Today on The Cycle: What Obama could learn from Thomas Jefferson

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THOMAS JEFFERSON
THOMAS JEFFERSON

Jon Meacham joins the Cyclists during today’s guest spot to discuss his book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. His book is a biography on one of America’s most overexposed, yet elusive and least understood presidents. Jon Meacham compares Jefferson to Obama to where they are both tall, cool, cerebral presidents who affects an air of distance from politics, yet, is actually quite skilled at vote-getting.

Jon Meacham points out how Thomas Jefferson is a man of genius and contradiction. He embodies both the promise and shortcomings of the American experiment. So what could Obama learn from Jefferson? Meacham points out three things: clarity of purpose, optimism, and the art of compromise.

Be sure to tune in at 3:30 p.m. for the full conversation and check out an excerpt from the book below.

He was the kind of man people noticed. An imposing, prosperous, well- liked farmer known for his feats of strength and his capacity for endurance in the wilderness, Peter Jefferson

had amassed large tracts of land and scores of slaves in and around what became Albemarle County, Virginia. There, along the Rivanna, he built Shadwell, named after the London parish where his wife, Jane, had been baptized.

The first half of the eighteenth century was a thrilling time to be young, white, male, wealthy, and Virginian. Money was to be made, property to be claimed, tobacco to be planted and sold. There were plenty of ambitious men about— men with the boldness and the drive to create farms, build houses, and accumulate fortunes in land and slaves in the wilderness of the mid- Atlantic. As a surveyor and a planter, Peter Jefferson thrived there, and his eldest son, Thomas, born on April 13, 1743, understood his father was a man other men admired.

Celebrated for his courage, Peter Jefferson excelled at riding and hunting. His son recalled that the father once single- handedly pulled

down a wooden shed that had stood impervious to the exertions of three slaves who had been ordered to destroy the building. On another occasion, Peter was said to have uprighted two huge hogsheads of tobacco that weighed a thousand pounds each— a remarkable, if mythical, achievement.

The father’s standing mattered greatly to the son, who remembered him in a superlative and sentimental light. “The tradition in my father’s family was that their ancestor came to this country from Wales, and from near the mountain of Snowden, the highest in Great Britain,” Jefferson wrote. The connection to Snowdon (the modern spelling) was the only detail of the Jeffersons’ old-world origins known to pass from generation to generation. Everything else about the ancient roots of the paternal clan slipped into the mists, save for this: that they came from a place of height and of distinction— if not of birth, then of strength. Thomas Jefferson was his father’s son. He was raised to wield power. By example and perhaps explicitly he was taught that to be great— to be heeded— one had to grow comfortable with authority and with responsibility. An able student and eager reader, Jefferson was practical as well as scholarly, resourceful as well as analytical. Jefferson learned the importance of endurance and improvisation early, and he learned it the way his father wanted him to: through action, not theory. At age ten, Thomas was sent into the woods alone, with a gun. The assignment— the expectation— was that he was to come home with evidence that he could survive on his own in the wild. The test did not begin well. He killed nothing, had nothing to show for himself. The woods were forbidding. Everything around the boy— the trees and the thickets and the rocks and the river— was frightening and frustrating.

He refused to give up or give in. He soldiered on until his luck finally changed. “Finding a wild turkey caught in a pen,” the family story went, “he tied it with his garter to a tree, shot it, and carried it home in

triumph.” The trial in the forest foreshadowed much in Jefferson’s life. When stymied, he learned to press forward. Presented with an unexpected opening, he figured out how to take full advantage. Victorious, he enjoyed his success. Jefferson was taught by his father and mother, and later by his teachers and mentors, that a gentleman owed service to his family, to his neighborhood, to his county, to his colony, and to his king. An eldest son in the Virginia of his time grew up expecting to lead— and to be followed. Thomas Jefferson came of age with the confi dence that controlling the destinies of others was the most natural thing in the world.

He was born for command. He never knew anything else. The family had immigrated to Virginia from En gland in 1612, and in the New World they had moved quickly toward prosperity and respectability. A Jefferson was listed among the delegates of an assembly convened at Jamestown in 1619. The future president’s greatgrandfather was a planter who married the daughter of a justice in Charles City County and speculated in land at Yorktown. He died about 1698, leaving an estate of land, slaves, furniture, and livestock. His son, the future president’s grandfather, rose further in colonial society, owning a racehorse and serving as sheriff and justice of the peace in Henrico County. He kept a good house, in turn leaving his son, Peter Jefferson, silver spoons and a substantial amount of furniture. As a captain of the militia, Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather once hosted Colonel William Byrd II, one of Virginia’s greatest men, for a dinner of roast beef and persico wine.

Born in Chesterfi eld County in 1708, Peter Jefferson built on the

work of his fathers. Peter, with Joshua Fry, professor of mathematics at the College of William and Mary, drew the fi rst authoritative map of Virginia and ran the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina, an achievement all the more remarkable given Peter Jefferson’s intellectual background. “My father’s education had been quite neglected; but being of a strong mind, sound judgment and eager after information,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “he read much and improved himself.” Self taught, Peter Jefferson became a colonel of the militia, vestryman, and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. On that expedition to fi x the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina, the father proved himself a hero of the frontier. Working their way across the Blue Ridge, Peter Jefferson and his colleagues fought off “the attacks of wild beasts during the day, and at night found but a broken rest, sleeping— as they were obliged to do for safety— in trees,” as a family chronicler wrote.

Low on food, exhausted, and faint, the band faltered— save for Jefferson, who subsisted on the raw fl esh of animals (“or whatever could be found to sustain life,” as the family story had it) until the job was

done. Thomas Jefferson grew up with an image— and, until Peter Jefferson’s death when his son was fourteen, the reality— of a father who was powerful, who could do things other men could not, and who, through the force of his will or of his muscles or of both at once, could tangibly transform the world around him. Surveyors defi ned new worlds; explorers conquered the unknown; mapmakers brought form to the formless. Peter Jefferson was all three and claimed a central place in the imagination of his son, who admired his father’s strength and spent a lifetime recounting tales of the older man’s daring. Thomas Jefferson, a great- granddaughter said, “never wearied of dwelling with all thepride of fi lial devotion and admiration on the noble traits” of his father’s character. The father had shaped the ways other men lived. The son did all he could to play the same role in the lives of others.

Peter Jefferson had married very well, taking a bride from Virginia’s leading family. In 1739, he wed Jane Randolph, a daughter of Isham Randolph, a planter and sea captain. Born in London in 1721, Jane Randolph was part of her father’s household at Dungeness in Goochland County, a large establishment with walled gardens. The Randolph family traced its colonial origins to Henry Randolph, who emigrated from En gland in 1642. Marrying a daughter of the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, Henry Randolph thrived in Virginia, holding offi ce in Henrico County and serving as clerk of the House of Burgesses. Returning home to En gland in 1669, he apparently prevailed on a young nephew, William, to make the journey to Virginia.

William Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s great- grandfather, thus came to the New World at some point between 1669 and 1674; accounts differ. He, too, rose in Virginia with little delay, taking his uncle’s place as Henrico clerk and steadily acquiring vast acreage. An ally of Sir William Berkeley, the British governor, William Randolph soon prospered in shipping, raising tobacco, and slave trading. Meac_9781400067664_4p_01_r2.m.indd 6 9/20/12 8:28 AM A Fortunate Son || 7 William became known for his family seat on Turkey Island in the James River, which was described as “a splendid mansion.” With his wife, Mary Isham Randolph, the daughter of the master of a plantation called Bermuda Hundred, William had ten children, nine of whom survived. The Randolphs “are so numerous that they are obliged, like the clans of Scotland, to be distinguished by their places of residence,” noted Thomas Anburey, an En glish visitor to Virginia in 1779–80. As the Randolph historian Josephus Daniels noted, there was William of Chatsworth; Thomas of Tuckahoe; Sir John of Tazewell Hall, Williamsburg; Richard of Curles Neck; Henry of Longfi eld; Edward of Bremo. And there was Isham of Dungeness, who was Jefferson’s maternal grandfather.

As a captain and a merchant, Jefferson’s grandfather moved between the New and Old Worlds. About 1717, he married an En glishwoman, Jane Rogers, who was thought to be a “pretty sort of woman.” They

lived in London and at their Goochland County estate in Virginia. In 1737, a merchant described Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather’s family as “a very gentle, well- dressed people.” Jefferson’s mother, Jane,

was a daughter of this house and had an apparent sense of pride in her British ancestry. She was said to have descended from “the powerful Scotch Earls of Murray, connected by blood or alliance with many of the most distinguished families in the En glish and Scotch peerage, and with royalty itself.”

The family of William Byrd II—he was to build Westover, a beautiful Georgian plantation mansion on the James River south of Richmond— had greater means than the Jeffersons, but the description of a typical day for Byrd in February 1711 gives a sense of what life was like for the Virginia elite in the decades before the birth of Thomas Jefferson.

Today on The Cycle: What Obama could learn from Thomas Jefferson

Updated