I recently returned from the 20th Jefferson Symposium at the school Jefferson created, the University of Virginia, and in the buildings he designed. Twenty? How time does fly, and at a certain age, which apparently I have reached, it flies like a jet plane. I first attended the Symposium in 1993 after the 250th Anniversary of Jefferson's birth, and have not missed many since. (For info on the Symposiums -www.virginia.edu/travelandlearn)
This Symposium was particularly timely because it addressed the personal alliances and conflicts that in large measure shaped our political heritage. Although there was little reference to today’s politics I think there was much thinking about it among the participants. In addition to TJ, the presentations by the outstanding faculty focused mostly on John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, with some Aaron Burr. Other founders, especially Franklin and Washington, were addressed in the Q&A (around 30 minutes of each session) that followed the presentations (each around 60 minutes). The faculty, led by Peter Onuf, who organized the event and is the pre-eminent practicing Jefferson scholar, took a daring risk. In several sessions they “channeled” (their word, said with a sly smile) the Founders. Or should I say they role-played them.
Introducing: David Thomas Konig from Washington University as Madison, Richard Bernstein from New York Law School as Adams (and by a strange coincidence, a friend of Paul Giamatti, who played Adams in the recent HBO series), Joanne Freeman from Yale University as Hamilton, and , of course last, but surely not least, Peter Onuf from the University of Virginia as Mr. Jefferson. As they mostly debated one another with humor and intellect they demonstrated most dramatically the appeal of the Symposiums—they are fun and educational. Frankly, I didn’t learn a lot of historical details in this format, although others did, but I did come away with a greater sense of how the Founders were human beings and how they related to one another.
We always receive handouts of relevant writings, and in one of them I was struck by a statement from Madison. Referring to the difficulty of writing the first written constitution to govern a nation, he said: ”Adding to these considerations the natural diversity of human opinions on all new and complicated subjects, it is impossible to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle.” It also seems miraculous that a group of men with such varied political views were able to join in declaring independence from the most powerful nation on earth. They knew if they failed they all would likely be hung as traitors to set an example to others who might seek to leave the British Empire.
The Founders shared a complete commitment to holding the nation together during the revolution and afterwards. They often diverged on the exact means of doing so, but not in their dedication to the cause. At the risk of oversimplifying, they mostly differed in the degree they trusted the people to govern themselves while protecting civil rights and maintaining a strong government. On the scale of trust, Hamilton trusted 'the people' least , then Adams, then Madison, and finally, TJ trusted them the most. Seeing the faculty performances so soon after watching the HBO Adams series (quick review-I loved it, as did at least 2 of the faculty- get the DVD and see it!) it became clear to me how the political views of these Founders reflected their personalities.
For example, Hamilton, a military man, liked hierarchy and strong authorities even in his personal relationships, and he liked being the boss! Adams often felt personally mistreated by people and thus didn’t trust the public as much as Madison did. The division over the Alien and Sedition Acts that restricted criticism of the government marked a dividing line between Adams and Hamilton who supported it, and Madison and Jefferson who vehemently opposed it. Jefferson sincerely liked people in his private life, and despite what some historians have thought, was warm and personable. The only one of the men mentioned that was a “foe” of Jefferson was Hamilton and even in his case TJ spoke well of him as a private man, but he REALLY didn’t like his politics.
It occurred to me that historians explain these men to us, and yet these historians may lack the skills of psychological insight that allow us to truly understand their subjects. The Founders political views and actions grew out of their personalities and attitudes towards life. And the personalities and attitudes of the historians and biographers tend to shape their interpretations. The role-playing and discussions that followed highlighted the interaction between the Founders and their interpreters in a fascinating way. Thus it reinforced the idea of 'Our Jefferson', the Jefferson that speaks to the individual. For example, some people today who study Jefferson say we live in a Hamiltonian country, because we are so industrialized, centralized, and materialistic. Not so, a Jeffersonian like me would say. We live in a Jeffersonian country because we are so free, independent, and idealistic.
As another Fourth of July comes around, it's another opportunity to remind people that TJ and Adams both died on July 4th exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. As part of the Symposium we visited the house near Monticello of former President James Monroe, a close friend and ally of Jefferson and Madison, and we were told that five years after Jefferson and Adams died Monroe also died on July 4th. After the Symposium, Kay Wilkinson, a friend from the Symposiums, who now is part of the development staff of Colonial Williamsburg, and I went to Madison's home near Monticello at Montpelier. The description of Madison as short, shy, sickly, cool, and reserved, reminded us how few Founding Fathers, if they had lived today, would even run for office, no less get nominated and elected. We learned that during his final illness Madison was asked by his doctors if he wanted to try to prolong his life. He said "no" and died less than one week before the 60th Fourth. He was the last Founder to die.
Three of the first five presidents died on July 4th and one came close! Miracle? Strange? Glorious? HAVE A HAPPY FOURTH!
The flames kindled on the Fourth of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism: on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them. To Adams, 1821