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July 4, 2014

RONN MOTT: Learning more about Jefferson

TERRE HAUTE — During this Fourth of July weekend, I’ll be reading John Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. It’s called “The Art of Power.” The book was given to me two years ago at Christmas and, of course, I’m just getting around to reading it. I started it a few days before the Fourth of July weekend and I’m already enjoying it very much.

I think the black shadows of Jefferson’s life always seemed to be about slavery, whether it’s the not freeing his slaves or his involvement with Sally Hemmings. Simply put, Jefferson was a man of his time. A well-educated man who was curious about everything. If it was something he did not know, he wanted to know it. Even as a young man in college, he was often referred to as the walking book of knowledge because he knew so much.

In the very front of the book it quotes John Kennedy when he was president of this country. Jackie and John Kennedy were hosting Nobel Prize winners at the White House and the President said to those who had gathered for dinner, “I think this is the most extraordinary talent of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.” Certainly high praise for the third president of the United States.

Jefferson seemed to be able to over-ride criticism and political difficulty. He was intrigued by politics long before he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. But the inner workings of it, which was often loud and boisterous in the 18th Century, was not his style. He preferred to write his arguments down rather than speak of them. He was better at private conversation which was one of the ways he worked his political magic.  

His father, whom he admired greatly and loved even more, died when he was 14. He was his mother’s eldest son and he became the man of the family.  His older sister was his best friend and she died at a very young age. To say that Thomas Jefferson loved women would be an understatement. It was a moving force in his life.

Another moving force in his life was music. He played the violin especially well, loved the piano, and one of his early purchases was a pianoforte. His life was full of things he liked. The term of “Renaissance Man” was perhaps not used widely in his day, but if it was, it would have been applied to Thomas Jefferson.  

He lived as a young man a very comfortable life because of the estate his father left him. He was a man who utilized slavery for its place in his economic structure and he was always concerned about making things work properly for himself and that means money as well as anything else.

Already into the book, I am surprised this plantation owner became a spokesperson early on for the common man and a government that would work to protect him and make it possible for all to succeed in this new country.  

You would think after all this time, and the many books written about Jefferson, there would not be anything terribly new to learn … not the case. Thomas Jefferson was not only one of our country’s founding fathers, but a man who founded the University of Virginia, invented the swivel chair and many other things you and I take for granted today.

On the anniversary of the celebration about the Declaration of Independence, which Mr. Jefferson wrote, I will be enjoying myself reading his biography.

Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on Tribstar.com, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.

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