Jefferson, Wine and the (Un)Reason of the Mob
Masked and hands sterilized to the hilt, my boy Henry and I took a trip to the bookstore yesterday. For him, we were in search of some new adventures from “Henry and Mudge” and a new tale of the “Magic Treehouse”. The boy is learning to read and these two classics keep his interest and motivate him.
I was seeking something new to read on Thomas Jefferson, motivated as I was by a recent incident here in Portland that had me questioning Jefferson’s status as my favorite Founding Father. TJ is a complicated figure. A brilliant and curious mind. The author of American democracy. The champion of the American Agrarian. Slaveholder. Inventor. Wine connoisseur. A very poor speaker. And one of the great rhetoriticians of his age.
My boy was excited to find a “Henry and Mudge” we’d not read, passed on any of the few “Magic Treehouse” issues the store possessed but came across a magnificent puzzle and sticker book featuring Spiderman. It was a very successful foray.
I found Christopher Hitchens’ “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America”, a short study I’d not read before. A book on Pacific Northwest gardening also fell into my hands.
We left satisfied, mosied into the candy store, then returned home to survey our finds and feast on vintage candies.
A few days ago here in Portland, a sounder of unthinking oafs pulled down a statue of Thomas Jefferson after defacing its pedestal with the brilliant observation, “slave owner”. So brave. So courageous.
I wonder if that courageous band of……would have been persuaded to take another course had they known how influential Jefferson was in popularizing wine and wine appreciation among the Revolutionary generation.
Would they have still cheered and whooped as they toppled the statue had they known it was Jefferson who, in penning the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was found to be a bit too radical for his founding brethren when he included this indictment of King George in his list of grievances:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.
Most of the edits to Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration were fairly minor, even cosmetic in nature. This passage denouncing slavery and the slave trade was deemed too radical to include in the list of foul things the King of England had done to spur the colonists’ divorce from England. But not for Jefferson.
There is lots of Jefferson one can read if they are interested in one of the greatest Americans to ever live, from his letters to his scientific observations to his great documents. Among my favorite quotes from Jefferson is his warning about wine wholesalers:
“Don’t go to the middleman. Go straight to the manufacturer. He will always give you the right product. The middleman is going to take advantage of you.”
But there are other missives from Jefferson I admire just as much and may have appealed to the vandals in Portland.
Jefferson’s “All men are created equal” is pretty good, and pretty damned bold given he lived in an age when around the world Kings claimed divine rights and enforced those right with war and death.
I’m also fond of Jefferson’s honest observations concerning wealth inequality (“The property of this country is absolutely concentred [sic] in a very few hands”) and his prescription for addressing the problem, which is a genuine and pure statement of progressive taxation and land distribution:
“The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree, is a politic measure and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise.”
I wonder if the statue destroyers in Portland knew, as I do, that it was at Jefferson’s urging and during his presidency that the slave trade was ended in the U.S.
In fact, Jefferson’s view of slavery, the slave trade and wealth inequality alone make him a strong contender for the most radical thinking president in American history. And this is without even considering his strong stand against wine wholesalers.
Then there is Jefferson actively espousing this view that was not only very progressive during his time but generally goes over well with today’s woke contingent:
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
That’s a good one.
Another good one concerning Jefferson, which I’m guessing the art critics in Portland were unaware of, is that it was TJ, two centuries ago, who provided the rhetorical justification for the most recent protests across the country—all in his Declaration of Independence:
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Yes, the man was a slaveowner. But as slave owners go, this one was pretty important to the intellectual and philosophical foundations of the modern American destroyers of statues. If Jefferson were alive today he would be a Bernie Bro and leading the protests against police brutality. But he would probably also understand the reasons why he was taking to the street.
But my guess is that the intellectually enbubbled hoard that pulled down Jefferson in Portland were unaware of Jefferson’s well-earned status with other notable radical and progressive icons who took Jefferson and his ideas to be an inspiration. Among those who were unabashed admirers of Thomas Jefferson were Ho Chi Minh, William Lloyd Garrison, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Brown, Frederick Douglas, and The Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. It’s possible that the folks in Portland who decided Jefferson must go knew better than these folks. But I’m gonna go with Douglas, King, Lincoln, and Garrison on this one.
Let’s just call this tumbling of the Thomas Jefferson statue in Portland what it is: a moral failure. But, really, it’s more than that. It’s a headlong flying leap into the shallow end of the stupid pool.
Still, I can’t help but wonder, had I been there and mentioned to the uneducated wildlings that Jefferson really, really wanted them to drink wine, would they have untied the noose from the memorialized bronze Jefferson and chosen to drink instead of failing morally? Or would it have been a better ploy to try to gain the heavy-browed mob’s attention with the tidbit that Jefferson was not just their intellectual and moral superior but also their proper philosophical inspiration?
Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the offer of wine would have gotten their attention first.
Passions untethered from reason and education is what motivates caged monkeys to throw their shit. It’s what tends to get people thrown behind bars. And it is what leads to statues of Thomas Jefferson being torn down.
On the way back home in the car, Henry was rummaging through the bag of books and candy, feasting on a chocolate-covered gummi bear when he laid his hands on the Jefferson book. He held it up and ask, “who is this?”
Suspecting he feared I was going to ask him to try and read it, I told Henry, “that’s Thomas Jefferson and it’s for me to read.” This put a smile on Henry’s face.
“He has the same name as you,” said Henry.
“Yes. But he was a great man and also the third president of the United States. Some people broke a statue of him in Portland a few days ago.”
“Like Donald Trump,” my boy proudly announced.
“Yes, like Donald Trump, but different than Donald Trump.”
“Why did they break the statue,” Henry asked.
(This was the moment I began thinking about this blog post). “Because they don’t know what’s right and wrong, Henry.”
Henry thought about that for all of two seconds and retorted with a six-year-old’s response: “They’re in trouble.”
It would have broken my heart to have to explain to Henry that, no, these fools are likely not in any trouble. And had I told him this it would surely have forced a conversation that is just too intellectually complex for a six-year-old boy. So instead of trying to have that conversation with Henry, I settled for convincing myself of the happy news that at least my six-year-old boy understood that felling Jefferson’s statue was wrong.