POLITICS DECEMBER 13, 1993
A few months ago, Garry Wills wrote an erudite piece in the New York Review of Books called "Jefferson the Aesthete." Far from the radical populist of historical myth, Wills argues, Jefferson was an aestheticized elitist of excessive refinement, who went on reckless buying sprees in Paris and cluttered his mountaintop chateau with Houdon busts, Sèvre table sculptures and a fauteuil from Marie Antoinette's own ébéniste. To celebrate Jefferson's 250th birthday, the curators of Monticello have located and borrowed some 150 artifacts from the thousands that Jefferson's daughter auctioned off after his death. Wills contrasts the exhibition, in its gorgeous extravagance, with George Washington's house, Mount Vernon, which he says exudes a sense of moral purpose that Monticello lacks. After William Galston, the White House domestic policy adviser, attacked TNR as a temple of "aestheticized elitism" in our Correspondence section last week, a trip to Monticello seemed particularly apt, and so I rented a car and set out for Charlottesville.
Sadly, I can't report whether or not Wills is correct about the visual drama of the accumulated display. After waiting in line for more than an hour, we were herded in and out of the house so quickly that the blue-and-white Wedgwood plates blurred into the black-and-gold damask chairs; and the only title I could make out in Jefferson's reconstructed library was Hunter on the Venereal Disease. But that left plenty of time to wander the grounds, which struck me as more rarefied than any of the bric-a-brac displayed in the house. Jefferson devoted years of his life to designing a ferme ornée, an ornamental (but fully functioning) farm, with romantic grottoes, garden temples and pastoral groves. I took refuge in the tiny Georgian pavilion overlooking Jefferson's terraced fruit and vegetable gardens, which float high above the rolling Piedmont countryside. Jefferson blended the colors and textures of his flowers, trees and plants like a painter: adjacent rows of purple, white and green sprouting broccoli, for example, or white and crimson eggplant. Even in late November, there are several distinct hues of red cabbage: the burgundy jersey wakefield bleeds into the bright scarlet drumhead; and both are offset by the chocolate-cherry glow of the red clay soil. "Jefferson took notes on these gardens every day for filly years, and we maintain them exactly as he intended," said an aristocratic older woman in overalls who was tilling intently. "Well, there's one difference, of course. We're all white."
Having experienced the gardens at Monticello, I have a hard time accepting Wills's thesis that Jefferson's aesthetic principles were divorced from his political principles. For in the peach orchards and Hyacinth blossoms of the ornamental farm, Jefferson's artistic sensuousness and his didactic messianism self-consciously converge. This is no Proustian grove, aspiring to useless elegance or purposeless beauty. It is a microcosm of Jefferson's continental ambitions, a declaration of economic independence from the Old World. The only book Jefferson published in his lifetime, Notes on the State of Virginia, was a refutation of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon's thesis that the plant and animal life in North America, dwarfed by excessive humidity, were mutant, inferior copies of their European counterparts. As part of his research, Jefferson imported 300 trees, 250 vegetables and 170 fruits to Monticello, determined to prove that all natural phenomenon of the Old World could be triumphantly "fabricated at our feet." Only a dandy, Wills suggests, would ignore the constitutional ban on accepting gifts from monarchs to keep an admired engraving of Louis XVI. But in fact, Jefferson more often broke the law and twisted the Constitution in the service of his agrarian, and often fanatical, idealism. He smuggled grains of upland rice from France to South Carolina, a capital offense; and then listed this with the Declaration of Independence as his most useful service to his country. And although he thought the federal government lacked the constitutional power to buy Louisiana from France, he knowingly betrayed his strict constructionist principles, determined to secure arable land and free trade for the next generation of yeoman farmers. Gazing out at the Blue Ridge Mountains from the West portico of Monticello--and Jefferson deliberately pointed his garden porch westward--I felt uplifted by the continental vision that united the Federalists and Republicans of the founding generation: "Mexico to our left, Canada to our right and the Old World behind us!" When Ross Perot went on "Nightline" last week to compare NAFTA to the Louisiana Purchase, the analogy could not have been more precise.
William Jefferson Clinton deserves lots of credit for fulfilling his namesake's continental vision; but he seems as uninterested as Jefferson in picking judges who share a constitutional vision. (The story of Jefferson's battles with his judicial appointees, whom he called "a subtle corps of sappers and miners," appears in Leonard Levy's Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side, on sale at the Monticello bookstore.) After the rapture of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's nomination last summer, I'm inclined to cut Clinton slack on this subject. But the slow trickle of lower court appointments suggests that the president has not entirely weaned himself of the politics of symbolism. Last week, for example, he quietly nominated Judith Rogers of the D.C. Municipal Court of Appeals to fill Clarence Thomas's seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals. In announcing the appointment, the White House emphasized that Rogers would be the second African American woman to serve on a federal circuit court, and praised her longtime advocacy of D.C. home rule and fairness to children. There is something blinkered about Clinton's notion that service in the District's local court system is appropriate preparation for the second most important court in the country. Say what you will about Ronald Reagan's and George Bush's uneven judicial appointments; at least the Republicans had the foresight to use the federal circuit courts as intellectual, rather than ornamental, farm teams for the Supreme Court. And they cared enough about ideas to elevate some of the nation's most iconoclastic conservative academics: Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork to the D.C. Circuit; Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook to the Seventh Circuit; and so forth, if the former law professor from Arkansas is interested in his legal legacy, he should comb the law schools and tap the most promising liberal scholars as soon as possible. But of egghead nominations one hears nothing at all, except for Guido Calabresi of Yale, slated for the Second Circuit. This is a well-deserved appointment; but it is not enough. The judicial department is the one branch of government where a little aestheticized elitism still goes a long way.