besteading . . . and the Political and Economic experience of life

 (On the practicality and profuse productivity of Thomas Jefferson)

I am always mortified when anything is expected of me which I cannot fulfill.

—Thomas Jefferson

Those are clearly the  words of someone with a passion for the useful—for finding it and being it. The touchstone of such people is to identify both what must be done and the way to do it; consequently, they are likely to be constantly on the lookout for these two things: the ends and the means.

The first, of course, is the stuff of politics, and the second is that of economics. Either one without the other leaves a good bit to be desired. Politics alone degenerates into a ceaseless plotting of inter-affecting aims and influences, while economics dwindles to a continuous calculating of ever-shifting trends and commodities. But combine the two and it brings into being a critical mass from which explosive power can erupt; for when politics and economics merge so that ends and means can mix and intermingle, they then issue into what you do with what you’ve got—and that combination touches upon just about anything and everything that matters to humankind. It becomes, as we say, “a real going concern,” one going on now as it has for as long as there have been people, and one which will go on for as long as there shall be.

Thomas Jefferson was a man very much given to both of these things, and that involved him in almost every issue of consequence to the people of his time. He was so involved, in fact, that the historian Henry Steele Commager considered him the central figure of American history—and if democracy should survive, then perhaps a central figure in all modern history as well.

Jefferson’s  life was lengthy, managed with exceptional deliberation, and crammed with achievement.* It is as if someone took aside a lad with an unusually receptive mind and said to him in somber tones at the most impressionable age possible, “Now the whole purpose of life is for you to make yourself useful.”ψ To the very letter, that is what Thomas Jefferson did for eighty-three years.

No man in this or any other country in the Western world—excepting only Leonardo da Vinci—ever matched Jefferson in the range of his activities, in the fertility of his thinking, and in the multiplicity of his interests. The number of things Jefferson did, or knew how to do, still astonishes. He  was a mathematician, surveyor, architect, paleontologist, prosodist, lawyer, philosopher, farmer, fiddler, and inventor. He set up an educational system; he built a university; he founded a great political party; he helped design the national capitol; he was instrumental  in establishing America’s coinage; he doubled the territory of the United States; he invented machines and gadgets; he collected scientific materials in the fields of zoology, geology, and anthropology; he wrote a classic essay on poetry; he codified the legal system of his native State. Everything interested him; nothing was alien to his mind. (S. Padover,  Jefferson, p. 7)


* President  John F. Kennedy, when honoring the Nobel Laureates at the White House in 1962, said that what he saw before him was “…probably  the greatest concentration of talent in this house except for perhaps those times when Thomas Jefferson ate alone.” (Adrienne Koch, Jefferson,  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1971, p.l)

ψ Jefferson’s father, whom he deeply admired, had taught the young Thomas to manage the farm, ride, plant, shoot, canoe, carpenter and do masonry, and judge livestock—all of which he began to do at age fourteen upon his father’s death. What Peter Jefferson had said to His son time and again was: “Never ask another to do for you what you can do for yourself.” (Saul K. Padover, Jefferson, New York: Mentor, 1970, p. 10)



Over  and  above all that,  Jefferson was a  member of  Congress, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador  to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and twice President of the United States, author of the Religious Freedom Act of Virginia and primary author  of the Declaration of Independence. In addition, he managed to exchange a staggering 50,000 personal letters (Betts & Bear, The Family Letters  of Thomas Jefferson, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1970, p.l).

People given to the useful and the effective carry what could be around inside themselves  like an unwrapped package—and they are generally happiest when occupied in getting that package opened—the sooner the better. When their mind’s eye has seen how to do something they believe ought to be done, then things already appear to be somewhat behind schedule, which is why such people often indicate a slight impatience. These pilgrims of the possible are so interested in working out some practical future, that they seldom take note of the past, experiencing it mostly as something that is simply over, whereas the present is always here for getting on with whatever can be gotten to now. (It is interesting  to note that Jefferson kept no diary, and upon retirement from the Presidency wrote in a letter that nothing could be more repugnant to him than to write the history of his life. Years later, at age seventy-seven, he tried writing his autobiography, but after about sixty pages he noted, “I am already tired of talking about myself,” and soon abandoned the whole undertaking.)

Yet if you focus on what these people do, instead of on what they themselves focus upon, you will probably see little more than a blur of activity or a glint from their awards and achievements. What sustains them lies off in the distance, and their daily deeds, burdensome and overly industrious as  they  may  appear to  others,  throb  with  the enlivening satisfaction of getting at least a piece of tomorrow started today. Nor should one expect to find their hearts beating in their usually well-ordered minds. For to them, the mind—akin to the chief executive’s staff—is only the  more visible and accessible  attendant  to  the  real manager of it all. To reach this center, the true core, one must find that particular merging of ends and means by which each such person is both motivated and oriented. Frequently this will take the form of some dream or vision, one which sometimes remains wrapped up inside the



person forever. Jefferson, however, found the string, untied it, and let loose a dream of that by which all humans had a right to live:

…under the law of nature, all men are born free, and every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it  at his own will. (Howell  v. Netherland, April 1770.)*

…We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that  whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…{The Declaration of Independence, 1776.)ψ

…Almighty God hath created the mind free…the opinions of man are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction;…that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into  the  field of  opinion  and  to  restrain  the  profession or propogation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty…(Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1786.)

…it is a heavenly comfort to see that these principles are yet so strongly felt…I pray God that these principles may be eternal.ζ


*  As a young lawyer turning twenty-six, Jefferson is here defending a mulatto seeking freedom in Virginia. Arguing against George Wythe, who taught him law, Jefferson’s remarks were found to be so radical that the judge cut short his argument and ruled against the defendant slave.

ψ  Written  at  the  age of thirty-three, this is his original draft, which the Continental  Congress altered only by striking “inherent and” and putting “certain” in their place.

ξ  Quoted  from Bernard Mayo, Jefferson  Himself, Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1973.



He held to this dream until the end of his life, writing the first statement here in his mid-twenties and the last at age eighty. Making it come true was the task for his head. Like so many stirred by the Enlightenment, his mind was metamorphosed  into that of a work horse to plow a given plot of ground until time and toil would produce a crop of principles to then harvest and put to use. These were usually seen as blendings of ends and means which, when sufficiently grasped, would enable the attentive individual to perform the essential operations of mathematics, masonry, music, or whatever. Little wonder, therefore, that Jefferson gravitated to law, a field that consists mainly of the pursuit and application of the  principles involved in  the  case at  hand,  and  an enterprise that could afford him a double-barreled satisfaction he would not likely find elsewhere.

It is a common mistake to assume that much head means little heart. Jefferson was well aware of that too:

Let the gloomy monk, sequestered from the world, seek unsocial pleasures in the bottom of his cell! Let the sublimated philosopher grasp visionary happiness, while pursuing phantoms dressed in the garb of truth. Their supreme wisdom is supreme folly; and they mistake for happiness the mere absence of pain. Had they ever felt the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart, they would exchange for it all the frigid speculations of their lives…(B. Mayo, Jefferson Himself,  p. 137.)

These words show someone who can think and feel, and those who would pry the head and heart of this man apart will only end up with a picture that  distorts the life he actually lived. To  see just how pronounced this other side of his life was, one only need look at his obvious love for his wife, Martha, and at the intensity of his grief at her early death; the  extent of  his caring for  his daughters; his earlier sentiments for Rebecca Burwell as well as his attraction to the married Betsy Walker (the latter being sensationalized to the point of national scandal after he became President); his deep involvement with the lovely Maria Cosway after he was widowed and had become Ambassador to France; and finally his extremely close and lasting relationship with Sally Hemmings. On the other hand, however, those recognizing



the signs of passion in Jefferson—amorous, political, for Nature, and, indeed, even for poetry (as in Macpherson’s Ossian and elsewhere)—and taking them to mean the same as they do today, overlook the differences between our time and his, and they too will fail to see his life for what it really was. Suffice it to say he was subjected to forceful tugs and pulls throughout his life, and the conflict he felt between head and heart was only one more conflict in the life of a man accustomed to living with several.

To be sure, the composure of Jefferson’s life was considerable, but that was because the swirls it was called upon to contain were considerable too. The inward and the outward influence each other, and an individual’s life turns on its axis as a movement of the two. Generally, Jefferson managed to intermingle the formidable aims and influences of his life remarkably well, but there were a few occasions when the control required to maintain his finely balanced rotation so overtaxed his mental powers that it would leave him with a headache which lasted for days. These were usually periods of identifiable stress during which, in the throes of personal or situational conflict, he sought for some slim pass over which he could safely cross without tumbling into the consuming extremes that always lay at either side.

In living life this way, everything hinges on being “in control,” which has little to do with domination and everything to do with managing to find the means. Again, the best way to accomplish this life-sustaining task is by discovering and applying all pertinent principles. That is what keeps the whole system running and going. In essence, this is the act of governing; it is government in operation, whether it be of the nation or of the self. In fact, to Jefferson, the government of the nation began with the government of the self. To govern oneself is to be free. That is why government and freedom become inextricably linked, and preserving this crucial union hinges on the ongoing ability to find the means. Jefferson personally valued this specific ability very highly, writing that it was “…part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate, to surmount every difficulty  by resolution and contrivance. In Europe there are shops for every want; its inhabitants, therefore, have no idea that their wants can be supplied otherwise. Remote from all other aid,



we are obliged to invent and to execute; to find means within ourselves, and not to lean on others” (B. Mayo, Jefferson Himself,  p. 118). The three things that Jefferson wished to be remembered for all had to do with finding the means: the Declaration of Independence established means to pursue the principles of self-government;  the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom provided means of applying the principles he saw as necessary  to preserve the freedom of opinion; and the University of Virginia was a means of continuing the ongoing pursuit and application of both these and other valued principles. Each of these constituted a means to help achieve the ends of freedom. His life shows a soul always seeking to, as he put it, “fix in the principles” that mattered to him most, so that what he envisioned could be made to work.*

Being interested in making things work is but a step away from a basic curiosity in how things work, which often manifests itself in a special fondness for tools and gadgets of every kind. Those who possess  this curiosity learn quickly how this or that should be done, and are therefore easily enticed at the prospect of lending a hand to get the show on the road by making something work. If the matter or issue before them is important enough, then chances are good that such individuals can be totally lured into the fray—at least until the major obstacle is cleared, the riddle is solved, or the missing piece of the puzzle is found. Jefferson was lured like this more than once after he abandoned public life, and for him the underlying issue was always to make the grand dream work. As he reflected: “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived have forced me to take part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions” (D. Malone, Jefferson the President, V, Boston: Little, Brown, 1974 p. 668).


* This abiding trait of Jefferson’s shows itself in something he wrote when still in his twenties—“…I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue”—and is also visible in what he penned once while in his eighties: “The University will give employment to my remaining years, and quite enough for my senile faculties. It is the last act of usefulness I can render, and could I see it open I would not ask an hour more of life.” (B. Mayo, p. 28 and p. 336)



The station which we occupy among the nations of the earth is honorable, but awful…Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth.…All mankind ought  then,  with us, to  rejoice in  its prosperity, and sympathize in its adverse fortunes, as involving everything dear to man…to preserve from all danger this hallowed ark of human hope and happiness. (D. Malone, Jefferson the President, V, p. 667.)

Solving an issue at large can, curiously, leave it unsolved at home. Jefferson  kept slaves  at Monticello for as long as he lived, although opportunities presented themselves,  soliciting his support in ventures aimed  at  extending liberty to  ever-widening spheres, such  as  the courageous proposal put forward by Frances Wright, who sought to use her fortune to create a community where blacks and whites could live together in a manner truly integrated, educated, and free. Weakened by months of extreme illness, and now nearing death, Jefferson nevertheless gave a response indicating that even at the end of his life it was a struggle for him to resist the abiding inclination to make himself useful:

At the age of eighty-two, with one foot in the grave, and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, not even the great one which is the subject of your letter, and which has been through life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practicable within the limits of time alloted to me; and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation.…The abolition of the  evil is not impossible; it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards its ultimate object. (F. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, New York: Bantam, 1975, pp. 625-26)

To bestead is “to be of service or use to; to avail” (OED). Besteading means fashioning one’s  “more” into  a political or economic act and experience of life.



Near the end of his life, Jefferson could draw some consolation from the fact that the means he had helped to create were all beginning to  work. Writing of the Declaration of Independence, he believed it

…will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the  free right  to  the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes were opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. (B. Mayo, Jefferson Himself,  p. 545)

A few days after writing this, he died. Like his close friend John Adams, he desired to live to the fourth of July. A little before midnight on July 3,

1826, Jefferson inquired of Nicholas Trist, his granddaughter’s husband, “This is the Fourth?” The next morning Trist wrote to his brother:

He has been dying since yesterday morning, and till twelve o’clock last night, we were in momentary fear that he would not live, as he desired, to see his own glorious Fourth.*

Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams made it to July 4, the day of that dream they and others began to unfold when they had announced fifty years earlier that they were bringing into being something new. Jefferson had given his life to creating those means which others might use to achieve the end of a freedom also meant to be theirs.


* Adams’s last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” (F. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson, p. 633)

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Mt Jefferson

Author, actor, playwright/composer, psychologist, philosopher, and Episcopal priest. Born in Nebraska on the Great Plains, where the American West begins. Enlisted in the Marine Corps upon graduating high school, with college and seminary following immediately thereafter. Active in the professions listed here. With the abiding emphasis being on both the modes of human becoming and the meaning individuals enact and embody as life unfolds up to one's very last breath.

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