The truth about the American statesman may not be self-evident A MAN FOR ALL REASONS THOMAS JEFFERSON


Charlottesville, Va. -- Buckled shoes clacking on the pavement, a tall redheaded stranger in a green velvet jacket, ruffled jabot and knee breeches strides through the darkened grounds of the University of Virginia.

He knocks on the door of the faculty club, gets no answer and asks two passing students if there's another entrance. They tell him how to navigate a back passage through a garden, and then one says almost as an afterthought as they continue on their way:

"So, like, you're supposed to be Thomas Jefferson?"

Well, yes. He's back, and not just at this "academical village" he founded in 1819, where his legacy is part of the everyday fabric of life and where descendants like Rob Coles -- a rather eerie look-alike who performs as his famous forebear -- keep the dust from forming too thickly 168 years after his death.

Even outside this preserved hamlet of Jeffersoniana, America's Renaissance Man is suddenly on our minds again.

Films about his life are in the works from producers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory and from documentarian Ken Burns. He turns up on the cover of magazines and on the lips of politicians as disparate as President Clinton and soon-to-be Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. And his exploits are the subject of both academic debate and popular chatter.

But you may not recognize him as the fossilized Jefferson from your grade-school textbook, the aloof, rational philosopher-statesman who penned the Declaration of Independence, served as the third president of the United States, and is revered by intellectuals, architects and even gardeners for his contributions to American life.

Take, for example, the forthcoming and controversial "Jefferson in Paris," the Merchant-Ivory film scheduled for release in March, in which Nick Nolte as Jefferson reputedly falls in love with married socialite Maria Cosway and beds and impregnates his teen-age slave, Sally Hemings.

Hot stuff for a figure immortalized in cold granite on Mount Rushmore and in heroic bronze on the Tidal Basin. It's hard to imagine moviemakers portraying another founding father, a George Washington or a John Adams, for example, in so intimate a fashion. The film is already under attack by some historians and Jefferson devotees as bad history.

"It's a lie. It's shameful," says Bahman Batmanghelidj, a Jefferson fan who has been waging a one-man -- and no doubt futile -- campaign to squelch the movie. "Whether you like it or not, once a movie is produced, it becomes fact. Once people see something, they believe it."

Mr. Batmanghelidj, an Iranian-born developer who lives in Northern Virginia, became enamored of Jefferson as a student at Oxford University in England. The fervor with which he is fighting a fictionalized account of Jefferson's life is indicative of how much passion Jefferson continues to inspire. Mr. Batmanghelidj says that if Jefferson, who was appalled at the concept of miscegenation, is shown to be a hypocrite on that issue, then everything he stood for is open to question. He is particularly devoted to Jefferson for fighting against the establishment of an official religion, such as the Church of England.

"Here in America, we take Mr. Jefferson for granted," he says. "But he has much to offer the world. In Iran, my home country, look at what happens when church and state are not separated."

Others are similarly, if more dispassionately, worried about the movie.

"Bad history can drive out good history," says Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, Jefferson's mountaintop home. "Look at how Oliver Stone's 'JFK' muddied the waters on historical truth."

Yet he and other Jefferson defenders realize that fighting the film would only get Jefferson's own words thrown back at them.

"They have artistic license to do whatever they want," he says. "Jefferson, above all, stood for freedom of expression."

Mr. Jordan would rather focus on Jefferson as the democratic torchbearer for the ages, whose stirring words inspire modern-day revolutionaries in Eastern Europe and China's Tiananmen Square much as they did the patriots of Colonial America.

He has high hopes for the documentary currently being researched and filmed by Mr. Burns, the maker of "Civil War" and "Baseball" known for his mythopoetic approach to American history.

Mr. Burns has selected Jefferson as one segment of the "American Lives" series he's planning for PBS. He has become so taken with his latest subject that he has built an exact duplicate of Jefferson's garden house at Monticello at his own home in Walpole, N.H.

As for the "Jefferson in Paris" filmmakers -- producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala -- they've defended their approach, saying the public is more interested in Jefferson's personal life and the nature of his relationship with Sally Hemings than in his political philosophy.

The suspicions that Jefferson and Hemings had a sexual relationship date back to 1802, when a Richmond newspaper charged that it was "well known" that Jefferson "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is Sally." The allegations have cropped up periodically over the years, gaining particular currency in 1974 when Fawn Brodie published her controversial psycho-biography, "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History."

Historians generally believe the relationship never existed or take an agnostic stance: It can be neither proved nor disproved.

Crisis in American identity

Nevertheless, the alleged liaison is one of the reasons Jefferson remains so talked about today, falling as it does at the intersection of the current twin obsessions of American public life: race and sex. It has come to symbolize all the unresolved complexities and contradictions of his 18th-century life, and by extension, our own in the 20th century.

"There is a crisis in the American identity today, and there is a crisis in race relationships. And when we're in crisis, I think we always turn back to Jefferson because Jefferson has really defined the American identity," says writer Barbara Chase-Riboud, who recently followed up her 1979 best-selling novel, "Sally Hemings," with a sequel, "The President's Daughter."

"He's kind of a compendium of all our triumphs and all our woes," says Ms. Chase-Riboud, who is among those who have popularized the notion that Sally Hemings was the longtime mistress of Jefferson and bore him as many as seven children. She depicts their relationship as one that developed in Paris, away from racist America, which allowed them to view one another as individuals rather than as master and slave.

It's quite a romantic idea, but one that doesn't fit with what's known about Jefferson, scholars say.

"Jefferson would have recoiled from such a relationship because he is, or was, a racist by our definition. He sketched out an argument about why there is a natural inequality between whites and blacks," says Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor of history at UVA. "So this notion of Jefferson and Sally anticipating the Rainbow Coalition is completely untenable."

Dr. Onuf is quick to point out that he is not part of the so-called Jefferson canonizers, a group of scholars and devotees who guard against any suggestion that he was less than the perfect )) moral hero. "I'm deeply conflicted about him," Dr. Onuf says.

Rather, his objection comes from what he sees as the disturbing modern phenomenon of distracting ourselves from the real issues with trivia.

"It's the banality of modern culture. It's the People magazine syndrome," says Dr. Onuf, who spent several hours talking to Mr. Nolte at UVA's Rotunda to help him get in the mood for the role. "The talk about Sally is background noise. We lose sight of what's important because we frame everything in the personal."

The real debate over Jefferson, and the one that has been going on in academic circles for years, should be about his ownership of slaves: How was Jefferson able to decry slavery in print -- in a tone as ringingly persuasive as that used to call for America's freedom from England -- even as he went home to a plantation with as many as 200 slaves?

"He did not follow through on his progressive values, and we all wish he had," Dr. Onuf says. "Why couldn't he act more vigorously? There's evidence he wrestled with it; it's a definite tension in his thinking. There's plenty to mull over there."

It is perhaps this enigmatic quality, this image of the conflicted, tortured Jefferson, that makes him seem like someone of our own confused times. He is dubbed the "American Sphinx" on the cover of a new magazine, Civilization, published by the Library of Congress (which, in turn, was started with Jefferson's donation of his own 6,487-volume library).

African-Americans have their own conflicts when it comes to Jefferson. Those who claim lineage to Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson say that the official line -- that there was no relationship, or that it was one of Jefferson's nephews who fathered her children -- is part of the larger dismissal of African-Americans' place in history.

"The importance we ascribe to our family history is not only our relationship to Mr. Jefferson. Throughout American history, the writers of the history have generally been white males," says Robert H. Cooley III, a Richmond-area attorney and descendant of Thomas Woodson, said to be the first child of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. "Who will write our histories if we don't? There are many black families with histories similar to ours."

Sally vs. Maria

Mr. Cooley bristles over the way historians tend to believe Jefferson had an affair with Maria Cosway, while dismissing out of hand a relationship with Sally Hemings. Often, historians cite the fact that there is written documentation of the relationship with Cosway, but none for Hemings.

There is the famous letter, for example, in which Jefferson rather poignantly wrestles with his feelings for Cosway: "Seated by my fire side, solitary and sad, the following dialogue took place between my Head and my Heart. Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim. Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear."

But Mr. Cooley says there is a simple reason for the lack of documentation of a Hemings relationship.

"Of course it's undocumented. We were slaves. We weren't allowed to learn how to write," Mr. Cooley says. "The Jefferson defenders say that because it's not documented it can't be true. What kind of documents would satisfy them? A certified letter from Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson asking for child support?"

At Monticello, they deal with the Sally Hemings question by acknowledging that her name has been linked to Jefferson's since 1802. But, the brochures are quick to note, historians discount the liaison.

:. "We agree," Mr. Jordan says, "to disagree.

Famous fanciers

Monticello, which is filled with Jefferson's curious inventions and surrounded by grounds reflecting his passion for gardening, has become an increasingly popular destination for Jefferson fanciers, Mr. Jordan says. In 1980, close to 462,000 people visited the home, and since then, the annual figure has never dropped below 500,000. The number of visitors peaked last year at 622,000 when Jefferson's 250th birthday was celebrated.

That year brought numerous big-name visitors, from Mikhail Gorbachev to Bill -- or, rather, William Jefferson -- Clinton and Al Gore, who began their inaugural week by visiting Monticello and following Jefferson's route to Washington.

They are, of course, merely the latest leaders to claim affinity with Jefferson. Presidents from Lincoln to Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan have claimed him. Most recently, Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich has put Jefferson in his corner on the school-prayer issue, citing the Declaration of Independence's invocation of a "Creator."

And Jefferson remains the unofficial and secular patron saint of any number of groups: Intellectuals (JFK to a gathering of Nobel laureates in 1962: "This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone"). Journalists ("Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter"). Architects ("Architecture is my delight and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements"). Even gardeners ("No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden").

And so his defenders expect he will survive this latest spasm of revisionism. "He's always been a popular figure," says his descendant, Mr. Coles, 42, who began touring as Thomas Jefferson during the Bicentennial and continues to perform about 125 shows a year. "He doesn't really need a spokesman."

If nothing else, the state of modern-day politics will probably ensure continued admiration of Jefferson, he says.

"There has been more interest in him recently," Mr. Coles adds, "maybe because of the dissatisfaction with the current politicians."

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