It's No Fault of Yours that You Don't Know About Thomas Jefferson's Sense of Humor


Mr. Hayes's latest work is: The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 2008).

This year’s grueling presidential campaigns have forced all American voters to reconsider what personal qualities a good president requires. Experience, fairness, flexibility, judgment, leadership, open-mindedness, patriotism, tact: most everyone would agree that a successful presidential candidate should possess all of these qualities. But a good president also requires a sense of humor, as the example of Thomas Jefferson shows.

Few biographers have recognized Jefferson’s sense of humor. Through all six volumes of his monumental biography of Jefferson, Dumas Malone continually asserts that Jefferson had little sense of humor. Researching my new biography, The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I discovered that Jefferson had a delightful sense of humor. His humor manifested itself in many different ways -- tall talk, anecdotes, and practical jokes. What he did not have was a Boswell, that is, someone to transcribe his quips.

Several people who knew Jefferson hinted at his humor in their reminiscences. John Quincy Adams noted, “Mr. Jefferson tells large stories.” Jefferson’s personal correspondence shows his fondness of exaggeration. Adams’s remark suggests that Jefferson also enjoyed tall talk. But Adams did not write down any of Jefferson’s tall tales. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who had ample opportunity to listen to his grandfather’s dinner conversation, characterized it as “cheerful, often sportive, and illustrated by anecdotes.” Like Adams, young Randolph did not transcribe his grandfather’s anecdotes. The comedian John Bernard, a frequent dinner guest at the White House during Jefferson’s presidency, recalled his witty conversation, observing, “With specimens of his humor I could fill pages.” But Bernard did not do what he said he could: he did not fill pages with Jefferson’s humor.

Happily, a few people who met Jefferson did record specimens of his humor, sometimes unwittingly. Throughout his time in public office, Jefferson’s political enemies scoured his writings looking for anything they could attack. In one of the most highly crafted paragraphs in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson described the passage of the Potomac through the mountains. He made it sound so beautiful that some readers concluded that he must have invented it.

One visitor to the White House asked him exactly where he could see this beautiful vista. Jefferson replied, “The place no longer existed, for during the reign of Federalism under Adams’s administration, the spot, which was a projecting point of rock on the brow of the mountain, had been industriously blown up and destroyed by gunpowder! A company of Federal troops quartered there were several days employed in boring and blasting the rock to pieces, doubtless with the intention of falsifying his account, and rendering it incredible by putting it out of the power of any subsequent traveller to behold the like from the same point of view.” This anecdote reveals the subtlety of Jefferson’s humor. This White House visitor recorded these words without realizing President Jefferson was talking tall!

A young woman who dined at the White House during Jefferson’s trying second term, recorded an anecdote demonstrating that he still maintained his sense of humor. During this woman’s visit, Jefferson related an anecdote about one of the present kings of Europe, who was fond of hunting.

“The day was uncommonly fine and the king was all ready for the chase when one of his courtiers announced a number of strangers,” Jefferson said. “Before the ceremony of introducing them was over the king’s patience was quite exhausted and turning to a courtier he said in a foreign language ‘Oh how I hate ceremony.’ The courtier bowed and said, ‘Sire you do not remember that you are yourself ceremony.’ ”

When Congress agreed to purchase Jefferson’s personal library to replace the original Library of Congress, which had been destroyed by fire during the War of 1812, he devised an elaborate practical joke. Jefferson had several books in his library describing the corruption and decadence of several European monarchies, so he decided to have all of these different books similarly bound as a multi-volume set, having the general title “Book of Kings” lettered on the spine of each volume. Jefferson took great delight in the possibilities of this practical joke. Any congressman with leanings toward a monarchical form of government who consulted these volumes would be in for a surprise.

As these examples suggest, Jefferson’s sense of humor served many different purposes. Around the dinner table, his anecdotes provided witty repartee to keep the conversation lively. His humor also functioned as a coping strategy. Notoriously thin-skinned, Jefferson used humor to make light of attacks by his political enemies. Furthermore, Jefferson’s humor allowed him to ridicule the outmoded ideas of kings and counselors. Jefferson’s lively, if subtle sense of humor, provides a valuable lesson for today’s presidential candidates.

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