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Thomas Jefferson

Biographer Jon Meacham captures Thomas Jefferson as a person, not just a historical figure.

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Of course, there were non-political sides to this complex man, some quite engaging and surprising. He would get up every morning and plunge his feet into a bucket of cold water. He kept pet mockingbirds, and for a spell, two grizzly bear cubs in the White House. One of his first acts as President was to banish the outhouse from the lawn and install thoroughly modern water closets inside. He was prone to bouts of diarrhea and migraines. He spoke several languages, played the violin, designed his own house, and sang at the drop of a hat.  He believed in America and its people, valued science, and always felt America’s future was bright. Into his 80s, he would ride his horse alone about the wilds of Monticello. He was one optimistic individual. His accomplishments and talents were enough to make a modern person muse, never mind Joe DiMaggio – where have you gone, Thomas Jefferson?

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There were shortcomings, too. He slept with the help. After his wife Patty died, Jefferson took up with her half-sister, Sally Hemings, a slave girl of 14 who was the child of Patty’s father and one of his slaves.  She would bear six children by him. To get her to leave France with him in 1790, where she could have legally applied for her freedom, Jefferson agreed to her demand that he free her children at 21 years of age.  And although he kept his word, he freed only Hemingses. The rest were sold upon his death along with his other possessions to pay his substantial debts.

Clearly troubled by slavery from early adulthood and expressing hope that time somehow would remove it from American society, Jefferson never engaged this issue head-on as he did so many others that were important to his country. Other Founding Fathers and revolutionaries set better examples: For example, George Washington freed his slaves in his will; and Lafayette urged Jefferson to be more proactive, to no avail.

At times in this absorbing tale the reader wishes for more or can see the downside of a swift moving narrative – for example, when Americans forces are credited with the victory at Yorktown, where the French played no small part. Or take the paragraph that describes the episode in 1786 when Jefferson and John Adams were invited to court by King George III, who could not have been “more ungracious,” according to Jefferson. This is way too juicy an historical moment to pass over so quickly.

What a life our third president led. For example, he witnessed two revolutions unfold before his eyes, one American and the other French. In the end, of all the things that make Jefferson remarkable and set him apart from the modern subspecies of politician, these are perhaps the most telling: he would risk all, his life and fortune, in 1776 for what was best for his country, and during his presidency he would grow considerably poorer as the nation flourished. How many of our leaders today can say half as much?

David Holahan is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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