Posted in Reference Questions, TJ Encyclopedia Entries, tagged Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Freemasons, ice cream, inventions, macaroni and cheese, marijuana, Qur'an, religion, vanilla on January 23, 2010|
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Everybody loves countdowns, right? Right. So, I’ve come up with my own list of things people get wrong about Jefferson, based on my extensive observation of the stuff people put on the Internet or ask us about. Here goes:
- Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution. That would be the Declaration of Independence. For Pete’s sake, they don’t even rhyme or anything, people!
- Thomas Jefferson invented coathangers/triple-sashed windows/skylights/polygraphs/dirt. Well, this is somewhat debatable, depending on what your definition of an “invention” is, but the party line now is that Jefferson invented only the moldboard plow and not any of those other things.
- Thomas Jefferson said [x]. TJ said lots of things, but strangely enough, not most of the things people think he said.
- Thomas Jefferson was a Democrat/Republican/liberal/conservative. Yeah, you wish, Democrats/Republicans/liberals/conservatives! For one thing, the names of the parties have changed (that one really gets the ignoramuses out there). For another, it’s practically impossible to put a modern political label on TJ, because, well, he’s not a modern politician.
- Thomas Jefferson grew marijuana. He did grow hemp, but as I understand it, the type of industrial hemp grown to make rope and cloth and so forth contains only minimal amounts of the compound that makes so many people so happy. Nice try, potheads!
- Thomas Jefferson was an atheist/Deist/not a Christian. Some say that TJ cannot be called a Christian because he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. On the other hand, TJ called himself a Christian, so I’m just going to take him at his word.
- Thomas Jefferson was my ancestor/relative. Well, that could be, actually. Statistically speaking, however, most people would be wrong about this.
- Jefferson was the first to bring vanilla/macaroni & cheese/ice cream to the United States. Jefferson was most likely not the first person to bring any of these foods to America, although his name probably has become attached to them because these were foods he served at dinners during his Presidency, which tended to be highly remarked-upon. So perhaps one could say that although he didn’t introduce them, he may have played a large part in popularizing them.
- Jefferson was a Freemason. Negatory.
- Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an so he could study his enemies and fight the Muslims. Some people clearly wish this was true, but sadly: no.
So there you go. I apologize if your favorite Jefferson misconception didn’t make it onto the list, but you can always post it in the comments. I love misconceptions, as long as they’re not mine!
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Since I set up my Google Alert, which allows me to track when new mentions of “Thomas Jefferson” appear on the Internet, I’ve been amazed to see that there is almost always a tiny little wave of rhetorical consultations of TJ in reaction to each big news story. In essence, every time something big happens, people start asking themselves and others, “What would Thomas Jefferson do/say/think about this?” and quoting his writings on the topic and talking about how he dealt with similar problems. TJ apparently had lots to say about the recent bank crisis; he had the solution to the Somali pirate issue (“just send Stephen Decatur after them!”); and there’s been all sorts of invoking of Himself’s name in response to President Obama’s mention of Jefferson owning a copy of the Qur’an.
I am astonished, however, to find people out there in the Internet World claiming that the “real reason” Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an was so he could “study his enemy.” Now, I’m no Jefferson-and-his-Qur’an expert, but, as my sister used to say, “I fail to see the logic underlying that conclusion.”
This topic was of course very hot when Congressman Keith Ellison had himself sworn into office using Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an in 2006. At the time there was all sorts of news reportage – really, all the kerfuffle seemed positively prurient – and a flurry of questions sent to us about it. We really we didn’t have much to say about it except what was in the Sowerby Catalogue. So I decided it was time to have another look at this, and spent a merry 30 minutes discussing this with my colleague Endrina, who has been working on the Jefferson’s Libraries project ever since I’ve known her. Anyway, here’s what we know – and do not know – about Jefferson’s Qur’an:
- Jefferson’s purchase of a copy of George Sale’s Alcoran is recorded in the daybooks of the Virginia Gazette on October 5, 1765, for 1 pound, 6 shillings.
- Jefferson was studying law at this time under George Wythe in Williamsburg.
- It is possible that this very book survived the 1770 fire at Jefferson’s family estate of Shadwell and is the selfsame book now at the Library of Congress, and used by Keith Ellison. By Jefferson’s own admission, very few of his books survived the 1770 fire. It is also possible that the book Jefferson purchased in 1765 was destroyed five years later and he later purchased another identical copy of the Qur’an; we haven’t found any record of such a purchase, however, so we really can’t say for certain.
- We do not know for certain why he purchased it. No clear evidence has yet to be revealed on this subject. There are no known letters where Jefferson explicitly discusses his purchase of a Qur’an. His main instructor, George Wythe, is not known to have had a copy; the presence of a Qur’an in Wythe’s library might suggest that Wythe considered it an important text for study and may have suggested or required that Jefferson read it as well.
The only substantial scholarly treatment of this specific topic that I’m aware of is Kevin Hayes’ 2004 article in Early American Literature, “How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur’an.” Hayes suggests that Jefferson’s primary motivation in purchasing the Qur’an was his interest in it as a legal text. This seems highly plausible to me. What does not seem plausible is that, 21 years before he encountered a representative of an Islamic country in a professional capacity, he 1) decided that he considered Muslims his “enemy” and 2) conceived of a need to study their main religious text so as to be better equipped for conflict with them.
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