April 13, 2020. Thomas Jefferson would be 277 today.
Once he was my idol.
I read all six volumes of Dumas Malones’s magisterial Jefferson and His Times.
I laughed in 1962 when President Kennedy hosted 49 Nobel laureates in the White House and said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
I was thrilled to realize, when I became editor of The American Baptist magazine in 1972, that Jefferson had been President of the United States when the magazine was founded in 1803. Baptists never liked Jefferson because he was a Deist and warned each other to bury their bibles in their back yards because Jefferson was coming to get them. That made me love him even more. Inspired by the great block print artist Thomas Hodgel, I carved my own tribute to Jefferson, dubbed it 1803, and hung it in my office.
Then in 1974, Fawn M. Brodie wrote Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, which suggested Jefferson had intimate relations (she was too polite to use the word rape) with Sally Hemings, one of his young slaves.
Dumas Malone fiercely denied the accusation, saying Jefferson was a perfect gentleman who, when it came to sex, “had ice water in his veins.”
But DNA evidence provided by Hemings’ offspring proved it was true. In 2018, the curators of Montecello, Jefferson’s mansion, acknowledged Jefferson’s outrages as part of the historical record. A windowless room adjacent to Jefferson’s living quarters was revealed as the dark corner where Hemings was hidden from the public.
But Jefferson’s crimes had never been truly hidden. In 1802, James M. Callender, a journalist who also attacked Alexander Hamilton, wrote of Jefferson:
“It is well known that the man, Whom is delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally. The name of her eldest son is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the President himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age.”
Jefferson, launching a dark tradition of American politics that would extend to the present day, called it fake news.
But the truth usually emerges.
And the feet of our heroes are dry clay, crumbling into the dust of history.