Let me just start by saying how very wrong my aforementioned pal, Chad, was when he said something about any book by a man named Noble E. Cunningham was bound to be a page turner. Even though it was very obvious to me that Chad was being quite sarcastic, I don’t think there’s enough sarcasm in the world to imply such a thing. I’ll get there. I will say that I’m getting a pretty good grasp on who all of the major players of that day were. Through the course of the last few books, I’ve picked up a lot on John Jay, Nathanael Green, Horatio Gates, Patrick Henry and others about whom I formerly knew little (if anything more than their name). Also, I’m so glad that Hamilton was never President, because I feel like (from what I’ve read) I wouldn’t like him!
This small book, just 412 pages, took me longer to read than the entire Harry Potter series. Longer than War and Peace and Crime and Punishment together. Longer than just about anything I’ve ever sat down with mind to read. Except Moby Dick. In fact, Cunningham has succeeded in writing a book was met with a similar loathing; the familiar feeling of trudging through the pages waiting for Old Mobes to be spotted/ Tommy-J to do SOMETHING (you can surely figure out which I was waiting for in regards to the book).
Something that baffled my mind about this text was that there was a lot of information on important battles of various wars. Nearly all of these were before Jefferson was hugely involved in anything, so aside from setting the stage were unnecessary as far as I’m concerned. Not even my Washington book focused so much on individual battles, and Washington actually had an involvement in the wars!
One of the most frustrating things about In Pursuit of Reason was the odd placement of priorities and the unequal time spent of various parts of Jefferson’s life; that, and how boring it was. I understand that a fire destroyed almost everything for Jefferson’s life pre-adulthood, and all that exists is one letter about college. That’s fine- I get it. I was disappointed, yes, in not knowing what his roots were, but I get that most of the world is in a similar state of ignorance about it. I also get that Jefferson was a very private man and destroyed every correspondence he and his wife shared, as well as much of his other close family. I get that too. I’m not really expecting Cunningham to pull a ton of something from nothing. But what I did notice is that it’s safe to safe the majority of the book was about Jefferson’s time in France. (I still don’t understand what he was doing there). He was President for a few chapters, and then in the last 30 pages, his 2nd term ended, he quit his public career, started a university, lived 20 years, died, and his legacy was discussed. It felt rushed (but after 11 days of reading, I didn’t mind too much!). The other thing (last I’ll mention) that I was disappointed with was the lack of, how should I say…drama? I’m not a gossip (though it was recently pointed out to me that this side of me comes out on occasion), but I can appreciate an unforeseen plot twist, angst-ridden character mad at the world, and a little bit of scandal. Mr. Cunningham could not. In fact, I was thrilled to find out what would be said about Sally Hemmings, the slave he fathered 7 children with (and the only 7 slaves he ever released from service, though oddly still employing their mother). It was hugely scandalous of the day and lots of texts are written of it now still. You know what Cunningham said? “There is not reason to introduce a slave, Sally Hemmings, into an account of Jeffereson’s life had not some writers charged that she became Jefferson’s mistress in Paris and remained so through the remainder of his life.” (115). I do not support this idea. SERIOUSLY!? UGH. Disappointment.
To say something positive about the book, it was… I’ll come up with something maybe, and when I do, I’ll let you know.
So old TJ was a suspicious character. First off, he had a very sad life. His wife and almost all of his kids died before adulthood (well, his wife made it to adulthood, but died young). He seems hypocritical in that the man owned some 600 slaves, but was really anti-slavery. Many attribute this to his guilt, and though Cunningham doesn’t mention his slaves at all (aside from the brief Sally Hemmings reference) says, “As John C. Miller pointed out, Jefferson could never have lived with the thought that white Americans might be denying opportunities to a black Isaac Newton, a black Francis Bacon, or a black John Locke.” (50) and Jefferson himself said, “…the spirit of the master is abating…by the end of my life I hope for a total emancipation from this evil that must be extinguished.” (63). But did he emancipate his slaves? Nope. He did, however, as president sign a bill that eliminated America’s part in international slave trade.
Jefferson, like Adams, went to France for some four years to work as an ambassador (doing something?), but unlike Adams lived a very different lifestyle. He wrote often of how much he missed his two living daughters, who were staying Stateside with aunts, and he had them brought over to France to be with them. But then he stuck them in boarding school and didn’t talk to them until a few years down the road when it was time to move back to the states. He sounds like a scumbag dad. His relationship with his daughters improved greatly later in life, and he became very close to his grandchildren who remembered him fondly. Personally, that’s all that Cunningham shared with the readers. That and that Jefferson loved stuff. When he moved from France to the US, he brought with him some hundred crates filled with everything. A list was included, so if you’re dying to know what he was into, I can let you know, but otherwise, you can assume it’s stuff like chairs and wallpaper and such. Regardless of how extravagant he was (and spent the majority of his life in great debt because of it), he was known to be a very shabby dresser, which was apparently worth commenting on for the time. He could throw a mean party though. Wheels of cheese that were some 1200 lbs were common investments (155) and he had people over nearly every night.
Politically, I think I like the way things were done back them. “Candidates were expected to refrain from openly campaigning for office.” (221). Jeez, wouldn’t that be nice? However, because of this, no one really knew much about the candidates. Because of that, the elections could take days at a time. His second term, he was deadlocked with Burr from a Wednesday through Saturday night (despite that they were “balloting” every hour of the day), took Sunday off, and finally someone from Delaware came to some sense and voted for him so that the tie would break and everyone could get on with their weeks. As for the Presidency itself, not much is mentioned in the book aside from the embargo. Whatever happened, though, must have been awful because on his last day in office he wrote, “Within a few days I retire to my family, books, and farms. Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.” (319). Even stranger, his epitaph on his tombstone (which he wrote, naturally) said absolutely nothing about being president. It mentioned the Declaration (which I might add looked like a high school term paper all marked up on the rough draft), and being the founder of the University of Virginia. He must have been ashamed.
I know this book had a weird stance. I couldn’t figure out what Cunningham was trying to explain about Jefferson, but I think he could have been an interesting character if I had read a different text. Especially if that different text could give me a little peek into his relationship with Sally Hemmings (or the on-again-off-again BFFness with John Adams). Oh well, maybe next year.