Joseph Ellis

Professor Joseph Ellis
Thomas Jefferson
November 1, 2000

The American SphinxJefferson's career and accomplishments are extraordinary: Author of the Declaration of Independence, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, vice president and president of the United States, builder of Monticello, inventor, wine connoisseur, founder of the Republican (today's Democratic) party, mainspring behind the Lewis and Clark expedition, man whose books served as the collection that began the Library of Congress, and founder of the University of Virginia.

But was Jefferson a hero or a hypocrite? Ask Professor Ellis, winner of the National Book Award in 1997 for American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.

Like the Sphinx, Jefferson proves enigmatic — a complex and often contradictory figure. On the one hand, Jefferson passionately argued for personal freedoms, yet owned slaves; promoted revolution in America, but did not take up arms himself; advocated no government debt, yet worked up tremendous debt building Monticello; as vice president publicly supported President John Adams but played dirty politics by privately subverting Adams's agenda.

US News and World ReportIn fact, dirty politics was the subject of a recent Ellis article entitled, "The first Democrats: How the two-party system was born amid backroom deals, lying politicians, and a scandal-hungry press," that appeared as the cover story of the August 21st issue of U.S. News & World Report.

Another fascinating article that Ellis coauthored, this one on whether Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, appeared in Nature magazine. The piece accompanied the release of the DNA study of Jefferson/Hemings descendents. Professor Ellis also worked as a consultant and appeared on Ken Burns famous PBS documentary Thomas Jefferson.

Ellis's expertise extends beyond the world of Jefferson.

Founding Brothers: Stories of the Early Republic will be released in October and is the latest of Professor Ellis's many works focusing on the revolutionary period. Join him to uncover the secrets of this era and unmask the controversies that shroud the legacies of our earliest leaders. Ellis is a rare breed of scholar — one who writes engagingly and with clarity.

Joseph EllisEllis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. He is nationally recognized as a scholar of American colonial history up to the early decades of the republic, but also teaches classes on Vietnam and American culture and 20th century foreign policy.

A former Army officer, Ellis also taught at West Point and Yale. He has lectured at the Army War College and West Point on Vietnam and on the education of officers in the post cold war era. His book, West Point and the Profession of Arms covers this topic.

Joseph Ellis received his B.A. from the College of William and Mary and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. He has been teaching at Mt. Holyoke since 1972 and served as Dean of Faculty from 1980-90. He has received the Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Research Fellowships and an honorary degree from The College of William and Mary.

Transcript

US All right. Well anyway, we're being joined by dozens of schools throughout the country, high schools and middle schools. We have many questions prepared for you. The first question that we have comes from a student involved in Atlanta. He actually couldn't attend the session today, and sent this in yesterday. He was reading the introduction to American Sphinx and he was stopped on a line about "dead white males" and that mattering to you. Could you talk about your inspiration for Sphinx, and whether "dead white males," and Jefferson in particular, still matters?
Ellis (inaudible) ... I'm being facetious when I use the word [sic]"dead white males." A lot of the scholarly writing on the founders of the Republic refers to them as creators of imperialism, as racists, as classists, as patriarchs, and I'm suggesting that we should understand them collectively as perhaps the greatest body of political talent in the history of the Republic. And I want to make fun, if you will, of the notion of "dead white males." The fact is dead white males really matter, but we need to know about them.
US Sure. We have a question from Larry in Ohio. He was watching the TV show "Boston Public," the new David Kelly TV show, and I don't know if you're familiar with it, but in the first show, they're in a history class, and one student was quite heated, because the history teacher won't address the questions that he's really interested in. And what the student wants to know is, how do you reconcile the fact that Jefferson owned slaves, and yet, wrote that all men are created equal, and Larry also wants to know, why are textbooks so boring and bad?
Ellis To take the first part first, with regard to Jefferson, I think that, I hope that, the teachers that he has will help him discuss the great disjunction, great contradiction, that Jefferson represents. Namely, that while he was the person who authored the most eloquent words about human freedom and equality in American history, perhaps in modern world history, he was also the owner at any one point in time, about 200 slaves, over 600 slaves over his lifetime. In that sense, I think Jefferson embodies and symbolizes one of the great contradictions in American history as well, that right along side our commitment to these uplifting values is this institution of slavery. And coming to terms with that paradox is probably one of the most important things a student in American history ought to do. Jefferson helps us do that, and talking about America in terms of Jefferson is a good way to come to terms with the complexities.

I think one of the problems with textbooks is just this: Textbooks almost have to adopt to a kind of Biblical tone and posture. They have to suggest to you that there are a set of rubrics and frameworks that are uncontested truths that you then read, digest, and supposedly learn. Whereas in fact, American history properly learned, and properly taught, is a series of contested truths, a series of arguments, not easily susceptible to a Biblical approach. And that's one of the reasons why textbooks are so boring. That they feel compelled to try to operate on a kind of level that in effect doesn't get that contagious excitement at the core of American history.

US I have a fellow named Ambrose who is reading your book, Sphinx
Ellis Oh is he? Good.
US You betcha -- and he is taken by your phrase, "gaudy suitors of the south"
Ellis Haughty sultans of the south.
US I'm sorry... "haughty sultans of the south." So you set the stage where Jefferson arrives in Philadelphia.
Ellis He's driven into Philadelphia in a carriage driven by priests or poor slaves. This is in the spring of 1775 when he makes his first appearance in Philadelphia and the phrase "haughty sultans of the south" comes from a newspaper account at that very moment and what it conveys is the sense that the rest of the Continental Congress regarded the Virginians as a rather arrogant group of haughty aristocrats. As John Adams once put it, "in Virginia all bees are swarms." I want to convey the flavor Jefferson was bringing as a member of the Virginia aristocracy, as perceived by his fellow members of Congress.
US Right. Well actually, Ambrose is writing, he wants to know about the Virginia planter aristocracy, the higher order aristocracy. How did that evolve? And how did they see themselves as they got to Philadelphia. In other words, this was, by far, the learned gentry. How did others perceive them? And how did they perceive themselves?
Ellis The Virginia dynasty, or the Virginia planter aristocracy, of which Jefferson is a member, also includes people like George Washington, James Madison, John Marshall, Patrick Henry. It is an illustrious group of political talent and when you think about the fact that Virginia's total population then was about the size of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania now, how we managed to generate that amount of talent out of that small body is tough to know. They saw themselves primus in parte, meaning first among equals. The Virginians thought they were the leaders of the American movement for revolution, and that the rest of the colonies should listen very much to them. In part this was a function of the fact that they were the largest colony, and in part this was a function of the fact that this group of leaders was used to seeing themselves as an elite group and taken seriously as leaders. But there was a good deal of resentment, especially within the Pennsylvania delegation, where Quakers had a less austere style of campaigning. And in Massachusetts, which was currently under serious assault by the British army at that time, and where John and Sam Adams really had been the true leaders in the debates taking place within the Continental Congress between '74, '75. They really resented the idea of Virginians seeing themselves as so irreplaceable. So Adams, to his credit, recognizing the need to bring Virginia into the revolution, made two key decisions: Number one, appointing George Washington as commander of the Continental Army, and two, making Thomas Jefferson author of the Declaration of Independence, thereby guaranteeing Virginians a prominent role.
US Let's talk about Jefferson's re-entry into Philadelphia in May 1776. Is that when he gets back into town?
Ellis That's right.
US You write that almost immediately he wants to go back home, that he feels that the doings of Virginia are more important than national gov, [sic] so can you set the stage for about two months prior?
Ellis When Jefferson comes back in May of '76, he is about to do the most important thing of his entire life. He is about to write the most prophetic words of American history in June. The key thing is he would rather be back in Williamsburg. When you ask Jefferson where his country is, who is his country? He would say, "My country is Virginia." And he thinks that at this moment in time, the drafting of the Virginia Constitution is a more important moment, a more important contribution that he could make, than participating at the national level in the Continental Congress. So if he had had his way, he would have been sent back to Williamsburg, and would have not been available to draft the Declaration of Independence.
US We just got a question in from Rebecca who is a high school student in Maine. She wants us to step back a little. She knows that Jefferson ... she writes that young Jefferson was a junior member of the Virginia delegation and she is curious, how was he perceived by the rest of the Virginians? What was his relationship like?
Ellis Within the Virginia delegation, Jefferson was a junior member in terms of age, and in terms of political experience. The leaders in the delegation were George Washington and Patrick Henry. He was kind of an afterthought, a latecomer to the delegation.
US Right.
Ellis Within the Continental Congress, from the time that he arrived, Jefferson was seen as somebody devoted to the radical cause, that is the coming of the American Revolution, but was extremely ineffective in debate or campaigning. He was not someone comfortable speaking on his feet. The Virginia leaders were all these great orators. Jefferson made his reputation as a draftsman, as a more innocuous figure behind the scenes, which is again why he was such an ideal choice to craft the words of the Declaration. He's a person who makes his mark on history with pen, rather than with a voice.
US He was a poor speaker, publicly?
Ellis He had a very reedy, high-pitched voice, according to commentators, that did not project well. Of course, they didn't have microphones and amplifiers back then. He was simply not comfortable expressing himself with passion and emotion in front of others. Very reserved, very insecure as a speaker.
US Right. I have a follow-up question from Doug in Pennsylvania, actually. He has also read your book and he comments that he remembers Adams actually kind of critiquing all the voices of the people of the Continental Congress. So, what role did public speaking (inaudible)?
Ellis Public speaking was a way of demonstrating your character. Each of these different representatives were, in some sense, auditioning for the parts of Great Leader of the American Revolution, with Roman and Greek models very much in their mind. So who would be Demosthenes? Who would be Cicero? And who would be able to command the body by the sheer power of their oratory? It was a meeting of orators, and again the Virginians, Henry the leading one among them, had a sermonical style and were excellent at those kind of theatrical moments. Jefferson was odd-man-out in that. Adams was a great speaker. He was not as passionate as Patrick Henry, but he was dogged. He had a reputation for his oratory as the so-called Atlas of Independence.
US Okay. I have a great question, a question I love, from April in Arizona who read your book Passionate Faith actually. And she wrote that she was taken with Adams' passion indeed. She liked when Adams went to visit the cemetery of the Washington Square there, where he visited the graveyards, and he writes back to Abigail, "Never in my life have I been so distraught." And another time he was attending a party at the mayor's house in Philadelphia, and there was a night of dancing, and he writes home again to Abigail saying, "I have never in my life been so indulgent." And this was part of his passion. Could you just ... Maybe paint a broad ...
Ellis A good reason why Adams is one of my favorite founding fathers and perhaps my favorite is I believe he is the most under appreciated great man in American history. What allows me to say that is that Adams in his diaries and his letters expresses his ambitions, his vanities, and his passions, with an honesty and candor that none of the other founding fathers do. In some sense I count on Adams... the rest of the founding fathers at some times can look like sculpted statues, like some sort of costume figures out of Williamsburg. Whereas, Adams is right there as one of us, a passionate, throbbing, ambitious, eager man, who is capable of great loves and great hates and who lets you see his passion. I value him and think Adams is the most revealing of the founding fathers.
US Today a lot of politicians, writes Lisa from Pennsylvania, like to view themselves in a Jeffersonian mold. They say they are "Jeffersonian." First of all, what does that mean? And is it true? Who might be considered Jefferson-worthy at Monticello?
Ellis The truth of the matter is that virtually all political parties, of all people, of all sides, like to claim they are Jeffersonian. Franklin Delano Roosevelt claimed to be Jeffersonian. Ronald Reagan claimed that we should pick a flower from Jefferson's garden and wear it in our lapels forever. William Jefferson Clinton started his first inauguration in 1992, in Monticello. So Jefferson is kind of an American Everyman. Everybody wants to be Jefferson. In some sense ... One of my quips in American Sphinx is, "It's not any man who can be every man." It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to come off in different ways to different constituencies. From a purely political point of view, the political message that Jefferson projects, the person in the late 20th century that is most capable of claiming that mantle -- believe it or not -- is Ronald Reagan, because Reagan like Jefferson, thinks the ultimate thing to worry about is the power of government, and the power of federal government, far removed from the lives of ordinary citizens. That's the central message of Jefferson's political philosophy -- to worry about consolidated political power. On the other hand, the goals Jefferson envisioned for the society, the goals that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party regard as their legacy from Jefferson, are legitimate goals. The truth is, though, they can only be acquired through the application of federal power, and the liberal wing of the Democrats have to come out in favor of a powerful federal government which really isn't what Jefferson was for at all. So the argument goes on about who is Jeffersonian and who can affect both wings of the American political spectrum want to embrace Jefferson because he is such an extraordinarily potent icon.
US Great. I got a question from Joanne. She's from Texas, actually. She wants to go to the days of the writing of the Declaration itself. We're now in July. Rick, perhaps you can queue up our picture of the Graph House actually. Jefferson was staying at the Graph House, number 13. Edge of town (inaudible.)
Ellis It's June. It's not July. Between June 11th and June 20th, we're not quite sure. It probably took him no more than two days to write it. He was serving on about 38 committees, at that (inaudible) ... it is sacrilegious. Jefferson pulls an all-nighter. This is like a student, who has been working on a term paper, and has got lots of other things to do in his or her life. And he pulls together things that are around him. He says that he has no books. He doesn't refer to any books when he writes. He makes a big point of that. Because later on people say he copied John Locke, or he copied this author... He says, "I didn't copy it." What he did copy was something that was in the Philadelphia paper at that time, a phrase out of the Virginia Constitution, which was being drafted by George Mason. That's where he got the phrase "pursuit of happiness." It comes from George Mason and the preamble to the Virginia Constitution, which is published in the Philadelphia papers at that time. The rest of the document is a recycling of previous writings that Jefferson had done in the Continental Congress and sort of put together all at once.
US Ok. Many follow-ups have come in, but one from George in California in particular, asks, "What is the pursuit of happiness?" What did it mean then?
Ellis That's what Robert Frost calls the "hard mystery of Mr. Jefferson." If anybody can offer a definition of what the pursuit of happiness is, and such factors to all concerned, that person will immediately win the Pulitzer Prize. I think it's an uplifting phrase. Interestingly, it's a phrase which replaces the word "property." John Locke wrote, "Life, Liberty, and Property." By replacing "pursuit of happiness" with "property" some historians think that Jefferson is making a statement against property rights and against a definition of material wealth as the highest form of happiness. "Pursuit of happiness" is also a phrase which gives legitimacy to the rights revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is a phrase which effectively says that every interest group, be they women, be they blacks, be they other minorities, have legitimate rights to pursue their happiness and nothing should be permitted to block that. So it's a phrase, which in terms of the liberal tradition has enormous influence in the course of the next few centuries.
US A follow-up question from Donna, who is actually up early, thank you, in Portland. She writes, "You write, or you just said, that he pulled an all-nighter." Okay. She's familiar with Jefferson's summary view on Virginia.
Ellis Of which he pulled stuff ... the long section on grievances against George III, he very much copied out of a summary of his earlier writing.
US Right. And she wants to know, first of all, how familiar were the other delegates with Jefferson's writing before he arrived in Philadelphia?
Ellis The only thing people that outside of Virginia knew about this man called Thomas Jefferson, is that he had been the author of this pamphlet called Summary View of the American Colonies. And that was what made him noticeable and somewhat famous. Because it was the first pamphlet to argue that Parliament had no right to legislate at all to the American colonies. Up until that point in time the argument had been, "No right to tax." But Jefferson had extended the argument in effect he said, that the American colonies cannot be governed in any way by legislation of Parliament. This was a new position for which he received a certain amount of fame and it was the basis ... it was the only thing the other delegates really knew about this young guy when he arrived.
US The document goes from Jefferson's pen to the committee.
Ellis The committee for the Declaration.
US for the Declaration ... and it goes to four others who now, in Jefferson's word, now "mangle" I believe, his writing?
Ellis It's more complicated than that. The committee meets. The other two important members of the committee -- besides Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin -- there are also Roger Sherman and William Livingston on the committee. The committee meets and they decide Jefferson should write the document. Adams suggests it and they accept it, and they also give him instruction as to what they think should be in it so he's not operating totally on his own. They first offer as a kind of (inaudible) to write the document to Benjamin Franklin, who is the most famous stylist in America. And Franklin said, "I make a habit of never writing a document that will be edited by a committee." So he refused. Then Jefferson writes this document and he shows it to the committee and they make only a very few changes. The most famous change is... Jefferson had initially written, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undenied" and I can imagine Franklin sighing, "I see no need to call in foreign aid" and he changes it to, "We hold these truths to be self-evident" and then sent it to the full Congress. It was delivered to the Congress by the committee on June 28, 1776. The famous Trimble painting that hangs in the rotunda of the Capitol telling this moment, everybody thinks this is the signing moment. It is not. It is the moment when the committee gets the document for the first time. There really is no signing moment. There is no one moment when everybody signs this document. Then for a few days they debate the wording on this document, on July 2nd and 3rd. The Continental Congress changes about 25% of the text, they make about 138 changes in the document. The most famous change that they make is they delete a long passage in which Jefferson accuses George III of being the source of slavery and the slave trade. They deleted that probably because they don't think it's a good idea even to bring up the subject of slavery since in fact most of the people in the Virginia delegation owned slaves. And the vote comes on the 4th during the debate over the language. Jefferson says nothing. Again, he cannot speak in public. He is incapable of defending his own document.
US Right. Is he fuming though?
Ellis He is sitting there fuming. The man who is defending the language is Adams. And Adams is attempting to prevent the changes. Franklin comes over and sits down next to Jefferson at this moment and tells him a story. He says, "I once knew a hatter who wanted a sign painted for his haberdashery and it had all these words on it, and by the time they finished revising it, it came down to no words at all, just a picture of a hat, and that's what's happening to your document." Jefferson left the meeting, very upset, feeling as though the sanctity of his language had been corrupted. In fact, went to his grave in 1826 still feeling that the document had been, as he said, "mangled." The text had been mangled. Most historians in fact would disagree. Most historians would suggest that the changes made by Congress were improvements and that the things removed were in some sense syrupy, sentimental, excessive, and that the stateliness of the prose is a contribution in part from the Continental Congress. In Jefferson's lifetime, not until fairly late, was he regarded as the author of the Declaration. The Declaration was not regarded as the work of a single person. It was regarded as the collective product of the Congress and only in the last ten years of his life was this regarded as something that really was a part of his legacy and he clinched it by insisting that it be one of the things listed on his tombstone -- Author of the Declaration of Independence.
US Right. Right. I have a question from Lisa; she's from outside of Pittsburgh. She writes, "So many say the founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation, a nation based on Christian ethics. Is this true? Should it matter? Why do supporters of this position cite the religious beliefs of the founders to support their words?
Ellis Well, I think that it's a good question. I think that there is nothing in either the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution that is specifically Christian, although God is mentioned I guess in one. It's true. All the founders were themselves Christians of one sort or another, most all of them Protestants, and they assumed that Christianity would be not an official religion, but that people shared the values associated with Christianity and that was one of the things that bound them together as Americans. That said, Jefferson himself was accused of being an un-Christian person, of being an atheist, of being an agnostic, and not a Christian. In 1801 after he was elected president, President Timothy Dwight of Yale College required all graduates of Yale College to take a vow that they would never vote for Jefferson because he was not a Christian. And Jefferson, along with Madison, is the author of the famous separation of church and state principle, which essentially insists that there be no government enforcement of any particular religious denominational preference. And that's a historic and extraordinarily significant achievement which says in effect, whether you are a Christian, whether you are a Jew or an atheist, you cannot be prosecuted by the government.
US Okay. I have a question from Jim in Conestoga, Pennsylvania. He wants to know what happened to Jefferson after the Declaration was written. Why didn't he serve in the military? And what happened, really, during the war years?
Ellis Jefferson goes back to Monticello after August and September of 1776. His wife is not well. She becomes ill during one of her pregnancies. Eventually, she will, in 1781, die as a result of the pregnancies. And Jefferson is himself not a person who ever fires a shot in anger in the American Revolution. He doesn't become a soldier. He is young enough to do so. Many of his friends are doing that. And, truth be known, he is criticized within the Virginia aristocracy for shirking his duties. But he believes his allegiance is to his wife, to his family, to Monticello. He would say to the slaves of Monticello. He had been elected governor of the state, and in that period of time when he is governor, Virginia is invaded by a British army and Jefferson himself is chased out of the capital and they burn the capital around him. He flees to Monticello. And the stories at the time were that Jefferson was a coward. Now I don't think it's cowardice on his part, it would have been stupid for him to stay there to be captured and eventually hung, but his reputation suffers greatly within the Virginia aristocracy and in the nation at large. When he runs for office later on, they keep calling this moment back to him that he didn't serve. It would be like now if somebody missed service in Vietnam, and basically being told, "Where were you when it was time to be counted?"
US Ok. I have a question from Rick in Florida. He wants to know, okay, the war is now over. It's 1783, Jefferson is sent to Paris. Franklin is there with him.
Ellis Franklin is already there. He is there to replace Franklin as the (inaudible) Minister in France. Franklin goes there with Adams to negotiate the end of war, the peace treaty, the Treaty of Paris. At the ceremony where Jefferson is introduced to the court at Versailles, the minister of France is a man called de Vergennes and Vergennes comes up to Jefferson and he says, "Ah you are Mr. Jefferson. You are here to replace Mr. Franklin." And Jefferson says, "Ah yes. I'm only here... No one can replace him. I'm here to succeed him." Franklin when he was in Paris was the most famous American in France, and Jefferson failed to replace him. He will serve for four years, 1784 to 1789, as the chief American diplomat on the continent of Europe. Madison would go to the court of James in England and together they served as American emissaries to Europe during that time. He gets to see, toward the end of his stay in Paris, the beginnings of the French Revolution, which is starting. He feels extremely confident that the French revolution will proceed smoothly and bloodlessly. He has what is in retrospect a rather na´ve view of the way social change is going to happen in France.
US I have a follow up question Actually, it's a two-part question. A fellow named Doug in Delaware writes, "What languages did Jefferson speak?" Can you go back to Jefferson's childhood and speak to his education all the way through William and Mary?
Ellis Ok. Second thing first. Jefferson was educated by tutors up to the time he goes to the College of William and Mary, at pretty much the tender age of about 14. He goes through a "classical" curriculum, meaning Latin, Greek, Natural Philosophy, which we would call Physics, and then goes on to study the Law with George Whitman after that. So language-wise, he has Latin and Greek, not as a spoken languages, but as written languages. Later on, some will say that Jefferson is fluent in Latin, Greek, French, and Italian, and some German. The truth is, he is never really that good with the spoken language. Jefferson never, in fact, was that fluent in French. He always had documents translated by someone else. When once he claimed to have learned Spanish by reading Don Quixote while taking a voyage over to Europe, he was at dinner having dinner when he made these claims. John Quincy Adams was at the table and John Quincy was on the boat with him, he was on board while this was supposedly happening. And he said, "Ahh, Mr. Jefferson, tell us a false story." Jefferson was a (inaudible) but because he was classically much more of an expert on the written as opposed to the spoken language.
US Okay. We are getting several questions coming in right now basically on Jefferson and slavery. They seem to be really of two flavors. 1.) How did Jefferson resolve the contradiction of promoting liberty while at the same time owning slaves? And then secondly, well, we'll get into the Sally Hemings thing after the first question.
Ellis Okay. The short answer to that extraordinary question is he never really resolved it, that it was a contradiction at the core of his soul. The more "historically correct" answer is to say in the early phases of his career, Jefferson was one of the progressive leaders of the Virginia dynasty arguing for policies that would eventually end slavery. He certainly wanted to end the slave trade, so did most of the other Virginians because in fact, it was to their advantage to end the slave trade because they already had enough slaves. It would increase the value of the slaves they already had. But Jefferson also wanted to limit slavery's expansion and eventually in the Continental Congress he proposed a rule that would exclude the expansion of slavery into any of the new territories. So you can see that as a young man, as a young, maturing, political leader, Jefferson was on the cutting edge of finding a way of putting this institution on the road to ultimate extinction. By the 1780s, and on the way into the 1790s however, change happens. He steps back from the leadership role. He believes it is politically improbable for him to politically sustain that role and also remain viable as a candidate. He doesn't have the stamina and the fortitude to lead, and he basically assumes the position that this is not an issue that this generation can solve. "I bequeath to the next generation." And when people come to him in his old age and say, "Now is the time. You are out of office. Now is the opportunity to assume the leadership role by freeing your slaves and insisting on this as American policy," he refuses. He said he won't do that. In part, he says, because he sees no way for freed slaves to live in a society with whites. Jefferson did not believe that a biracial society is possible. And if he freed the slaves, the only recourse that he sees is to send them back to Africa or some place in the Caribbean and at some point in time the number of slaves makes that just unfeasible.
US Right. Yeah, Washington upon his death does free his slaves.
Ellis Washington frees the slaves in his will upon the death of his wife.
US Right.
Ellis Another thing to say about Jefferson here is that Washington is one of the few members of the Virginia dynasty to do that. Madison doesn't do it. Patrick Henry doesn't do it. So Jefferson is more typical. We invest more in Jefferson. I think Washington is able to free his slaves because he is solvent. Washington is not in debt. In some sense, if you wanted to defend Jefferson, you could say Jefferson cannot free his slaves because he doesn't really own them any more. His creditors owned them. He is the equivalent of ten million dollars in debt when he dies. And when he does die they sell off his slaves. They sold off 120-something slaves that were remaining at Monticello. It only pays off a very small portion of his debt and his surviving daughter becomes a ward of the state. In that sense, Jefferson never really owns his slaves after a certain point in time. They are not his to do with as he sees fit.
US We have a lot of follow-up questions to that. One of them is ... we're going to get into the nature of Jefferson's presidency, but certainly Jefferson wanted the new government not to run into debt. This was very important to him. Yet in his own life he was so far into debt.
Ellis Jefferson has a wonderful idea that he tells to Madison in 1789. He sticks to it all his life but he never really puts it forward seriously. Every generation is solvent. All debts at the end of a generation should stop. In other words, he sees the French Revolution as a product of debt that is built up over time and now falls in one moment. Now this is a convenient position for him to take, because it would mean that he was no longer in debt. One of the things that drives him as the president is to, as president, remove as much of the national debt as possible, and to limit expenses, and to allow his secretary of state put together a plan to eliminate the debt over the next 15 years. He's also a believer in minimalist government, low costs and an unimperial executive. But in 1803, the opportunity to purchase this territory called Louisiana comes in and the bill for that is $15 million, which in those days is real money and Jefferson recognizes that this is an opportunity that cannot pass, therefore this unimperial president makes the most imperial executive decision of the American presidential history in order to acquire what is essentially the heartland of the United States by adding 15 million to the deficit.
US Right. I have a quick follow-up question on Lewis and Clark. Maybe, Rick, you can queue up picture seven, which is Clark. (inaudible) "Can you talk a little about the purchase first of all," says Henrik. He wants to know, "Was this an extra-legal act?"
Ellis Sure. It was approved by Congress, but Jefferson regarded it as unconstitutional. Jefferson said, "In order for me to do this, I need a ..." (inaudible) Madison and then his Secretary of Treasury said, "Forget about this constitutionality stuff. If we delay on this, Napoleon is going to change his mind. And if he changes his mind, this chance passes, and it will never come again. You act for subsequent generations by doing this." And so Jefferson himself regarded it as an extra-legal act done for the interests of posterity. The irony, of course, is that the territory that he purchased is, in the end, is territory over which the extension of slavery will be fought, that in some sense, it is the Louisiana Purchase that brought us into the Civil War.
US Right. What was Jefferson's interest ... what was Jefferson's interest or involvement with the Lewis and Clark expedition?
Ellis Merewether Lewis was Jefferson' private secretary and was born and raised a couple miles from Monticello in Albemarle county, Virginia. Jefferson asked Lewis to form a company along with Clark to explore this vast land to the west even before he knew the purchase was going to go through. News of the Louisiana Purchase arrived in the United States in Washington on July 4, 1803. They had sent this committee, this exploration unit, out there about a month before, and in order to, it's really a covert operation. It's described as "pursuing scientific and literary pursuits" and it's really illegal because it's not only going to explore Louisiana territory, but all the Spanish territory to the west as well. Jefferson believed that there's a road ... there was a river out there that will carry us from one coast to the other. A lot of other people believed that was true as well. And he also believed there might be pre-historic beasts there, like mastodons and dinosaurs. The west for Jefferson was this place of unbelievable, unknown possibilities. The west was where you send American problems to find solutions and if we could get this land to the west, eventually we will postpone that moment when we will become densely populated, urbanized, and industrialized. He wants to see the preservation of a barren republic and the purchase of the land makes that possible.
US While you were answering that question, one question came in from Bobby who wants to know why Jefferson didn't sell some of his inventions to get out of debt?
Ellis He did have a few inventions. The plow, he had a special kind of plow, the copy machine. Jefferson was an aristocrat. Jefferson was not an entrepreneur in any sort of economic sense. Jefferson never, and this is interesting, Jefferson never thought of himself as poor. No matter how in debt he is, Jefferson did not think of wealth in terms of money. He thought of wealth in terms of land and he owned 10,000 acres of land and he always thought of himself as a man of means and not till the very end when it all came crashing down on himself and his family did he really ever come to terms with it. I'm not sure he ever did. But it would have been unbecoming for a man of Jefferson's stature and class to make money with inventions.
US Right. Could you speak to some of his inventions?
Ellis I think that you go down to Monticello and you see the copying machine, which I think he invents some time it's later rather than earlier. In the movie, Jefferson in Paris which came out several years ago, you see him in Paris using this copying machine. In truth he didn't have it then. But one thing about this machine that was worthy of note is that Jefferson of all these people, and he was certainly at the top of the list, recognized that he was present at the creation and everything they were writing and saying was going to eventually be read by high school students in America 200 years later, or at least potentially so, so they had this enormous sense of their own historical significance, and this machine made it easy to do. Otherwise, he had to copy everything by hand or have someone else copy it by hand. There's this revolving desk down in Monticello, which permits you to read five or six books at the same time. I don't think anything that Jefferson invented was on the same level as what say Franklin did. It's more a curiosity, more of a way making life easier. And some of the things Jefferson invented didn't work at all. You have rotation crop theories in Monticello. A lot of the inventions Jefferson had were just duds.
US We have several questions come in about Monticello, Jefferson's life in Monticello. I know he lived there several different decades, if you will. Because there are so many different ones, broadly, can you describe life in Monticello? And then as a follow-up to that, I'm interested in Jefferson's entertaining at Monticello, certainly his great love of wine.
Ellis Jefferson was a great lover of wine. The wine bill during the presidency itself was larger than his entire salary. And he acquired a taste for French wine in France. He was never an alcoholic but he liked the best wine. Monticello was Jefferson's haven in a heartless world. It was the heritage, the place for him to go and be free of public scrutiny, public controversy. Jefferson was an intensely private man. This was a place where he could be with the ones he loved, and those were his family, and, he would say, his slaves whom he regarded as part of his extended family. Unattractive as that might sound in our multicultural view, he really saw himself that way. It's a convenient way to see yourself. But Monticello, the mansion, which is one of the architectural crown jewels of American architectural history. It was never really finished in his lifetime. Not really. When people go to Monticello now, what they see and experience is what Jefferson wanted to create but it was always in a state of construction and repair. So if you'd go see Jefferson at Monticello, there were something like hundreds of people working: bricklayers, roofers, and carvers. In addition to the mansion, there are these fields out there, where there are approximately 100 slaves. He's got another plantation down in Bedford (?), about 90 miles away, where there's another group of slaves. They are not plantations in the kind of 19th century, antebellum, "Tara," Gone With the Wind sense, where there's a sort of factory approach to growing and harvesting. They're really a series of farms in which people are growing their own food. They are not really designed to be as productive and efficient as slave plantations would be. It's a bucolic setting. It's certainly a beautiful setting, and he impracticality of it all is very dear. He wants Monticello to be where it is because it's on this altitude, this wonderful height. Because it's up there 972 feet above sea level, the soil is pretty poor, and you really can't grow a heck of a lot, and he really pretty much was a failure as a farmer.
US I'd like to move -- or actually our students would like to move -- into the first administration, Washington's administration. The post that Jefferson held?
Ellis Secretary of State.
US What were some of the duties of Secretary of State?
Ellis The Secretary of State is primarily responsible for the making of American foreign policy, obviously. Jefferson had vast experience with it, having served 35 years in France as American minister. Technically, the Secretary of State's foreign policy in the 1790s is the West. We don't own anything west of the Appalachians. So what we would now regard as the Department of Interior is included within the Secretary of State, and it's also in charge of all copyrights. Irony of ironies, in 1793, just before he steps down, one of the things Jefferson does is approve the copyright for the cotton gin that Eli Whitney submits. So that Jefferson the guy that signs the law making legal the cotton gin, which in effect causes the explosion of slavery throughout the south.
US That is really stunning. Okay, now let's go into Adams' administration, where, of course, Jefferson is Vice President. Now we have your article, your recent article, from U.S. News posted on the site so a lot of the students have a chance to read, to read, that. They're interested in two things, well, they are interested in several things but in the sake of time, here are a couple things that we'd like to know. 1.) You say that Jefferson actively worked against the Adams administration in particular, in matters of foreign policy. Let's start there. How could that be?
Ellis Part of it is the structural anomaly that is essentially corrected by the 12th amendment of 1804. Here's the structural anomaly. After 1804 with the 12th amendment, when voters vote for president, they vote for one of two tickets of two. Ok? And there's a team of people that run together and you vote. But prior to that, prior to passage of that amendment, you voted for two people, and the person who came in first was president, and the person who came in second was vice president. Well, what that means in 1796 is Adams wins the narrow election I think 72-69. Jefferson comes in second. That means Adams is president and Jefferson is vice president. What that means is the person who has opposed him, the person that set up a party to oppose the federalists, is now the vice president. And so it's a kind of Trojan horse inside the administration. I guess one question; "to what extent did Jefferson have some obligation to restrain himself from becoming the leader of the Republican opposition?" He did. He didn't exercise it. He does leak documents to hostile newspaper editors, especially the Republican paper by Bosh called the Aurora, and he also leaks to the French directory, effectively telling representatives in France not to pay much attention to what the Adams administration says or does. This is behavior which in the current climate would be regarded as treasonable and potentially you'd have to go to prison for. But remember things have congealed at that moment. They don't know how to define treason. And Jefferson was in this position because of the anomalous way they have elected the president and the vice president. This is where he also, actually, goes out and recruits people to libel Adams. That's where he recruits James Thompson Callender to write pamphlets accusing Adams of being a debaucher, a crypto-monarchist. That he's going to have his son John Quincy inherit the presidency from him if he is allowed to remain president. And the great irony here: Callender goes to Jefferson and says, "Now that I've helped you make president by libeling Adams, I want a payoff. I want to become Postmaster-General in Richmond." And Jefferson says, "No, no, no. I've paid enough." So then Callender says, "I'm going to blow the whistle on you." And then Jefferson says, "I'm going to deny it. I'm going to deny that I paid you money." Callender then publishes the letters Jefferson had written to him saying he did salary him. And then it's Callender who, in September of 1802, publishes the expose of the Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson story. And as Abigail Adams subsequently says to Jefferson, "The snake that you released upon us has turned indignant disasters on hand."
US Wow. Okay so let's talk about Sally Hemings. First off, how well was this story known before Callender released it. Were there insinuations?
Ellis There is evidence that ... again this is kind of the history of gossip, and it's an inherently elusive subject. The history of what's being spoken behind the scenes and inside the corridors is always difficult. There's new evidence that rumors of a liaison at Monticello between Jefferson and one of his slaves were going on in the 1790s, and that one of the children was very light-skinned and looked very much like Thomas Jefferson. That's all (inaudible). There was an unspoken code within the planter class that things were going on inside slave quarters between masters and slaves, and everybody knew about it, and everybody knew you didn't talk about it. Jefferson ... then the story blew nationally in 1802. The New England press picked this up. This confirmed their deepest suspicions that this guy was an infidel, and a pagan, and a hypocrite. In fact, in the Massachusetts General Court, the legislature of Massachusetts, they actually wrote up bills of impeachment on Jefferson, one of which articles, was the Sally Hemings issue. The only time Thomas Jefferson ever commented was in response to the impeachment bill in Massachusetts. In a letter to a friend in Massachusetts, Jefferson denied the Hemings accusations were true. It didn't hurt him politically. Remember, a year later, a little after this story breaks, the Louisiana Purchase happened. Jefferson wins in 1804 by a landslide. The story haunts him throughout the rest of his life but he never responds to it. I think its damage, is damage done over the years after that through posterity. In truth, until 1998, with the development of new Recombinant DNA techniques permitting matching of Y chromosomes, it was impossible to render a judgment on this that had any kind of real credibility. Different people argued different sides of this with evidence, all history evidence from the black community, all history evidence from Jefferson's side in the white community. In some sense, Jefferson covered his tracks so effectively on this, that it required 200 years and the most highly technological tools in order to find out whether it's true. And it's still not a certainty. It is in my judgment now a probability. Before you could say that the evidence had failed to reach a kind of beyond a reasonable doubt. Now I think, from my point of view, now the evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt.
US Ok. A great follow up question here from Rebecca in Pennsylvania writing, "Did proof of the relationship change any of your conclusions of Jefferson? You seem pretty convinced when you write in the Sphinx that the alleged relationship with Hemings."
Ellis Probably didn't happen.
US Right. "... probably didn't happen. Throughout the book you maintain ... throughout the book you maintain that he was the master of paradox." I'm not certain what that has to do with it.
Ellis I know what she's getting it. I know exactly what she's getting at. That's an excellent question too. Essentially she's saying, to what extent did this revelation force me to change my impression of him? No, no. It forced me to deepen it. That is, he's even more of a sphinx than I had ever realized. And I resist using the word "hypocrite" in American Sphinx. I say Jefferson plays tricks inside himself. He's the kind of man who plays hide-'n'-seek inside of himself and instead of seeing him as kind of an outright hypocrite, I see him as a man of great duplicity, internally. With the Sally Hemings thing, I think you've got to start thinking in terms of hypocrisy. Because this really does mean that he was living a lie for the following big, big reasons. One of the reasons Jefferson gave as the reason he could not assume a leadership issue on the problem of slavery is he didn't think it was possible for blacks and whites to live together in the same society and he feared if they were, it would produce what is called "miscegenation," the coming together of races, which he disapproved of. There he is, living a considerable portion of his adult life, in a relationship with a black woman -- she's actually a mulatto woman -- and in that sense violating the very thing that he claims stands in his way of freeing the slaves. So he also never acknowledges his paternity. That is to say, some planters had children with slaves and they took them on as their own children. Jefferson never did that. Jefferson refused to acknowledge that they were his children. He didn't allow them to escape or include them in his will.
US The web caption is on a bit of a delay. So there's going to be questions referring to things we talked about a little while ago, but here's one I really, really like. It's from Annie. She's in Arkansas, actually. She writes, "Why do you think the history written for primary or secondary school students leave out the juicy details like sex." And she goes on. "You describe some of those details in the U.S. News article like Jefferson hiring a scandal mongerer," and this one I really like, "Harrison writing that Adams wanted to ship prostitutes over from England for entertainment at the White House."
Ellis Right. Well I think part of the problem is that many of the textbooks written for primary, secondary, or middle schools, at that level of education, a lot of people say, "I don't do history, I do Social Studies." Social Studies is a more amalgamated conglomeration of Political Science, Sociology, Geography, History, what have you. It creates a kind of smorgasbord that doesn't have any character of change to it. Furthermore, American textbooks are written by committee and approved by state legislatures and various groups that claim to speak for the public interest. Texas is the most interesting here. And if you are a textbook publisher and want to get your book published, you know you have got to get past these legal groups and that tends to create a diluted, watered-down (inaudible). It tends to take you away from controversy because let's say the state of Texas doesn't want to adopt your book which means you don't sell 2 million copies, which means you lose money. So that the economics, the politics, as well as the educational values of secondary schools seem to mitigate against having a voice, having an edge, writing of the excitement and controversy essential to the study of history. What happens is, thank God, regardless of the banality of the text, there are teachers out there who are absolutely inspired by history and bring that contagious enthusiasm with them. That's what permits history to survive inside classrooms despite the textbooks.
US We have several more folk... If we may, just a couple more questions, if that's okay with you?
Ellis My voice is going to fail me fairly soon. I got this bronchial infection that's draining its way through me. (crosstalk)
US (crosstalk) You are fine. It's great. Just two more questions. Again, since we never really got to the Jefferson presidency.
Ellis What do you want to know about the Jefferson presidency?
US Oh, just as much as you tell us.
Ellis The Jefferson presidency lasts for eight years. It's a great example of two things that will be recurrent themes in American presidential history. One is, the first term is a glorious success and triumph, and the second term is an unmitigated disaster. If you go down through American history, that is the pattern. If you get elected to two terms, it's not infallible but it's almost always the case, the first term is successful and the second term is a failure. The first term for him crowned by the Louisiana Purchase, the second term played out with the coming of the War of 1812. The embargo of the American ports which destroyed the American economy. The opposition from New England because their own commercial interests were being badly served. Jefferson has to close down newspapers, which was exactly the thing he objected to in the Sedition Act. He leaves office in 1809, going back in March 1809 to Monticello. He was in the same dispirited condition that Jimmy Carter left the White House in 1980. Remember that? That was a low, low, low time. As a president, he is the first president to take office saying that he was weighed against Washington. He is going to dismantle the very federal structure that he is now been elected to head. This has become a major theme. George Bush is doing this now. Ronald Reagan did it before him. Jimmy Carter did it before him. In America, you definitely do not want to be seen as someone who exercises power at the federal level. The people will only trust you if you are claiming to speak with them against the government. And Jefferson is the unimperial president in style. Jefferson only makes two public speeches in eight years. The first inaugural, and the second inaugural. All of his business is done in writing. Half of his decisions are done in writing. Making policy is an editorial process, which of course he is a genius at. He is carrying the presidency in a direction that plays to his great strengths as a prose stylist. He is the unimperial invisible president. The only people who see him are the people who see him at dinner parties he has during the Washington seasons. Even there, it's very informal. He's always dressed ... Foreign dignitaries are concerned that he is not properly attired with wig and everything else, that he looks informal. He wants to come off as a person who is not an aristocrat.
US We had a question all along, just real quickly: He didn't wear a wig? Was that unusual?
Ellis (crosstalk) He wore a wig in France, during the time that he was a minister there and he wore a wig for a time I think in Philadelphia in the Continental Congress. There's the famous portrait him by Lazarus Brown done in 1790 with the wig on. He looks funny. He looks funny. Wigs were starting to go out by the time he was president. It was starting to be a measure of which generation you were in versus another generation you are in, and Jefferson himself was an aristocrat in all kinds of ways, in terms of his looks, French wine, culture and everything. He was extremely political about appearances. He really wants to look like he is not a member of the elite. He is the member of some sort of "common man" group. Jefferson doesn't call himself a Democrat until very late in his life. That is not a term which he would use to describe himself and in some senses he is much more of an elitist and member of the aristocracy than say John Adams. Adams's father was a shoemaker (?). But he's very, very sensitive to appearances, clothing, hair, and so the wig is the vestige of the Federalist Party, the old aristocracy, and we're new.
US Right. I guess if you don't mind, we'll wrap up with, and it's going to be another broad question (of course, I could ask you questions all day). The emergence of the two-party system, and the curious and remarkable relationship between Jefferson and Adams.
Ellis Probably the greatest invention, contribution, that the founding generation made politically in the 1790s, was the invention or discovery of what becomes political parties. What's very odd about it is, they don't know they are doing that. In fact if you would ask Thomas Jefferson, "What do you think of political parties?" He would say, "Oh, we hate political parties." The famous quote from Jefferson about parties, in a letter, he said, "If I must go to heaven in a party, I'd rather not go at all." Because to them, political party meant faction, meant representing a narrow interest instead of attempting to represent the larger public interest. They are in effect inventing parties as they go, without the vocabulary they need to talk about them. Jefferson was one of the leaders in this. Jefferson and Madison as his henchman. What they come to realize is that no politician on the national level would be able to claim to be bi-partisan. To be elected to the presidency is going to require being the head of a party, a political party. Jefferson recognizes that before Adams does, before Washington does, before anybody else does and begins to create the machinery necessary to be successful with doing that. And in some sense, by my lights, I've written a new book that's just out called Founding Brothers. One of its points is, it is the institutionalization of a dialogue between the two sides of the American political spectrum that permits the stable republic to continue. Instead of killing each other off, which they do after the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, they institutionalize the argument in the form of a political party. One side is on the freedom side, the other side is on the equality side. One side is for federal sovereignty; the other is on the state's rights side. But the political parties allow for stable debate to continue. That's a very important thing. Finally, Adams and Jefferson compete with each other for power in the 1790s. Finally, Adams and Jefferson compete with each other for power in the 1790s. Adams wins the first election, Jefferson the second. There's all this residual sentiment that they were intimate friends. That they were present at the creation together and that once that happened, nothing that happened afterward would be able to totally destroy that friendship. That they stood together in the court of St. James as fellow American rebels. George the III came up and turned his back on them. That's unduplicatable. But by the time Adams leaves in 1801 to go back to Quincy, he takes the train out of town at 4:30 in the morning the day of Jefferson's inauguration. He refuses to go to Jefferson's inauguration. They have fought so hard, and Adams feels so bitter. What happens is, over time, a mutual friend named Benjamin Rush who is a Philadelphian (cross talk), a physician.
US (crosstalk), father of American medicine.
Ellis Right, father of American medicine. He likes each of them and says the other wants to get in contact with you. He's telling Adams that Jefferson wants to see him. Both of them know sort of know what's going on. Rush says, "I had a dream..."(He and Adams got together comparing their dreams.) "...and the dream was that you and Jefferson had come together at last. The words and the music of the American Revolution brought together at last, and that the two of you had died at the same time and ascended to heaven together." Well, they do come together in 1812, and they exchange 155 letters and they are among the most important and most lyrical and interesting documents ever written by American statesmen. And they die on the same day, July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day of the announcement of the Declaration of Independence. If you wrote this up in a novel, or made it up in a TV series, nobody would believe it, but it really happened. I was at a party at the White House one time, a film was being screened on Jefferson, and Bill Clinton, who is very well-read regarding American history and Jefferson said, "You know, if you didn't believe in God, and find out about this story, you'd have to believe in God. You'd almost have to."
US Well, I just want to thank you so much for your words and your music, and your way of bringing the whole revolutionary generation and the founding brothers to life.
Ellis Thank you, and I hope students will continue to be interested in American history.
US All right. Good.

Meet the Historians

These renowned historians and experts chatted with students online. Read the transcripts.

Carol Berkin
Colonial Women
Ira Berlin
Slavery
Joseph Ellis
Thomas Jefferson
James Loewen
Debunking History
Jon Nese
The weather
Robert Regan
Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Remini
The Jacksonian Era
Brooks Simpson
U.S. Grant and Reconstruction
David Traxel
1898
Errol Uys
Riding the Rails
Cheryl Walker
Native American Lit
Mike Wilson
Jack London
Gordon Wood
American Revolution
historic documents, declaration, constitution, more