A Conversation with the Author
We know you’ve been a Jefferson fanatic your whole life—can you remember the first moment you realized your fascination with the Founding Father?
There’s a photo of me standing by the fishpond at Monticello in my corduroys when I was about six. My interest in him comes from around that time, or at a visit to Colonial Williamsburg around the same age. When I was young, I used to devour books about our early history, and Jefferson—our brainy, can-do Founder—always stood above the rest.
This project is such a massive undertaking—the writing, the travel, the research—it’s been years in the making. How did you keep everything straight when finally putting the book together?
The lawyer’s curse: we have a high threshold for painstaking research and a mania for organization. Liana can begrudgingly attest that an entire room of our house, what we call the Jefferson Room, is full of wooden cabinets stuffed with folders of notes and documents and bookcases stocked with volumes on you-know-who. Now that I’m done, much of this space will likely be reclaimed by the powers that be. I only can hope the Jefferson bobblehead who presides over the room will escape deportation to the basement. I’ve spent a lot of quality time in our Jefferson Room, especially when it came time to prepare the endnotes. The writing of the book went down nicely with a smooth glass of wine; preparing the seemingly endless endnotes required whiskey, straight up. Actually, enough talk about the endnotes; it’s too soon.
What’s the most absurd fact or anecdote you uncovered in your research that didn’t make it into the book?
There are so many. My favorite is the scholarly treatise I came across about Jefferson’s latrines. (It was actually a good read, perfect for leafing through when . . . oh, never mind.)
You mention in the book that your family were all supportive of the project, but how did they initially take the idea?
Liana was 100 percent on board from the beginning and remained so throughout. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive partner; she made many sacrifices to give me the time to work on this. The kids were very young at the start but rolled with it. They loved every trip we went on. Luckily for them, it wasn’t all Jefferson; I built in some side trips to various kid-friendly places that I didn’t include in the book. Also, we stopped off for a few days in Iceland when we flew Iceland Air on one trip and did the same in Turkey, flying on Turkish Airlines—those countries amazed us all. If only Jefferson had visited either place, we might have stayed longer.
Having to cloister myself away to do the writing was tough on all of us, but it helped that we have such a strong family support network, with Liana’s parents living with us and mine just a few miles away.
How about any trips or experiences that didn’t make it into the book?
Thanks to the Google alert I had for “Thomas Jefferson,” in 2014 I learned of an unusual-sounding play featuring a rapping Jefferson that was going to open off Broadway in a few months and purchased a pair of tickets that very minute. After I told Liana about my impulse buy, however, I began to get cold feet, fretting about the expense. “Do you think I could go on StubHub and get our money back?” I asked her. “Would anyone else pay $90 for a ticket to go see—what’s it called—Hamilton?”
Thankfully, sanity (that is to say, Liana) prevailed.
Do you find that you’re able to apply what you’ve learned from your travels to normal life? If so, in what ways?
Discovering so much about the Objects of Attention was fun. I knew hardly anything about most of these subjects before I started, and it felt like going back to college again. Which might have been the point. Now it feels good to walk around with a newfound appreciation for things I used to ignore.
I’m no expert, but I now see architecture and landscape gardens in a different way. Neither one meant anything to me before; now I notice buildings and gardens and want to try and understand them. And I think my adventures with the bottle came through loud and clear. Wine-tasting seemed incredibly snobbish and esoteric to me before; now I appreciate the work that goes into producing wine and the connection it can give you to a time and place.
The greatest thing I learned from Jefferson was to read voraciously and then get out there and explore. Take your time to study what’s around you, and when you can, reflect on your journey. Even now as I embark on my post-Hints life, I don’t plan to forget that lesson.
Can you talk a little bit about the conflict most people feel toward Jefferson as a slave owner and a Founding Father? Do you think we should apply contemporary ethics to historical figures?
For centuries, Americans have placed Jefferson at the center of our national Founding myth. But many of us rationalized and minimized the gap between his words “all men are created equal” and his legacy of slaveholding. It’s true that he was far from the only slaveholder. But most of us expected more from him; he was so forward-thinking. He wrote that the institution was “evil”—so it seems vastly disappointing (or worse) to many that he persisted as a slaveholder.
Some would say that criticizing Jefferson for his failing is “presentism,” holding him up to current sensibilities, not those of the eighteenth century. Yet I included the example of George Washington and Edward Coles, two Virginians who did free their slaves. And I referenced the work of people who did keep pushing for abolition, or taking some action, even on a small scale, like William Short. In Jefferson’s time, some Southern landowners who shared his Enlightenment values actually acted on them.
I will say that writing the chapters on slavery was by far the most painful part of this journey. It’s sickening to read about that time in American history and remember how millions of our countrymen suffered. And discovering all the things Jefferson did, or did not do, as a slave owner felt like receiving one gut punch after another.
I’m glad that researchers at Monticello have uncovered the histories of some enslaved people and we can now all learn about how they lived—not only recognizing the importance of the power their master held over them but also considering the value of their lives in their own right, apart from their effect on his.
Jefferson is obviously an influential figure in your life, but what other authors—or books—have helped you along the way?
Reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek first made me want to write. I went on to draw inspiration from other writers who blend history, travel, and humor, like Bill Bryson, the late Tony Horwitz, Sarah Vowell, and my patron saint, the English author Tim Moore. Also Michael Pollan, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mark Kurlansky, and many others. Not the least of whom is John McPhee, the Joe DiMaggio of creative nonfiction. Although his writing looks effortless, he’s confessed that he labors over every word—a tremendous example for a rookie writer. And of course I owe a tremendous debt to the many scholars who have written about Jefferson’s life and times, many of whom I mention in the endnotes.
As a father, what do you hope your two children take away from this journey?
They already have taken away so much, especially a love of the world and travel. By now they’ve turned into co-planners of our journeys. I can’t wait to see where we go next.
Of all Jefferson’s teachings, which do you think is most beneficial to us today?
The theme of religious liberty wasn’t prominent in Hints itself and I only mention it a few times in the book. But Jefferson did as much as anyone to establish religious freedom in our country and he deserves much credit for that.
Most of all, I love his quote, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” That’s perhaps an odd one to highlight for a book focused on history so much. Yet there could be nothing more Jeffersonian than not just understanding the world but changing it.