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Revisiting Thomas Jefferson with Joseph J. Ellis at the National Book Festival

One day when I was six years old, my mother said to me, “No, Pat, you can’t sit there!”

It was my first visit to Thomas Jefferson’s house, Monticello, regarded by many as a “national treasure.” In my defense, I was tired. We just moved to Charlottesville after enduring the ravages of the 6.8 Northridge quake. That 18th century chair looked very comfortable, but I’m glad I listened to my mother. Getting banned from Monticello would not have been an auspicious start.

 

Rotunda Lawn and Interior
Rotunda Lawn and Interior

“I Cannot Live Without Books”

Jefferson, our third U.S. President and the author of the Declaration of Independence, comprised a sizeable chunk of the school curriculum in Charlottesville. I imagine it hasn’t changed much from several class trips to Monticello, reading biographies, and meeting a Jefferson impersonator. Living here for most of my life acquainted me with the University of Virginia as well. I walked all over Grounds during visits to my brother (Commerce ’97). I blended in with the medical students one summer at the Claude Moore Library. (My mother’s lab coat helped.) By eighteen, I thought I was ready to leave the land of Jefferson for college. However, Mr. Jefferson’s beloved University gave me a scholarship to cover my tuition for all four years, answering the understandable worries of a minority student about loans and debt.

Skipping forward ten years, one finds that I cannot shake off Mr. Jefferson. I work in administrative support at UVa, but as a hobby, I teach myself new skills like film editing. I practice shooting footage and interviews at events, including the recent National Book Festival in Washington, DC. This year marks the 200th anniversary of when Jefferson sold his books to the Library of Congress for $23,950. Thus it’s fitting to set his words, “I cannot live without books,” as the theme of the Festival, where nearly 150 authors converge every year.

Covering the National Book Festival seemed like a daunting task. Of the seven authors on my wish list for interviews, I was most excited about the chance to speak with Cokie Roberts (NPR), Sonia Manzano (Maria on Sesame Street), and Joseph J. Ellis. I say “chance” because a press pass does not guarantee an interview.

 

“How Would You Like to Interview a Pulitzer Prize Winner?”

Professor Ellis is the author of Founding Brothers, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2001. He wrote American Sphinx, which offers an in-depth look at Thomas Jefferson. If you’re a millennial, you may have read excerpts from both books in an AP course or at UVa. Getting to interview him at the Festival was a wonderful experience, an opportunity for which I’m grateful.

Ellis was promoting his latest book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. The period he focuses on usually gets a cursory glance in class. However, it is an essential transitional phase from a confederation to a national government: an effort guided (or “orchestrated”) by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. In the book, he calls it “the most creative and consequential act of political history in American history.”

 

He addresses those issues in my interview, shedding light on other players. Readers will enjoy stories about Robert Morris, a supposed “robber baron.” We also discuss Thomas Jefferson and what I referred to as “Founding Father worship.” I don’t believe in the removal of Jefferson’s images or monuments, an idea that some media figures suggested. It is good news that other historians are researching injustices in history like slavery and resettlements from westward expansion. But Ellis is right when he says that the Founders need to stay in today’s discourse.

Often I walk through Central Grounds, which takes me by the Rotunda, the Lawn, and the libraries. It’s impossible to go that route without seeing Mr. Jefferson’s name or likeness. I hope that overall, you still have positive feelings about Jefferson. He made mistakes, but thanks to him, you and I have the tools and knowledge from our time at the University to make a difference in the world.

 

Post by Pat Cuadros (CLAS ’10) Feel free to connect with Pat on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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