The Jefferson Family

A new biography of Thomas Jefferson: “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs.” Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf (Liveright).  Gordon-Reed is a Pulitzer Prize winner and Onuf is called the country’s leading Jefferson scholar. The reviewer is Roger Bishop.

“Jefferson came to view the family as the microcosm of the nation.”

That line sets up what follows. I quote Mr. Bishop:

“A particular highlight of the book is a discussion of the critical importance of the years during his diplomatic service in France, when his slaves, James and Sally Hemmings, lived with him. When he returned home, Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery changed. He continued to see it as evil, but not as the main degrading foundations of his country’s way of life. At the same time, Jefferson insisted publically that patriotism began at home. The bonds that sustained family life, he thought, were the only stable and enduring foundation for republican self-government.”

I have read that a few dozen times to make sure it really says what I think it says and how Sally Hemmings—the mother of some of Jefferson’s children—factors into his view of the family. (DNA tests were used a couple of years ago to prove Jefferson’s paternity.) Roger Bishop says, “No one contributed more to the formation of the country or had more sustained influence.” Jefferson should know, then, how to keep the American Experiment on track.

Help me out, here. Am I reading correctly that the family is the most important structural beam of the Republic? If that is so, then which of the presidential candidates is going to help the family? What are three or four essentials that family provides?

There is a chapter in Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers” that stimulates me to do something. Speaking of geniuses “from the lowest social and economic class,”

“What did they lack? Not something expensive or impossible to find; not something encoded in DNA or hardwired into the circuits of their brains. They lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.” (Page 112 Little Brown, 2008)


If Jefferson, one of the masterminds of the Constitution, says “This is the only way this thing is going to work,” what do we do in response?

A PBS program on Saturday featured music in the 1930’s and 1940’s. One of the featured singers was Billy Holiday. Ms. Holiday had an extremely narrow vocal range and yet she captured the world with her singing. Her father was absent from her life which, the narrator said, drove her to seek out predatory men her entire life. She was working as a prostitute at age 12. As you know, she died at age 44 from damage to her body from drugs and alcohol.

Ms. Holiday captured her times with a capacity to communicate. She said, “It’s been said that no one can sing the words ‘hunger’ or ‘love’ like me.” She said of herself, “I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t belong to no one.”


If I am correctly interpreting Jefferson, and if he is right, then what should be our plan of action for families? A news commentator said last week that “community” is lacking in America. I’ve been hearing that for 40 years. Reading Mansfield’s “The Miracle of the Kurds,” I agree that some of those families have the concept of family working. That news commentator suggested that a new influx of immigrants might teach us something about community/family. I want to listen to that reasoning, but it really makes me nervous.

The bigger barrier and complex issue is what will you change about your family that will help it fit into Jefferson’s model? I’m not sure that his parents fit the model and his chosen family shape isn’t exactly what I think of as family. Given the age of your children and grandchildren, what changes can you insist on? It gets complex, doesn’t it?

Community is not necessarily made of blood relatives. The Book of Acts becomes a model of the Kingdom at work in families, homes and workplaces. A revival like Azusa Street in 1906 that probably was reignited recently which spoke to racism. Establishment of Kingdom outposts with a bold font listing of core values which Malcom Gladwell speaks of in “Outliers.”  Companies who catch a vision that gripped Guinness, Cadbury and Lever Brothers two centuries ago.

How do you keep from listening to and reading the news without concluding, “We are screwed!”

Southwood—the community you’ve always longed for.

My “Upset Meter” is banging on max. So, I’ll go help my wife clean her portion of the garage. I wonder what Thomas Jefferson would think of my family.  I wonder what Jesus thinks.

©2016  D. Dean Benton—writer & wonderer



Twitter:       @DeanBenton





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