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By Preston Jones


Coming to Terms With Jefferson

Sinister, extraordinary—the paradoxes of a founding father.

Jefferson loved books," Michael Beran, lawyer and journalist, writes in Jefferson's Demons, a work that seeks to plumb the depths of the third president's complicated, troubled psyche. Jefferson especially liked old books, "and more especially classical ones." He preferred Homer in the original Greek to Alexander Pope's English translation, and he was thankful, in his words, for the people "who directed my early education."

As anyone who has gained a decent introduction to the classical languages knows, Jefferson's education was enviable. He knew that Greek and Latin were far from "dead." And because he was a serious student, he knew much more. President Kennedy quipped that Jefferson by himself generated more brainpower than a room full of cold-war savants. And Jefferson still lends prestige to his alma mater, the College of William and Mary.

But then, perhaps Jefferson wasn't really educated at all. If being educated means knowing how to act decently, courageously, and consistently with integrity, then maybe he was something of an ignoramus. Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Wills' book, "Negro President," might be taken to support this view. At the end of his grim but fascinating tribute to the Federalist party and antebellum New England secessionists, Wills tells us that Jefferson's efforts to extend southern slavery weren't born of "any evil intent on his part." But that comes too late; the bulk of Wills' narrative paints Jefferson the slaveholder as scheming and sinister. Jefferson, Wills suggests, wanted the American capital where it is mainly to ensure the comfort of slave-holding politicians.

Did Jefferson father children by his slave, Sally Hemings? Beran denies that the evidence is conclusive. Conversely, New York Law School professor R. B. Bernstein, in his sometimes tedious but always informative introduction to Jefferson's life, reports that "the odds of anyone but Jefferson being the father" of at least one of Hemings' children are "ten thousand to one." Wills, ...

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