Thomas Jefferson’s Patriotic Advice

Historian Clay Jenkinson hosts the award-winning radio show The Thomas Jefferson Hour, in which he draws on historical records to answer audience questions in the character of Thomas Jefferson. In honor of the July 4th holiday, we invited Jenkinson to don his breeches and powdered wig to become Jefferson, to answer your 2014 etiquette questions...anachronisms be damned.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes, each week, you send us your questions about how to behave, and here to answer them just in time for the fourth of July is humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson. He is host of the public radio show The Thomas Jefferson Hour, during which each week he becomes President Thomas Jefferson, and expounds on life and the issues of the day. Clay, welcome back to our show.

Thomas Jefferson: Yeah, I not only become Jefferson, I am Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, with a voice that he never had.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right, with a North Dakota accent.

Thomas Jefferson: Well, a little North Dakota accent. I’ve spent all my life trying to get over it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But, you know what, sadly, now we need to say goodbye to Clay, and welcome President Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson: Good day to you, citizen.

Rico Gagliano: Wow, there you are.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There you are.

Rico Gagliano: It’s an honor, as always, to have you with us, Mr. President.

Thomas Jefferson: It’s a pleasure to be with you on the fourth of July.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, first of all, pardon us for bringing it up, but you died on the fourth of July. Does that leave you with mixed feelings about celebrating the holiday?

Thomas Jefferson: No, I didn’t, I wasn’t bothered by the advent of death. I lived for 83 years, which is a long time, and if you’re going to have to die, which I believe everyone does, to die on the 50th anniversary of what became the most important document in the history of human liberty, is not bad.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. That’s true. How did you celebrate the fourth of July?

Thomas Jefferson: I only celebrated two holidays. Not Christmas, not Easter, not my birthday. I celebrated New Year’s Day, and always had a reception during my eight years as president at what became the White House, and I celebrated the fourth of July because it’s the birth of the world’s first experiment in self-government, the flame that has burned away all of the corruptions and despotisms of the world.

Rico Gagliano: At last, and that’s why we’re living in total paradise.

Thomas Jefferson: But you could be, if you were Jeffersonian, but you’ve strayed into Mr. Hamilton’s world.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, interesting point.

Rico Gagliano: Let’s not go there, our audience will be deeply divided.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I have a question for you, though. How did you die on the fourth of July? Was it a barbecue incident, or?

Thomas Jefferson: You know when you lift the Weber Grill too soon, and it singes your red wig? No, I died of prostate cancer and a urinary tract infection. I was 83, so I was really in the process of dying for about seven months before that, and I actually tried to hang on until the great birthday of our nation.

Rico Gagliano: That’s excellent of you. I have one quick question. The World Cup is heating up. Alas, the United States was eliminated. Are you upset? Do you follow soccer?

Thomas Jefferson: No, I regard games that involve violence and a ball as not conducive to character-building.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I knew you were gonna say something like that?

Thomas Jefferson: Really? I’ve become a caricature of myself over time.

Rico Gagliano: All right, let’s go to our first question. You ready for these?

Thomas Jefferson: Certainly.

Rico Gagliano: Gail, who wrote us via Twitter – where she wrote from will be obvious from the question – Gail writes, what is the best way to celebrate the fourth of July whilst residing in Yorkshire, England, the country from which we achieved independence?

Thomas Jefferson: I think the best way to celebrate would be to immigrate to the United States, to leave the tyranny of a monarchical society on a tiny island whose resources have long since been exploited, and come to the land of freedom and disengage yourself from the pathetic nature of the British character. You know, I said to Abigail Adams once, the British cannot be reformed in their parliament. It’s in their gastronomic tract. The sheer quantity of animal flesh that the Brits eat renders them insusceptible to civilization.

Rico Gagliano: Were you a vegetarian?

Thomas Jefferson: I was a quasi-vegetarian. I did eat meat, but I said, let it serve as sauce to my vegetables, and not the other way.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I was gonna say, because vegetarians in history have also done some pretty bad stuff since you left, Mr. President.

Thomas Jefferson: No, I did it for health reasons, not for ideological ones.

Rico Gagliano: By the way, I should point out, Gail, I believe, is Californian, residing in –

Thomas Jefferson: Come home!

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. That’s how you can celebrate, Gail. Just book a plane ticket. We’ll welcome you back.

Rico Gagliano: Here’s something from Tracy via our website. Tracy writes, what would you do if a friend brought a guest to your dinner, and you absolutely, and I mean absolutely hated this person?

Thomas Jefferson: Well, this happened all the time. You know, as president, I brought in ten or twelve people three or four afternoons a week to the round tables of the White House, and they were frequently Federalists who hated me. I didn’t really hate them. I tried not to hate anybody, but I found them disagreeable. But I tried to charm them with good wine – you know, I sometimes served seven or eight French wines – exquisite French cuisine, graciousness, and what I called artificial good humor. The best of us are born with good humor, but the rest of us have to adopt the habit of good humor. And if you do, if you are always civil no matter what the provocation, you will improve your daily life and your own happiness, and you will, in a certain way, shame those around you to be more civil.

Rico Gagliano: And a half dozen bottles of wine doesn’t hurt.

Thomas Jefferson: It never hurts, but buy Bordeaux. If you have the wherewithal, buy Chateau d’Yquem.

Rico Gagliano: I’m interested in, actually, your interest in French cuisine. What do you think of the whole freedom fries incident that happened a few years ago?

Thomas Jefferson: Well, there’s no end to American demagoguery. I actually brought French fries from France to the United States, and served them sometimes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Of course you did!

Thomas Jefferson: But I don’t think that it’s in our interest, ever, to turn our back on our principal ally France. You know, I said in my lifetime, every man’s first country must be his own. But every rational man’s second country must be France.

Rico Gagliano: Wow.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You were a Francophile.

Thomas Jefferson: I spoke French fluently, I knew French philosophes. I spent five years in Paris, and I said, you could spend your entire life in Paris and never hear a single rude remark – if you know French.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Did you also chain smoke and wear a beret?

Thomas Jefferson: I never smoked in the whole course of my life. I grew tobacco, but I said that it was a really insane crop because it produces no nutrition and it’s a noxious weed, but I was addicted to it as a cash crop.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, I understand.

Thomas Jefferson: And no beret, of course. I think that sort of affectation appeared in the 19th century.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But I could see a beret and a powdered wig, that would be a kind of cool look. Our next question comes from Lucy in West Lafayette, Indiana. Lucy writes, after working out, is it ever okay to go out to dinner while still in your gym clothes? It always seemed a bit too casual to me.

Thomas Jefferson: I think she’s answered her own question.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, I think so.

Thomas Jefferson: First of all, if you really are an agrarian society, nobody will need to work out. Artificially working out is a sign of the urban decadence of your era, but any woman who would appear in her sweats, as you like to say, we would regard as a slattern, and if this woman wants to know the conviviality of polite company, she will always change her clothes and tidy up her hair before she appears before men.

Rico Gagliano: I see. Well, turnabout is fair play here, though. What if it was a gentleman? Is a gentleman allowed to go out in the equivalent of gym clothes of your time?

Thomas Jefferson: It would be less inappropriate, but we all need to bring our best self to every situation if we want to be a republic, otherwise, we will slip into deplorable barbarism.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, Mr. President, you always have an invitation to our dinner table. Thank you so much for coming by and telling our audience how to behave.

Thomas Jefferson: And on the fourth of July, no beer. Wine.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What about the champagne of beers? Is that okay?

Thomas Jefferson: That is an oxymoron.