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.
This is truly brilliant. Regardless of one’s political or personal biases, this points out the need to fully understand context, before commenting or taking action. Only by being open to and seeking as much information as possible will we be able to move forward. We are all imperfect, no one has all the answers and not appreciating the good will not allow anyone or any movement to solve complex problems. A weakened foundation will never accommodate a strong and stable structure.
Excellent piece thought provoking. As a lover of wine, history and thought, Virginia is a great place to combine them all. Numerous visits to Virginia wine county, Monticello and the 100s of historical sites in Virginia one can understand complexity our history. No simple answers, be it the birth of our country, the Civil War, or the ever-changing norms.
To expect a simple answer, erase history or rewrite it is folly. Learn, study, and embrace our imperfect history.
Might I suggest sitting down with someone you do not agree with share a couple bottles of wine. Maybe from wineries almost across the street from one another: Blenheim (owned by Dave Matthews) and Trump Winery. Opposites in many ways but still having much common ground.
The wine and history will stimulate the conversation, the peaceful setting can lay the groundwork for listening to a different view.
Pulling down statues does not change positions only cements them. Hopefully, wine will allow us to remain respectful and embrace difference.
Thanks for writing this observation. It saddens me that the mob has no interest in knowing history, and to some extent, it is not their fault. Full history is no longer taught, just the parts that fit a narrative of America being a terrible, racist, —- phobic country. Had it not been for men like Jefferson and John Adams and other Founders thinking through the value of freedom as a gift from God rather than a designation given by aristocracy, who knows how long slavery would have continued in the British colonies? Jefferson inherited a large property and slaves worked it, but if he freed them all, where would they have gone? Even Abraham Lincoln struggled with that problem long before he ran for President. The Founders knew that they did not live in a time of true equality, but they were looking ahead several generations and laid the foundation for it so that today’s children could set it on fire.
At the risk of being labeled as you did the protestors – ironically painting them with the same brush they used to correctly state the fact that he was, indeed, a slave-owner, I disagree. The protestors were specific: Jefferson owned slaves. He raped at least one slave. And he refused to free from perpetual slavery either his victim or the children conceived by those rapes. He did not free them in his will, as did Washington. Nope, he allowed people to be chattel as he did his wines. Your son was free at birth, thank goodness. And I am grateful that Jefferson’s noble writings exist in books and in constitutional documents but he need not be glorified in statue.
Thomas Jefferson, a true polymath, is one of two men, whom I would most like to invite to my hypothetical dinner party. Christopher Wren is the other. I cannot imagine a more inspirational pair of men…on many fronts, not least wine, rhetoric and culture.
Disagreement is allowed. That said, I can count on one hand the number revolutionary era folk equally worthy of being as venerated as Jefferson.
Thank you for this post. The takeaway for me is that there are very few issues that are two-sided. Most, like Jefferson, fall into that nebulous gray area. Hindsight is 20-20, but viewing yesterday through today’s lens doesn’t change history.
Thanks very much, Tom. for history lesson. And thanks for Hitchens’ reference — it’s ordered along with Bolton’s.
I haven’t yet dug into the Hitchens book. But it’s Hitchens…it’s bound to be a fine read. Hope is well.
Bravo, Tom. A wise story.
Did you know that JT’s will granted freedom to all the slaves he owned, but left the ones his wife had brought to the marriage to her for her to decide their fate? A complex man indeed, but certainly as true to himself as any of us and certainly more than most.
I learned a lot reading your comments about TJ, but what makes you think the statue puller-downers like wine. Nah, Some people are so mad that they don’t like anything or anyone. They just like being mad. It would help all of us to keep in mind with Benjamin Franklin said, “wine is proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.“ Best,
I was thinking about you. Your Jefferson-Franklin book is on my table right now.
Hitchens has been in our house since publication in the UK and on our bookshelf since having been read by 3 out of 4 of the nuclear family. As the youngest is currently in Charlottesville, she has a separate copy of said book.
Hitchens is excellent in general on biography.
That 225 years ago nascent America grappled with the monumental task of an orderly abolition of slavery, an accepted practice worldwide for the prior 4,000+ years, is textbook systemic racism. Let me help with the “true” version, straight from the faculty lounge with BLM’s and Antifa’s imprimatur — and the adaptation your son will be taught in school.
Predatory white Europeans came upon the New World and raped it. Then utilizing that ill-gotten treasure, proceeded to rape the rest of the world and the non-whites peacefully living there. NO sympathy for the rapist! Nothing more to know.
The revolution will not abide complicated figures when re-writing history. Intolerance is required and nuance might cause the Red-Guard jihadis to question the phony moral superiority of their crusade.
While Some of his contributions were great, the simple fact that he was a slave owner can not be forgotten. Why are we commemorating someone who owned people as property?
snippet from the web, Monticello.org
“Of the over 600 people Jefferson owned, he formally freed only seven. During his lifetime, Jefferson freed two enslaved men. At his death, Jefferson bequeathed freedom to five men in his will, two of them were his sons Madison and Eston Hemings.“
Let me answer that questiion for you:
1. Jefferson penned perhaps the most important statement of civil rights in the history of America and the world in the Declaration of Independence.’
2. He was instrumental in ending the transatlantic slave trade.
3. Jefferson penned the earliest and best explanation of the separation of church and state with his Virginia Statute for Religious freedom, which was the precursor of the 1st Amendment.
4. He was the third president of the United States
5. He doubled the size of the United States as president.
6. He played key roles in establishing the U.S Military Academy, The Library of Congress and the University of Virginia.
I appreciate that Thomas Jefferson is an important, interesting, and influential character from American history, and I don’t agree with knocking over a statue to solve anything, but will say if you think “how influential Jefferson was in popularizing wine and wine appreciation among the Revolutionary generation” is at all relevant to the discussion about dismantling systematic racism, I hope you do some more critical thinking about the issue.
There are a whole host of ways I could go about addressing the issue of systemic racism. This particular article was not one of them. Given that, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this wine industry professional didn’t intend this post or my appreciation for Jefferson’s contribution to the
Amerian wine culture to address the question of systemic racism. I hope this gives you more confidence concerning my critical thinking skills.
I thought GW got a pass for having freed his slaves? It appears the Portland mob doesn’t care about any rules other than mob rule.
David McCullough’s book on Adams excoriated Jefferson for being strong of the pen and weak in action. He is a complex figure to categorize. We helped write many revolutionary things and forced the poorer folks to cash the check that his pen wrote. I don’t know how any one that is an owner of other humans could be seen as having helped to solve the untellable wrongs of slavery. As a rapist and moral denegarate, it’s hard to hold TJ as a poignant beacon of forward thought. Destroying an artist’s work is also reprehensible. Denegrating an artist’s work doesn’t enlighten the ignorant or move us forward.
Adam…Yes, Complex. The “American Sphinx” as one writer suggested. Yes, a slave owner. And the man largely responsible for ending the Atlantic Slave Trade. That was good, right? I’d also suggest that it’s hard dispense with all context and from the year 2020 label a man born 277 years ago a “moral degenerate”. How would we refer to someone who today argued that a woman has no business voting, let alone leading any sort of organization beside her husband’s home due to her inferior female disposition. Surely we’d call that person something ugly. And yet this was such a common notion in the mid 18th century that to suggest anything else at that time would have seemed not radical, but proof of some sort of mental problems.
I think that Jefferson’s record and contribution is, on balance, so monumental and so beneficial to America that to ignore this aspect of his in favor of only emphasizing his status as a slave holder is an admission of rejecting objectivity, context and reasonable analysis altogether.
I guess I misunderstood the purpose of a post appearing on Juneteenth about people destroying a statue of Thomas Jefferson because of his status as a slave owner, but in rereading it I see your point that it doesn’t address racism.
While I realize your commentary was on “Jefferson the man” and not intended to be on race relations and the systemic racism in our system in the US (and worldwide for that matter), believe the two are now and will forever be linked – they always have been but now it is in the forefront of the nation. It seems that the death of George Floyd was the spark that may have ignited a revolution. One would and could hope and pray that it would and will be non-violent, but revolutions by their very nature have always been violent attempting to sweep away the past… The American revolution swept away the idea of monarchy and “the divine right of kings”; the French revolution (one might even say partially predicated on Jefferson’s ideas) took that a step further; on and on. And, unfortunately when the past is swept away, part of the history of the past vanishes – like Jefferson’s contribution; like the racist statues of confederates; and other vestiges of a past that are now deemed (and should always have been) racist.
The question is, do we erase history? and in so doing forget it? How DO we deal with complex questions and complex individuals like Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln except viewed through the optic of revisionism? they aren’t here to speak with – if they were, I’d like to think that they would be enlightened enough to admit mistakes and join with the current protestors for racial justice. But we simply don’t know that except to reflect and view the individuals and their works through a historic fog… did they do more good than harm?
We have to recognize we have a racist past and that the United States (and the world) is racist. How we do that and move forward will define us as a people for the next 250 years. Will that be a destruction of the past, or a logical and rational recognition that “yes, our Founders were flawed, but…” It may not be an either/or but a both… We tear them down but eventually, once the goal is achieved, recognize their contribution… or will we be a nation that embodies the saying “those who forget history are deemed to repeat it? Because we have been that nation for 250 years by sweeping racism under the rug and not acknowledging it exists…
Sorry Tom, think we can’t separate Jefferson from his slave owning – different time, different attitudes, but… I hope at some point we can both recognize Jefferson’s accomplishments but also acknowledge that like us all, he was flawed, and by today’s standards, racist.
Always thoughtful comments.
I think i want to argue that any interpretation of Thomas Jefferson that doesn’t recognize his influence on the founding and development of America and his radical statements of human rights, religious rights and economic rights as the most important thing to understand about the man is not worth considering, if only because these aspects of his life and work are so monumentally important to understanding America and American history that no other aspect of his life can match it for importance.
Jefferson is a conflicted man who, in the context of his age, sports a radical understanding of human rights and of the role of African Americans. How does a slaveholder like Jefferson actively campaign and succeed in ending the transatlantic slave trade?
Tearing down a Jefferson statue is irrational. Moreover, linking the removal of Jefferson and Washington statues with the removal of confederate leaders states (nearly all of which were erected to intimidate) is a straightforward category error and a moral failure.
I think in these times it takes a good deal of courage and intellectual consistency to be able to stand up address the darker aspects of American History and at the same time recognize the seminal men and women who, despite their participation in those dark corners of American history, also lifted up Americans, the idea of America and the the potential of America. I’m certainly not that brave person. But, I do have the wherewithal to understand that Jefferson should be one of today’s protesters’ and today’s progressives’ most important inspirations based only on his thinking and writing.
Perhaps the destruction of monuments to Jefferson and Washington will lead to the sort of reckoning we have avoided since the founding of this country. The fact is that Jefferson, a slave owner himself, was willing to allow slavery to enable the founding of the United States, just as he was willing to allow white people to drive indigenous people from their lands to expand the United States. Ending transatlantic slave trade while not abolishing slavery in the United States allowed the US to continue to build its wealth on the backs of slaves while causing an even more insidious and cruel new feature of slavery in the US. Enslaved families were ripped apart over the next 57 years, as slave owners traded their human commodities without regard to their family units. When slavery officially ended in 1865, white folks, north and south, found new ways to keep black folks in servitude – Jim Crow, police, a prison system designed to use inmates (overwhelmingly black) as free labor (peonage would continue to be legal until 1950). Considering the harm inflicted on black people over 400 years, the destruction of monuments would be a small price to pay if the result were a real discussion about – a true reckoning with – our “complicated” history.
After all is said and done, after all the slave owner statues are torn down, after all the middle america business owners are burned out, after all the brutal police departments are set at bay, after all the self-serving politicians are turned out, our skins will still be the same color. Will we ever put those color differences down and progress as logical, compassionate human beings? Study on it, for the answer will truly determine the future.
Thank you for another well-written, well-researched piece. We discussed this topic elsewhere but I thoroughly enjoyed your narrative and your son’s brilliant curiosity.
Simone FM Spinner
How come nobody does anything or even talks about what is going on in Chicago? 100 shootings in one weekend, 10, 20 or more killed EVERY WEEKEND.
I am a fan of this from John Milton’s “2nd defence of the English people” . . .know that to be free is the same thing as to be pious, to be wise, to he temperate and just, to be frugal and abstinent, and lastly, to be magnanimous and brave; so to be the opposite of all these is the same as to be a slave … You, therefore, who wish to remain free, either instantly be wise, or, as soon as possible, cease to be fools; if you think slavery an intolerable evil, learn obedience to reason and the government of yourselves.(27 I suggest people read the whole paragraph, not just this segment. Or even read the entire “2nd Defence” Learn the rule of reason and not emotional hysteria. A bunch of spoiled brats pulling statues while the murders in Chicago grow and grow.