Our third president, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), was not much of a public speaker – “He liked writing better than talking” – and though he participated deeply in the politics of his times, his biggest influence was not in oratory, as that of his friend, Patrick Henry, but in writing. And his writing was not driven by artistic desires, though he was very well read in the art of his times, but by “patriotism and politics.”

This according to Maine resident Fred Kaplan’s new book, “His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer.”

“This book anchors the narrative in Jefferson’s growth and development as a writer: the relationship between his literary gifts, his personal life, and his public service,” Kaplan, an emeritus English professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, writes in its preface. “They are an inseparable triad. In this narrative, Jefferson is often holding a pen.”

A lifelong Virginian, Jefferson served, among other roles, as second governor of Virginia, second United States Minister to France, first U.S. Secretary of State, second Vice President under John Adams, and third president (for two terms).

Most of the time he served in those roles, he was writing: treaties, letters, and, most famously, a declaration. When he wrote treaties he was precise, thorough and logical; when he wrote letters he could be funny, compassionate, or stern; when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Kaplan says he wrote “passionate propaganda,” laced nevertheless with “Jefferson’s exemplary flourishes, his combination of concision, eloquence, vigor, and logical force.”

This last trait – using his eloquence in a passionate way – points to what I consider the main flaw in Jefferson’s character. He was not only a master of writing, but a master of rationalization through his writing. (Washington, in contrast, comes off in Kaplan’s book as a better, more straightforward man.)


The most obvious example of this rationalization is in Jefferson’s relationship with slavery. Kaplan grasps this bull by the horns in his very first paragraph. “He inherited slaves, bought and sold slaves, and, after the death of his wife, had six children by Sally Hemmings, a slave woman who was a half sister to his wife.” (That is, Jefferson’s father-in-law had a mixed-race slave mistress, and Sally Hemmings was one of her children.) How could the man who declared all men were created equal, and that slavery was immoral, be a slaveholder? For one thing, the “equal” men he mentioned were white male property owners. For another, it was just too hard.

“It was not in human nature,” Kaplan writes, “and it was not in Jefferson’s nature, to encourage the emancipation of slaves without some process that enabled slaveowners to remain economically viable. … Jefferson, like most slaveowners, would have found it hard to imagine how, without slaves, his daily life would be maintained in the patterns that were psychologically and materially embedded in his consciousness and assumptions.”

Kaplan shows how Jefferson, and America as a whole, shared the trait of a “very human … mental dissonance” especially with regard to slavery. Or as Dr. Johnson once wrote in arguing against the American Revolution: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Kaplan fluently, and in fascinating detail, portrays all aspects of Jefferson’s character: his love for family and friends, his romances when younger – he permanently damaged his right wrist trying to impress a married woman he loved by scaling a wall, and his devotion to the natural beauty of American landscapes.

After his retirement from public life, Jefferson became a grand old man of the Revolution, Kaplan tells us, visited by up-and-coming politicians such as Daniel Webster. He struggled hard against rigorous opposition, both political and religious, to start a secular university at Charlottesville, and succeeded.

Jefferson died in debt – he always lived beyond his means – and, because of North/South divisions over slavery, in fear for the state of the union he had done so much, mostly through his writing, to build.

Frank Freeman is a poet and book reviewer who writes from Saco. 

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