Saturday, February 26, 2011

'The American Sphinx'


Forgive my absence for a few days.

Low back pain. Doctor. Please don't let it be a kidney stone. Good news. Inflamed sciatic nerve. Really? At (almost) 33? Oh, well. It's not a stone. Thank God.

Watched for the first time since its 1997 premiere the Ken Burns Thomas Jefferson biography. Our third president is an enigma, indeed.

One can't help but admire Jefferson. One also can't help but marvel at his contradictions. The author of the American Scripture, the Declaration of Independence, who never freed his slaves. The man with an organized mind and cluttered, chaotic personal habits.

Joseph J. Ellis calls Jefferson the American Sphinx. That's as apt a description as any.

I am always moved by the story of Jefferson's reconciliation with John Adams during the last decade of their lives. Their letters are elegiac -- moving and monumental.

Perhaps this spring or summer I can return to Virginia, to Monticello, to the house Jefferson never quite finished. I would love to stroll the campus of the university he designed and dream again of living the scholarly life.

I stand in awe of his intellect and am frustrated by his public (that terrible embargo) and private acts. And, yet, I forgive him somewhat, too. Even the great Jefferson was a product of his time.

Of all the great moments in the American experience, surely Jefferson's and Adams' deaths on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of our Declaration, soar among the stars.

If Washington is the father and Lincoln is the savior, Jefferson, then, is the soul -- encompassing both the light and the darkness, the good and the bad, the great American dilemma between ideals and reality.

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