October 29, 2009

public displays of patriotism

thomas jefferson was a very, very slow fuse. he was famous for his stoicism, and never publicly responding to criticism (the original 'no comment' president.)

after he was president, he devoted a huge amount of time to the founding of the university of virginia. he designed the campus, handpicked the faculty, and personally designed the curriculum. he said that the official opening of the university was the proudest day of his life.

things went quickly down hill. the first class of students, perhaps as a backlash to jefferson's enormously high expectations, acted out. they vandalised the campus, went streaking at night, and gambled all the time. when things got out of control, jefferson decided to give a speech to the student body in order to extol them to higher principles.

when he walked into the hall where the students were waiting, flanked by madison and monroe, both former presidents and lifelong friends, he wept openly. he couldn't give the speech as planned because he was too overcome with emotion.

jefferson could be kind of a d-bag. the kind of total snob whose expectations nobody will ever meet, and both washington and adams became really exasperated with him as part of their adminstrations. but this moment won me back. jefferson never wanted to live any other life than that of the scholar, but his phenomenal intellectual capacity, given the time he lived in, continually pulled him into public service, where he was - over and over and over again - disappointed by people.

it was his own fault. he expected everybody to be the embodiment of their own ideals, or in most cases of his ideals. but his disappointment in people was utterly real.

he was a perfectionist, he was furious at every word of the Declaration that congress proposed to change. when he had to watch an entire nation - one that he had created in his mind as a utopia of liberty - go off on its own shaky legs and try to sustain itself, he couldn't write enough letters expressing his grief. but when the university of viriginia fell short of his lofty plans, he simply couldn't take another disappointment. he wept in public. i can't remember the last time i saw a family member weep, let alone the president of the united states. that poor guy.

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