It’s a fascinating thought exercise to trace how the leader of the United States of America evolved from George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump.
Recently, President Trump employed (misused, actually) a Jefferson quote to attack the media. Many jumped to Jefferson’s defense, saying that he and Trump shouldn’t even be associated with one another.
Well, not so fast.
All this recent talk of fake news? It’s not new. Jefferson adored fake news:
Jefferson was fine with slander, feeding the public need for low entertainment and fact- free denunciations just as long as they were aimed at his rivals. He had no problem supporting or arranging to support newspapers that did just that.
He paid a writer named James Thomson Callender to besmirch the reputation of John Adams, which was egregious and abhorrent, not simply because Adams was the president and Jefferson was serving as his vice president at the time, but also because Jefferson had been a close friend of both Adams and his wife Abigail for years:
In 1799, bankrolled by Jefferson and acting as the editor of the Republican Richmond Examiner, Callender began…dredging up the pro-monarchy charges that always dogged Adams, Callender accused the president of being “mentally deranged,” planning to crown himself king, and grooming John Quincy as his heir to the throne. Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Yet, when Callender would later be the first to break the news that Jefferson had an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings – a claim many idol-worshipping historians refused to believe until DNA evidence proved it conclusively – Jefferson began lamenting the state of media and preached about the need for distinction between actual and fabricated news.
Jefferson’s hypocrisy knew no bounds:
Jefferson deplored inequality among men, yet he owned slaves, supported servitude and relegated women to a secondary role. He sought to preserve Native American culture, but planned to “civilize” Native Americans and through his own expansionist policies pushed them out of areas settled and governed by Euro-Americans. He hailed freedom of the press as a bulwark of republican government until his own foibles and politics became its focus. He expounded the virtues of public education and founded a public university, but assumed access would be strictly limited. He argued that opposition political parties could be treasonous, but established the first opposition political party and won the presidency in 1800 in what he called the second American Revolution.
What a dick.
For all of his rhetoric about the people, Jefferson was a charter member of the elite. He owned slaves (and took advantage of at least one of them) and ruminated about the ways of the world while safely ensconced within the sanctuary of his stunning Monticello as human chattel worked his land. In Massachusetts, meanwhile, Adams and the wife to whom he was faithful worked their own farm themselves, their only help coming from family members and paid laborers.
Jefferson praised the populace in the abstract but never wanted to interact with them, unlike Adams:
We have this strange obsession with voting for the president we’d most like to have a beer with. Like that’s ever going to happen. You actually could have a beer with John. He liked hanging around taverns, listening to people talk. Often he concealed his identity—easy to do in an age without photographs—to hear what people had to say.
It is interesting that Jefferson has come down to us as the great populist. Adams was very earthy.
Adams once described the difference between the two perfectly: “Mister Jefferson tells people what they want to hear. I tell them what they need to know.” It was true. Jefferson would say anything to anyone to avoid conflict:
His “extreme distaste for personal controversy…was a defect of his politeness and amiability which caused him to seem deceptive.” His hypocrisy was either “the desire to please different constituencies, to avoid conflict with colleagues…[or] to avoid conflict within himself.”
In short, it’s unclear if he even believed the bullshit he spewed.
Adams was the ultimate realist. He knew that the “more perfect union” that he and his brethren had forged wasn’t immune to everything: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Jefferson, meanwhile, was the quintessential idealist, choosing to live in a world as it should be, not the way it actually was. He couldn’t even accept the reality of his bank account.
While most of the founders could have benefited from a Total Money Makeover, Jefferson was one of the worst, spending money he didn’t have, living a lavish lifestyle despite a declining business. He lived well beyond his means, buying expense amounts of books, wine, and home renovations on credit. When he died, he owed somewhere between one and two million dollars in today’s terms and was on the verge of insolvency.
Attacking political rivals, saying anything to be accepted, harassing women, and constantly flirting with bankruptcy?
See, Jefferson and Trump aren’t so different after all.
Christopher Pierznik’s eight books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.