- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003


By Michael Knox Beran

Free Press, $25, 265 pages


The chilly remoteness of such legendary figures as Washington and Jefferson challenges us to look for evidence that somewhere behind the statuary, there were real, living people. The unwholesome version of this is the prurient, muckraking itch to find anything that can be made to seem sick or immoral; the happier version is, of course, simply to probe the marble for flesh and blood.

Generally, Washington’s cold perfection has been neither warmed nor blemished, beyond citing such trivial matters as his ill-fitting false teeth and his taste for wine. Jefferson’s image has been somewhat more soiled with insinuations of twice fathering children upon his slave, Sally Hemings. The mere possibility of this is, of course, sufficient to ignite the explosive liberal cant of “racism” and challenge all right-thinking people to conclude that the Squire of Monticello was a cruel monster of hypocrisy, possessed of a slave-owner’s arrogance.

“Jefferson’s Demons” is fortunately too civilized to peddle such fashionable fatuities; it is a thoughtful, balanced and insightful study of this complex and most interesting man. Its focus is upon Jefferson’s human dividedness, whose various forms may be seen as basically aligned upon the polarity of Whig and Tory philosophies. Indeed, this dividedness is so critical that “A Note on Terms” is provided at the book’s beginning, explaining the differences between Whigs and Tories—a curious concession to readers’ ignorance, perhaps, although useful, in its way.

Most of the “demons” of the title are not so much moral as psychological; they refer to the natural conflict between the liberal Whig and the conservative Tory. For all his wisdom and compassion for that great abstraction, “the common man,” Jefferson had an aristocrat’s love for elegance; he collected rare books within his means (“his library was full of ancient curiosities”), and yearned to collect paintings and statuary beyond his means.

His democratic concern for the people was of course genuine (and some would say far too idealistic); but his love for great art and the refinements of European civilization (much of it manifest in his own great architectural triumph, Monticello), along with his devotion to civilized comforts were always an essential part of him. “The democrat in politics,” Mr. Beran writes, “had given himself up to the mandarin modes of style.”

But there are other divisions, revealing other demons. In contrast to the marmoreal aloofness of the legend, Jefferson suffered from periodic bouts of apathy, dejection (“melancholy fits”) and violent headaches. For six weeks in 1776 Mr. Beran tells us that he “lay in idleness and ill health at Monticello.” (In 1776?! And with all of those other things to occupy his mind?)

No doubt part of these bouts were expressions of the simple law of compensation, reflecting to some degree the bipolarity in everyone, which states that moods which go up must come down—the magnitude and duration of the swings being the critical features. On the other hand, these melancholy fits read a little like some harbinger of the suffering of those young romantic poets so popular in Jefferson’s declining years, in the sense that romantic suffering was simply the price exacted by a fine sensibility. (Here, too, dividedness is manifest.)

Even in our so-called enlightened day, there are many who would find a perverse thrill in discovering that while he was in France, the widower Jefferson had an affair with his good friend, Mrs. Cosway; but according to Mr. Beran, “It is unlikely that their relationship was ever sexual.” As for France, teetering over the abyss of revolution, Mr. Beran writes: “Few things emit so sweet a fragrance of corruption … as a doomed aristocracy.”

Jefferson dressed shabbily but craved elegance; he was a connoisseur of wines and the arts, and yet when distinguished guests appeared at Monticello, they were likely to be greeted by the master of the house wearing carpet slippers.

And when he was moody, he had a tendency to pamper himself by buying things—usually an innocent and childish response for those who can afford it. Nevertheless, Jefferson was often in need of money, and yet he would indulge himself, anyway—a quasi-neurotic response familiar to those of the consumer age.

Altogether, this is a very satisfying book, and part of the pleasure it brings derives from the fact that the writing is vivid and stylish. And yet, there is no sacrifice of “substance” (here, even the nomenclature insists upon dividedness) and gives authority to Mr. Beran’s statement that “great republics are not founded on common sense, alone.” Indeed, there must be something like poetry in the conception of a great republic; and yet it must be a poetry synthesized with prose and solid truth—as expressed in Mr. Beran’s conclusion about Jefferson, that “He was like Solon; he made the latent poetry of his people active.”

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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