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“There has never been a greater concentration of intellectual power here at the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

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President John F. Kennedy, in his remarks to a White House dinner attended by every living American Nobel laureate. In what Lee Bockhorn, writing in today‘s Wall St. Journal, calls a “profound and exquisitely written meditation on the mind of America’s most enigmatic founder,” Michael Knox Beran, in his book, “Jefferson’s Demons,” explores the highs and lows of one of the more fascinating figures in our history. From the WSJ article:

“At several points in his life, Jefferson suffered bouts of severe depression – ‘ennui,’ as he called it – that crippled his ability to act. The most intense of them occurred in the 1780s, when Jefferson was beset with personal tragedy and political irrelevance. Mr. Beran reminds us of such periods of apathy and despair not to make his subject more palatable to today’s readers but rather to show us that even Jefferson needed ‘a philosophy that did more than reason and common sense could to facilitate the expedition of the will.'”

“It is Mr. Beran’s argument that Jefferson managed to rouse himself to action by listening to his own ‘demons.’ By this term Mr. Beran is not referring to the man’s secret vices or mental problems but echoing the ancients’ concept of genii or manes – inner spirits that ‘either cripple a man’s productive power or enable him to channel it more effectively.’ Jefferson learned to carry on an interior conversation with his demons, his varied interior personas. By freely manipulating these roles, he tapped into newfound wellsprings of creativity.”

Mr. Bockhorn is full of shit.

I am reminded of my then-wife’s command to me, when I was profoundly depressed and completely nonfunctional, to “snap out of it.” No one who herself or himself has not suffered through this hellish disease can begin to understand a pain so great as to dwarf any physical agony.

Jefferson did NOT learn “to carry on an interior conversation with his demons,” or “freely manipulate these roles”; rather, like so many before and after him, he withstood a crippling assault on his very being, somehow enduring the hellish punishment that one’s own mind can dole out in spades. That he survived his bouts with this violent visitor is wonderful; don’t, though, make it seem as if it’s something you can “work through,” if only you “think right.” Much ignorance continues to pervade even the minds of intelligent people like Bockhorn.

There are those who have “been there, done that,” and subsequently made it their life’s mission to spare others some of the misery they endured; time spent amongst such souls is well worth the investment, both for oneself and one’s loved ones. Sooner or later, someone in your family or someone you know will be struck: it’s almost a certainty. Knowledge, while not necessarily power, is much preferable to the alternative when that moment comes.

Monticello, Jefferson’s home, is 7.4 miles from my house: in winter, when the leaves are off the trees, I can see it on a clear day. It is one of the very few places I have ever been to that far exceeds one’s expectations. Not only the house, but the grounds and the gardens, now planted to Jefferson’s original design, are most moving. The view is nothing short of spectacular. Standing before the daybed that Jefferson died in on July 4, 1826, is beyond profound. Should you ever find yourself anywhere near Charlottesville, you would be well advised to visit. Let me know: I’ll give ya directions!

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About bookofjoe

  • mike

    Thanks! Excellent post! I too seethe when people say “snap out of it” to the severely mentally ill. There’s no point in romanticizing the suffering bipolars endure. If Thomas Jefferson had taken lithium, he might have seen fit to free his slaves.

  • Temple A. Stark

    It was a good post — lead off with JFK and Nobel so I thought it was going to be about something more newsworthy.

    Still Jefferson and Bullshit don’t often appear together.

  • Panda Rosa

    And yet, as one who does suffer from depression, the rebuke, “snap out of it” does help at the right time. In the end, help comes best when you’re willing to accept it and work with it, the hardest decision one can make. I should know, it runs in the family.

  • STM

    I understand the writer’s intention here, but in regard to Jefferson, I find it extraordinary that Americans still revere him even in the knowledge that he could use and champion the catchcry of liberty, freedom and all men being born equal, when clearly someone forgot to tell the blackfellas in the shed down the back.

    It’s long been my contention that the revolutionaries used Britain’s own democracy against her, and that the claim of tyranny was a handy and convenient excuse for a group intent on nailing down their own money, power, and prestige at a time when it looked like the British were going to ban slavery in the empire following the Court of King’s Bench judgment that led to the freeing of Virginia bound slave James Sommersett in London in 1772 – and the date’s important: a few years before the revolution.

    The judge, Lord Mansfield (not previously known for his radical rulings), in hearing the case brought before the court through a writ of habeas corpus, decided: “The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.”

    He also said he had to make the ruling no matter the consequance elsewhere, in other words in Britain’ colonies, and you get the feeling from looking at the decision that he certainly meant places like Virginia.

    With the abolitionists circling and seeing their opportunity to strike, and with the British public by now appalled at the very notion of the slavery in the American and Caribbean colonies, that must have seriously worried the likes of Jefferson and some of the other prime movers of the American revolution.

    Not that Americans – or any people for that matter – didn’t have the right to self-determination, independence and the right to break away from the British, but IMO the reasons oft-touted for the revolution are a myth. It is with certainty I can say, and so can anyone who seriously looks at the goings on at the time, that Americans weren’t an oppressed people.

    Indeed, the revolutionaries were lampooned by the British press over the freedom/keeping of slaves double standard, and rightly so. In essence, their view was that those who were shouting longest, hardest and loudest about freedom were slave owners.

    Jefferson, sadly, because he was an important man in so many other ways, was one of them.

    That he should still be remembered today by the majority as simply as a scion of the American experience since 1776 is truly one of the most disgraceful rewritings of history.

    Founding a nation on the myth of freedom and equality is one thing when the intention, given the accepted standards of the time (read: racism and white superiority) might have otherwise been good; continuing to champion hypocrisy and lip service is another.

    Clearly, in the US, given that some blacks couldn’t ride the same buses, use the same bathrooms and eat at the same diners as whites, it took nearly 200 years for reality to catch up with that lip service and good intent during the civil rights era of the 60s – and on that basis, the constitution of the US, for a certain section of the community marked out by the colour of their skin (and also for some decades, for those whites who weren’t wealthy enough or influential enough to be allowed to vote and have a say in the political process), at the time it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on … even if it turned out to be the fine document it has turned out to be in the long run when its intent is now underpinned by rule of law in the US that, finally, doesn’t allow any double standard.

    We also know that while everyone might now be equal on paper; that a rich white kid going to an ivy league college theoretically has the same chance of success as a poor black kid from South LA, it’s also true that escaping cycles of poverty and crime brought about by inequality in the first place can be almost impossible. What’s possible isn’t always probable.

    Words about freedom and the pursuit of happiness on pieces of paper are all very well – and that applies everywhere, not just the US – but unless it applies to all men and women regardless of race, colour or creed, it means diddly squat.

    Jefferson should more correctly be remembered for what he didn’t do, rather than what he did.

    It’s also worth noting that the British, who had profited hugely from slavery, did begin the process of abolition some years after in 1808 through the Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act … not soon enough, but they did.

    Ironically, in regard to Jefferson’s story, a person suffering serious depression today might also be party to various expressions of discirmination, especially with bthe police, the courts and in the workplace.

  • zingzing

    a hypocrite he may have been, but you seem to forget all of his anti-slavery writings and all the legislation he proposed towards ending slavery.

  • roger nowosielski

    Do you understand his position – the disconnect between action and words?

  • zingzing

    of course, but he’s not the king. he can’t just end something because he wants to. he realized that the south would never join the union if slavery was abolished. and he realized that the south was crucial to the economy of the union, which could not exist without the south. he wanted the united states to survive. the unfortunate byproduct was that slavery would have to be allowed to continue. the abolitionist movement was up and running in the united states before there even was a united states. it’s not like these hypocrisies went unnoticed. these aren’t stupid people.

    jefferson proposed legislation designed to kill off slavery, to abolish it in the north (something more likely to happen than in the south), to make all children born of slaves free if their birth happened after such and such a date… these are actions in a democracy. he also wrote long tracts and essays railing against the evils of slavery. the words of thomas jefferson helped create a nation. that they couldn’t end slavery shows the power of words does have limits, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. and his words would prove more powerful over time.

    he perfectly understood the hypocrisy of the united states. that is more than clear in his writings. he may have understood his own hypocrisy less clearly.

  • zingzing

    my point being that stm’s reading of thomas jefferson’s character is as fundamentally incomplete as the reading of the man he derides above. by leaving out crucial information, stm creates a portrait of thomas jefferson that leaves little room for the complexities of his thought.

    “It’s long been my contention that the revolutionaries used Britain’s own democracy against her, and that the claim of tyranny was a handy and convenient excuse for a group intent on nailing down their own money, power, and prestige.”

    certainly, there may be some truth to that. but as usual, the reasons behind the actions of the diverse individuals known as “the founding fathers” most certainly can’t be put down to one sentence. it’s just not good history. it’s conspiracy theory. it’s also just one bit of a continuing habit of stm’s to condemn one reading of history as wrong while spitting, almost line for line, the british view. no history could ever be so self-assured.

  • roger nowosielski

    I still don’t understand Tom Jefferson, the man. Do you?

  • roger nowosielski

    Actually, I think I do, just waiting for your response.

  • John Wilson

    Unfortunately, in US politics and society we feel a necessity to separate people into angels and devils. It’s the heritage of our puritan and calvinist history. Thus, we can’t just see Jefferson for the mixed human he was. We are way too judgemental. At the same time we allow blatant criminals like the Goldman Sachs gang to get away with bloody murder because we can’t bring that heavy judgementalism to bear on people we’ve lionized previously.

  • zingzing

    i hope i never understand him. how he could be so violently opposed to slavery, yet own slaves; how he could speak of them as equals, yet later write of them as “incapable as children of taking care of themselves,” i’ll never know. he was a mass of contradictions.

  • Heloise

    Yup, Jack had the gift of gab and in his sparetime played Mr. Hotness to adoring women folk.

    I love Jefferson. Wanted to do a slave archeology project at Monticello like the one I participated in at the Heritage.

  • Heloise

    The only thing that bothered me were the historians AKA slave-baby deniers. I recall the polemics when the novels and movies made it clear that some Jefferson fathered slave babies with Sally Hemings.

    It was egg on their face when the DNA cut through their arguments. They were not so smug anymore.

  • Heloise

    I meant Hermitage.

  • roger nowosielski

    “At the same time we allow blatant criminals like the Goldman Sachs gang to get away with bloody murder because we can’t bring that heavy judgementalism to bear on people we’ve lionized previously.”

    Goldman Sachs is a human creation. It was started by humans and to the best of my knowledge, it still is.

  • Silas Kain

    My great-great-great-grandmother’s first full day in the United States was the exact day Jefferson and Adams died. Over the years she watched three of her grandsons go off and fight in the Civil War. She lived through the assassination of three Presidents – Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. She died in 1900 but those who followed her have experienced so much these last 110 years. One of her grandsons went off to become an Irish Catholic activist for newly freed slaves. He died on the day of the Rosewood Massacre. The Archbishop who gave the eulogy at his funeral spoke eloquently about that massacre just three days later when he was laid to rest.

    Life in America on the day Jefferson died is history. What was considered acceptable in his day applies no more. We’ve evolved. Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer in his day, setting the framework in such a way that it could grow, evolve make right the sins of our fathers. Unfortunately there are those who control our text books that do not want our young to understand the impact of Jefferson. That’s a tragic mistake for among us there may be a Thomas Jefferson or a Jane Quincy Adams. Among us there may be a visionary who understands that what we experience today is nothing more than typical growing pains as one culture acquiesces to another.

    I wonder what Great-Great-Granny would think of this country today some 184 years later. But what’s more important is what will our great-great-great grandchildren think 100 years from now? I think we better revisit Thomas Jefferson and learn a few things.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Isn’t it interesting that the article was written in 2003, and all but the first two responses came from almost seven years later?

  • STM

    Zing, two views of history are better than one … because the truth always lies somewhere in between.

    Also, mine is not the british view.

    I believe Americans need to examine their own myths, the same as anyone else.

    And Roger’s right … there’s a huge disconnect between Jefferson’s words and his actions.

  • STM

    Also zing, in #12 above, that is my point exactly. I don’t even unmderstand why there’s an argument unless you going all red, white and blue on me as usual.

    Had I been an American spouting the same view, I wonder whether you’d have reacted differently??

    These are the same kinds of issues that have needed examination in this country as well – you just won’t see me putting that view here because the audience is American and the details won’t won’t be understood by anyone but me, and perhaps Doc and Rosey to a lesser extent.

    But my view on the travesties committed here coincides perfectly with my views of the same kinds of issues in America.

    Fundamentally, and it doesn’t matter how one cloaks it, people like Jefferson were hypocrites and don’t deserve to be put on a pedestal. They can be regarded as great men or women, but pedestals are a worry: any fall from there invariably results in breakage.

  • STM

    Glenn: “Isn’t it interesting that the article was written in 2003, and all but the first two responses came from almost seven years later?”

    An examination of the motives of men like Jefferson can be debated ad infinitum (on a personal level, and for another time best left, I feel the same way about some of Churchill’s motives to extend or maintain the British empire).

    Interesting, though, that people are in tune enough in regard to it in the US to make some comment.

  • STM

    The other bizarre thing about the Mansfield ruling (because he was never seen as a radical), was his pronouncement on the institution of slavery in England itself:

    “The air of England has long been too pure for a slave, and every man is free who breathes it.”

    Of course, Mansfield’s ruling came at a time when the British (and their American colonies) were still making a fortune out of the slave trade.

  • jrk

    For Jefferson critics and critics of all of America’s founders as ‘slaveholders’, etc. have you not thought through the fact that all of these men were born into a pre-exisitng economic way of life for 5,000 years? It was America’s founders who designed the idea ‘that all men are created equal’, and put that unique,for that time, idea in motion with the Declaration and Constitution. Certainly, true freedom for our black brothers and sisters took another 200 years–longer than it should have taken–but we should appreciate the beginning of the end of slavery that the founders commenced in 1776. I doubt that any of us today could transform and eventually eliminate such an ingrained institution like slavery in today’s world. If Jefferson’s critics are so wise and capable, why don’t they end today’s crimes against humanity such as remaining slavery in the world, the sex trade of innocents, etc.–or just begin that process like our founders did. It is easy to criticize and hard to act in a productive way. Americans need to thank The Creator for men like Jefferson, who, like all of us, was just a man, not Jesus Christ..whose heart was in the right place.

  • Boeke

    Good comment, jrk.