Thomas Jefferson had more passions than most people have socks. As I move forward on my presidential biography quest, I bid adieu to Mr. Jefferson by looking at just ten of the many things he loved.
I hate to break it to conservatives, but Jefferson was a bona fide tree-hugger. He planted over 160 species of tree at Monticello and was dubbed the “father of American forestry.”
He wished the government could protect trees more than the law allowed at the time. “The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries,” he said, “seems to me a crime little short of murder, it pains me to an unspeakable degree.”
Jefferson collected Jameses like Ben Affleck collects Jennifers. Two of his closest friends and protégés were fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe. Both had indispensable impacts on his legacy.
Madison helped him form the Democratic-Republican Party, the nation’s first political party and the ancestor of today’s Democratic Party. Monroe helped him broker the Louisiana Purchase, more than doubling the size of the United States at the bargain price of four cents an acre.
Jefferson’s friendship and support helped both Jameses succeed him as president, maintaining the Virginia Dynasty for 24 straight years.
A pet mockingbird named Dick was Jefferson’s “constant companion,” following him around the White House and even taking food from his lips. Margaret Smith wrote, “Often when he retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on his couch and pour forth its melodious strains. How he loved this bird!”
Dick was his favorite, but Jefferson loved all mockingbirds. When he heard the species reached Monticello in the wild, he wrote:
“Learn all the children to venerate it as a superior being in the form of a bird, or as a being which will haunt them if any harm is done to itself or its eggs.”
I’m not sure if those kids grew up with a healthy respect for mockingbirds or in sheer terror at the mere thought of the winged demons, but Virginia’s mockingbird population flourished.
Actually, Jefferson loved casual everydays. After visiting the White House a French ambassador wrote, “Mr. Jefferson has put aside all showing off. He greets guests in slovenly clothes and without the least formality.”
Jefferson often wore a frock coat and bedroom slippers, looking more like The Dude from The Big Lebowski than a president. This was a mixture of his Virginia upbringing, which emphasized intellect and manners over ostentatious dress, and a conscious decision to throw out the stuffy trappings of Washington and Adams’s administrations.
Thomas Jefferson knew how to throw a party. He was a poor public speaker, but he shone as a conversationalist at his intimate dinner parties, which one guest referred to as “a mental treat.” Aside from the obligatory delicious food and wine, Jefferson’s parties had three rules: 1. No healths (long boring toasts) 2. No politics and 3. No restraint.
Jefferson also used his soirees for political gain. Author Jon Meacham wrote, “It tends to be more difficult to oppose – or at least to vilify – someone with whom you have broken bread and drunk wine. Caricatures crack as courses are served; imagined demonic plots fade with dessert.” His plan worked, as Senators opposed to his agenda were heard saying “the President’s dinners had silenced them.”
Jefferson loved macaroni (he called all pasta “macaroni” in the same weird way Brits call all desserts “pudding”) and helped popularize it in America at his famous dinner parties. The inventor even drew up specs for a macaroni machine along with a recipe for pasta. To give you an idea of how Thomas Jefferson’s mind worked, this is one of the ingredients of his pasta: 2 wine glasses of milk.
A White House guest in 1802 described Jefferson’s macaroni: “It was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions was made of flour and butter, with a particularly strong liquor mixed with them.” Like I said, the dude knew how to throw a party.
One of Jefferson’s greatest loves was the home he painstakingly designed, and never stopped redesigning. Monticello was a work in progress for over 50 years. “Putting up and pulling down is one of my favorite amusements,” he said.
He obsessed over its details – double doors where both opened when you pushed on one, a dumbwaiter inside a fireplace – and he had written plans with measurements to an impossible-to-measure one millionth of an inch. “I suspect it was just a kind of intellectual exercise,” Monticello’s architectural conservator Bob Self said. “There isn’t anything else it could be really.”
Built on a mountaintop (Monticello is Italian for little mountain), it allowed Jefferson to look down at the surrounding landscape like a god. “And our own dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye?” he wrote. “Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we there ride above the storms!”
Today Monticello is the only house in the United States designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
No love could rival Jefferson’s late wife Martha, but one came close. After four years of grieving Martha’s loss, Jefferson met Maria Cosway in Paris and described her as “the most superb thing on earth.” Multi-talented like himself, she was a skilled painter who spoke several languages and played and composed music. She was perfect, except for the minor inconvenience of having a husband. Good thing this was France.
Maria inspired Jefferson to write a 4,000 word love letter with his left hand, after he mysteriously broke his right wrist, likely in her company. “How the right hand became disabled would be a long story for the left to tell,” he told a friend. “It was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may.” Oh Jefferson, you coy cuckold-maker.
Upon leaving France Jefferson wrote Maria, “I am going to America and you are going to Italy. One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.” They continued their correspondence for the rest of Jefferson’s life, each keeping a painting of the other in their homes.
Jefferson once told John Adams, “I cannot live without books.” He fell in love with reading as a child and developed an addiction to buying books to feed his insatiable thirst for knowledge.
His collection came in handy after the War of 1812 when the British burned the Capitol Building and its 3,000 volume library. He offered to sell his library to Congress, but they almost turned him down because Federalists feared Jefferson’s books might spread his “infidel philosophy.” Good sense prevailed, and Congress more than doubled its library when Jefferson’s 6,707 books were delivered.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went from being BFFs to arch-rivals and back like a pair of soap opera divas. They worked together on the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and were practically family while diplomatting together in France, but everything fell apart during Washington’s first administration.
Vice-President Adams seemed to favor some monarchical ideas, which Secretary of State Jefferson considered a vile threat to keeping power in the hands of the people. These differences culminated in one of the bitterest elections in American history, which Jefferson called the “Revolution of 1800.” Jefferson beat the incumbent Adams, and Adams skipped out on Jefferson’s inauguration. The two did not speak for 12 years and never saw each other again.
Then in 1812 their mutual friend Dr. Benjamin Rush orchestrated a rekindling of their friendship. “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other,” Adams wrote Jefferson.
The old men exchanged 158 letters about everything from books, family, politics, education, and religion, to their roles in the American Revolution. The renewed correspondence lasted the rest of their lives. The Founding Frenemies died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson loved far more than these ten things – his family, wine, science, France, horseback riding, the violin, and contradicting himself, to name just a few – but all those things are hard to illustrate with a doll whose knees don’t bend. I’m sure I’ll revisit Jefferson as my future plodding explores his legacy on the country and slavery, but for now it’s time to move on to his protégés, James I and James II.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
The First Forty Years of Washington Society by Margaret Bayard Smith
John H.B. Latrobe and His Times (1803 – 1891) by John E. Semmes
At Home by Bill Bryson