March 12, 2007
The Hauenstein Center brought Thomas Jefferson out to “northwestern Virginia” (which would become Michigan) on March 12th and 13th, 2007. Colonial Williamsburg’s Bill Barker is the best character interpreter of Jefferson there is, and for two days he wowed audiences in Grand Rapids, Lansing, and East Lansing. Participating in the Grand Rapids leg of the event were the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, and Remembering the Crossings.
Arguably more people today are learning about Thomas Jefferson through Bill Barker than through any other person or medium. Barker knows his Jefferson and is hauntingly like the man he interprets: they are the same height (6′-3″), same weight (180 pounds), and of the same complexion (fair skin and sandy red hair). Barker presents TJ as an attractive figure who is accessible to modern audiences and yet presents a provocative tension between conservative and progressive views.
Jefferson himself never revealed whether he and Sally Hemings were intimate with each other, neither in a private letter nor in a diary. What can the historical evidence tell us? The DNA studies published in the journal Nature in 1998 prove beyond a reasonable doubt only that one of Sally’s children (Eston Hemings) had the Jefferson family’s Y chromosome. That Y chromosome could have come from other males besides Thomas — e.g., his brother Randolph or a male cousin. The DNA does NOT prove that Thomas Jefferson fathered the child, much less that he had an affair with his deceased wife’s half sister. Barker concurs with both the Monticello Association and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation’s revised assessment that, lacking further evidence, it is impossible to prove that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally — we must be agnostic about what happened. And here’s another important piece of information Barker likes to provide: When Jefferson was on his diplomatic mission to France, Versailles informants were constantly monitoring TJ’s movements. Had Jefferson been sleeping with Sally Hemings, spies surely would have noted it in their reports because such information would have been useful to embarrass or bribe Jefferson. No such observations were made.
Students in Gleaves Whitney’s course on the American presidency, HST 380, listen to Barker reason as Jefferson did.
Was Jefferson a hypocrite to write in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” and yet own slaves? There is no doubt that TJ regretted writing in his Notes on the State of Virginia that Africans were inferior to whites. But when it came to the institution of slavery, Jefferson was committed to gradual emancipation. How? Get debate going, introduce legislation as a burgess in Williamsburg, write slavery out of the American experiment in the Declaration (strenuously objected to by delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, and thus striken from Jefferson’s draft), stop the importation of slaves, and educate blacks for economic independence (by learning a trade) and political liberty. Taking these steps, Jefferson was confident that grad
The excessive heat generated among the public by the previous points (Sally Hemings and slavery) should caution us to avoid the historical fallacy of presentism — judging the past by the standards of the present. We must always ask ourselves, What were a person’s available options at the time he lived and in the place he lived? Jefferson’s experience in the House of Burgesses in Tidewater Virginia illustrates; try though he might as a new burgess in 1769, he was not even allowed to properly introduce a measure to stop the slave trade in Virginia. But he opposed the peculiar institution and hoped it would be eradicated from the American scene.
Jefferson took pains to point out that there was no new thought in the ”Declaration of American Independence.” Rather, it was the expression of timeless truths rendered for his contemporaries in clear, strong English, the better that citizens might understand it and govern by it. The ancient truths encapsulated in the document, he said, had already been expressed by four authors principally: Aristotle, Cicero, Algernon Sydney, and John Locke. But let’s look at his claim a little more closely. For in the Declaration, Jefferson brilliantly reshaped Locke’s line in the Second Treatise on Government concerning man’s right to “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson did so because, in the American context, owning property included owning slaves. Jefferson did not want to imply that chattle slavery was a timeless property right. Slavery was wrong, and could never be considered a virtuous state. So he altered Locke’s line on “life, liberty, and property” to read “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was not a merely rhetorical alteration. It was a profound statement about human aspirations. Following Aristotle, Jefferson accepted that happiness was man’s chief desire; and the pursuit of it, his natural right. Further, there is an intrinsic relationship between happiness and virtue. How so? Virtue rests on a clear conscience. No man with a bad conscience can be happy. Therefore, happiness is only meaningful and attainable in the context of virtue. Virtue is increased by inculcating good habits like telling the truth and being courageous, at the same time avoiding bad acts like lying, stealing, murdering, acting cowardly, etc. The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of virtue. That is the person’s moral right, and it is a timeless truth.
The person’s natural right to liberty is also central to the American experiment. Jefferson understood liberty in several ways. Politically, a person should be free FROM oppressive government, free FROM an established church that compels attendance and taxes, and free FROM any arrangement in which the people are not sovereign. A person should be free TO elect those who would represent him the way he wants to be represented (represented so that he can keep working), free TO voice his opinion about his government even when it is critical of its policies and politicians, and free TO worship in any manner he pleases so long as it does not pick his neighbor’s pocket nor bloody his nose. Economically, a person has a natural right to earn his own living by mastering a trade and being free to practice his trade where he wishes; being able to vote with one’s feet is important to liberty (as well as dignity). Beyond the personal need to be able to provide for oneself, Jefferson valued education in a self-governing republic, where it is important that each sovereign citizen know the political process, the representatives that are sent to centers of government on behalf of the citizenry, the candidates for office, and the policies they’d seek to implement.
In Jefferson’s view, liberty is related to happiness. L iberty, one of our natural rights as human beings, is not license. Rather, liberty is ordered by the pursuit of virtue, which is the way to true happiness. That is the core of Jefferson’s vision, applying equally to free individuals and to free republics.
In outlook Jefferson was, in essence, a Roman republican. His hero from classical times was Cicero, a lawyer like himself. He liked to quote Cicero on the importance of a people knowing their history so that they don’t make the same mistakes over and over. Like individuals, societies can learn from their mistakes and better their condition. To remain ignorant of history is to remain forever a child who’ll be led by whoever sounds most pleasing or convincing. There are numerous parallels between early Rome and the youthful United States. Both prized freedom, both were agrarian, both were republican, both arose out of and despised monarchy, both had mixed constitutions, both championed low taxes and lean government, both were defended by a citizen militia, both encouraged religion, both espoused civic virtue among the citizenry, both eschewed luxury and an excess of creature comforts, both believed their nations had a unique historic mission or destiny (fatum), both promoted a restrained foreign policy, both demanded equality of citizenship, and both had the capacity to draw leaders from among the common people who spoke in the language of the common people. Most Jeffersonian principles would have been recognized and endorsed by the greatest ancient Roman republicans — Publius, Cincinnatus, Cicero, the Gracchi brothers, Cato the Elder, and Cato the Younger.
Mr. Jefferson (Bill Barker) with Hauenstein Center staff (from left) Kathy Rent, Patrick Reagan, Melissa Ware, Gleaves Whitney, Mandi Bird, and Brian Flanagan.
Mr. Jefferson (Bill Barker) with students in Gleaves Whitney’s course on the American presidency (HST 380).
Bill Barker on Shelley Irwin’s Morning Show in the studio of WGVU radio. During the half-hour broadcast, Bill was both Mr. Jefferson and himself. He stepped out of character to talk about his background as a historian and actor who has been interpreting Jefferson for more than two decades. Gleaves Whitney looks on.
Bill Barker also met with Donna Kidner Smith and children from Southwood Elementary at WKTV in Wyoming, Michigan.
Grand Valley President Emeritus Don Lubbers and President Thomas Jefferson discussed Jefferson’s outstanding music and wine collections.
Don Holloway, curator at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, guided Mr. Jefferson through the museum’s current exhibition — an examination of slavery and the Dred Scott Decision.
The exhibit informed Mr. Jefferson of the impact his Louisiana Purchase had on the institution of slavery:
Jefferson was proud of what $15 million had gained the nation, but he would live to hear “a fire-bell in the night” sounded by attempts to create the first western state from that territory almost twenty years later….
“We have a wolf by the ears,” Jefferson wrote about the Missouri Compromise, “and we can neither safely hold him, nor safely let him go.”
Jefferson was right. The Missouri Compromise bought synthetic peace by establishing a three-decade long practice of admitting states in pairs, one free and one slave. But the nation was left to grapple with the wolf. Emboldened Northerners attacked slavery, fearing its spread and the political strength of its supporters. Southerners, equally emboldened, sharpened their defense of slavery, no longer apologetically blaming Britain for its legacy, but justifying it based on religion and culture.
Mr. Jefferson spoke with other members of the Ford Museum staff, including (left to right) Elaine Didier, director of the Ford Library and Museum; Kristin Mooney, public affairs specialist; and Barbara Packer, educational specialist.
Jon Jellema, Grand Valley’s associate vice president for academic affairs, is greeted at an evening reception by Mr. Jefferson.
Carolyn Hauenstein visits with Mr. Jefferson.
Steeve Buckridge (right), a member of the history faculty, co-hosted the evening reception with Gleaves Whitney (center) on Grand Valley’s downtown Grand Rapids campus.
Senator Patricia Birkholz and Steeve Buckridge.
Hauenstein Center Director Gleaves Whitney welcomes guests to an evening with Thomas Jefferson. Co-hosting the reception and dinner with the Hauenstein Center were the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, and Remembering the Crossings. Dixie Anderson, who heads up the World Affairs Council of West Michigan, looks on.
Mr. Jefferson offered a toast to the people, for they are as sovereign as any king ever was. In their hands lies the fate of our nation.
Jefferson would have been saddened by the distance Americans feel from their government, and from the apparent erosion of popular sovereignty in the light of special interests, big money, bureaucrats, and career politicians. What kind of “-ocracy” should we be? Not a hypocrisy, but a meritocracy, where each can rise as high as his ambition, opportunities, and talents take him.
“When it comes to fashion, swim with the current, but when it comes to principle, stand like a rock.”
“Men sometimes think they are in charge of the home. But if the man is the head, the woman is the neck that steers the head where it will go.”
As a deist, Jefferson believed in God. The charge that he was an atheist was (is) an absurdity. As president he went to church. As president, he had Bibles distributed to Indians for their improvement. He endorsed the First Amendment’s stipulation that “Congress shall make no establishment of religion nor prohibit the free exercise thereof.” That was in reaction to “priestcraft” and to the old Anglican penalties against Baptists and others who tried to legislate a particular confessional belief. TJ wanted republican citizens to be free to believe as their understanding and experience led them to believe. Indeed, freedom was good for religion, for in freedom, believers would be more ardent than in a regime that compelled belief. Jefferson wrote many letters about the separation between the church and the state, meaning that each
Hauenstein Center research assistant Mandi Bird with Thomas Jefferson.
On Monday, March 12th, Mr. Jefferson appeared at St. Thomas Aquinas School in East Lansing, Michigan, to regale students from the elementary school and middle school with some of the great stories from the third president’s life.
The students at St. Thomas Aquinas School enjoyed getting to know a very accessible Mr. Jefferson.
St. Thomas Aquinas Principal Jane Bilas, Bill Barker (Mr. Jefferson), and Gleaves Whitney.
Mr. Jefferson pointed out that it took many days (and the ability to endure much hardship) to travel through the Thirteen Colonies and to Great Britain and back during the colonial era. Most of the world moved at the speed of human feet (and some of the world moved at a horse’s trot).
Thomas Jefferson extends his hand clasp (a republican greeting) to eighth grader Andrew Whitney at St. Thomas Aquinas School.
At the Michigan Department of Education, Thomas Jefferson greets Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan, an avid reader of Jefferson’s works. Brian Flanagan (right) is assistant director of the Hauenstein Center.
Jefferson speaks to us today. There was a contested election exactly seven years ago, just as in Jefferson’s perspective from 1807. He stood up against Muslim terrorists and waged a war against the regime that harbored them. We are still debating the role of the national government vis-a-vis state governments. We are still arguing over whether to interpret the Constitution loosely or strictly. There are Americans (Wendell Berry, among others) who still believe that the values of an agrarian republic are superior to those of a commercial republic.