Jefferson revisited in fact and in fiction is a puzzling man

July 31, 1994|By Roger Bloom | Roger Bloom,Orange County Register

Used to be, a president had to do something pretty egregious to taint his legacy.

The pervasive corruption of the Grant and Harding administrations, the wide-ranging criminality of the Nixon White House -- these were truly malfeasance on a grand scale.

Used to be, a leader's peccadilloes, although always the subject of rumors and often lampooned in the opposition press, generally were considered far less important than his performance and policies in office.

Bill Clinton -- saddled with the Whitewater investigation and the Paula Jones lawsuit -- may understandably pine for the good old days.

But the New Inquisition -- in which innuendo is tantamount to guilt, there's always something wicked going on behind the scenes, and private behavior is more important than public policy -- is not just after contemporary leaders.

So the legacies of John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower have been tarnished to varying degrees by their sex lives. Lincoln is now both the author of the Gettysburg Address and a depressive personality.

It's not surprising, then, that Thomas Jefferson should get his turn in the pillory. He suffered through intense and vitriolic

personal attacks even during his lifetime.

As with Mr. Clinton, his modern-day disciple, Jefferson had military credentials that were considered highly suspect: He fled ignominiously from a British advance while Virginia's governor during the Revolution.

His sex life, too, became a cause celebre among his political enemies. To this day there is the popular belief that he frequented the slave quarters of his Monticello estate after dark.

This brings us to "The Jefferson Conspiracies: A President's Role in the Assassination of Meriwether Lewis" by David Leon Chandler.

Now, Meriwether Lewis -- scion of a prominent Virginia family, personal secretary to President Thomas Jefferson, explorer (Lewis and Clark) and governor of the wild and recently purchased Louisiana Territory -- had an interesting life.

Unfortunately, he also had an interesting death: shot in murky circumstances at a remote Tennessee inn while journeying to Washington to defend himself against charges of abuse of funds and possibly treason.

Was it suicide, as first reported, or murder? If murder, at whose hand and for what reason? These are the questions at the heart of Mr. Chandler's alarmingly titled book.

Obviously, Mr. Chandler doesn't believe it was suicide. He believes Lewis was killed by agents of Gen. James Wilkinson, commander of the U.S. Army and Lewis' predecessor as governor of Louisiana.

When Lewis died, Wilkinson was frantically fighting off scandals on several fronts. The general, Mr. Chandler's reasoning goes, feared that Lewis had incriminating information about Wilkinson's shady dealings as governor.

But what does Jefferson have to do with all this? Well, it seems that Wilkinson had done several major favors for Jefferson, such as testifying against Aaron Burr at Burr's treason trial, and that Jefferson had defended the general against charges of incompetence and treason (which, by the way, were well-founded).

So when then-former President Jefferson publicly accepted Lewis' death as a suicide, he effectively squelched an investigation that could have proved to be an embarrassment.

Mr. Chandler provides some evidence, but not a lot, for the murder thesis. He discounts the few surviving eyewitness accounts as duplicitous, inconsistent and probably written by accessories to murder, but then reads between their lines to buttress his theory.

He repeatedly cites the "local oral tradition" of Tennessee, a source dubious enough to be discounted altogether if there were any surviving hard evidence. (Imagine a historian in 200 years trying to reconstruct the Kennedy assassination based solely on "oral tradition.")

As for Jefferson's title "role" in the assassination, there is no evidence presented whatsoever.

Lewis' servant, John Pernier, visits Monticello after the killing. No reports of conversations between him and Jefferson survive. But the servant "must" have told Jefferson that Lewis was killed, not a suicide. Since Jefferson publicly accepted the suicide explanation, he "must" have been engaged in a cover-up. It is simply innuendo.

It is equally possible that Pernier reported a suicide to cover up his own role in the death, and Jefferson took that at face value. Nobody knows.

Which is not to say that Mr. Chandler's thesis about Wilkinson's hand in Lewis' death is necessarily wrong. It's an interesting possibility, and just as it cannot be proved nearly 200 years after the fact, neither can it be disproved. But his attempt to drag Jefferson into it and the book's misleading title taint his effort more than they do the memory of the third president.

Max Byrd, in "Jefferson: A Novel" takes a much more readable and somewhat more charitable look at Jefferson, focusing on a different period of his life: his tenure as a trade commissioner and later ambassador in Paris, 1784-'89.

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