Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Dreaming of Summer Vacation(s)

“A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.” Earl Wilson
It’s only February and I’m already planning my vacations for the year. I’m from Michigan and, while I don’t have nearly enough vacation time to explore my home state as much as I’d like to–most of what I want to see is over 6 hours away– I figured I’d better check out what’s close to me here while I’m living in Pittsburgh.
Clear Creek State Park (author's photo)

Clarion River, Clear Creek State Park (author’s photo)


A co-worker turned me on to Cook Forest, so we have booked a few nights in May (before the Memorial Day crowds descend) at this scenic state park. The cabins are historic–they were built by the CCC in the 1930s–and are situated right on the Clarion River. They are also rustic (and I’m a hotel sort of girl) but I think I can handle it for a few days of hiking, peace, and quiet.


As some blog readers know, I am a big history buff. So of course I have to visit Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent estate in Virginia, especially since I’ve read about him and this place for so many years. We’re staying in historic Charlottesville, which I have heard is quite lovely.

Lake Erie, Presque Isle (author's photo)

Lake Erie, Presque Isle (author’s photo)

As a Michigander, I also have to get my Great Lakes’ fix. And this gem of sandy beaches, salt-free water, and endless vistas is my balm for homesickness (and is a mere 2 hours from downtown Pittsburgh!).

In future, I also hope to visit Mount VernonGettysburg, Old City Philadelphia, Fallingwater, and Washington D.C.

How about you? What not-to0-far destinations might you have in mind?



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The American South, a History

As an English literature major and history minor, I was introduced to the American South’s turbulent history as well as its great fiction writers (such as William Faulkner, Kate Chopin, and Flannery O’Connor). With this post, the fourth in my ongoing series of recommended historical non-fiction, I highlight five intriguing books that evoke the South’s values, rich cultural history, and distinctly unique take on things.

 Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and  Reputation in Jefferson’s America by Cynthia Kierner. In 1792 rural Virginia, a small party of young adults traveled to a plantation for an extended visit. Once there, one of the women, Nancy Randolph, suffered what appeared, at first, to be a miscarriage. The “scandal” was that Nancy was unmarried and the suspected father was her brother-in-law, Richard Randolph (her sister’s husband). Was the infant murdered? Did Nancy and Richard have an affair? Richard was charged with the crime but the stigma of the “fallen woman” status clung to Nancy for the rest of her life. The book reads like fiction but it’s a true story. The Randolph family was distantly related to Thomas Jefferson, his mother’s surname was Randolph.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz.  And now for some humor. Journalist Horwitz travels to the deep South to collect stories and views from a people still deeply entrenched with the ghosts of “the War of Northern Aggression.” Along the way he meets “super hardcore” Civil War re-enactors, a black woman selling baskets in a market stall abutting another selling Confederate flags and trinkets, and attends boisterous Klan rallies. It’s a wild ride in a whole ‘nother country.

 Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed. In this highly readable and revealing book, historian, professor, and legal scholar Gordon-Reed proceeds to cut down every argument and conclusion that has been made about Jefferson and his sexual relationship with his slave throughout its long and controversial history. She takes apart every single argument and debunks each with solid research, revealing blind acceptance in the historical study of Jefferson scholarship. This book ties in nicely with

  The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed.  The winner of numerous book awards (including the Pulitzer for history), this is a thorough and exhaustive account of the Hemings family which has achieved notoriety due to the acknowledged relationship between slave Sally Hemings and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. She brings alive a family, a woman, and a legacy amid the backdrop of the slave South. Impeccably researched and written, this book is just one of the reasons why I love history.

 A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865 by Stephen Ash. Finally, this selection is a poignant and diverse collection revealing the private diaries and lives of four southerners in a single year: a war widow, a newly-freed slave, a former Confederate soldier, and a lost young man trying to find himself in a changed country. Ash is a history professor and each personal story draws you in; it’s a wonderful snapshot in time.



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What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

A friend of mine and I recently began a two-man book club that focuses on reading books about the Founding Fathers of the United States, mostly to have a better sense of the truth about these men’s beliefs and actions, and the political history of our country.  Since I’m the library guy in the duo, I set about to find books to read for our project. It’s only just begun, but the project has already begun to bear fruit, as I’ve learned a lot from our first book, Jefferson on Jefferson, edited by Paul M. Zall.   

Jefferson’s autobiography is short and rather unrevealing. Zall fixed that with Jefferson on Jefferson by taking the bulk of Jefferson’s autobiography and adding excerpts from some of Jefferson’s other writings, as well as insightful notes throughout. Overall, the book is quite an eye-opener. For one thing, it reveals how little certain elements of our nation’s political culture have changed in the past 200 years. For instance, around 1809, Jefferson gave his college-bound grandson advice about “disputants” that reminds me of today’s fiery political scene:

“In the fevered state of our country, no good can ever result from any attempt to set one of these fiery zealots to rights either in fact or principle.  They are determined as to the facts they will believe, and the opinions on which they will act. Get by them, therefore as you would by an angry bull: it is not for a man of sense to dispute the road with such an animal” (119).

When one brings Jefferson up in conversation, someone almost inevitably asks, “but didn’t he own slaves?” Yes, it’s true, Jefferson did own slaves, but with a heavy heart. In fact, Jefferson’s slaves were inherited, and the laws of the time would not allow him to set them free.  But, he constantly fought — unsuccessfully, of course — for legislation to free all slaves, and ultimately foresaw a time in the future when slavery would be abolished: “Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing in the march of time. It will come . . .” (49).

Regarding education, as a Virginia legislator, Jefferson supported a bill to fund public schools in which “the expences [sic] of these schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, everyone in proportion to his general tax-rate” (47). Jefferson’s remarks to those who opposed funding public education were especially intriguing to me, because I think they’re equally relevant to funding public libraries: “the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobels [sic] who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance” (48).

I was also inspired by Jefferson’s strong support of religious freedom. Though a Christian himself, Jefferson was the premier advocate of the separation of church and state, and as such he was strongly opposed by the zealous “religionists” of his day, even being called Antichrist and atheist during his run for the presidency in 1800. Once again, how little things have changed.

For those interested, Jefferson on Jefferson reveals little about the Sally Hemings controversy, though Zall gives it some attention in his introduction to the book, suggesting that there’s little historical evidence to support the controversy, and that the DNA tests are inconclusive. Of course, there are always other resources you can check out to learn more about that interesting topic.



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