CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — The Supreme Court: Political From The Get-Go

We like to think of the Supreme Court as a nonpartisan and completely independent branch of government that makes sure laws passed by Congress and the states conform to the provisions of the United States Constitution.

The Supreme Court aspires to that Olympian detachment and judicial neutrality but seldom achieves it. Like it or not, there is a political substratum in court appointments, and it can produce great political tension at unsettled moments in American life. Like now.

Presidents nominate Supreme Court justices and the Senate has to confirm. There has been occasional trouble since the very beginning.

The first justice to be denied a seat on the court was a man named John Rutledge. It was 1795, just seven years into the new constitutional order. Rutledge had written an op ed piece critical of the Jay Treaty — a 1794 treaty with Britain that tried to resolve certain lingering issues from the War of Independence. That was enough for a Federalist Senate to scotch his candidacy.

Jefferson came into office in 1801 in what he called the Second American Revolution. But poised to prevent that revolution was Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s distant cousin. He was put into his life-tenured position in the last months of John Adams’ failed one-term administration. Adams, who distrusted Jefferson’s democratic radicalism, essentially engaged in last-minute court packing — Marshall and dozens of other midnight appointments — to make sure Jefferson did not take things too far to the left.

Marshall went on to serve for 34 years. He was perhaps the greatest of all Supreme Court justices. He was indeed a thorn in Jefferson’s side. Marshall wanted America to be a great centralized nation state, not a confederation of sovereign states. Marshall envisioned a nation that prized the sanctity of contract above any temporary notion of social justice. He despised Jefferson’s vision of a lightly governed, inward-looking, agriculturally based loose association of proud commonwealths like Virginia and Pennsylvania. We now live in Marshall’s America, not Jefferson’s.

Jefferson struck back at the judiciary in 1804 by convincing his partisans in the House of Representatives to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who had become an obnoxious and outspoken anti-democrat from the bench. The question was this: Can you impeach a justice for what you regard as his nasty politics. The U.S. Senate chose not to convict Chase.

Jefferson seems to have sensed that he was playing a dangerous game, one that could erode constitutional stability. In the aftermath, he admitted that such impeachments were a bungling enterprise and he desisted from meddling with the independence of the judiciary thereafter. Jefferson appointed three justices to the Supreme Court. Every one of them wound up disappointing him.

The last attempt to pack the court was in 1937, when Franklin Roosevelt, just re-elected in a landslide, attempt to increase the number of justices from nine to 15 so that his emergency New Deal legislation would not be struck down by judicial conservatives any longer. Congress balked. Even Democrats in Congress, including senators and representatives devoted to the New Deal, refused to give Roosevelt such unprecedented power. He was frustrated, but this is how our system is supposed to work.

What we should want is a justice with a first-rate mind, great analytical powers, an unusually high capacity for legal discernment and nuance, a deep grounding in the history of law, the history of natural rights and the history of constitutions, particularly “our” Constitution. What we want is someone who knows a great deal about original intent but is not a slave to original intent (that was then, this is now, and by the way “that” constitution was written to protect slavery, so how “original” do we really wish to be?) We want someone who prizes a strict protection of human rights over government efficiency or economic prosperity. What you most want on a court is a few crabby civil libertarians who understand that the whole genius of America is to leave as many people alone as possible as often and emphatically as possible.

So why are we already locked into an angry national cage match on Roe V. Wade, the abortion decision issued by the Supreme Court in 1973?

Both parties are behaving in a deplorable manner: The Republicans want the nominee to pledge to overturn Roe V. Wade. The Democrats insist that he or she hint that she will leave current abortion law in place.

Not only is this the wrong basis on which to give someone life tenure, but it trivializes the third branch of our national government into a public policy club consisting of nine unelected and largely unaccountable persons. The great questions of a great nation should not be decided by nine unelected individuals.

They are men and women like other men and women, capable of nobility and capable of pettiness, vengefulness, ignorance, prejudice, bigotry, pride and self-aggrandizement. They have good days and bad. They see some issues with great clarity and others with the kind of muddled gut reactions that characterize all of the rest of us.

The future of this country should be in the hands of an infinitely wider body than the Supreme Court. Our current approach is not much different from letting the starting lineup of the Chicago Cubs determine the future of the United States.

I believe the nomination process should be taken out of the hands of American presidents, who misunderstand and misuse their appointment power for narrow and often temporary purposes, and put it instead into the hands of a severely nonpartisan think tank of constitutional experts who look for raw judicial talent irrespective of the person’s political views. Once the foundation designated someone of outstanding merit, the Senate would confirm or deny with a straight up and down vote.

America is awash in men and women who would be outstanding Supreme Court justices. But the very last questions we should want to ask them is where they stand on Roe V. Wade, or the Affordable Care Act, or affirmative action.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Realizing The Dream

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

So Jefferson wrote, 242 years ago.

It “is” self-evident, if you think about it. According to Scientific American, 150 human beings are born somewhere on Earth every minute. In the eyes of God or from the perspective of the planet Jupiter, a human is a human, whether she is born in Berlin or Bombay, Cairo or Cambridge or Calcutta, Manhattan or Madrid or Mexico City. Two arms, two legs, one heart, two kidneys, finger nails, hair, a brain, a belly button, a unique capacity for language. As Shakespeare’s Shylock puts it:

“Hath not a person eyes? hath not a person hands, organs,

dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with

the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

to the same diseases, healed by the same means,

warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as

a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison

us, do we not die?”

Both President John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush (to take two quite different examples) said that every human being wants the same basic things. Food, shelter, clothing, the rule of law, a respect for basic rights, basic opportunity. On Jan. 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously spoke of the Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

I remember reading the United Nations Declaration of Rights incised on the high wall of the magnificent new Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg not long ago. The museum designers clearly felt that the rights and dignities articulated in the U.N. Declaration of Rights were so universal, so irrefutable, so obvious — if you think about it — that they must be writ large and inset into the walls of the museum itself to make sure everyone who ever walked through those doors had to have a visceral encounter with the self-evident truths of human aspiration. I bought a poster of the Declaration as my only souvenir of that trip to Winnipeg.

If this is true, “that all men are created equal,” why do we see those UNICEF and Oxfam Africa relief ads on television showing 3-year-old children with distended stomachs and flies perching on their lips and eyelids? Those children were born randomly into the world, just as a child in Omaha, Neb., or Santa Monica, Calif., is born randomly into the world. And yet any rational person knows that the child of Omaha has an infinitely higher chance of living a full, comfortable, secure life than the child of Upper Volta or Uganda.

If this is true, “that all men are created equal,” why does a person born Nez Perce, born Hidatsa, born Cherokee, born Navaho, born Shoshone, born Crow, born Cheyenne, have an unmistakably harder time getting her basic needs met in life than someone born 100 miles away in an Anglo-American community?

And of course, the whopping Fourth of July irony is that this continent where Anglo-Americans thrive belonged to the Crow, Cheyenne and Shoshone for centuries, for millennia, until Columbus bumped into the Western Hemisphere and touched off a series of holocausts that are not over yet. I know people in Bismarck but I could be speaking about Denver, or Spokane, Wash.,, who are aware that the Native Americans who live near and among them have a higher infant mortality rate, a higher suicide rate, a higher likelihood of dying in violence, than that other human being, born a few dozen miles away, the “same” human being, as seen from Jupiter, living in the same bioregion — and to these irrefutable facts the white folks of Bismarck merely shrug.

If this is true, “that all humans are born equal,” why did we just learn — to the consternation of many — that young women who compete in what is self-styled as the most significant women’s scholarship program in the world — the Miss America Pageant — will no long have to strip to near nakedness and strut around in front of 25 million people to win that scholarship?

Imagine for a moment if men competing for the Rhodes or Marshall or Wilson or Fulbright scholarships had to parade in public in speedos or a G-string in order to win the opportunity to study at Oxford University.

For that matter, if this is true, why is it that a woman randomly born in Yemen or Iraq, who is raped by a mere stranger, may be killed by her father to preserve his honor?

Maybe Jefferson was just wrong. Lovely, high-minded words, an agreeable fiction, but one that has no basis in the facts on the ground.

As Jefferson wrote those glorious and revolutionary words in a boardinghouse in Philadelphia, 256 miles to the south, about eight days’ travel under the conditions of the time, gangs of his 200 black slaves were hoeing his tobacco fields back home, baking bricks for his neoclassical Palladian mansion and cleaning the privies for his white wife and white young children. While he trimmed his quill and let some of the greatest words in the English language glide through his pen onto paper, a black mother gave birth at Monticello to an infant who was born: into slavery. Not born equal, born permanently and legally defined as a species of property that the Enlightened Mr. Jefferson could buy or sell, whip or caress, shackle or slap, rent out or even kill with legal impunity. We all live with some contradictions, but that would seem to be an insurmountable one.

If Jefferson and other slaveholder revolutionaries really meant those words, said Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestley and Richard Price and Benjamin Rush, Jefferson would have had to find a way to free his slaves because if he couldn’t or wouldn’t free his slaves, he must not really have meant what he wrote in the famous preamble of the Declaration of Independence to have universal application. He must instead have been speaking about his own club, his own tribe, his own fraternity.

All humans are not born equal because it depends on where you were born and what color you were born into. That if you got to choose, and you wanted to thrive on Earth not suffer for everything you achieved, from a purely rational point of view, you would really want to be born white, male if possible, in western Europe at the very least, and in America if you can make that happen. That from the view of the U.N. Declaration of Rights or FDR’s Four Freedoms you would not want to be born black or brown, in a Second or Third World country, or on an Indian reservation. Think about the implications of that.

But we don’t get to choose where we are born and to whom. You are just randomly born, just as a daffodil is randomly born or an oak or an ant. The great human aspiration — never more clearly or beautifully articulated than by my hero Thomas Jefferson — is that you will not be punished or rewarded by the accident of your birth. You may not remain equal very long in life — someone is a better sprinter, someone a better student of calculus, someone better at selling stocks and bonds, someone luckier in love — but the great idea is that you are at least born with an equal chance at thriving or at least subsisting comfortably with a living wage on Earth.

Just what Jefferson meant by his magnificent words is not clear, but Abraham Lincoln wisely told us we have no choice but to read Jefferson’s ideals in the fullest, widest, deepest possible way. And I say, as the 21st century creates economic opportunity unprecedented in the history of the planet, is it too much to ask?

On this Fourth of July, please have a conversation about the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence with the people around you. And let us know what you hear.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Who Killed Meriwether Lewis?

When I heard a few weeks ago that a new biography of Meriwether Lewis has been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, I immediately ordered it. It’s called “Bitterroot: The Life and Death of Meriwether Lewis,” and the author is a woman named Patricia Stroud, whom I had never heard of until now.

In a sense, the title gives it away, the life and “death” of Meriwether Lewis. A biography of Churchill does not call itself the life and death of Winston Churchill, any more than a biography of Abigail Adams calls itself the life and death of the second first lady.

Everyone who knows anything about Meriwether Lewis beyond that he was one half of the famous exploring duo knows that he died a violent death at the age of 35, just three years after the completion of the most successful exploration mission in American history. His death — by a gunshot wound to the head and another to the abdomen — is a mystery. Most serious historians have long since concluded that Lewis committed suicide on the Natchez Trace 72 miles from Nashville, Tenn., at a grungy frontier version of an Airbnb; but some — and they are tenacious — believe that Lewis was murdered.

You cannot pick up this new biography by Stroud without realizing from the title alone that she is going to spend a good deal of her attention trying to sort out this fascinating but perhaps ultimately unanswerable mystery.

Here’s what every student of the life of Lewis wants to know. If he committed suicide Oct. 11, 1809, why did he kill himself? I know this will sound odd, maybe even perverse, but I have spent a fairly significant proportion of my adult life trying to answer that question. I wrote a whole book — my big book — about it, “The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness.” If Lewis was murdered — as the passionate murderists insist with a kind of violence of temper that is frankly a little weird — the question then becomes, who murdered him and why?

I’ll attend to that part of Stroud’s book, but let me first say a few words about her biography in general. Whenever I read a book about something I know a lot about, I start by turning to passages that deal with things I know as well as my own birthday or the color of the sky. How the author handles those subjects will usually tell me something about his or her larger credibility.

So I read Stroud’s account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the great journey from St. Charles, Miss., to the Pacific Coast and back again, May 14, 1804 to Sept. 23, 1806. I know that story pretty well. Her account of the adventure is competent. It is clear, however, that the journey interests her less than Lewis’s life before and after the expedition. Which of course begs a question: How did it come to pass that the great journey — one of the most fascinating, gripping, and monumental stories in the history of America — is now the ho hum part of studies of Lewis & Clark (including my own, I’m a little ashamed to say).

It soon became clear to me that Stroud has never spent time on the Lewis and Clark Trail. It is possible she has never been to the state of Montana because once Lewis and Clark leave Fort Mandan (here in North Dakota, approximately 35 miles from the New Enlightenment Radio Network barn), both her geography and her timeline become muddled. She has it snowing at the Great Falls around the Fourth of July (I’m sorry to say that can happen, but didn’t in this case), and the whole region between the Great Falls and the source of the Missouri River west of Dillon, Mont., is garbled in her account. That would seem to me unforgivable.

Particularly galling to me was Stroud’s account of Lewis’s discovery of what he took to be the source of “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” Stroud projects her own bland attitude onto our hero. She writes, “they came across a spring that Lewis thought was the source of the Missouri River.” That’s it. This is like saying Columbus bumped into a continent that turned out to have some importance in history or that Neil Armstrong stepped off a ladder onto a minor satellite of his home planet. Stroud plays down one of the handful of supreme moments in the history of exploration, one of the supreme moments of Meriwether Lewis’s life, as if he were stopping by a water fountain in a country court house.

“It was quite a historic day,” Stroud writes. “On the other side of the mountain he found a creek of cold running water and announced to his journal, ‘here I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river.’ Not quite,” she writes. “It was actually Horseshoe Creek, whose waters flowing into the Lemhi, the Salmon and the Snake Rivers do eventually reach the Columbia.”

But she entirely misses Lewis’s point. He did not think he had found the Columbia per se. He immediately and rightly knew that he had crossed the continental divide and was now drinking from waters of some minor capillary creek that would eventually discharge its waters into the great Pacific Ocean. In other words, on Aug. 12, 1805, Lewis was able to walk in just a few steps from the Atlantic to the Pacific watershed. I’ve stood on Continental Divides many times. Anyone with an intact sense of wonder automatically thrills to such a moment.

Exasperated though I am, let me move on to the untimely death of Meriwether Lewis, as Patricia Stroud sees it. Here’s her argument in a nutshell:

  • One: Lewis was less depressed and deranged at the end of his life than most historians have argued. He was, for example, writing perfectly lucid letters, including one to President James Madison, just days before his death.
  • Two: Lewis could not have had a drinking problem because his enemy, the lieutenant governor of the Louisiana Territory, would surely have gossiped about that and included it in his long list of Lewis’s perceived faults if that were true. Actually, that’s quite a good argument.
  • Three: Lewis was a superb gunman. If he had wanted to blow out his brains that night he could not possibly have missed. By the way, this is an argument you hear over and over and over again in the murderist literature. I’m actually uncertain about this. I’ve been in countless airport men’s rooms and I can tell you that men, even great men, routinely miss the urinal that is less than a foot in front of them. If Lewis was drunk, or deranged, or ill with malaria, trying to position a pistol much longer than the kind we think about today, scared, deeply sad, confused, sitting in the dark in a place he had never been before, hovering between what Freud called the Eros and the Thanatos principle, between life-affirmation and life-denial, he might well have missed with the first shot.
  • Fourth: those who wrote about Lewis’s tragic death in the months and years after 1809 spent much of their time backfilling their historical memories with suicide predictors of the 20-20 hindsight sort, either to try to make sense of his suicide or to create a tidy narrative that would put some plausible closure on what to them was a bewildering mystery. There is probably considerable truth in this argument. We are all susceptible to the “we saw it coming” propensity in human narrative.

So who, then, killed Meriwether Lewis in Stroud’s final analysis?

She decides, without any significant evidence, that it was Gen. James Wilkinson or his agents. Wilkinson was a schnook, no doubt about that, a traitor and a double agent, corrupt right up to his eyebrows. We now know beyond doubt that he was a paid spy of the Spanish colonial empire all of his life, while at the same time he was the highest-ranking officer of the U.S. Army in the West. We know that Wilkinson encouraged the Spanish colonial authorities to send out what turned out to be four military intercept parties to arrest, or at least turn back, the Lewis and Clark Expedition as it traveled to the Pacific Ocean. So he is an easy mark.

Stroud’s argument is that Lewis was going to denounce Gen. Wilkinson when he got to Monticello and Washington, D.C., to bring the notorious traitor and larcenist down, and that perhaps he had papers in his trunks that proved Wilkinson’s guilt, including in the notorious Burr conspiracy.

That all might be true, though I doubt it. By 1809, everyone knew that Wilkinson was a bad man and a traitor, even former President Jefferson, so it is unlikely that Wilkinson would have regarded Lewis as a special threat. If Lewis had denounced Wilkinson in official circles in Washington, D.C., it would not have been the first or the last time, and Wilkinson was one of the great “survivors” in the history of American chicanery.

But it is possible that Wilkinson wanted Lewis dead. Fingering Wilkinson is a bit like blaming Barack Obama for everything that went wrong in the world between 2008 and 2016, or blaming all the ills of the Soviet Union on Joseph Stalin. Easy, vague, and not very convincing.

That’s the problem, my friends. It’s easier to try to poke holes in the suicide theory — after all there were no witnesses and Lewis was a superb marksman — than to create even a minimally plausible case for murder, or to identify possible murderers. Nominees have included highway robbers; the owner of the inn, Robert Grinder; Lewis’s free black servant, Pernia; his traveling companion, James Neely; even secret agents working on behalf of Thomas Jefferson himself.

My friend John Guice of Mississippi — one of the leading murderists —once wrote a long essay (of 32 pages) outlining the 40 specific problems with the suicide theory. His essay, which was entitled “Why Not Homicide?” summarized all the usual arguments (though he never mentions Gen. James Wilkinson), plus some gems such as: the phase of the moon and the local weather on that fatal night, and the chinking of the cabin in which Lewis slumped after the shooting. Only on the last page of his essay does Guice turn from his heroic attempt to undermine the suicide story to his own theory of who, then, murdered Meriwether Lewis. And this is what he concludes: I don’t know, someone, maybe a highway robber. OK, well that settles it!

I do not wish to conclude that Patricia Stroud’s “Bitterroot” is a bad book. There are many things to admire in it, particularly her account of the year before Lewis undertook his great journey and the year after he completed it. I made pages of notes and wrote voluminously, often furiously, in the margins.

But she has not solved the mystery and truly not even advanced our understanding of the last days of this great, though flawed, American hero. And in the course of her 371 pages, she gives our friend Jefferson a good deal of thumping — which, as you know, is one of the easiest and laziest habits of the historiography of our time.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch —The Price of Power

Jefferson famously wrote, “No man will ever carry out of the Presidency the reputation which carried him into it.”

  • Think of the diminishment of the presidents even of my own lifetime. Lyndon Johnson had been so consumed by the War in Vietnam that he withdrew from the 1968 presidential race. Johnson loved and lusted for power as much as anyone who has ever been president of the United States. But by the time he made his announcement, at the end of March 1968, he no longer dared to leave the White House because of the protests that followed him everywhere he went. Imagine hearing the chants: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

He was a broken man — his whole dream of his life shattered — by the time he limped away in January 1969, after watching a man he regarded as a thug and a travesty of American values, Richard Nixon, inaugurated in his place. LBJ died quietly in 1973, far away from the arena, a haunted and fragile remnant of his larger-than-life persona.

  • Richard Nixon became so embroiled in the criminal presidency that we summarize under the term “Watergate,” that by the last weeks of his uncompleted second term, he actually told the people around him that he wanted to die, that he had gone to sleep the night before hoping that he would never wake up. Whatever you think of Richard Nixon, one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, geopolitically savvy individuals ever to serve as president, it’s hard to know this — the depth of his unalloyed misery in August 1974 — without feeling some compassion for the man. Richard Nixon: the president who wanted to die rather than face the humiliation of resignation.
  • Jimmy Carter came into the presidency in 1977 with his goofy smile, his cornpone innocence and virtue, his folksy small town values, his vow never to lie to the American people, his promise to heal the nation. Carter wound up being a failed one-term president, partly because he was a micromanager, even controlling the calendar for the White House tennis court; partly because he dared to tell the American people the truth, that something was deteriorating in the American spirit and partly because of the impotence of being president when the Islamic terrorists decided to humiliate America for 444 straight days during the Iran-hostage crisis, which among other things birthed the late night cable television talk show.

If you look at the before and after photographs of American presidents — all that vitality, including dark hair, health, and optimism — when they take the oath of office, and then the grayed-out, sunken-eyed, exit photos of mostly good men whose lives have been damaged by their time as president, whose lives have literally been shortened by the presidency, you wonder why anyone would want to reach that pinnacle of American life. When he was elected vice president in 1796, Jefferson said, in relief, “The second office of this government is honorable and easy, the first is but a splendid misery.”

  • As I speak these words, former president George Herbert Walker Bush hovers near death. He cannot live much longer. Like many deeply devoted spouses, he loosened his grip on life when his beloved wife, Barbara, died in April. Bush may have been fortunate to have been retired from the presidency after a single term. It is possible that it lengthened his life.

At just under 94, he is already the longest living former president, edging ahead, for what it is worth, of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, both of whom lived to 93. Jimmy Carter is also 93, will be 94 in October, and it seems likely he will outlast them all. Carter has already written 37 books, which means that if he lives a few more years, he will top the writingest president Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote 40 books depending on how you count.

  • Bill Clinton was one of the smartest, best-read, overtly brilliant individuals ever to become president of the United States — remember when he could instantly name and characterize the heads of virtually every country, including piddling ones, of the world? — but he gave his place in history to his penis.

I remember seeing him on C-SPAN, sitting glumly while someone else spoke, when the controversy was at its height. He looked so profoundly self-disappointed — that all he had wanted all of his life was to be president, had lived for nothing else, really, and then he had squandered it all for a series of pathetic dalliances with interns — that I’m sure there were moments when even Bill Clinton wished he were dead. He got through it and the American people stuck with him — a booming tech economy did not hurt — and wound up being one of the better former presidents, although the word peculation will haunt him through history almost as much as priapism.

  • Ronald Reagan is every conservative’s favorite president. Many would erase someone from Mount Rushmore and replace it with Reagan’s chiseled Hollywooden visage there, but he governed far closer to the middle than his admirers like to admit, and by the time his second term was well under way, he was beginning to suffer from encroaching Alzheimer’s disease, a bit like one of those Soviet premiers of the 1970s and ’80s who used to be propped up for photo ops.

The Iran-Contra scandal was worse in many respects than Watergate and for it President Reagan probably should have been impeached — waging secret wars against the explicit forbidding of Congress — are we a republic or a monarchy? — but the country didn’t have the heart to do it and so Reagan, who was really just a tired old befuddled man by the time he flew away to California, was permitted to serve out his second term.

He was, probably, too old to be president. His mental deterioration is very sad. He and Nancy Reagan handled it with candor and dignity, but we need to remember that the White House is not a senior care facility. We need our presidents to be alert, fully functioning, and on top of the profound responsibilities of the job.

  1. George W. Bush was a kind of smart aleck going in, all that shucking and shrugging and smirking, but 9-11 and his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan transformed him visibly, matured him, humbled him, deepened him. He has been a truly discrete and dignified former president, and his willingness to express his soul through painting, even though he is not even as talented, say, as Winston Churchill, is wholly admirable, I believe.
  • And then, of course, there is Donald Trump. I will only make the following predictions. I do not believe he will serve out his term. He promised to drain the swamp, but his presidency — his sons, his son-in-law, his cronies, his violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, his personal attorney, his grifting Cabinet officers, particularly Scott Pruitt — have turned the executive branch into a kleptocracy. If 40 percent of the American people can still believe that he is a welcome breath of fresh air, then it’s on us, not him. The old adage that in our democracy we get what we deserve sounds pretty ominous right now. But it seems so true, alas.

Finally, a word or two about Thomas Jefferson. His first term was mostly splendid — culminating in the Louisiana Purchase and the authorization of the Lewis and Clark Expedition — but in his second term, America was nearly crushed between the two great European powers, France and Britain, locked in an existential world struggle for survival, and nothing that Jefferson could do, nothing he could imagine, could protect America from a series of national humiliations. The embargo acts failed to accomplish what Jefferson and Madison had in mind for them — that economic coercion would bring Britain and France to their senses — and meanwhile those coercive acts offended the farmers and merchants of the United States to the point of open rebellion.

Jefferson, who came into the presidency at the age of 57 wondering if he were too old for the responsibilities and challenges ahead, felt physically, intellectually, and spiritually exhausted by the time he left office in March 1809. In fact, he had essentially abdicated the presidency in the last half year of his second term, making his handpicked successor Madison the de facto president of the United States, months before his inauguration.

Fortunately, Jefferson found healing and renewal at his beloved Monticello — particularly in the presence of his fabulous, beloved daughter, Martha, and he lived 17 more years. And talk about great former presidents, Jefferson still had in him — exhaustion notwithstanding — one more magnificent achievement, mightier perhaps than any other person who has ever been president of the United States, by which I mean: the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

Nobody else can match that. Period.

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Have You Looked Around, Mr. Jefferson?

John Adams believed three things that drive an utopian like Jefferson nuts. First, he believed that aristocracy will always be with us in one form or another. In Europe, this works by hereditary emoluments and privileges. The Duke of Northumberland is always the father of the next Duke of Northumberland and the son of the last one, downhill forever through history, together with vast estates, whole sections of London, and thousands of retainers.

In the United States, with its constitutional prohibition on titles of nobility, you perhaps cannot be called the Duke of Something-or-Other, but you can be a Rockefeller, a Mellon, a Carnegie, a Kennedy, a Bush, or for that matter a Kardashian, a Vanderbilt or a Clooney.

Adams understood that this kind of aristocracy — in which certain families somehow accumulated vast amounts of property and power — is simply a fact of life. You can rail against it until you go hoarse in the throat, but the only sensible thing to do is to get used to it and try to turn their enormous power toward philanthropic ends, the Rockefeller Foundation or the Pew Memorial Trust.

You have to keep a tight vigilance on these families, Adams believed. He thought, though we don’t, that the best place for them with the United States Senate.

The second of Adams’ foundational beliefs was that you can never build a republic in which everyone is equal. You can try, you can reshuffle all the property and divvy it up equally among the whole population. But it won’t work. Give it a few years in a free and equalitarian society, and you’ll find that a handful of individuals once again own most of the country and most of the wealth, that a large mass of people in a middling condition will exist, all wanting more, and then there will be a significant class of poor people who either barely keep their heads above water or wind up being wards of the state or the parish or some other entity.

After all of this redistribution in the name of social equality, the new rich may not be precisely the same as the old rich, though probably they will, but the new rich will hold most of the wealth and they will forget their beginnings and lord it over everyone else. They will expect, and they will get, special privileges in the society. They will mark off playgrounds for themselves that regular people cannot afford — because they lack the money, are not admitted to the exclusive clubs, don’t wear the proper clothing, don’t speak with the correct English accent.

The third and perhaps most important of Adams’ fundamental principles is that the central human impulse is not to sympathy or justice or generosity or love of truth. It’s not to gratitude or benevolence or philanthropy. In Adam’s world, the central human impulse, the dynamo right at the center of your personality, is a rage for distinction.

You want to be the captain of the football team, or at least the captain of the chess club. You want to be the greatest warrior in Afghanistan or at least the best in your neighborhood at the video game “Call of Duty.” You want to be the prettiest girl in your graduating class or at least the prettiest at your 30th reunion. You want to be tallest guy on the team, highest scorer on the team, the only one on the team named to the All-Academic All-Stars. You want to be the youngest full partner of the law firm or youngest tenured professor in southeast central Arkansas state college, or the richest man in Broken Bow, Neb., or the guy at the sports bar who knows the most NFL trivia or — even better — the one who met Michael Jordan at a celebrity golf tournament at Tahoe. Class president or class clown. The one who got into Harvard or the one who was expelled for turning loose twenty rattlesnakes at the homecoming dance.

Whatever it takes to have distinction, preferably a unique distinction. I actually knew a guy in high school who, at beer parties, would eventually be talked into going outside and trying to urinate over the top of the garage. I’m not joking. He occasionally could accomplish this tremendous feat of sheer human athleticism and will, and we celebrated him for it, as if he had cracked the DNA code or run the three-minute mile. So far as I know that was all that he could do — his sole distinction in life — and, of course, it was not for all markets, not for church suppers or a one man Broadway show. And, if you think about the nature of the male prostate gland, he’s probably lucky now if he can pee over the lip of his toilet, but at all-class reunions people (by which I mean men who never grew up) gather around him, even now, as if he were the Joe Namath of competitive peeing.

John Adams said this was the central human impulse — this rage for distinction. Think about this in your own life. Where is your distinction from the herd — now numbering 340 million rival human beings in America alone? What do you have or do that marks you as remarkable, or perhaps unique? Is it your pineapple upside-down cake, or the size of your … hot tub? Is it the time share you have at Cabo? Is it the quality of your tube-type stereo system?

John Adams says you may not be willing to admit it (though you probably are all too willing to admit it), but there is something, some talent, some access, some achievement, some birthright or purchase that gives you a sense of competitive advantage, whether you can roll your eyes all the back into your head or flop your ears to play the national anthem in Morse code. Somewhere in your story, says John Adams, you hang your competitive hat on that distinction.

These Adams propositions — that aristocrats will always be with us, that equality is a lovely fairy tale and that the rage for distinction is at the center of all human endeavor — were designed to confound dreamers like Thomas Jefferson. For Jefferson believed that we could at the very least replace the pseudo-Aristocracy (individuals born into wealth and privilege) with what he called Natural Aristocracy, and we would call meritocracy.

Jefferson believed that we could distribute the fruits of life more equitably than in any previous civilization in the history of the world, and we could perpetuate that essential equality by enlightened redistributive laws (equal inheritance to all children, for example), and, of course, by buying a “Louisiana Purchase” now and then. And he believed that the central human impulses were actually those of sympathy, benevolence, generosity and friendship.

To which John Adams would say, “Have you looked around lately, Mr. Jefferson?” Or as he actually did say once, “No doubt you was fast asleep in philosophical tranquility,” Mr. Jefferson, while the American expression of the French Revolution roiled through the streets of Philadelphia in 1793.

Yes, I would like to be the greatest Thomas Jefferson scholar. I would like to be the Muse of the Little Missouri River Valley in the Badlands of North Dakota. I would like to write the best book ever written about Lewis and Clark. I would like to be “the” North Dakota, for what little that may be worth to you who live in better states. And though my days of garage peeing contests are long over, I would like now to be able to get through the night without having to get up to pee. There’s my rage for distinction, indeed.

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.


  • 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.