I know that I have been being less on-point, of late; at least, if you consider writing about things aside from fitness to be off point.
In any case, I know that I’ve been talking a bit less about fitness lately, and a bit more about, well…everything else.
I know also that you come here for great fitness; and so I apologize and promise that we will get back to that very soon.
Before I do, though, I though that given the date, this would be a good opportunity for me to discuss one of my heroes, for there is no better time to discuss Thomas Jefferson than July 4th, and on July 4th, there is no better man to discuss than Thomas Jefferson.
Now, I want to preface this by saying that I’m a bit of a Jeffersonian nerd, although in that regard I would be ranked quite low. I’ve studied Jefferson in both the academic setting and independently; more so the latter, reading at least 15 or so books that I can recall (my favorites will be posted below). And although the research into a man such as he is like staring into the Void, I will say that I’ve always come out feeling that I’m a better man with a slightly better understanding of the world.
I know that for many people, TJ is a bit of a lightening rod—everything about him screams paradox; and the inability to reconcile a man with the idea of him is, for some, too much to bear. But his paradoxical nature is what make Jefferson appealing to me. I have always been drawn to flawed, reluctant heroes. Jefferson is a man of inconsistencies—the idealistic equalitarian contrasted with the slave owner. The slave owner who loved his slaves. The conviction of his writing contrasted with his unwillingness to commit to ideas.
These things are what make Jefferson so appealing to me as a man—because in him I see not only flaws, but a man desperate not to have any. Jefferson’s idealism appealed to men, and himself, and I think in his writing it is often reflected that he would like to have been more than he was. More than that, I find Jefferson to be a superb example of the paradoxical nature of both America and humanity.
But then again, I have always been drawn to flawed heroes.
For these reasons and others, Jefferson has always been my favorite president—at least in his personality, if not necessarily his policies—and later became one of my favorite historical figures. I initially related to him because of his Idealism, in all of his writing, Jefferson expresses hope for the most beautiful version of the future imaginable.
Getting a bit more into it, like most Americans, my initial exposure to Jefferson’s writing was the Declaration, and this is where Jefferson first made his mark on me.
I stumbled through the Declaration for the first time when I was 9 years old. I do not recall what I thought at that time, beyond the fact that I was equally overwhelmed and impressed. When I read it again at 12 years old, I understood more of it, and recognized the importance of it with regard to History. At 15, I realized it’s true significance as a declaration of war; as my then History teacher put it, “words of steel couched in pretty phrases.” At 19, reading it again in the second semester of my Freshman history class, I was finally struck by the enormity of what I was reading. By that time I had grasped it’s significance – but it wasn’t until then that I fully understood the mastery with which it was written.
As you might be able to guess, what I have always loved most about Jefferson is his writing.
Of all of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson was, by far, the best with a pen. Certainly, others had amazing ideas—Madison in particular, who wrote most of the constitution—and some could be rousing writers…but none had what Jefferson did. None had his style, his panache, his unfailing and unrelenting command of the language. A number of Jeffersonian scholars have commented that reading Jefferson ruins the rest for you—there’s simply no reading anyone else from that time period. I don’t think TJ would feel comfortable with that, but there remains a grain of truth there.
In fact, looking just at the Declaration itself, you can pick out something truly magnificent–one of the most famous sentences of all time:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language,” containing “the most potent and consequential words in American history.” This phrase summarizes the entire spirit of the American Experiment. It captures our ideology and our idealism, our humility and our hope, and above all, the goal for which many would die; a cause worth dying for.
The passage came to represent a moral standard to which the United States should strive. It is what Thomas Jefferson believed, and so it was what believed, what we still believe. Jefferson wrote it, and we believe it. It shapes us, has shaped us. For centuries now.
Even if you’re not an American, you have been influenced by those words—his words—, as there are very few countries in the world that have not been affected by the ripples made by the stone that is the American Experiment.
And if it was just his words, or his idealism, we could leave it there. But it’s not. TJ also inspires me for a number of other reasons, not the least of which is that he had an ability to form lasting and important friendships, a quality I find to be severely lacking in most humans.
The most well-known example of this is his relationship with John Adams. Mr. J and Mr. A, as they were wont to call one another, were friends, then rivals, then friends again. The period of estrangement was due to political issues, and eventually resolved itself. One of the most fascinating testaments to their friendship is that Jefferson and Adams died on the same day–this day. On July 4, 1826, at the age of 90, Adams lay on his deathbed while the country celebrated Independence Day. His last words were Thomas Jefferson still survives. He was mistaken: Jefferson had died five hours earlier at Monticello at the age of 82.
As someone who finds friendships more inspiring, in general, than romance, the friendship between two former presidents is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. (There is an urban legend that they each sent a final missive to one another, and that the couriers passed one another on the road. To my knowledge, this is false, but it’s a beautiful story.)
In any event, I could wax poetic about Jefferson all night, but in order to give you a truly full picture of why he inspires me so much, I thought it best to hear from the man himself. To that end, I have assembled a list of my favorite quotes. Some of these represent his idealism, some his work ethic…and some, believe it or not, seem to predict a lot of the trouble this nation is in. If we’d all just listened to TJ, perhaps things wouldn’t be so fucked up.
Without further delay…
I’ll give you a final quote, as well; not from Jefferson, but about Jefferson.
On April 29,1962, then-President John F. Kennedy hosted a group of Nobel Prize winners to a dinner in their honor at The White House. In his welcoming address, he said:
“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
As you can undoubtedly tell, I love Jefferson. I understand him, and through understanding him, have come to understand myself.
Thomas Jefferson, as I see him, is a hero very much in the tradition of Horatio Hornblower, or Hamlet, or even James T. Kirk: a hero with the best of intentions, trying like mad to make the best decisions and to lead, despite being wracked with self-doubt.
In many ways, Jefferson is the perfect representation of this nation: flawed, but always set with the best of intentions. Jefferson had so much faith in this country, so saw so much potential for what we could become.
And in honor of Jefferson, on the 4th of July—on the day he died a mere half century after giving birth to a nation, or the idea of a nation—instead of celebrating only with beer and burgers and fireworks, we should celebrate that hope.
Let us briefly take time away from revelry for it’s own sake, and instead look to ourselves, and realize that we should revel in our freedom, in our ambition. We should revel in the hope that led Jefferson to pen some of the most impactful sentences in the history of the world–the sentences that birthed this very nation, the sentences that would breathe life into the Experiment itself.. We should revel in what Jefferson saw in us, in the promise of what we could—and still can—become.
I would like to think that we can achieve the greatness that Jefferson would say escaped him personally.
I would like to think that we can do this in our own lives, and that despite it’s flaws, this nation can achieve it also.
I would like to think that, even now—even with how lost we occasionally find ourselves—Jefferson would look at us and, with more than a little hope, bestow a final quote: “they’ll get there.”
And, of course, he would. The eternal optimist, Mr. J.
Here’s a list of my favorite books on TJ. I think you’ll enjoy.
– Thomas Jefferson: Author of America by Christopher Hitchens
– American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
–Thomas Jefferson, Travels: Selected Writings 1784-1789 edited by Anthony Brandt
–Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson by Alan Pell Crawford