Thomas Jefferson – My Distant Relative

My Father a few years back was researching our family history and had decided to share something interesting with me. I had known that my father’s European ancestors had come from Wales in the 18th century. They had then gone west to Tennessee to finally settle in Texas early in the 19th century when Texas was but a wild and rugged Mexican frontier. Our ancestors had been in Texas since the 1830’s. It was in 1835 my distant Stokely ancestor became part of the heroic group that escorted Santa Anna and his army back across the Rio Grande after the Battle of San Jacinto which got Texas it’s independence from Mexico.

Thomas Jefferson

On a genealogy trip with my father to Austin, Texas in 2013 we had tried to find the answers to the last mysteries of that part of our family history. Thomas Stokely, the ancestor in question, had returned from that war and died suddenly in 1836. Its during that trip my Dad told me he had discovered that we were related to Thomas Jefferson, our family sharing Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather, Thomas Jefferson (1677-1731), in some distant time in the 17th century.

Since learning that interesting piece of history, I’ve admired the fact we are related to Thomas Jefferson. Of all the American patriots he is my favorite.

He wasn’t a perfect man, flawed somewhat in his views, but a very liberal and an organic thinker, the opposite of Hamilton who was a powerful capitalist and Federalist supporter of a more centralized government. Jefferson, like myself, believed in the Common Man; of the inherit freedoms all Men possessed; of religion and free speech and the right to live life based on one’s own good will. He fought the arrogance of those men who fought for strong institutions then forming in the United States and the powerful forces starting to empower the presidency with new rights and privileges.

Jefferson was very different than his more rigid Constitutional peers. He has always represented to me freedom and yet strong government tempered with the natural respect for the goodness of men to independently decide their fate, yet men driven by their faith and goodness and belief in Mankind. We know today this hasn’t worked out so well in the destinies of so many corrupt and greedy Modern men of our age. That’s of course my subjective view. But centuries ago Thomas Jefferson seemed to grasp the political importance of his moment in history as well as the more spiritual and abstract ideas about the future America that would be.

I love the story of Thomas Jefferson and the contradictions of the man. His life is so bizarre….heroic yet deeply flawed and very Human, more like the poor of modern, more humble people today than any other group in history. Yet he wrote such beautiful stirring letters and elevated everything he touched with his wisdom and humility. I think we should see in him something great in ourselves and strive to be more like Jefferson. I know I do.

I saw Monticello years ago with my aunt. I saw his magnificent house which he designed and the trailing plantation that sits atop this stirring hill overlooking the green Virginia countryside. Part of my inspiration for the Garden Abrea in my Phantammeron book is from my memory of that overlook.

I had been reading the adventures of Louis and Clarke, the explorers that went into the interior of America to explore the Pacific Coast after the Louisiana Purchase. Thomas Jefferson had enlisted these brave men in 1804 to explore parts of the New America he had helped purchase. To see hanging on Jefferson’s wall the bear skins and Indian relics brought back as described in Clark’s journals was amazing! It was like the mythology of history and that fairy tale of exploration turned suddenly real for me.

As crazy as politics are in Texas and as destructive as they have become in this radically divided country of ours pre-election in 2020 we have to realize for Jefferson all he accomplished was but a small blip in time. History, like my grandfather once told me, is moved by the Hand of God towards some future only He knows. And it’s that view and love of words and ideas I felt with Jefferson; I felt in our shared DNA.

He believed in destiny but also freewill – meaning one could have freedom but one also could be part of a bigger fate we could never quite control. Jefferson in that sense was a very moderate Democrat like myself and I feel akin to everything I felt in his own views of the world. I think we all forget we are part of a larger Fabric of Time we cannot fully judge. But we can look at the heroic life of Jefferson and see that like him we are better than who we are perceived to be. We can be heroes in our own time if we choose goodness and fight again ignorance. We can strive to represent character in ourselves despite the fallen views of the society we are a part of.

And that’s what Thomas Jefferson, my distant cousin, is to me. We don’t always practice what we believe in our real lives. That much is true of everyone. That just makes us Human like him. Jefferson shows us we can be more and yet fail to be more as long as we leave behind one heroic good event that makes this country or our family or our culture better despite ourselves.

As much as I dislike so many US Presidents after Jefferson in history, I still think Jefferson showed us that flawed but humble men may rise to some greatness we don’t yet see or understand in history if we but try. That is not giving Evil Men the benefit of the doubt. It is simply saying the histories and the fleeting landmarks of what great Men create in Time are not based on their “selfish lives” but on the few heroic acts or words they strive to achieve or represent despite the public’s darker views and their own darkness.

And that is what Thomas Jefferson believed could be found in all simple men, good and bad, if they but looked hard enough. He saw that America brings the best and worst of us to bear in the world despite our power and riches and morality (or lack thereof).

It is not for us to judge men or presidents or leaders today in that regards, but only the fleeting monuments and deeds they leave behind despite themselves. Often most don’t see much of their own Truth till years later. It’s why I love history! I doubt we are fit living in this deeply flawed age to see yet what good or bad will become of leaders today or their real legacies.

But if history is any guide bizarre unseen things often hide behind what we think is true. If we are so troubled and flawed then can we ever truly judge anyone’s character like many judge Jefferson’s life and decisions filled with so much contradiction?

Jefferson himself in his letters admitted he too didn’t know if submitting or falling to the sword was the right decision when he and his fellow countrymen split with Mother England. He too doubted his own decisions as many do today. This is truly what makes him so great in my eyes. He was surely condemned by his peers in many circles for such things, while he doubted himself. And yet he made the right decisions!

That’s why I love history and the irony of it all. It says something about America and our people that’s still hidden and little understood…..that unlike any other country we are complex, multi-dimensional. Jefferson was certainly all those things. I’m proud to have a piece of Thomas Jefferson’s DNA in me, even if it’s so small it’s non-consequential, as some geneticists might say. I still feel the pull and grip of radical ideas and stirring words rolling in my head as I get older, a thing that maybe we share. Who knows…

What makes his story great is he shows us we must be loved, not for our greatness or great works, but for our talent at seeing our worst flaws, and yet having the courage to love and embrace them while striving to be better, defying our evil nature. The life of Thomas Jefferson teaches us we must accept the darkness and greatness our ancestor might have left us, always seeking with hope a better America in the future.

– the Author

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