Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

By Fawn M. Brodie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I

The Semi-Transparent
Shadows

Thomas Jefferson of all our great presidents was the most orderly and the most acquisitive. He was also the most controlled. The celebrated equanimity of his temper, crystallized in his pronouncement "Peace is our passion," extended to his private as well as his public life; his daughter Martha described how he lost his temper in her presence only two times in his life. Once was when a long trusted slave twice defied an order concerning the use of a carriage horse, the second when two quarreling ferrymen let the boat in which Jefferson and his daughter were being carried across a river drift dangerously toward some rapids. Then, Martha said, her father, "his face 'like a lion' told the ferrymen 'in tones of thunder' to row for their lives or he would pitch them into the stream." 1

Jefferson's acquisitiveness particularly in regard to books was legendary in his own lifetime. All his friends knew how he accumulated one of the great private libraries of the young United States, how he sold it far below its value to replace the Library of Congress when the British army burned it in the War of 1812, and then promptly began building up another library to match the old. Few, however, knew that he was so enraged by the senseless act of military vandalism that he suggested paying incendiaries in London to set British buildings afire in return. 2 The rage was momentary; he had believed from the beginning that the war was unnecessary and after initial acquiescence came to see it as a disaster for his country, but he was too loyal to his intimate friend and successor, James Madison, to say so publicly. During his own presidency, faced with the same European imbroglio that

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