Saturday, 26 October 2013

An American sage

By Thomas Jefferson. 1743-1826
With the Declaration of Independence, 1821.

This review was written on February 22nd 2012

This was one of the first books I bought on the Kindle.  Jefferson played a crucial part in formulating the Declaration of Independence which was issued by Congress in 1776. ‘’A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in general Congress assembled’’ It was an early autobiography which he finished in 1790. Jefferson became the third President of America and was re-elected for a second term. He died at the age of 83.

I was aware of Jefferson’s important role during the formation of the United States after the break with England in 1776. In 1985 Louise and I stayed with Richard Crampton, a colleague of mine married to Julia, an Irishwomen. Richard was professor of medicine in Charlottesville in South Carolina and was later to spend a month with me as visiting professor at St. Vincent’s. I was living alone at Leeson Park at the time. He stayed in my house and I remember most distinctly the massive telephone bill he left behind. He seemed to spend all his time in my home on the ‘phone! He graciously left me a cheque for £100 when he was leaving. We visited Jefferson’s home, Monticello, at the time of our visit to his home. I wrote the following note about Jefferson in a letter to my children after our visit there.

This is the home of Thomas Jefferson who was a remarkable man and who made enormous contributions to American science, culture, politics, education and industry during and after the American Revolution. I visited his home in Charlottesville and I was amazed by the number of innovative ideas he formulated and his inventions, and by his extraordinary wide interests and energy. I find biography very interesting because it teaches us so much about the talents of other people and undoubtedly can be an important stimulus and inspiration to ourselves.

The name of Jefferson’s home was Monticello. It is now a widely visited and greatly evocative museum. It is clear from his earlier years that he was hugely influential  not only in advising about the prospect and the inevitability of the break with England but that he played a major role in the difficult task of bringing all the eleven states then in existence together as a united nation with common political and national interests and with a constitution which would ensure their unity through a common President and an effective Congress to organise and direct the  economic, legislative, judicial and international policies of the nation.

It appears that as well as encouraging the unity of the states and in furthering the independence movement, he was a man whose thoughts and ideas had a fructifying effect on the minds of his colleagues. His interests were wide and his influence was compelling just as he appeared to have the patience and the realism to face opposition and often to wait for another day.

An important part of his early biography included his few years as ambassador to France during the French revolution. He took a deep interest in the early years of the revolution and he was not slow to air his views about the genesis of the final collapse of French political society. His advice, if accepted, would certainly have prevented the execution of the King and Queen, the disloyalty to the Crown and the widespread adoption of the guillotine. He is convincing in his view that the Queen was the major influence which led to the failure of the King and many of the clergy and nobles to reach a rational and peaceful accord with the common people. Having read a biography of Edmund Burke a few years ago and knowing how rational was his approach to the American revolution and how his views conflicted with the bellicose King George 111, the Tories and other politicians, and knowing how concerned he was about the effects of the French Revolution on European affairs and international society, it would be interesting to know how closely Burke and Jefferson’s views were shared about these two periods of history.  Jefferson believed that all men are equal. His life was contemporaneous with the writings of Paine in his Rights of Man and Jefferson’s whole political life was based on this self-evident truth.  Paine himself in his famous book and in his prolonged stay in America greatly influenced the progress of the revolution.

When Jefferson at last was released from his duties as ambassador to France and allowed to return to America to meet again with his family and to resume his life there, he was immediately asked to become secretary of State by General Washington. He was reluctant to take on the task being anxious to retire to the comfort and repose of a country gentleman. However he was unable to resist the strong influence of Washington and thus found himself thrown into the active political cauldron of the nascent American States. 

Jefferson left Le Havre for the United States about the 22nd of September. He crossed the channel to Cowes to catch a clipper for Norfolk in the United States. Between contrary winds and other problems it took him two months to reach Norfolk! This is a reminder of the immense amount of time he spent in travelling during his adult life, both in the United States and in Europe. Apart form his many journeys, travel for him seems to have been a leisurely affair as he not infrequently used to spend many days staying with colleagues and friends during his journeys. The invention of the railways in the mid 1800s surely must have had a profound effect on society, at least in terms of reduced travel time and in making travel between people and between nations so much easier.

Jefferson was born in 1743 in Albemarle County, Virginia, and died on July 4 1826. He was President of the United States from 1801-1809.

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