Much has been made by historians of Thomas Jefferson as a political sphinx. The letters below, from a correspondence between him and Cornelius Shank during 1820, give strong evidence of his real feelings.
Publicly, according to his published writings, Jefferson could be quite contradictory in his political positions. For example, in the Declaration of Independence he wrote:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, governments are instituted…"
He desired the unfettered pursuit of Liberty and Happiness, knowing that it would walk all over his desire for equality among men, for ambitious men will naturally use other men to their advantage and seek privileges. He desired for all men to be equal, knowing that it would hamstring some men's aspirations for Liberty and Happiness, for this would require taking away privileges (some earned) and relieving disadvantages (some deserved), as men naturally don’t play fairly. He unleashed his two mad desires in the same sentence!
Each position competed with the other. One championed the need to be free, but this need couldn't break ranks with all other men, while the other championed the need to be treated equal, but this need couldn't insist individuals conform. He feared the tentacles of government and simultaneously feared the voice of the People.
These are copies of letters exchanged between him and future congressman Shank. He was semi-retired from public life and focused on his University of Virginia. It seems he relied on a vague idea of dancing to find a balance where both political positions could be managed.
June 20, 1820
Dear Mr. X-President:
Mr. Jefferson, I have an important matter to bring to your attention. My name is Cornelius Shank and I am campaigning for congressman representing Virginia, here in the Charlottesville district. You may have heard about my famous salt pork. I started to ship out product in oak casks. It keeps the meat well if salted just right (an old family recipe) and people buy it all over the state. I've created quite a few jobs of overseers to watch the slaves and have become prosperous as a prudent businessman. I want to become a congressman and hope that you’ll support me. I'm campaigning by giving away a free ham to whoever will vote for me. This is working well but I thought if you weren't busy you could also come down to Charlottesville and say a speech for me.
July 15, 1820
Dear Mr. Shank:
You sound like a rough and uneven man. The only question that has any importance in governing is: can you do the Minuet? Of course you can't! You are a greasy smudge of a tar-heel. You probably can't even do the Cotillion. How do you expect to get along at the parties in Washington? The Minuet is imperative. What if the ambassador from France gives a ball? What are you going to do?
Listen, porridge head, you need cultivation to govern. The art of politics requires an educated mind. I suggest that you enroll at the College of William & Mary and study philosophy for four years, then apprentice under a legislator of good reputation. At this point you may finally be ready to study under the talent of a great dance master to teach you the Minuet.
Otherwise, you cannot meet the challenges of governing. But you, Sir, I can sense will never rise above the station of a merchant. Your main concern is making deals to fatten your own, and probably your friends, accounts. Stick with pig salting. I appreciate the cask of ham. Do you cure bacon also?
August 1, 1820
Dear Mr. X- President:
I am puzzled a good deal by your advice. What these people in these parts would like is someone just like them, who understands them in Washington, not no uppity gentleman. What they teach in those high falutin’ colleges is of no use in the real world of commerce, which should be the business of America. And they prefer country dancin’. So what do you think if I run on the platform of free rum for everyone? The federal government should give them as much as they want, period. That would make them happy and you’re the one who advised people to pursue happiness.
Also, I want to know how you became a Democratic-Republican. Are you signed up for both parties? And your buddy, Mr. Madison, had me thrown out of his office and kept talking about virtue, civic virtue to be exact and that congressmen need that. Has he no common sense?
September 15, 1820
Thank you for the wagon load of bacon. But you must understand that I cannot be bribed.
Madison is right, of course. Representative government will not work without virtuous men leading it. And—let this sink in because I am not repeating it, ironhead—virtue cannot be achieved without the Minuet! The great courts of Europe, especially that of France, rely on it to tell them who ranks where in the order of the universe. Only worthy gentlemen can perform the Minuet properly and with panache. You are uncivilized if you can't do it, and do not deserve to hold any high office. All of the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution were excellent at dancing the Minuet. Even tall, lanky Washington had excellent form on the dance floor. And Hamilton, such controlled swagger and he made it look so easy!
Democrat, Republican, surely I can be both as long as I govern from above the common fray in virtue; virtue the common folk admire. It inspires them. And what better way to display one's ability than on the ballroom floor, surrounded by other virtuous men and women.
You must rise to that rare condition of virtue. Then the People will sense this in you and support you with all their heart, as you will become their natural leader, without which men go astray. I suggest first that you take a bath, and use soap. Once clean, you may read the Greeks first, then the Romans, particularly Marcus Aurelius. You will need adequate training in Greek and Latin languages. Now you will need the finest tailor, French trained. And a powdered wig of the best quality. A magnificent carriage is tantamount, as are driver and personal valet. You will need instruction in proper manners. Only then can you incline toward the Minuet.
If the People drink too much rum, they will forget their station in the order of things. You need your head examined.
November 20, 1820
Dear Mr. Jefferson:
I'm not so sure I agree with you in your last letter about them Greeks. I don't think they went to church and people around these parts love goin’ to church. But that's all water under the bridge now that I am your congressman. I'm introducing that Bill I mentioned a while back for free rum for the people. It would have a better chance ifin you was to help with the writin’. You sure do know how to put words together real pretty and I would be honored ifin you was to help me whittle out a Bill to this effect.
I tell you what. I'll support this effort to widen the highway from Richmond to Charlottesville if you help me. Think about it.
January 5, 1821
Have you not listened to anything I have said in my letters? Sure, you got elected but that does not mean the People are going to admire you or remember you after you are dead. The promise of rum got you elected, and it is shameful. Quite despicable and downright lowly. Nothing about it is virtuous. Why could you not have offered a good Bordeaux? A Burgundy or Cabernet would have been just as nice. Rum is so, so heathen. Haven't you learned anything from my past letters? You cannot go wrong with anything French and their wines are heavenly.
I'm going to keep your wagon of rum, but that does not change my opinion of you. There’s much use for it around the homestead here. I think your proposal to widen the highway from Richmond to Charlottesville is a boondoggle for you, you cheat. The highway would lead to better access for your wagon shipments of salted pork down to Richmond and ultimately on ships bound for the north as your enterprise here in Charlottesville has greatly expanded, mysteriously, since your election as congressman. I’ll not help you. Have you attended any balls in DC? This paper you are writing on smells of onions.
January 20, 1820
Dear Mr. Jefferson:
Finally we are coming to an understanding. A wagon load of Bordeaux should arrive with this letter. Virtue or not, you got to understand that this country ain’t sittin’ still and we all don't want to be farmers like you seem to think of us. The point is we need highways to travel out west where there’s great opportunity in real estate. They got to come there somehow and why not through Charlottesville? It would be good for business here. But people don't want to pay for highways. They want free rum. We promised them free rum but the other congressmen here won't vote for it. Go figger. How are we going to get the highway widened without free rum? We need your help to get it passed. Otherwise the People will never accept a tax to pay for it.
You're out of touch with that Minuet thing. Square dancin’ is catchin’ on. But what have I got to lose? I'll hire a teacher.
February 15, 1821
You are joking, right? Square dancing! How abominable. How are the lessons going? Did you learn to plie'? Oh, there is not a thing as elegant and satisfying as stepping in tune with a great Minuet! The violins inspire your step with ability to float over the floor. To wheel your partner so delicately—it is the poise that sets you apart. The perfect balance in a world of tumult.
I hear that you and your friends are buying up land adjacent to the proposed highway in Charlottesville, you blackguard blackbeard blacksoot. That is not civic virtue and you should be reprimanded by your colleagues and ashamed of how you have manipulated the voters of Virginia.
I do not know how scoundrels like you have gotten to crawl all over Washington without being able to dance the Minuet. It is atrocious. The People, the people need style and grace and virtue to look up to, or else what have they to look up to? They’ll descend into the depths of commonality and rum, and Representative government will be no more than the jig. You may tell the newspapers that I support Bordeaux, but never rum. And that I also support the highway project as long as you build an access road to my University of Virginia, where virtue will surely be taught. This is the only way of ennobling your handiwork, you spittoon of a man.