Archives for Thomas Jefferson



Gossip and the Founding Fathers

In light of our recent podcast “Everybody Gossips (and That’s a Good Thing),” we heard from David Head, an assistant professor of  history at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama:

I just listened to the podcast on gossip and as it happens my class on the early American republic will be reading the following article on political gossip for next week:

Joanne B. Freeman, “Slander, Poison, Whispers, and Fame: Jefferson’s ‘Anas’ and Political Gossip in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic, 15 (1995), 25-57.

Have you heard of it? Freeman shows that not only were the founders inveterate gossips but that gossip was crucial to the formation of political parties as like-minded founders, such as Jefferson and Madison, attempted to marshal support to protect themselves and the country from their enemies, such as Hamilton.

What fun it would have been to include this in our episode! Its thesis strengthens the point made in the podcast by Nick Denton of Gawker: Read More »



Did Thomas Jefferson Really Father a Child With Sally Heming? And If Not, How Did the Story Get Born?

The podcast we’re putting out next week is called “Legacy of a Jerk.” It’s about how people’s reputations change, for better or worse, after their death. We talk at some length about Ty Cobb, widely considered to be one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived — and one of the nastiest humans. Suffice it to say that his reputation gets a second look in our episode.

With that idea in mind, I read with great interest Robert F. Turner‘s essay in the Wall Street Journal today about Thomas Jefferson having supposedly fathering a child with his slave Sally Hemings. Turner, a law professor at the University of Virginia, edited The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission. His Journal essay dismantles many of the arguments that seem to prove Jefferson’s paternity. Most interestingly, he provides a motivation for how the possibly untrue story was spread in the first place (and in this regard, there is a lot of overlap with the Ty Cobb story you’ll hear in our podcast next week). Read More »



The Price of Liberty

I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

James Curran asked:

Could you try a question that is of some import to my family… The saying ‘Price of Liberty is eternal vigilance’ is generally attributed to Thomas Jefferson. However, the original sentiment was phrased as ‘The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance’ by the Irish statesman John Philpot Curran (of whom a complete lack of evidence has never stopped my family from claiming as an ancestor).

So the question becomes, did Jefferson paraphrase Curran? Or is the modern wording the work of some nameless editor who can’t quote or attribute correctly?

Read More »