I want to introduce you to someone: his name is Clay Jenkinson. He’s the guy in the revolutionary attire participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Mr. Jenkinson is also, among many other things, historian who host a weekly syndicated public radio program called the Thomas Jefferson Hour.
Each week, Thomas Jefferson (Jenkinson) and his co-host talks about events and happenings from Jefferson’s life and time as one of The United States’ founding fathers. Later in the program, Jenkinson jumps out of character to discuss what he spoke about earlier, while in character. I have caught the program on a number of occasions, and I can’t help but laugh to myself whilst shaking my head.
I didn’t have high expectations for the show. I have listened to discourse on the weather in Paris while Jefferson visited, to the quality of that season’s tomatoes from the garden at Monticello. I will assume that the subject matter has been more substantial on other occasions, but I’ve not had the privilege of experiencing it. What I would like to point out is the manner in which the show sets itself up. The premise is a leisurely conversation with one of the greatest human beings ever- Thomas Jefferson. The 3rd President of the United States, Jefferson is portrayed as a warm, kind, fatherly, almost angelic being of the highest moral standard. The listeners are made to feel a sense of gratitude, awe, and wonder as you listen to the sage words of this infallible man. The Jenkinson gathers a great deal of pleasure portraying the Jefferson character. It comes across in the way he roars his oratory and monologues across the airways. This man is proud of his President, so much so that we went to great lengths to become Jefferson.
It makes me realize how powerful (and dangerous) it is to re-write history. Even the most staunch Jefferson supporters should blush at the way his legacy has been delicately preserved. But preservation has turned to cleansing, as not so endearing facts about his life are vehemently criticized.
Mr. Wiencek states that none of the information presented in his text is in fact new, but one wouldn’t know this based upon to reaction to his, and other less than flattering works about Jefferson. The problem is that over time, some have decided to dismiss the baser aspects of the man, whilst maintaining the Legend and Prestige. This is disingenuous at best, and at it’s worst nearly criminal. The goal of history is for present and future generations to look at events from the past, and learn from them what we can, in an attempt to repeat the good while being vigilant to prevent the bad. But if we are unwilling to acknowledge that which we are not proud of, can we say an honest attempt at self-reflection and learning has been made? I would like to see more movement in this direction.