DC | Member Since 2012
I absolutely loved a lot of things about this book, and it makes dozens of points - some minor and some quite comprehensive - about our history and how our country works that I think are well-worth considering.
I think in the context of modern, global political developments it is worth highlighting just how long the American experiment took the founding fathers to create. These days we look at South Sudan's independence, Burma's transformation, or the Arab Spring and we hope for quick fixes. We want to use these dramatic events as a political win for one party or politician before the next election cycle, and we start to get nervous if four or six months have passed without demonstrable progress. Modern communication technology does allow us to do some things faster, discussions can be had face to face across huge distances instead of having to wait weeks for letters to go back and forth. But some ideas still take years to built, take root, and come to fruition. One thing I think this book does incredibly well is fold in the fact that July 4, 1776 was neither the beginning nor the end of the struggle to create a more free and equal society. I think it is fair to judge trajectories and debate what the American founding fathers did right (and wrong) to get us where we are today, and what they can teach leaders in other countries about the trajectory they need to set for their own countries, but I think we also need to set realistic expectations for just how long these kinds of developments can take.
In a lot of ways, I was surprised just how much of Jefferson's personal history is included in this book, since I had expected it to be much more about his use of political office to turn his philosophical views on human society into political reality. I'm glad that Meacham decided to spend so much time talking about Jefferson's character, however, since I think that really is at the heart of what I wanted to understand. I think it really drove home the point that he really, deeply believed in the values of freedom, liberty, and equality that he infused into his writings, and making them a political reality really was an experiment - and an experiment that for most of his life he genuinely feared might fail.
At the same time, I found the break between how he applied those ideals and how he spoke about them deeply appalling, and I was more upset the more I learned. Over the course of his life, he owned a total of roughly 600 slaves, and the only ones he freed upon his death were his children even though he would have been well within his rights to free every single one. He did not believe that people of different races could live peacefully together, and he was a strong proponent of moving Native Americans off their land even if it meant by force. He was master of his domain at Monticello and he had a fierce temper when anyone questioned him. He twice pursued married women, in one case even went to the woman's room late at night even after she refused him and had to chase him away. He espoused freedom and liberty, but based on the description of how he lived he seemed to be advocating for his liberty to live as he wished, not that everyone around him was equally free and independent.
Many people today defend Jefferson by arguing that we can't judge him today for having held slaves because the practice was so central to how society worked at the time, it took us as a country one hundred and fifty more years to give descendants of slaves equal rights under the law, and we still have trouble actually treating different races fairly and equally. I would agree that we can't judge Jefferson independently and it would not be fair to criticize him for holding slaves more than we do his contemporaries just because he was the stronger advocate of equality and therefore the bigger hypocrite. I would flip the question on its head. I would argue that Jefferson's life and philosophy would not have been possible without slaves, and so rather than trying to separate the man from the issue of slavery, I think we need to spend some time wrestling with how to separate the ideas from the reality of slavery. Jefferson advocated for personal as well as political independence, created Monticello to be a model of self-sufficiency, and based much of his political platform on the belief that government should be as hands-off as possible. His very model, however, contradicts that view because he was not in fact self-sufficient - he depended on several hundred people whom he owned to maintain his lifestyle of study and contemplation. The books gives an example of how he helped become "self-sufficient" by constructing a nail factory on the property to create his own building supplies and generate some revenue by selling the excess of the 10,000 nails per day it created. It fails to mention, however, that Jefferson never worked a day in that nail factory, and instead it was entirely staffed by slave boys, who began working there at the age of eight. Jefferson's own son - his eldest surviving son because Martha's sons all died, and who looked so much like Jefferson that visitors did a double take, and who lived out his adult years as a free white man because he was so light skinned no one guessed he'd been born a slave - had to work in that nail factory for probably over ten years before he was old enough to be free. That is Jefferson's model of self-sufficiency.
What the book helped me do, however, was come to terms with the fact that I do not have to like the man to like his ideals. These days we seem to have the idea that politicians have to be perfect people in order for their ideas or professional leadership to be respected. I think the careers of John Edwards, David Petraeus, and Bill Clinton (although he's made something of a recovery) demonstrate that Thomas Jefferson never would have survived our present political climate - and I do think our country would have suffered from having lost his philosophical input into our national psyche. People are flawed and full of contradictions, and I think we all lose when we aren't able to separate ideas from the people who generate them. That's not to say that anyone, least of all Jefferson, deserve a pass for bad behavior if they have good ideas. But I do think we need to be able to honestly discuss what is possible and what is ideal and be able to talk about realistic ways to marry the two. Jefferson may not have been a model of self-sufficiency in his life, but Thoreau was able to. So, how can we take what Jefferson said and what Thoreau did and come up with an understanding or a principle that would actually be widely applicable? I don't think our pursuit of liberty and an ideal society have to suffer just because Jefferson wasn't able to exemplify them. Jon Meacham was on Meet the Press this morning (replayed), and said one of the things this book should teach us is, "If they can do it, we can do it." I would dispute that, and argue this book teaches us we can do better.
What struck me more than anything else in this book was the character of Roger Williams himself. I was fascinated that he is not a much more prominent figure in American history. When I've read about our Founding Fathers, I have often been struck by how far their own ideas and actions were from the fundamental American values we take such pride in today (for example, Jefferson and slavery). The opposite struck me about Williams. He was the first to view Native Americans as equally human, even learned their language, and tried to argue they actually had a legal right to their land - certainly a radical concept in America for hundreds of years after. He argued for full and true religious freedom (on a personal level, not just colony by colony), was the first to argue for what we would recognize as the separation of church and state, and was probably North America's first abolitionist.
Absolutely! He was clear and enjoyable to listen to, and I liked that he added a little drama to the voices and quotes without over doing it.
I was tempted to listen to it all at once - especially the second half - and I definitely listened to it for much longer sets of time than I had originally planned. I'll probably listen to chunks of it again, because I want to go back over some of the details.
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