I’ve felt compelled to think long and hard about Thomas Jefferson through the years because I know that my Grandfather, George Robb, had so little use for him.
I wish I could pick out some specific memory of when I learned this. As an awkward early teen I would visit him a couple times a year at the Presbyterian Manner in Topeka, Kansas when we drove back down to visit my old home town. I probably went largely to please my Mother who felt desperately guilty about having abandoned him by moving to Minnesota as he approached his vulnerable eighties.
I had to make small talk with him as he was not much of a small talker himself. He was however a learned and devoted reader of American history having gotten his start as a kid in endless family political discussions. Both my parents had held him up to me since early childhood as a paragon of virtue his having won the Congressional Medal of Honor. I used to tease my Mom before dementia carried her away about how she had often hushed me up when I was little after a bruising not to cry about such a trifle because my Grandfather had been shot in battle and he hadn’t cried. Its the sort of thing a princess of the Huns might have told a son to steal him for defending the tribe and by the time I was an adult my Mom realized this.
So I spent precious hours growing up asking my Grandfather about history. I vividly recall telling my Grandfather what my favorite teacher Ms. Criss told our class when we were studying the history of the Civil War. She told our class that Ulysses S. Grant had been a butcher throwing his men into battle like logs into a fire to defeat General Lee. Boy, did that annoy George Robb. He proceeded to tell me how vital Grant was to the Union cause.
Among my possessions are both volumes of Grant’s autobiography that once belonged to George Robb’s father, Thomas. Great grandfather Robb arrived in New York from Ireland at age twelve. When his ship pulled into the harbor someone on deck asked an outbound ship for the latest news. “Fort Sumpter has fallen” was the reply. I am only a caretaker for the volumes. I have strict orders from my Mother to pass the books on to my son.
Lincoln was famously handicapped by Generals who suffered from “the slows.” Grant was his salvation and when critics whispered to Abe that Grant was a drunk he shot back, find out what he drinks and give it to my other generals. I wish could recall a similarly vivid recollection of my Grandfather’s disdain for Jefferson.
George Robb has been the subject of numerous posts on this blog. I’m pretty sure my eight loyal readers will have encountered the Grant story previously. But I simply can’t recall the time or a time when my Grandfather made his displeasure with the writer of the Declaration of Independence clear to me. I just have known since my years visiting him he had little use for him.
To fill that void I’ve reflected a great deal on what I do know about my Grandfather and this too is well troden territory for this blog. Growing up dirt poor in Wizard of Oz land, Kansas his family had a next door neighbor Larry Lapsley. Lapsley was a black man, an escaped slave. He must have been in his fifties or older by the time my grandfather knew him. I do know a fair bit about Lapsley from my Grandfather’s own hand. George Robb once wrote a speech about him which I posted years ago on my old website. In that speech he comments that his father had been appointed to attend to Larry’s body at his death and came home in a foul mood afterwards mumbling about the curse of slavery. My grandfather offers his listeners the speculation that Lapsley had been castrated like a steer by his owners. It was a common solution to keep slave men docile and perhaps to guarantee that only the best black studs sired strong field labor.
My Grandfather the historian felt some obligation to give black Americans their due and other type written speeches of his testify to this. As in Lincoln’s time white men were still arguing in my Grandfather’s time that black men could not fight. My Grandfather was witness to the emptiness of this claim. Just as the white soldiers of Cold Harbor witnessed black bravery on the battle field my Grandfather had commanded black American soldiers from Harlem in the trenches of France. If military medals mean anything my Grandfather’s 369th infantry, raised in Harlem, New York, was the most decorated American unit of the First World War.
My Grandfather, however emphatically he attested to black bravery, was still a creature of his time. He was a conservative who had no desire to push the limits his nation where the majority did not want to go. He may very well have agreed with President Eisenhower that Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren, was one of Ike’s worst appointments for letting civil rights out of the judicial bag.
Be that as it may my Grandfather the historian would have been familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s example. Quoted ad nauseum by Democrats who used to hold Jefferson-Jackson dinners they way Republicans used to put on Lincoln Day Dinners Jefferson’s rhetoric became the heartbeat of the American Revolution with the young man’s ideals about the equality of man. Yet the idealistic Jefferson was a slave master who stubbornly clung to his slaves when other more genuine idealists like George Washington set his free in his will. Not only that but he was believed by many to have cohabited with his slave and owned his own children by her as slaves.
In my grandfather’s pre-DNA lifetime this was not a fact that could be ascertained. Nonetheless, my Grandfather who wondered at the possible castration of his neighbor would have found Jefferson a disgraceful hypocrite for declaring all men to be equal except those he put in slavery’s shackles. I can imagine that my Grandfather found it easy to pile other criticisms of Jefferson on that rank betrayal of his own American ideal. That he was a coward having fled the British as Governor of Virginia; that he founded the Democratic Party; that he championed the French revolution and dismissed its mass murders by asserting “Occasionally the tree of Liberty must be watered with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants.” Above all my Grandfather would have thought Jefferson’s disloyalty to President Washington by secretly and constantly urging allies to ridicule the first President in print.
I don’t hold the same grudge against the third President that I recall my Grandfather holding. I do hold a grudge against Jefferson’s successors who have perverted the Grand Old Party by soiling Abraham Lincoln’s gift and legacy to the nation – the promise of living up to the Declaration of Independence.
The sixteenth President of the United States is my hero and, ironically, the man who helped bring Thomas Jefferson’s grim prophecy about the blood of tyrants and patriots by spilling more of it than all other American President before and after put together. And it is yet another irony that all of my life I have felt Lincoln was walking on thin legal ice by preventing the South from Seceding.