President Trump’s hotels, including the Trump International in the District of Columbia, are bustling with guests, banquets, receptions and barroom meetings. His Mar-a-Lago resort is bringing in record profits. These facilities are filled with foreign diplomats, princes and foreign government representatives who could just as easily stay at any one of the hundreds of hotels in Washington, D.C., or the scores of five-star resorts in Florida. This in spite of the emoluments clause in the U.S. Constitution: “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” — Article I, Section 9, Clause 8.
  • The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, we have learned, has conducted meetings in the White House with bankers and business groups from whom he has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars for his personal business holdings in New York City.
  • The president’s daughter, Ivanka, has a product line that was granted several trademarks in China on the same day that she sat in on a meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and her father at Mar-a-Lago. Hmmm.

This list could be much longer.

Even if these transactions could be interpreted as “perfectly innocent and/or coincidental,” the appearance of conflict of interest, of the president’s smug indifference to ethical norms and the laws of the United States, including clauses of the U.S. Constitution itself, puts PresidentTrump at the far other end of the spectrum from President Jefferson, and virtually every other president in American history.

The only thing worse than these improprieties and (perhaps) crimes is the steadfast refusal of the Congress of the United States to hold the president and his family accountable.

To those who wish to argue that President Trump’s bombastic and narcissistic style is a wise strategy to “shake up the dysfunctional world of Washington, D.C.,” I ask, what is the beneficial purpose of this brand of ethical negligence? How does the republic benefit from the Trump family’s determination to use their time in the White House to line their own pockets and increase the profits of their businesses?

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Big Military Parades

President Trump wants a big military parade, the kind one saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the kind one sees today in North Korea.

It might be useful to compare that notion with the republican dignity of the third president, Thomas Jefferson.

President Jefferson in his White House Office with Meriwether Lewis.
President Jefferson in his White House Office with Meriwether Lewis.

Jefferson broke with the habit of his two predecessors and sent his annual messages by courier to Congress. He believed that appearing in person before Congress smacked of monarchy, European court culture and a false aggrandizement of what an American president should represent in a free society.

He walked to the Capitol in Washington to deliver his first inaugural address March 4, 1801. He wore plain gentlemen’s clothes, eschewed all pompous ceremonial rituals and delivered his address so nearly inaudibly and with such meekness that those who gathered to hear his vision of America had to go out on the street afterward to buy printed copies of the speech. When he finished his address, Jefferson walked back to the boarding house where he was staying and took his seat at the foot of the table, farthest from the fire, in his accustomed way.

Jefferson met White House visitors in plain, sometimes slightly shabby, clothes.  In fact, he caused an international incident when he greeted British Minister Anthony Merry in his house slippers, his linen “none too clean,” wearing an ill-fitting great coat.

Jefferson rode his horse freely and without a military escort around the District of Columbia, often stopping at greengrocers to inspect their fresh vegetables. He corresponded with average Americans in a frank and thoughtful manner. He called the presidency “splendid misery” and on the eve of his voluntary retirement after two terms, he wrote, “Never did a prisoner released from his chains feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.”

Jefferson understood political theater, but rather than use his office to puff himself up or compensate for a lack of understanding of the constitutional process, he carefully shaped his public life to remind himself and those around him that while he was perhaps the first citizen of the country (for a limited time), he was not king, dictator or high priest. To his Postmaster General Gideon Granger, Jefferson wrote, “our general government may be reduced to a very simple organization, and a very unexpensive one; a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants.”

That’s what it means to live in a republic.

Jefferson knew how much discipline it takes to maintain a free society. He knew that “the tendency of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” He understood that the genius of America is undermined whenever our leaders forget that sovereignty resides in the people, not in their own persons or their short tenures as stewards of the people’s will.

CLAY JENKINSON: Poor John Adams: Right And Wrong As Always

Basic chronology:

  • June 7, 1776: Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee presents resolution of independence to the Second Continental Congress.
  • June 11: Committee of five appointed to draft a declaration explaining America’s right to secede: Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson.

The others drop out in the following order: Sherman, Livingston, Franklin and Adams. Jefferson signs and undertakes to write the document, “consulting neither book nor pamphlet.” (Showoff!)

  • June 28: Committee presents Jefferson’s draft to the Continental Congress.
  • July 2: Congress passes resolution of independence — the die is cast.
  • July 4: After two days of intense debate, Congress adopts a chastened (TJ said mutilated) version of Jefferson’s declaration of independence.
  • Aug. 2: There was never a formal signing ceremony. The document certainly wasn’t signed on the Fourth of July. Once the engraved copy had been prepared, most delegates signed on or around Aug. 2, 1776.
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr …
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr …

The great John Adams, who played a much more significant role in the American Revolution than did Jefferson, developed both a short-term and later a long-term reaction to the events of the first week of July 1776. In the moment, overwhelmed with pride and revolutionary excitement, Adams wrote a letter to his “dearest friend,” Abigail, his wife, on July 3. The great letter contains the following exuberant paragraph:

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Well, sir, you were half-right. At the instant when this was all unfolding, Adams rightly predicted the ways in which the American people would come to celebrate the birth of their republic. But he was off by two days on the celebration date.

for a list of OSHA violations, see …
for a list of OSHA violations, see …

Much later, when Jefferson’s fame and popularity had soared beyond that of many of the other figures of the Revolution, including Adams, Adams attempted to restore the balance in his own favor. He made it clear that he could have written the Declaration of Independence if he had wanted to but that, in an act of selfless nobility, he handed the assignment off to young Jefferson. He suggested in letters that there was nothing original in Jefferson’s document; in fact, Jefferson had merely copied from a range of state and local declarations to produce his synthesis. And when he was truly upset with his former “protege,” the earthy Adams raged, “You have run away with” the Revolution.

Among other things, exquisite penmanship. Genius: “an infinite capacity for taking pains.”
Among other things, exquisite penmanship. Genius: “an infinite capacity for taking pains.”

All that historians can conclude is this. Jefferson had nothing to do with America’s preference for the fourth of July over the second of July — unless you credit what even Adams called Jefferson’s “peculiar felicity for expression” for lifting what might have been a routine state paper into global immortality.

Jefferson did not seek to write the Declaration of Independence. In fact, he tried to talk his way out of the assignment.

The simple fact is that on the Fourth of July 1776, one of the handful of most important documents in the history of the world was adopted by a group of principled intellectuals from Britain’s colonies in North America. If you start to make a list of the most important and influential documents ever written — the Magna Carta, the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Rights — there can be no list that does not place Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in the top 10, indeed top five.

Why?

Because Jefferson had spent a lifetime to hard reading and composing lucid prose in order to be ready when the moment came. As a young man, he read 12 to 15 hours a day. Doesn’t leave much time for firecrackers. Jefferson had a genius for piercing through the immediate to the universal significance of things. The Revolution wasn’t finally about Britain. “It was about the aspirations of humankind.” Jefferson was a humanist in the profoundest sense of the term.

The irony is that Jefferson would probably have been happy to steer fireworks, parades and bratwurst to the Second of July and devote the Fourth of July to seminars on liberty, a thoughtful toast with a fine glass of Bordeaux, a rigorous checklist survey of how well human liberty is doing against the forces of creeping bureaucracy, regulation, taxation and big government.

He never did figure out how to fire off a Roman candle.

So today, July 2, 2017, I lift my glass to irascible, contentious, prickly, earthy, vain, self-pitying and unbearably honest and virtuous John Adams. Let the parades begin.

It may be worth noting that in 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution, Adams and Jefferson died on the same day — on the FOURTH OF JULY.

Checkmate, Mr. Adams.

CLAY JENKINSON: Driving The Yellowstone River Valley At The Time Of The Solstice

I was out in western Montana helping my mother get her wee Thoreavian cabin ready for the summer. We had a couple of sweet days together. She is 85 years old, still strong and autonomous, but just beginning to exhibit signs of elderliness. It bothers me to see her in even modest decline. I’m sure it bothers her much more.

Not so far east of Billings. A pitiful image of what I saw on my drive.
Not so far east of Billings. A pitiful image of what I saw on my drive.

The cabin is just two miles from the northeast gate at Yellowstone National Park. It is precisely the sort of modest cabin — droll, humble, beautiful in its simplicity — that I most admire.

Yesterday, I had to hurtle back to the center of North Dakota. I could not afford to linger. So I drove from Cooke City to Belfry, then on to Laurel, where I picked up Interstate 90 and the clearest possible path home. I stopped only in Billings, to take care of a few emails, and then in Miles City, to purchase fuel.

The Yellowstone, the Yellowstone, oh my, the Yellowstone.
The Yellowstone, the Yellowstone, oh my, the Yellowstone.

Sometimes, I listened to news talk shows on satellite radio. Sometimes I just breathed in the silence of Montana. Sometimes, I drove with the windows open. More often, I closed the windows so that I could think. I have a lot on my mind these days.

You would never think that I-94/I-90, a four-lane interstate highway designed to follow the path of least resistance across the fourth-largest state, would be beautiful, but it is. In fact, it must be one of the most beautiful highways anywhere on Earth.

Not far west of the North Dakota border you intersect the great Yellowstone River and follow it upstream all the way to Bozeman. Sometimes, it is on the north side of the freeway, sometimes the south side. Whenever I crossed the river, my heart leaped a little. It’s that great a river.

Sometimes, it runs right along the highway. Often enough, it snakes its way to the far side of its wide valley. The Yellowstone, essentially the longest undammed river in America, starts in Yellowstone National Park and disembogues into the Missouri southwest of Williston, N.D.

The Yellowstone valley is not just beautiful. It is achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful. If you stopped the car every time there was something you just had to photograph, you’d crawl along at about 15 miles per hour, on average. In eastern Montana, the river is the bluest blue you can imagine as it runs through tawny grasslands and a few pine ridges. At times, as in the photograph above, it has carved sandstone cliffs, some continuous for miles, others broken into buttes, bluffs, and breaks.

Most people deride eastern Montana as dullsville, flyover country, bland, boring, interminable. In my view, they are just wrong. They have been conditioned to think a beautiful landscape means the Grand Tetons or Glacier National Park or the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Those places are stunning in their dramatic, in some sense overstated, way.

The Great Plains are an acquired taste, but they are a taste worth taking the time to acquire. They are more subtle than Yosemite, more empty than the Great Smoky Mountains. The sky is endless. You find yourself saying, “It really is big sky country,” and then feeling a little embarrassed to succumb to a state government marketing slogan. Something about the endlessness of the plains, so much land used for so little, the human footprint so light and even tender, the sense of being swallowed up by the earth and the grass, provides a sense of satisfaction I have never experienced elsewhere, even at the summit of the Maroon Bells Wilderness south of Aspen, Colo., or on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

You have to let the Great Plains in to fall in love with their subtleties. If your world is Starbucks, the print edition of the New York Times and Whole Foods, you probably aren’t going to find the plains sufficiently satisfying. The Plains towns are basic, clunky, red and redneck. It’s country music country. Limbaugh country. It’s patriotism on your sleeve country. It’s now largely Trump country.

But however much you may object to some things about this place — and I object to dozens, some of them fundamental — it has a magical authenticity.

These are the folks you want to be around at the apocalypse or the crash. These are folks so full of unheralded integrity that their word and handshake are their bond. They are magnificent in a crisis. They work hard, play by the rules, pay their full share of taxes (grumblingly), don’t expect amenities from government, and they are rooted in the earth, the sky, and the wind. They have character.

Many ARE characters. They are egalitarian in the most democratic sense. They don’t care what you wear, where you went to college (or if you did) or how big your house is. They may be edgy about the Other in the abstract, but they are almost unbelievably respectful and friendly to individuals of any stamp from anywhere on Earth at any time.

They are unhappy with where the country is headed, but the unhappiness runs less deep than you might expect. They hate being treated like rubes and yokels by the urban, suburban, exurban; the national media; the elites. They recognize that their economic prospects have been sliding for the last two decades and that the great initiatives that America undertakes (its wars, its massive construction projects) are paid for disproportionately by them both in dollars and in lives, and they resent that they are largely forgotten Americans, or worse.

And yet when the person most condescending toward them and their style runs out of gas or has a flat tire, they will provide all the help s/he needs, and make no more than a couple of wry statements.

Whenever I spend time out in the heartland of the Great Plains I cheer up about America, about life, even about my life.

Yesterday, as I glided along in my smart(ass) car that keeps me in my lane and slows me down if I get too close to the semi-trailer truck in front of me, I found myself gazing out at Montana for whole hours at a time. I have driven that road at least 50 times in my life. I cannot remember any journey across the Yellowstone Valley of Montana that has not been so beautiful that I remarked on it for days afterward. I love that drive in summer or winter, on the windiest day in human history, or when the ground blizzard makes you grip the wheel for hundreds of miles.

But yesterday, it was as beautiful as I have ever seen it. The light was perfect. The light is always good. But yesterday, it was pure in a way I have never seen before. It was soft June light, not garish July and August light, or “winter around the corner” September light.

The cottonwood leaves are still unscarred by the aridity that is coming. The clouds were not the cotton ball cumulous so common to early summer or the lowering gray clouds that should bring a thunderstorm but don’t. The clouds were wind-wisped into the gentlest and least threatening elongations. The temperature outside the car was 74 degrees, which is as close to perfection as possible anywhere on earth. Whenever the broken prairies started to seem too familiar, I passed through a brief rise of the plains, and pine trees dotted the summits of the grass.

It was so beautiful I wanted to cry. It was so beautiful I wanted to be with the person most important to me in life. It was so beautiful I wanted to have $25,000 of camera equipment, a drone and a day 10 times longer to try to capture the quality of the light. The photo I have placed above reminds me of the magnificence I experience, but I can tell you honestly that it doesn’t more than 10 percent capture yesterday afternoon and evening. It’s a paradox.

I would give anything to have been able to take 100 photographs worthy of the eastern Montana on the last day of June 2017. And at the same time, I am glad that no photograph can capture the full essence of the Great Plains. I do and DO NOT want my best experiences mediated.

No photograph can capture the breeze, the commercial airplane’s intermittent hum from 35,000 feet. No photograph can capture the temperature and the loneliness and the fullness and the sense of wonder and the recognition that this place is so profoundly undervalued even by the people who live and work here.

At Miles City, when I stopped for gas, two teenagers in the RV next to me were raging at their father for stopping under the metal canopy of the gas station because it had cut off their viewing of the movie “The Titanic.”

As I crossed over the state line into North Dakota, and the sun set behind me, I sincerely wondered whether I would ever see Montana so beautiful again in my lifetime.

I think the answer is yes.

CLAY JENKINSON: Sad Lessons From the Nixon White House

Given where things are headed, I’m preparing the way a humanities scholar prepares. I’m reading accounts of the life and presidency of Richard M. Nixon. I’ll place a short bibliography of books worth reading at the bottom of this essay.

The constitutional crisis we are now descending into is either much less grave than Watergate or much, much more serious. Time will tell. If President Trump is just an ignorant bully who doesn’t really understand obstruction of justice, he’ll probably survive to limp out his term. If people around Trump actually conspired with Russian agents to affect the 2016 election, some of them are going to go to prison, and the President may well have to resign. It’s one thing to bug the Democratic headquarters (June 1972), a very different thing to collude with a foreign power to distort domestic elections in the United States.

Personally, I sense that this story is ultimately going to be about sex (the hookers in the Moscow hotel) or about personal financial skullduggery (Trump’s beholdenness to the kleptocrats in Russia who have financed his global operations), or both. If treason was committed, it was probably done more out of ignorance and arrogance than with seriously malicious intent to subvert American sovereignty. Time will tell.

Why Nixon and Watergate?

As Mark Twain is said to have said but didn’t, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Here’s what I have learned from my recent reading of Nixon books.

1. It’s not the crime but the coverup. This is now a cliche. But it is nevertheless true.

2. Of course the president is involved, not necessarily in the crimes themselves, but in the coverup. Presidents don’t usually know how grave the situation is until it is much too late. In the earlier, more “innocent” phases of the scandal, the president thinks he can manage it to his advantage. As the scandal deepens, the president learns that the crimes did in fact occur, but now it is too late to cut his losses or pretend innocence. Nixon was almost certainly unaware of the Watergate break-in or the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in Los Angeles. But he had ordered and coordinated the cover-up of “whatever it was” early on, and by the time he realized how grave things really were, it was too late. In for a penny of cover-up, in for a pound.

3. Blaming the media works, but not forever. Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS and other entities all made serious mistakes in their reporting. Some of what they reported turned out not to be true. Naturally, the Nixon administration clutched at each of these “lies” and declared (on their basis) that “nothing the press reports can be trusted.” The media’s mistakes were unfortunate and unfair, but the great news entities got the larger dynamics of the story right, and while diehard Nixon lovers never accepted the truth, a critical mass of American opinion-makers and leaders came to realize that the story was essentially true. Any story this complicated is hard to sort out, particularly when the principal actors refuse to cooperate in setting the record straight, and others are leaking material out of malice of to save their sorry skins.

4. Invariably, as the scandal deepens, the president argues that his enemies are making it impossible to do good and important things for the American people. This, of course, is true, but it doesn’t mean the administration is innocent, and no matter how much you blame your enemies, in the end the collapse of a presidential administration is self-inflicted. Presidents almost never admit this. Nixon did, years later, to his credit. The “people’s business” argument is often all the President has left in his rhetorical arsenal, but it never works.

“a growing cancer on the Presidency …”
“a growing cancer on the Presidency …”

5. Another of the predictable “defenses” is that “this is an inside-the-beltway scandal, which the real American people don’t care about.” This is both true and untrue. Compared to the cluster of real issues the American people want addressed — health care, border security, energy policy, education, jobs — these scandals are of negligible importance. But the American people do love a good scandal, especially one leading all the way to the top, and no matter how disproportionate the scandal-mongering gets, there is no stopping it. In the case of Iran-Contra, the American people had finally to decide if they could stomach impeaching President Reagan, who most Americans liked in spite of his failures. Everyone sensed that he was not evil, like Nixon, but just manipulatable and a bit addled. At some point, a presidential scandal reaches the Decision Point: acknowledge the president’s guilt but somehow agree to carry on under his leadership, or force the issue and get rid of him.

6. The president probably doesn’t know all the bad things that have been done in his name. He really is relatively innocent. His aides don’t tell him the whole truth. Once the scandal begins to thicken, everyone starts looking for a scapegoat. Nixon didn’t really want to know the truth until too late. When he finally started trying to figure out what had happened and who was responsible, he could no longer cut his losses, fire the culprits, apologize sincerely and carry on. My point is that when presidents profess their innocence or their bewilderment about crimes committed in their name, they are often telling the truth or at least a partial truth.

7. At some point the president hopes there is a foreign policy crisis that will drive the scandal off the front page. In Nixon’s case, the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 and the oil embargo that followed should have made the Watergate “caper,” as one of his aides called it, go away. This never actually happens. The scandal may very temporarily slip off the front page, but it will not disappear for very long, and meanwhile the best reporters finally have time to do more serious digging. Perverse though it sounds, I’m guessing there are people close to the current president hoping for a big terrorist attack somewhere in America or an American outpost. Think of that.

8. Firing the chief investigator always makes matters worse. Nixon tried this in the Saturday Night Massacre (October 1973). President Trump should not have fired FBI director James Comey. In doing so, and denouncing Comey as a “nut job,” President Trump brought on the special counsel. He also offended Comey so deeply that the former FBI director now seems determined to do what he can to bring Trump down.

9. John Dean was telling the truth. Beware of challenging the veracity of the Dean/Comey figure. When you pretend that the “facts will show” that the president was telling the truth and the key witness was fabricating and lying, it’s always safe to bet on the John Dean figure rather than the president.

10. The president always makes the mistake of viewing his problems as political when they are already legal. By the time he realizes that they are legal (or constitutional) problems, not primarily political ones, it is too late. Meanwhile, because he chose to see the scandal as a political matter, and reckoned that he could “tough it out,” the President finds himself engaged in the cover-up. See No. 1.

11. Elections are extremely irrational affairs, and people who should know better do crazy, erratic and illegal things to get their guy elected. Nixon was going to win the 1972 election by a comfortable, perhaps even a gigantic, margin. He had absolutely no rational reason to permit the dirty tricks and break-ins that were undertaken in his name. But elections bring out a kind of insanity in those close to a candidate. This is what we are going to learn about the 2016 Trump campaign. President Trump may turn out to have been essentially unaware of the Machiavellian actions undertaken by his closest aides, but that doesn’t make him innocent. In Trump’s case, his zealots may have felt that he simply could not win without shady maneuvers. And they may have been right.

12. There is a great deal of self-pity before it ends. Just wait.

13. And finally, the last weeks of a collapsing administration are truly dangerous. Nixon’s closest aides finally took steps to make sure the president didn’t do anything in the last weeks that might have precipitated Armageddon. The temptation to lob a missile at North Korea may finally overwhelm a discredited and desperate president. In the last weeks of his administration, Nixon told his core advisors that he wanted to die, that he wanted to go to sleep and not wake up. At some point, the most responsible members of an administration have to “parent” the collapsing president.

Eventually, even partisan stalwarts realize that for the good of the republic, the president must be removed from office. When Barry Goldwater finally comes over to the White House and says, enough, it’s time to start the helicopter.

None of this gives me any joy. In fact, I hate to see the glee and the high-fiving of the left. Some members of the media and some partisans can barely suppress their mirth. We are witnessing the possible collapse of a duly-elected president of the United States. This can never be good for America. Richard Nixon’s fall was a classical tragedy. Donald Trump’s, should it come to that, will more closely resemble a farce. But his fall would represent a very serious setback for the United States of America.

I remember driving up to a farmhouse near Wahpeton, N.D., on the day that Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. I was there to take a photograph of an award-winning shelterbelt. The farmer opened the front door. When I introduced myself, he said, “I’m sorry. This is no longer the right day for such a photograph. Please come back another time.” He could not have been more polite. He could not have been more serious. In my opinion, he could not have been more right.

Books to read:

  • Evan Thomas: “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.”
  • John Dean: “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.”
  • Bob Woodward: “The Last of the President’s Men.”
  • Rick Perlstein: “Nixonland.”

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Birding The Apple Creek Wetlands

Went to the Apple Creek wetlands east of Bismarck on Sunday morning to bird with my daughter, Chelsea Sorenson. She is a budding photographer and quite a good birder in her own right. May was such a windy month here that we didn’t do much birding; hence, we missed many of the migrating birds that hurry north to the Arctic. But our time Sunday was rewarded with some good sightings.  Here are a few of the best of my daughter’s photos this week.

You can see more of her photography on Facebook on her “Wild Dakota Photos” page.

Later Sunday afternoon, I attended the (sadly) final “Conversation” at Bismarck State College, presented by President Larry Skogen and Clay S. Jenkinson. The topic was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

I’ve attended as many of these as I’ve been able and have learned so much from these scholars, and I know the room was filled with people who are very sorry that the program has come to an end (due to budget cuts). The crowd gave Clay a standing ovation. If you are interested in following Clay’s work, you can find more on his website and on the “Conversations” website.

The Red Oak House garden is exploding with irises and the air is filled with their delicate and sweet fragrance.  New ones this week were:

Spring and summer are such busy and happy times in North Dakota.

“It’s enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment.” — Gabriel Garcia Marquez

CLAY JENKINSON: The Death Of Decorum In The White House

As a scholar not a partisan, I have been trying to think if any president in American history has behaved in a less presidential way than Donald Trump.

Andrew Jackson was a frontier ruffian in some respects, a loud populist, and during his inauguration March 4, 1829, his rural supporters trashed the White House.

Theodore Roosevelt called his enemies colorful names (he said McKinley had the backbone of a chocolate éclair, and he called William Jennings Bryan a human trombone). His roughhousing with his rambunctious children in the White House raised the eyebrows of the Victorian stuff shirts of his time. As president, Roosevelt rattled the nerves of Charles Elliot, the president of Harvard, when he showed up at his old alma mater packing a loaded pistol. When one of his old pals from the Dakota Bad Lands fretted that he might not be admitted into the White House through the usual doors, TR urged him next time just to shoot out one of the windows. Probably he was joking.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Bill Clinton famously spoke with foreign diplomats while receiving oral ministrations in the Oval Office from Monica Lewinski and fiddling creatively with cigars. He was not the only president to have opportunistic sex in the White House, of course, but his sexual style always felt a little like it belonged in a trailer park. JFK is said to have taken LSD in the White House with one of his girlfriends, in the middle of the workday. One hopes it was a relatively quiet day during the nuclear-tipped Cold War.

The always elegant Thomas Jefferson.
The always elegant Thomas Jefferson.

Most presidents either have or adopt proper Presidential deportment. Think of Ronald Reagan (a conservative populist) or George Bush senior (a patrician) insisting on always wearing a coat and tie in the Oval Office, never propping their feet on the famous Resolute desk, and invariably speaking, at least in public, with decorum, a careful and heightened diction and a demeanor that reflects an awareness that they were the prime representative of one the most powerful and important nations in history — the republic of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, and elegant Obama.

Trump mocks a disabled reporter.
Trump mocks a disabled reporter.

No. 45, Donald Trump, behaves like a rich frat boy, your crazy unfiltered uncle at the Thanksgiving table, the loudmouth at the end of the bar at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night, the golfer who wraps his 7-iron around a tree when he misses an easy shot. Trump behaves like a psychologically damaged 70-year-old man trapped in the persona of a spoiled 13-year-old adolescent, a reality TV star who got paid millions to be brash, rude, demeaning, and narcissistic.

And here’s the astonishing thing. For about 35 percent of the American people, it works! In fact, some significant percentage of the electorate thinks this is precisely what American most needs. When you mock a disabled person by waving your arms in what you think is a spastic parody, declare that your wealth and celebrity allow you to grab women by their sexual parts with impunity, when you call Mexicans “hombres,” shove the prime minister of Montenegro out of the way during a photo op or call terrorists who just blew up the bodies of several dozen British young people “losers, a bunch of losers, OK,” you would seem to prove yourself unfit for the presidency of the United States. Who really wants to defend such behavior? And yet, this man who has never tried to hide his core persona was elected president of the United States in 2016.

I have close personal friends, decent, morally mature and sensitive men and women, who defend Donald Trump’s antics and hijinks and say that he is the victim of “fake news” and a liberal national media that is indeed the “enemy of the American people.”

This phenomenon is simply mystifying. Trump’s behavior gets denounced every day, almost every hour of every day now, but I’m much more interested in trying to understand it, or more particularly trying to understand why there is about a third of the population that defends such loutish and unpresidential behavior or even fist pumps it.

If your preacher talked this way, would you defend it? If a high school English teacher talked this way, would you defend it? If Obama had talked this way, would you have defended it? If your best friend talked this way, would you defend it?

I heard a commentator named Dylan Byers on one of the talk shows last week say that we will never recover our national social and political equilibrium until we figure out why about half the nation is so pissed off, so utterly disillusioned with America’s path, so profoundly fed up, cynical and eager to say not much more than “up yours” to the rest of us, that they routinely, even invariably defend the least presidential character in American history.

I suppose you could argue that even Thomas Jefferson had his moments. He deliberately ruffled the feathers of British ambassador Anthony Merry with his pell mell dinner protocols. Occasionally, for effect, or in philosophical absent-mindedness, he greeted White House visitors in his slippers. He blustered about Spain’s colonial presence in the western hemisphere and rattled the saber towards Madrid and Mexico City from time to time, knowing that it was highly unlikely that Spain would take the bait and actually wage war against the United States. Weary of the opposition press of his time, Jefferson eventually suggested that we divide newspapers into four sections: truth, probabilities, possibilities, and bald lies.

That’s the sum total of Jefferson’s rudenesses. Probably no president in our history had more elegance, and a finer sense of etiquette than Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s world was essentially no different from a Jane Austen novel: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma.” Everyone is polite, euphemistic, civil, and nonconfrontational. Whatever gets resolved — and, of course, they faced the same problems all humans always face — has to be resolved by indirection, strained politeness and nuance. It’s hard to know when someone is enraged in Jane Austen’s world because they always unburden themselves using their “inside voices” and employing complete sentences. Or they faint.

Thomas Jefferson was an exquisitely civilized man. He did not Tweet or hold impromptu news conferences or mouth platitudes with tedious repetition of every phrase. “We’re going to be great again. I tell you great again. I mean great folks. Really great. So great.”

Jefferson sat down in front of a plain sheet of expensive paper and the best writing instruments of his time. He thought through just what he wanted to express before he touched pen to paper, paused to regroup between sentences, tried hard to phrase his views in a way that would find harmony in the letter’s recipient.

When he disagreed strongly with someone, Jefferson invariably attempted to lighten the tension by saying, “If we disagree, let us disagree as rational friends.” This was a personal application of the famous utterance from his First Inaugural Address: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.”

Much later, Jefferson wrote one of his most beautiful letters to a man named Charles Thompson. The letter epitomizes the soul of the kind of individual you want to be president of the United Sates.

“It is a singular anxiety which some people have,” Jefferson wrote, “that we should all think alike. Would the world be more beautiful were all our faces alike, were our tempers, our talents, our tastes, our forms, our wishes, aversions and pursuits cast exactly in the same mould? If no varieties existed in the animal, vegetable or mineral creation, but all moved strictly uniform, catholic and orthodox, what a world of physical and moral monotony would it be!”

Well, I guess you cannot Tweet that.

I’m Clay Jenkinson.