“The Actual Truth Is, I Was a Racist”

A conversation with President Thomas Jefferson and the scholar and podcaster who channels him, Clay Jenkinson.

President Thomas Jefferson (left) and Clay JenkisonJefferson: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson#mediaviewer/File:Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale_1805_cropped.jpg">Wikimedia Commons; Jenkinson: Glasser Images


“Good day to you, citizen.” That’s how America’s third president opens The Thomas Jefferson Hour, a weekly radio program and podcast in which the 271-year-old founder discusses politics and wine, expounds on the virtues of farming and footbaths, rails against Alexander Hamilton, and answers listeners’ questions.

This reanimation of Jefferson is the work of Clay Jenkinson, a 60-year-old humanities scholar who has been portraying our most idiosyncratic president in person and on air since 1984. He’s recorded more than 1,000 episodes of the Jefferson Hour (many produced inside a converted farmhouse outside Bismarck, North Dakota). His other historical impersonations include Meriwether Lewis, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Theodore Roosevelt, but he keeps coming back to TJ because “if ever there were an interesting man, it’s Thomas Jefferson.”

I spoke with Jefferson—and Jenkinson—about getting into character, the Sally Hemings controversy, and why the Jeffersonian vision still matters.

Mother Jones: When you look at modern America, what do you recognize and admire most?

Thomas Jefferson: I see you’re still a constitutional republic with a doctrine of separation of powers, and that there’s still federalism. The states are laboratories of democracy, and the American people are the most prosperous and in many respects the freest people on Earth. In all of those respects, you continue to be the nation we intended.

MJ: And what shocks you?

TJ: Your communication systems, your computers, your internet, your devices are astounding. There are also things that would terrify us: Your national debt, your capacity for violence, including war but also domestic violence. The materialism of the American people, the fact that you seem to entertain yourself in ways that are both vulgar and really disturbing to the very idea of civilization.

MJ: Why do you think you’ve captured people’s imagination?

TJ: I’m the best writer of the Founding Fathers and I was able to produce sentences that were both clear and rational, but at the same time passionate about human aspirations. I am the most optimistic of the Founding Fathers. I’m effectively the father of the American Dream, the idea that America is a uniquely fortunate nation that has in its power to create new possibilities for human happiness, human rights, and human achievement. Those of us who are not merely living in the clouds, but actually see the steps by which humans could actually improve life on earth, I think those people are automatically more compelling than people of dark spirits.

MJ: Many people quote or invoke you—from tea partiers to the president of UVA—marshaling your words to support their cause. Does it bother you when people assume that you would have supported them today?

TJ: Not necessarily, because I was well aware that you can’t control your legacy. I didn’t think that I was particularly important and wondered sometimes if the world would have been any different if I had never lived. So the part that would bother me is not so much the quoting me, because in quoting me people are quoting the principles of the Enlightenment, but quoting me out of context or aggrandizing me, making me seem as though I’m the author of those views. I’m really not an original thinker; I’m essentially a purveyor of the best principles of the Enlightenment. I may be the most articulate of the Founding Fathers in that respect, but people like James Madison, and even Alexander Hamilton, were more penetrating political theorists than I was.

“I’m effectively the father of the American Dream, the idea that America is a uniquely fortunate nation that has in its power to create new possibilities for human happiness.”

MJ: You travel around the country speaking to everyone from fourth-graders to prisoners and survivalists. What questions do they all tend to ask?

TJ: People always ask about my life and my world and the inconsistencies in my behavior. So slavery comes up almost every time. And it should; I have no adequate answer to that question. And people want me to talk about your world through my perspective: What do I think of the Ebola plague? What do I think of drones as a threat to the Fourth Amendment? It’s useful that people want a kind of diagnosis of your world. What’s unuseful is people thinking that my generation had all the answers. We had answers that fit a three-mile-per-hour world.

MJ: In what ways have you felt misrepresented?

TJ: In your time, the tea party is against centralized government, against regulation and taxation, but you don’t hear them howling much about Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib or renditions in foreign countries. It bothers me that people who are living more than 200 years after my time take that part of my achievement which serves their economic interests best, but ignore that part that’s humanitarian.

Clay Jenkinson

Clay Jenkinson in Jeffersonian garb Glasser Images

MJ: Realizing that we can’t turn back the clock, how do you think everyday Americans can incorporate Jeffersonian principles into their lives?

TJ: I think that people need to be self-reliant and self-governing in the fullest possible way, given the circumstances in which they find themselves. If everyone internalizes civility and tolerance and the respect for other people’s rights and everybody enlightens himself to his or her capacity, then we won’t need much government. In theory I was anarchist—no government at all. But that requires a high level of education, including public education, and it requires people to live close enough to the earth so that we can hear natural law at its source. The more people are enlightened, the less government they need. But it’s not as simple as believing that that government is best which governs least. It’s that government is best which governs least, given the circumstances of your time.

MJ: You owned more than 600 slaves in your lifetime, and yet some historians have depicted you as a would-be abolitionist.

TJ: You’re asking me to show a level of candor and introspection which no human ever shows. I’ll speak more honestly than I probably would have in my own lifetime. I don’t think that I should be given much of a pass on this question. I owned at any given time a couple of hundred slaves and I bought and sold slaves, I bred slaves. I only freed seven slaves: two during my lifetime and five at the time of my death. That’s pretty pitiful for a would-be abolitionist. It’s not as if I were a lonely abolitionist stuck in a world where this couldn’t happen. I was complacent about slavery because I grew up in that world, and the actual truth is, I was a racist.

“I was complacent about slavery because I grew up in that world, and the actual truth is, I was a racist.”

The only reason that I spoke as fervently as I did about abolition is I knew intellectually that it was the right thing. You can’t say all men are created equal and then begin to make discriminations about that. All I can say to that, looking back 200 and more years later, is that I didn’t try very hard to find a way [to end slavery]. So that puts me in a pretty grim light.

MJ: In one podcast episode, your cohost asked you about Sally Hemings. You almost challenged him to a duel.

TJ: Because in my time, nobody would have asked this question.

MJ: So am I to assume that you still have no comment on the subject of Sally Hemings?

TJ: Let me say it two ways. Number one, no comment. This is no one’s business but my own. I never wrote about it, I never talked about it. It was something that remained in absolute silence about for 30 some odd years, even after the story broke as a scandal in 1802. In your time, I will say that you’ve developed a science, which would have been unthinkable in my time, known as DNA testing. And if this science is as solid as it appears to be, this would put me in a very vulnerable light with respect to Ms. Hemings.

?MJ: Thank you, Mr. President, for your time. I’d like to speak with Clay again.

Clay Jenkinson: Here I am!

MJ: So how do you get into character? Do you record the podcast in costume?

CJ: Not very often. This is the secret trick: Jefferson is not a very complex character. Early on, he imbibed the principles and views of the Enlightenment, and for the rest of his life he spoke those views. Plus, I’ve read hundreds of books on Jefferson and all of Jefferson’s writings, so I can sort of channel him. It’s not quite as mystical as that sounds, but I can, if you ask me any question I can go to Jefferson and figure it out, almost instantly.

“I have grave skepticism about this form—some guy dresses like Elvis or Einstein or Lincoln and starts spouting off.”

MJ: How did you first get into this?

CJ: Somebody asked me to! I have grave skepticism about this form—some guy dresses like Elvis or Einstein or Lincoln and starts spouting off. But I realized first one thing and then later another: The first thing was, he’s interesting. If ever there were an interesting man, it’s Thomas Jefferson. The second: Jefferson is a radical at heart, and I think that we would be a dramatically better nation in every respect if we were more Jeffersonian. Now when I say that, you have to take out race, American Indians, and women—Jefferson’s blind spots. I think that Jefferson still has this appeal that he lifts you to a higher sense of what America should represent in the world.

MJ: Do we know what Jefferson’s voice actually sounded like?

CJ: We do not. He didn’t sound like this. I’m against creating a stage voice, some sort of light Southern accent or whatever it would take. We do know that he had a weak voice, that in public he couldn’t raise his voice much above the level of a whisper and that he had some sort of a catch or some sort of slight speech impediment. So if I spoke that way I would be much less effective.

MJ: What Jeffersonian elements have you incorporated into your personal life? Do you drink more wine?

CJ: I’m not a wine connoisseur, but I know a lot about wine now because of Thomas Jefferson. I’m trying to create a Jeffersonian house now. It’s not off the grid, but I know how to minimize my draw on the grid system. And I have a weather station that’s so sophisticated that it’s an official NOAA weather station. Jefferson loved gadgets and I get to be a gearhead, because he’d have one of everything today. You can just imagine Jefferson with gadgets, you know? And I’m trying to create a garden so that I can eat from my hands 50 to 75 days per year. I’m trying to take Jefferson’s basic outlook, his basic way of seeing, and update it for the 21st century. So I’m trying to lead a more Jeffersonian life.

MJ: Do you think life in North Dakota is closer to the Jeffersonian ideal than elsewhere in the United States?

CJ: I was born here, and I moved back 10 years ago because, in my opinion, it was the most Jeffersonian place in America in this one important respect: the people were closer to the soil. North Dakotans are extremely self-reliant. Now North Dakota is in the midst of a gigantic carbon industrialization that’s destroying North Dakota. It may not destroy North Dakota from a Hamiltonian sense—we may become the richest state per capita, but it is destroying the agrarian dream of North Dakota, and that breaks my heart.

“Jefferson loved gadgets…he’d have one of everything today.”

MJ: What’s your understanding of his relationship with Sally Hemings?

CJ: The DNA effectively proves that he is the father of at least one of Sally Hemings’ children and the circumstantial evidence long before the DNA convinced me that it was almost certainly true. Power inevitably leads to this sort of abuse. And so, I’ve never doubted it, and it’s never surprised me. I think the debate over it is largely over, but to the extent that it continues, it’s silly.

What the relationship was is a whole different question; we don’t know. But I think that it had to be positive in some meaningful sense of the term because it lasted for a long time. She was probably Jefferson’s wife’s half sister—you could say she was legally black. That’s a pretty strong intoxicant for someone like Jefferson, a control freak: Here’s a woman who could never make demands on him, but who was essentially white. I’m deep enough into Jefferson that it rings really true to me as fitting his psychology as well as the known facts of the case.

MJ: And his relationship with women in general?

CJ: Right. I think Jefferson was a man of volcanic emotions that were covered over by a pretty strong Stoic and Enlightenment crust. I think Jefferson was terrified of female sexuality, as any rational person is. And so, his answer to that was to control the conditions under which he was with women and that this was a very strong, strong form of control. I’ve never understood how worked up we can get over this question, because my rule with any person that I read about or portray is that below the belt, all bets are off.

Listen to an excerpt of The Thomas Jefferson Hour: