By Russ Lay on April 23, 2013
Historian Clay Jenkinson, a noted humanities scholar, author and host of public radio program “The Jefferson Hour,” entertained a crowd of almost 250 people with his in-character interpretation of Thomas Jefferson.
Jenkinson began the night with a first-person monologue in which Jefferson explained his political beliefs as well his relations with what are collectively known as the Founding Fathers.
One of the most surprising facts that emerged was that the well-traveled Jefferson never visited North Carolina during his lifetime.
As students of Jefferson are aware, our third president was a reluctant public servant who viewed his political life as an unpleasant civic duty.
The audience also learned that while Jefferson loved to opine and debate through the exchange of letters, he was shy about public appearances. One of the agreements he sought in accepting the nomination to run for president was that he not be required to give speeches.
After the monologue, the former president took questions from the audience while remaining in character.
Contemporary conservatives, liberals and libertarians consistently use Jefferson’s writings to lend support to all manner of causes.
This displeased the author of the Declaration of Independence, who reminded the audience that government was for the living and future generations and “owed no allegiance to the past.”
He called the idea of the Founding Fathers as a monolithic group who shared the same thoughts as “nonsensical,” noting with humor than he and Patrick Henry were so disagreeable that they could not reside in the same county.
He believed the Federalists, and Alexander Hamilton in particular, to be comfortable with the British legislature, and the concept of “a president for life” posed a threat to the democracy Jefferson and his anti-Federalist allies envisioned.
Jefferson reminded us that virtually every Founding Father would respond to audience questions differently and that his era was a “three mile per hour” world.
When asked about modern issues such as women’s rights, Jefferson stated he was “happy with the station of women under nature’s law” serving in the traditional role of a mother while men engaged in the rigors of politics.
He defended his ownership of slaves while disapproving of the practice by noting he did not feel most of his freed slaves could function on their own and that he did not believe in a bi-racial society.
On the gun debate, Jefferson maintained his belief that the population needed to be armed not only for protection and hunting, but also to be prepared to take up arms against an oppressive government.
Stepping slightly out of character, Jefferson had some advice for the state of modern political debate.
He lamented the absence of good humor in the political world and suggested for those to whom humor did not come naturally that they learn to acquire “artificial good humor” in public discourse.
Jefferson cited the deep chasms between himself and his “good friend” John Adams, but took the attitude that “his (Adams) errors do me no harm.”
He ended with a quote Jefferson invoked during his political life to describe the body politic.
“We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists,” he suggested.
“The Don and Catherine Bryan Cultural Series” presented the event.
The next program in the series is scheduled for Sept. 29 and will feature Pulitzer prize-winning historian and biographer David McCullough.
Don Bryan is a famed local artist and also a former mayor of Nags Head. Bryan addressed the crowd before another former Nags Head mayor, Bob Muller, introduced Clay Jenkinson.