Thomas Jefferson. I see Jefferson (1743-1826) as America’s da Vinci. He was a revolutionary, an architect, a great literary craftsman, a farmer, a gardener, an amateur paleontologist, an archaeologist, the father of American library science, a classicist, and much more. And he could, as his biographer James Parton said, “calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.”
Jefferson was a shy and somewhat aloof man, a scientist and a man of letters, a member of what the Enlightenment called the “Republic of Letters.” But he was drawn into the crisis of the birth of the United States. He wound up serving in virtually every position of public trust open to a white man of property in his time, including two somewhat reluctant terms as President of the United States. But he always longed for the blissful agrarian life he had created for himself at Monticello, surrounded by grandchildren and his books. Although he must have been ambitious—how else do you serve as president, vice president, Secretary of State, Governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, etc.?—but he could not conceive of himself as a man of ambition, and he perpetually presented himself as a Horatian farmer who merely wanted to drink wine on his modest rural estate, far from the arena of power and money and militarism.
Jefferson was a genius. He was perhaps the greatest man who was ever President of the United States, though he was certainly not one of the greatest presidents, and—aside from the fact that he bought South Dakota—I’m not sure he should be regarded as one of the Rushmore Four.
Adams nailed it, as always, when he said Jefferson had “a peculiar felicity for expression.” Jefferson was easily the best prose stylist of the Founding Fathers. The only person who could say more in fewer words was Thomas Paine, and Paine would have been incapable of inditing what I call “The Jefferson Music,” Jefferson’s restrained love song to America and American exceptionalism.
My Jefferson is a radical political philosopher living in the character of a man of civility and sensibility. He cannot be appropriated by any of the modern political parties or factions, but if we translate him from his time to ours without course corrections he seems closest to the libertarianism of Rand and Ron Paul.
My monologues almost always begin with the phrase, “My dear citizens. Let us reason together.” That’s Thomas Jefferson.
Clay’s Personal Notes:
I’ve been doing Jefferson so long that I can essentially channel him. Jefferson has been the greatest companion of my life. I have a library of several hundred volumes on Jefferson, and my collection is seriously incomplete. I would not continue to perform Jefferson after all these years if I did not essentially agree with his outlook. He was a visionary republican who believed that humans are capable of self-government. He believed in the revolutionary power of serious public education. He regarded man as a rational animal. Indeed, he believed that we can, more often than not, be our best selves, without which, it would be very difficult to maintain a republic. He believed that civility and harmony were essential ingredients of a republican culture. He was an agrarian, who believed that farmers were “the chosen people of God” because their rugged self-sufficiency not only kept them focused on what really matters in life, but made them truly independent in the public arena.
When I started performing as Jefferson several decades ago, he was still regarded as the greatest of the Founding Fathers. In some respects, he has lost ground ever since. First there was the titillating Sally Hemings story. Then it became clear that Jefferson could not any longer be given a “pass” on the issue of slavery. Then a rediscovery of his capacity for political maneuvering shattered the aura that he was a mild-mannered scholarly gentleman who was above the political fray. By the second decade of the 21st century Jefferson has been knocked off of his pedestal. In some quarters, he can no longer be taken quite seriously. This is a dangerous miscarriage of proportionality, I believe. Whatever Jefferson’s faults—and they were serious faults—he remains the author of the American dream. It would be a grave mistake to turn away from Jefferson merely because he was a slaveholder, a racist, and the initiator of Indian removal policies later brutally enforced by President Andrew Jackson. We need Jefferson—the exemplar of the Enlightenment who wanted the United States to be the world’s exemplar of good sense, science, liberty, and limited government.
Being with Jefferson all this time is quite a bit like a marriage. I know that there are times when I love Jefferson profoundly, and times when I cannot stand to be in the same zip code with him. I have fallen in and out of love with Jefferson five or six times in the course of my work on him. There have been times when I have seriously considering retiring him, because I don’t want to try to explain his paradoxes any longer, particularly his ownership of slaves. But I can never quite break with Jefferson, because I recognize in him—at his best—the finest ideals of humanity, and the great promise of America.
Of all the characters I do (and have done), Jefferson is the most forward-looking. I keep Meriwether Lewis and Steinbeck and John Wesley Powell more or less locked in the world in which they lived and worked; but with Jefferson, I am not afraid to have him look forward to a world he did not live to see. I know this violates the Williamsburg model of keeping a historical character rigidly within his frame, but I believe my Jefferson is not finally about how many violins he owned, or whether he had two or twenty chess sets. I try to know everything there is to know about Jefferson in his own time and place, and I thrive on questions about his polygraph, his archaeological digs, his time in France, his friendships with Franklin, Madison, Monroe, Abigail Adams, and Maria Cosway, but I frankly believe that I would be irresponsible not to employ Jefferson as a reality check on all that has followed his death in 1826—and particularly on our world, which has such a weak understanding of how to test ourselves against the gold standard of the Founding Fathers.
At some point a rational performer has to stop doing Meriwether Lewis, who died when he was 35! But I expect to continue doing Jefferson until I did on the Fourth of July 2038, at the age of 83.