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.