Sunday, April 13, 2008

Great American Gingers No. 1: Thomas Jefferson

Unsurprisingly, my school didn't spend much time teaching us about American history. "We lost" was about the gist of it, followed by the much more seemly study of King George III's descent into insanity.

Now I'm living in America, however, it's about time I learnt what most American kids do in High School - the history of the great American nation.

It's pretty exciting stuff. I've started off with Steve Wiegand's U.S. History for Dummies, which gives an astonishingly brief and inconsequential overview of the major events - I will have to return to and study it in more depth later with The Great American Handbook by Cheri Sicard, A History of the United States by Philip Jenkins, New York Times bestseller Don't Know Much About American History by Kenneth C. Davies and all three volumes of Magill's The American Presidents.

All courtesy of North Brunswick public library, I might add.

So far, I'm up to 1800 and one thing has become apparent. Thomas Jefferson was (to use an American expression) 'the man.'

And, more importantly than that, he was ginger.

Yep, another of history's outstanding gingers. He joins the ranks of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Christopher Columbus and Winston Churchill. A truly astonishing man and an even more astonishing redhead (although his ginger bouffant had turned white by the time he was in his early thirties.)

Thomas Jefferson was, of course, the third president of the United States. More than that, he was one of the founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams (soon to be second president) commissioned him to write it in his stead, saying: "I am obnoxious, suspect and unpopular. You are very much otherwise... can [also] write 10 times better than I can."

That's what gave birth to the most famous document in modern history and the concept that 'all men are created equal' - even though hundreds of Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves. In mitigation, though, it's worth remembering that Jefferson was an outspoken opponent of slavery (despite owning them himself) and unsuccessfully motioned for it to be outlawed in the Virginia legislature in 1769.

Thomas Jefferson also gave birth to the Republican party - although his streamlined and sensible political party has become distorted, hypocritical and entirely contradictory to the original Republican ideals it once stood for.

He was also an atheist - or, more specifically, a 'deist.' He suspected there of being some higher power, but entirely rejected Christianity and organised religion. Instead of superstition and blind faith, he believed man was placed on the earth with the power to discover things for himself through reason and rationality. He believed overwhelmingly in the complete separation of Church and state. The fact that Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence is further proof that America was founded on secular principles.

All in all - and considering I'm not even up to his first term in office yet - Thomas Jefferson seems like a legendary man. Brilliant. Charismatic. A true American hero. As John F. Kennedy once said, when welcoming some impressive guests to a dinner at the White House, "you gentlemen are the finest group of genius and talent to sit at this table since Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

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