March 16, 2012
Historical interpreter Bill Barker returned to Annapolis last week for what he said was Mr. Jeffersons fifth visit to Marylands capital. The real Thomas Jefferson only came through four times. But in two hours, Barkers Mr. Jefferson character had us almost believing wed enjoyed the stimulating conversation of our former president. The role requires extensive study of the vast volume of writings about Thomas Jefferson and Bill Barker has mastered, it seems, all of it.
Without notes, without any props, or prompting, this Mr. Jefferson invited eight hundred Marylanders in the Key Auditorium of St. Johns College to imagine they lived in the world of 1812. It was a time when most humans traveled by foot—your own God-given two legs—at three miles per hour. The wealthy could afford horsesand they averaged four miles per hour.
Mr. Jefferson held forth on politics, his own eras and by sly inferences, our own. His election as president was not an easy thing in 1800. Under the Constitution as it was originally framed, the Electoral College selected the candidate receiving the highest number of Electoral Votes as president and the man with the second highest number as vice president. Provided, of course, that the presidential winner received a majority of the Electoral Votes cast.
In 1796, the first contested presidential election, the one to succeed the unanimously chosen George Washington, John Adams narrowly edged out Thomas Jefferson. They served, unevenly yoked, for four years.
In 1800, Jeffersons republican party was such a disciplined machine that it produced a tie in the Electoral College. President John Adams was defeated, that much was sure. Who would succeed him? Would it be Thomas Jefferson or his presumed running mate, Aaron Burr of New York. Burr could easily have settled the matter by stepping aside and urging his backers to stay with Jefferson. He didnt.
Our Jefferson character at the Key Auditorium related how the election of 1800 was then thrown into the House of Representatives. There, it required thirty-six ballots before Jefferson emerged victorious. Aaron Burr, for his finagling, earned the lasting distrust of all Jeffersonians.
Bill Barker spoke of this 1800 election and said that some at the time had suggested sending the contest to the Judiciary for decision. His audience roared with laughter as he asked, with a knowing aside: Who could ever come up with such an absurd notion?
I suspected then that our audience was filled with folks still sore at the outcome of Bush v. Gore in the U.S. Supreme Court. And I had to agree with Jefferson that the U.S. House of Representativesthat body closest to the peoplewould be the appropriate place to resolve such a contest. If only we could have gotten the election of 2000 to the House.
The question-and-answer period provided some new insights into the historical Thomas Jefferson. For example, I had not known that Jefferson recommended Benjamin Banneker to the builders of the new District of Columbia for employment. The reason this was significant is that Jefferson was taken to task in a polite but firm way by the inventor Banneker, a free black man, for some of his writings in his Notes on Virginia. In the only book he ever published, Thomas Jefferson advanced ideas of inferiority of black people to whites in some things. If some people today think white men cant jump, many whites then thought black men couldnt compute. Bannekers almanac and numerous inventions proved them wrong. Jefferson, to his credit, accepted Benjamin Bannekers rebuke with grace and even sent copies of the Banneker almanac on to his friends among the French scientific community.
Before we yell racist at Jefferson, we need to recall that some famous French philosophes thought all Americansblack, white, and Indianwere inferior, and even of smaller stature. Jefferson in Paris had refuted that notion by inviting the Americans at his dinner table to standall of the men were over six feet talland then asking their French guests to stand; each of the Frenchmen was considerably shorter.
A predictable question in this navy town was about Jeffersons decision as president to beach most of the fleet. He didnt back down, saying that he opposed standing armies and navies and thought they might even lead to builders of ships and arms combining to influence government. Imagine that: A military-industrial complex warned against one hundred fifty years before President Eisenhowers Farewell Address.
Mr. Jefferson did claim credit for sending the U.S. Navy and Marines against the Barbary Pirates. He was unwilling to pay tribute to these Muslim kidnapers and hostage takers.
But as soon as our Marines had taken the fight to the shores of Tripoli, and won, Jefferson brought them home again. He was not willing to engage in nation-building in Muslim lands. Thats worth considering. Might that prove too costly?
When we lived at the Naval Academy fourteen years ago, Bill Barker was a guest in our home overnight on New Years Eve. I remember teasing himslightly, for he is never really out of charactersaying he had every one of Mr. Jeffersons mannerisms and traits mastered except one.
Somewhat taken aback, Bill Barker asked what that was. You have a sense of humor, I replied. Thats because in fifty years of studying Jefferson, I had never read a joke attributed to the Sage of Monticello. Now, I think I was wrong. Because Mr. Jefferson never wrote anything funny does not mean he did not share witty asides in conversation, or that he did not fully appreciate wit in others. That counts as humor, too.
Bravo, Mr. Jefferson!