Daily Self-Affirmation #127: Thomas Jefferson Edition

I’ve been picking up and putting down Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson for the last few months. I wonder whether he purposefully broke the book up into short chapters for exactly that reason, as I find myself reading it for 20 mins, finishing two or three chapters, then patting myself on the back for being such an impressive reader. In this regard, it’s like a slightly higher brow Da Vinci Code! When I publish, I’m committing myself to a maximum of 4 page long chapters; nothing longer than a blog post. I'm sure it’s the key to commercial success! 

Ever so slightly more seriously, I was struck by his account of Jefferson’s experience in the months after he stepped down as Governor of Virginia in 1781. Although Jefferson had some concerns and reservations, he must have had quite an incredible sense of accomplishment to succeed Patrick Henry - the man that drew him to politics with his Homeric speeches - as Governor in 1779. But, as he found out, it was a trying time during the Revolutionary War and he made a handful of mistakes (that perhaps any Governor would have made were he in Jefferson's shoes). He stepped down after two years, at which time the Virginian legislature passed a resolution to establish an inquiry into Jefferson’s tenure as governor.

As Meacham describes this episode, Jefferson was horrified and could “think of nothing worse” than an inquiry into his actions that would put “his courage and his competence… in the dock” (p. 140). As it turned out, however, “the house inquiry was short-lived and ended up commending not condemning Jefferson,” but, nonetheless, he retained a “bitterness at the charge” which “lived on in his mind” (p. 142).

“The war was won, and to most to most appearances, Thomas Jefferson had triumphed, his cause vindicated and victorious… This was how Jefferson wanted to be seen. The reality, he felt, was rather different. He believed himself a failure. Even the American victory could not take Jefferson’s mind completely off his controversial final hours as governor… Attacks on his service, he said, “had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave”” (p. 142-3).

It’s remarkable that Jefferson is here alluding to suicide, or perhaps just - just!? - death as the only solution to the shame, embarrassment, hurt, and other feelings that he felt at receiving the possibility of disapprobation for his actions. One should remember that Jefferson was actually commended by the inquiry, not condemned, so he didn’t - well, hardly - receive any opprobrium for his actions. And, of course, this fact - this potentially minor blemish - does absolutely nothing to detract from his other great achievements up to this point, not least, the drafting of the Declaration

I suppose that there are at least three things to take from this. The first is that progress and success are not linear. Each of us will experience successes and setbacks, and it’s important not to get caught up in the short term failures at the expense of long term successes. Perhaps the important thing is the broader trend, or the gradient of the graph of your progress; as long as it’s positive, then the melancholy and despair felt by Jefferson and no doubt many many people every day is misplaced. The second thing to take from this is that, although we should look at the broader trend, perhaps humans are poorly designed to do that. We might be genetically predisposeed to be poor judges of our own failures and limitations. Similarly, there is ostentatious and obnoxious evidence that we’re terrible judges of not just our failures, but of our own success and abilities as well. *Ahem*

Perhaps the reason for this is, thirdly, most of the time we’re not fighting against some external objective standard of success. Instead, we’re fighting our own internal demons. Ostensibly one might be a great success (and in Jefferson's case be commended for our actions), but we each see inside ourselves and we see our own failures, and our own limitations, and we know that we thought the wrong thing 3, 4, 5, 6 times before we said the right answer aloud. Because of all these things we’re left unsure and subject to imposter syndrome. (For what it's worth, I think Vic Mackey's apparent absence of these feelings is why I found his character in The Shield so confounding, alarming, and impressive as much as he was sickening.)

Over all, I think Radiohead got it correct back in 1995. So many of these feelings of inadequacy, fear, and failure aren’t a product of external criticism. Instead, “you do it to yourself - you do - and that’s why it really hurts… It's you and no one else.”