Thomas Jefferson and the Crown of Creation

by Jonathan Wallace

You are the crown of creation
and you've got no place to go....

Soon you'll attain the stability you strive for
in the only way its granted
in a place among the fossils of our time....

Jefferson Airplane, Crown of Creation

I'm sitting in the almost unfurnished upper floor of my house, looking across the dunes at the Atlantic, and listening to the Jefferson Airplane echoing across the wooden floors. In addition to crossing a short space to get to me, the music is also crossing time: it provides an unbroken strand traversing 28 years to the Fillmore East in 1970, when I was fifteen years old. I have lived all of the rest of my life to this music.

Segue to Thomas Jefferson. (The band was named not after him but after a blues musician, Blind Lemon Jefferson.) I'm thinking about the recent confirmation, via DNA testing of both their ancestors, that Jefferson fathered children with a slave he owned, Sally Hemings. I have also heard this story all of my life, and never doubted it; the greatest surprise is that anyone would be shocked to learn that it is true.

It has been said that if Jefferson was alive today, he would be an obscure university professor, who would never dare to enter politics under the conditions that pertain now. I would like to believe this is true, but it isn't. In fact, giving this idea credence requires that one idealize the conditions under which politics was carried out two hundred years ago. We are taught in school that the founders were all intellectuals and lived in a world of pure ideas. At the same time one learns by reading the newspapers that politics today involves only interests, not issues. But politics has always involved the struggle of interests, and ideas were a mask for them back then just as they are today. Some of the most beautiful language of the founders is essentially meaningless. A highly symbolic example of the fuzziness of thought, the generation of beautiful empty rhetoric to mask interests, is the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, with its "We hold these truths to be self evident" and "inalienable rights."

Jefferson was a man, and having sex with slaves was an "inalienable right" of Southern slaveholders in the eighteenth century. To deny for all these years the possibility that he had children with Sally Hemings was to imagine that Jefferson was a human so refined that he would refrain from doing something considered legal and moral under the code by which Southern slaveholders lived. A belief that Thomas Jefferson the man must necessarily have risen far above the standards of his time belies our pathetic need for heroes and the historiography in which we engage in order to get them.

It also illustrates the manner in which we confuse the man with the man he wants to be. We adopt Jefferson as if he were really his own ideal of himself. In order to know there was a gap between his rhetoric and his reality, you only need to know that he owned slaves in the first place. The rest is excuse-making.

Most of us are double. In front there is a performer, behind there is a critic. The two are wired together so that the critic can modulate the performance in real time. In private, the critic is not held to the claimed standards of the performance. (For a fascinating book on our daily fraud, see Goffman's Presentation of the Self in Every Day Life.) Very few people manage to merge the actor and the critic seamlessly into one. Gandhi may have been one of them. Jefferson was not. His life offered him a beautiful role, but there was never any reason to receive his performance credulously.

I am glad to know the truth, not only because it is always better to know. In The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, Mark Twain illustrated the manner in which sanctimoniousness masks hypocrisy, which in turn is based on weakness. Strength, by contrast, is founded in error and truth. We are better off knowing Jefferson. It is not necessary to throw away the better part of his thought as a result, so long as we remember that he was not the man he wanted to be. Though to a lesser extent than with writers and artists, we can honor politicians for their aspirations.

The truth about Jefferson is also useful for its insight into race in America. The black teenager who made you nervous on the train, because of his sneakers and loose pants, or the friendly looking black man you wanted to smile at but were afraid to, might be descended from the philosopher-President. They might also be blood kin to you, though you are white. "Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere."

We are braided together the way the Jefferson Airplane music I am listening to connects me to my fifteen year old self. I cannot say "This is me, that is not." There is no line to draw. I was fifteen and am forty four, but I am the same. The truth about Jefferson robs us of the ability to say, "Jefferson is here, but he is not here." Thomas Jefferson is now everywhere: he is in the air. I prefer it that way.

Life is change
How it differs from the rocks....