Sunday, February 16, 2014

Jefferson's Memorial Set Apart for Good Reason

The Jefferson Memorial stands in quiet grandeur on the south side of the Tidal Basin, well away from Lincoln's and Washington's memorials.

That distance, 0.896 miles from Jefferson to Lincoln and 0.563 miles from Jefferson to Washington, seems more than appropriate given Jefferson's complex and exceedingly frustrating personality.

The more I read about this particular president, the more I dislike him and the less I respect him. That goes against the common wisdom, I know, but he was really quite an unusual character. It seems that for every brilliant thing he did, he also did something despicable.

He was the individual's shining light, putting forth views on freedom that guide the nation to this day. He also was a snobbish slave owner who had the clear opportunity to free not only his dutiful mistress, Sally Hemings, but also her brother, James, when they were with Jefferson in Paris. But he didn't. His massive ego and clearly conflicted feelings about slavery prevented that most humane of actions.

He was an innovative farmer who helped bring crop rotation and other modern agricultural techniques to our early agrarian society. He also forced his slaves to gouge out of the Monticello hillside, shovel by shovel, a 1,000-foot terraced garden so he could play in the dirt. Yes, his garden provided his slaves with fruits and vegetables, but each slave's allotment was meager and insufficient to survive on by itself.

He was a brilliant writer, a genuine statesman, and a visionary of the first order. But he was also a pompous egoist and a calculating and sometimes deceitful politician. If he liked you he was magnanimous in his philanthropy, but heaven help you if he didn't.

Don't get me wrong, I think Jefferson did tremendous things for the country, but I think they all came at a price to history. He had not the perseverance of Lincoln, nor the unfettered vision of Washington. He was, and remains, a conundrum, a commingling of contradictions that either he never saw or saw but refused to acknowledge and that historians of all kinds continue to grapple with.

Give me the lifelong devotion to equality of a Lincoln over that of a Jefferson. Give me the honesty and dedication of a Washington over that of a Jefferson. Give me even the clarity of a John Adams — stubborn grouch that he was — over that of a Jefferson, I'd much prefer it.

So yes, the placement of the Jefferson Memorial, for all its beauty, seems to me rather perfect.