Being Tom Jefferson

by J. Tobias Beard

C-VILLE cover story for the week of 6/19/2012. The version that appeared in print was edited down for size. Below is the longer, original version. 

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” – Thomas Jefferson

Stephen McDowell as Thomas Jefferson. Photo by John Robinson

For a few minutes before he goes on stage, assuming that there is a stage, Rob Coles sits quietly by himself and listens to the nervous static of the crowd. He’s dressed in typical 18th century clothes; breeches, a ruffled white shirt and embroidered waistcoat, a heavy greatcoat, and buckled shoes. Soon the introduction will come (it’s always the same intro, the familiar words helping get him into character) and he will walk onstage and do what he’s done for 36 of his 60 years, wearing the costume, pretending to be somebody else. The audience knows the truth, obviously, but they’re very willing to suspend their disbelief, because he looks like him and speaks like him and because they want to be entertained. The first five minutes are the most important, and he can feel it, he can feel the moment when they let go and buy into the fantasy. He is Thomas Jefferson, come from the dead, come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.

There is an oft-repeated maxim by the philosopher George Santayana that goes, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Living here you pretty much repeat the past no matter what. Charlottesville is the kind of place where the past is repeated at you, often aggressively, and since this is the 250th anniversary of its founding, the city is trying to make sure that we’re all remembering the past every single day.

Charlottesville loves festivals almost as much as it loves history, so naturally one of the biggest events during the 250th celebration was the soon-to-be-annual Virginia Festival of History, culminating June 2-3 in a Living History Weekend that saw Court Square and Lee and Jackson parks turned into educational red-light districts, with historical reenactors of all types hanging out on street corners trying desperately to sell themselves. 

Some of the historical figures were famous, some weren’t, but each day climaxed with the reenactment of a famous local battle, Tarleton’s raid, when, in 1781, British troops rode into Charlottesville with the hope of capturing the Virginia Legislature and Governor Thomas Jefferson. The raid was ultimately a failure, Jefferson got away, but watching the Colonial Militia fight the British in the red brick streets of modern Charlottesville was a lot of fun – the brightly colored uniforms, the gleeful anachronisms, the frequent and deafening firing of many cannons – what’s not to love? But none of those things were what drew me to the Living History Weekend.

I went to Court Square on Sunday morning to watch Stephen McDowell, in character as Thomas Jefferson, address a small, mostly college aged, church group in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse.

“I’ve been a member of the church my whole life,” McDowell, as Jefferson, said. He had on a nicely patterned gold coat, flowered waistcoat, and red breeches, and he gave a sermon enumerating the many ways in which Jefferson was a devout follower of Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible, foundations upon which, McDowell said, he and his fellow Founding Fathers built America.

“It is not my belief that we need to separate religious principles from daily life,” he said. “The sacred cause of liberty is the cause of God.” I glanced around as he spoke, watching as everyone but me bowed their heads in prayer. Nobody seemed remotely surprised or outraged, which I found surprising and somewhat outrageous. This was not the Jefferson I’d grown up with.

Stephen McDowell lives here in Charlottesville and has portrayed Thomas Jefferson for about 17 years now, although it’s something he only does a few times each year. With a red wig, he bears a strong resemblance to our third president, a bit shorter but with a similarly angular face and piercing glare. He’s not a historian or an actor, and his primary interest is not, as it is with most reenactors, accuracy of dress or speech. What he cares about are ideas, the ideas of the Founding Fathers, which he feels are being forgotten or misunderstood in today’s world.

“We think we’re smarter than they were,” he said when I talked to him on Sunday, sitting in the hot sun on the corner of Park and Jefferson St (named, by the way, for Thomas’ father Peter.) “We don’t feed ourselves with ideas that are important or deep and that’s why [as a country] we’ve been diminishing.”

McDowell is co-founder and president of an organization called The Providence Foundation, which describes itself as “a Christian educational organization whose mission is to train and network leaders to transform their culture for Christ, and to teach all citizens how to disciple nations.” They aim to do this primarily by spreading the word that the Founding Fathers were good devout Christians who established this country soundly on the bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ. To this end, they host seminars with titles like “America’s Christian History & Biblical Government,” and conduct Christian history tours of Monticello and Montpelier.

McDowell wishes that Americans knew more about Jefferson. “Unfortunately,” he said “most of what they know is wrong.” In particular, McDowell and a lot of like-minded people want the world to know two things: that Thomas Jefferson was not the father of Sally Hemings’ children, and that he was very much a follower of Christ.

“[Jefferson] calls himself a Christian, we’ll start with that, that’s the only one worth discussing. The previous one is just bullshit. … He did it, ok? It’s just so tiring and boring and it destroys your credibility from the outset.”

That’s Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia and author or co-author of numerous books about our third president. The mere mention of McDowell’s two points renders him near apoplectic.

“Jefferson called himself a Christian, but [he was] not a kind of Christian that any modern day, so-called evangelical would recognize as such.” He was a deist, but deists are Christians. Onuf calls Jefferson a “serious student of religion,” pointing out that at one point he referred to himself as, “a church of one.”

The popular story of how Jefferson made his own bible by removing all of the fairy tales is true. Jefferson didn’t believe in the Trinity, Onuf says, or the main tenets of orthodox Christianity, and he was “hostile to miracles.”
Taking a leap of faith, for Jefferson, would be taking a leap into what Onuf calls, “the abyss of tyranny and despotism.” And because he saw religious tyranny as indistinguishable from all other forms, he strongly advocated a separation of church and state.

Listening to McDowell made me angry, but also made me realize how tightly I hold onto my own image of Jefferson. Spend any length of time here and it’s hard not to have an opinion of the man, whose face stares at you from innumerable portraits and statues, whose name drips from the lips of practically every figure of authority, and whose words still shape and direct the basic reality of Charlottesville. The Jefferson I grew up with and admired was a deist, a strong believer in rationalism, the enlightenment, and the separation of church and state, and he enjoyed frequent sex with Sally Hemings.

Stephen McDowell was telling me other wise, and he was the official Thomas Jefferson at Charlottesville’s 250th anniversary celebration. If you can’t trust a man dressed as TJ, who can you trust?

It’s an especially odd human trait, this impulse to dress in old clothes and pretend that you’re living a long time ago, in an era far, far away, but it’s hardly a new one. The amphitheaters of ancient Rome saw many recreations of battles even more ancient. Drama, after all, began as means of communicating our origin stories, a way of answering questions like, who won the battle? Where are the snows of yesteryear? What happened when the world was born?

And as we tell ourselves who we once were, we simultaneously tell ourselves who we are now, and who we want to be.

There are many reasons why people become involved in historical reenactment, the most common being a love of history and an interest in acting. I suspect that some people – usually the guys sleeping on beds of straw, lighting fires with rocks, and sneaking beer coolers into revolutionary war camps – see it as a kind of survival challenge, while for others it’s about make-believe and escapism, the chance to leave the modern world behind and be someone else for a while.

Of course, for many of the people in Civil War garb it’s personal, a matter of national identity and family, heritage or, depending on who you ask, the legacy of hate. And then there’s someone like Bruce Eades who was part of the Vietnam War display in Lee Park. Eades is a Vietnam veteran, so when he puts on his old uniform and stands next to a day-glo VW van with fake hippies protesting the war, he’s reenacting his own history as well as America’s. Eades works with vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to ensure that what happened in his day won’t happen to them. For him, history is something we can learn from and use to change the future. For him, history is close enough that you can still smell the smoke.

Rob Cole’s reasons for impersonating Thomas Jefferson are also personal, but uniquely so, because he’s actually Jefferson’s fifth great grandson. He’s 6’ 2”, just like his famous ancestor, with red hair, now almost white, and freckles. And also like Jefferson, Coles was born in Albemarle County and, except for a very brief period in the mid 70s, Albemarle County is where he’s lived all his life.

One thing that Coles tells me he did not inherit from his famous granddad is Jefferson’s intellect. He says this many times, and maybe it’s a calculated bit of PR; making sure he’s properly deferential to the great man. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s something else, a personal sense of failure perhaps, the inevitable result of being, and at the same time not being, Thomas Jefferson.

He does 120 gigs a year, more or less, which when multiplied by 36 years equals a staggering amount of time spent wearing shoes with buckles on them and pants that don’t reach below your knees. He talks to schools, corporate groups, historical societies, lady’s clubs, garden clubs, you name it. Some groups don’t want a performance; they just want him to be there, to greet people in costume and grace the event with Mr. Jefferson’s presence.

The story of how Rob Coles became Thomas Jefferson has a classic Hollywood beginning. It was 1975 and Coles was 23. He’d gone to UVA but hadn’t distinguished himself academically, and so after school he found himself digging holes and planting trees at a nursery, with no real idea what to do next.

Ron Grow did have an idea, however. Grow worked in television and was touring Monticello looking for a way to capitalize on the upcoming bicentennial celebrations. Hey, one of the guides said, I know this guy named Rob Coles who not only looks like Thomas Jefferson, he’s actually related to him. Grow gave Coles a call and next thing Coles knew he was part of a traveling Tom Jefferson revival.

Thirty-six years later, Coles still portrays Jefferson for a living – it’s his sole means of income – and it’s taken him to 48 states as well as Italy, Poland, and France, plus gigs at the 2000 Republican National Convention and Mount Rushmore. He’s even been invited to a few weddings, usually UVA alums wanting Mr. Jefferson to bless the nuptials.

“People want figures of veneration,” Coles says. “I know when I speak to these students at the University, they’re just like, ‘Wow!’ … The students I deal with, they’re amazed by the guy. Sometimes when you deal with someone every day you sort of lose some of that.”

But except for excited UVA students, the truth is that living history – or any history really – doesn’t loom large in most people’s lives, save for memories of school field trips and occasional jokes about civil war obsessives. Most people, I suspect, find historical reenacting to be a bit silly.

I say this as someone who has himself stood in the hot sun in a tricorn hat and knee-length pants and demonstrated an archaic task to bored children. My father roped me into helping him teach 18th century hemp rope making one summer at various living history events around Virginia, and while some nominal research was done, the veracity of our display was dubious at best. Basically it was something he made up so he could go around and make hemp ropes. I suspect that this is the motivation behind a lot of historical reenactment, which is fine; people liked it, learned something, and no one got hurt.

Unlike Elvis impersonators, historical reenactors usually step softly, treating their character and the past with reverence. Because of this, living history has often seemed a bit fusty and staid. It’s rarely radical or progressive or activist. It’s a museum display, only animated. You’d be hard pressed to find Rob Cole’s performance as Jefferson controversial. Popular topics for his audiences right now are Jefferson’s ambassadorship to France, and his mentor George Wythe. The entire time I talked to him, Coles never mentioned slavery, Sally Hemings, or religion.

But it seems to me that our country’s relationship to its history has changed of late. On Memorial Day I took a trip down to Virginia’s historical theme park, Colonial Williamsburg, where I watched a George Washington impersonator read a document known as Washington’s Farewell Address, written when our first president was old and tired and finally leaving politics behind. It’s a letter of support and advice for the young country, with warnings about the dangers of political parties, foreign wars and debt, and exhortations to keep the Union and the Constitution strong.

As I listened I realized that the problems Washington addressed 200 years ago are the exact same problems we’re dealing with today, which is why so many people are calling for 200 year old solutions. Tea Party activists waving flags that read “Don’t Tread On Me,” hold dearest to their hearts a renewed belief in an original interpretation of the Constitution as a sacred and immutable object, but they can’t reduce the contemporary political discussion to a historical reenactment.

There were two other reenactors sitting next to McDowell during the living history weekend, dressed as fellow local heroes James Madison and James Monroe, but it was clearly Jefferson that people wanted to talk to. Three young women, recent UVA grads all, sat down seemingly for a lark, wanting to shoot the shit with the man who’d made their last four years possible.

After expressing his surprise that there were now women at his University, McDowell, in character as TJ, asked them what they knew about him. They responded fairly quickly, one saying that Jefferson believed in freedom of religion and the other saying that he had some “serious cognitive dissonance about owning slaves.”

The next question was so perfect I couldn’t believe it. One of the UVA grads asked what “as a deist” Jefferson thought about religion. It was a slow pitch right over the plate, and watching McDowell swing at it was fascinating.

“Well,” he said, “I wish to correct a misunderstanding. I am not a deist.” He then pointed out that Jefferson was regular churchgoer who founded a church that met in the Albemarle Courthouse right over there behind them. Nor, he said, was Jefferson a secularist. The whole separation of Church and State thing was a misunderstanding. He only meant it to work one way; government shouldn’t interfere with the practice of religion, but the teachings of Christ should absolutely be a part of the practice of government.

“I am a Christian,” he said, “in the true sense of the word.”

Behold the power of the costume: “I remember learning in school that Jefferson was a deist,” the first woman said. “It must have been a liberal interpretation.”

“Consider the source,” Jefferson advised.

An excellent idea. The source, in this case, is someone who, although he has a degree in physics and a masters in geology, is not a history scholar, and who, when asked how much research he does to play Jefferson, said he does some, but not as much as people who portray the man for a living. The source, however, happens to be dressed like Jefferson and to be speaking how we imagine someone from the 18th century would speak, all of which carries a lot of weight.

In our immediate vicinity, there are three well-known Jefferson impersonators whose credentials easily outshine McDowell’s. There’s Coles, who in addition to being related to TJ, has been playing him longer than probably anybody alive. But then there’s also Bill Barker, the man who plays Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg, and Steve Edenbo, who was a resident fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and who has studied acting at the American Historical Theater, an organization created solely to train people in the art of historical interpretation. So then why did the city go with McDowell?

Picking the reenactors for the Living History weekend was the job of the Charlottesville 250 steering committee, a group of 26 Charlottesville citizens including the mayor, Steven Meeks, the President of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, and Mary Scot-Fleming, Director of Enrichment Programs for the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. I wonder if the last two paid any attention to who played TJ, and if they did, what they thought of his performance. But the reason McDowell was picked is most likely due to the co-chair of the committee, a man named Mark Beliles.

Beliles is the co-founder with McDowell of the Providence Foundation and senior pastor at Grace Covenant Church in Charlottesville. According to various online bios, Beliles “frequently advises Christian prime-ministers, vice-presidents, congressmen, and members of parliaments on Biblical principles of government.” His dissertation, for his PhD from Whitefield Theological Seminary, an unaccredited school in Florida, was on “Churches and Politics in Jefferson’s Virginia,” and Beliles was right there with McDowell on Sunday, sitting at his side dressed as James Madison.

There were a lot of reenactors in Court Square and Lee Park that weekend, and everyone I saw, with the exception of McDowell, was excellent. I would wager that most of the people stopping by over the two days learned something. But when the most famous and arguably most important figure at the whole event has a hidden agenda, it kind of makes you wonder.

So far the Celebrate 250 events have seemed under publicized and a bit anemic, not to mention somewhat lopsided. The calendar for the Charlottesville 250 celebrations lists one lecture devoted to the Monacan Indians and three about African-Americans, for a total of four hours. Religion, on the other hand, got a whole exhibit, the Heritage of Faith, on display for the entire month of April at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society before moving to the Transit center for another month. Taking into account the differing hours of the two venues, that’s fifty two days. This hardly seems fair, historically or otherwise.

Spend time watching historical reenactors and it quickly becomes clear that most of their audience has a particular area of interest or axe to grind. A retired Navy officer got involved in a long discussion with McDowell about Jefferson’s use of the navy to fight the Barbary War, a conflict between the US and the countries known today as Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia.

“It is very important that we maintain our military might,” McDowell/Jefferson said, in order to fight any “infidel powers” that might arise. He discussed how “it appears that these people only respond to force.” At one point he refers to the Barbary pirates as “Muslim terrorists.”

The ex-Navy man said that he always admired the way Jefferson sought to learn about many different people; he had, for instance owned a Quran. Of course, our Jefferson replied. When fighting the Barbary powers, it was important to understand things, like “where did these people get their ideas that I think are so absurd?”

According to Onuf, the Barbary War was primarily fought over commercial issues; Barbary pirates had been threatening European trade for years, and had begun attacking American ships as well, capturing sailors and holding them hostage for a ransom.

“Of course they were infidels,” Onuf says, “but it’s worth remembering that Jefferson, and the Virginia Baptists alike, at different points, said that freedom of religion must extend to Muslims.”

As for the comment about the Quran, Onuf points out that Jefferson was a student of comparative religion, and felt that the Bible was rife with internal contradictions. If Jefferson owned a Quran in order to understand its absurd ideas, he owned a Bible for the same exact reason.

Often, when he’s telling an audience about the Declaration of Independence, or Jefferson’s time in France, Rob Coles wonders if the things he’s talking about are the right things. If you were Thomas Jefferson, what would you say? It’s a heavy responsibility, not only because the issues are so vital, but also because you’re speaking for someone who can’t speak for himself. In any other situation we’d see it as the height of arrogance, but the Founding Fathers are different. We feel that their words do not belong solely to them, but to all of us, and that it’s our duty to treat them not as finished statements, but as things forever in the process of being said.

Historical reenactors, Onuf says, usually do a perfectly good job. “They’re frontline interpreters and teachers. They have a compelling way to relate to their audiences.”

But the next time you find yourself listening to a man in a wig and a funny hat, telling you how our country began and why, it’s worth remembering that there’s no one regulating Living History. Anyone who wants to can dress like Thomas Jefferson and make speeches in the court square. And because they look like him, and speak with authority, we tend to assume that they speak the truth. And who owns the truth?

It’s a question that really gets Onuf going.

“Is this the triumph of relativism?” he asks. “Does everyone get to have their own history?”

Jefferson was obsessed with keeping his letters and writings so that future generations could know and understand what he said, but according to Onuf, “the idea that he would be up for grabs in these silly ways would turn him over in his grave.”

One letter that’s especially relevant to this discussion is one Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789. In it, he asks, “Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another?” I think it’s safe to say that what Jefferson hated more than anything was tyranny, and tyranny comes in many forms, not just a man on a throne.

“[N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law,” Jefferson wrote Madison. “The earth belongs to the living and not to the dead.” He knew that the world would change, and that instead of being shackled by the past, each generation needed the freedom to craft laws and solutions that fit their times. Just as he feared any human despot, so Jefferson also feared the tyranny of the past.

“English history is all about men liking their fathers, and American history is all about men hating their fathers and trying to burn down everything they ever did.”  – Malcolm Bradbury

History is a broken record.

Our founding fathers were defined by their desire to sever their connections to the past, by words and laws – if necessary, by war.

I tend to roll my eyes when someone in Charlottesville uses a Jefferson quote to defend their position or make a point. Given the frequency with which that happens here, understanding who’s using his words, and to what end, is vitally important. Maybe we should consider whether we want to go on using his words at all. As useful as TJ is for fundraising and tourism, philosophically, it’s time we freed ourselves. If we stop caring what Jefferson would want us to do, then we’ll be free to make that decision on our own, and maybe we can come up with ideas he never dreamed of. And then people like Stephen McDowell would be forced to speak for themselves, and their arguments would stand or fall on their own merits.

Sometimes Rob Coles wishes he could be someone else. “Jefferson wasn’t really known for having a sense of humor, like Benjamin Franklin. There are times when you wish your character was a little more flamboyant. The guys who play Franklin just have a great time. They have all these jokes and banter, and I’m just sort of the heavy.”

People continually send him books on Jefferson. People write emails to correct him, or complain about things he left out or ways in which they feel he didn’t do the great man justice. How much of Rob Coles’ life, I wonder, is consumed by his alter ego? When I ask him if he has any non-Jefferson interests, there’s a long pause before he says, “As a matter of fact I played tennis this morning.” But then he changes the subject, and maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like he doesn’t do much except be Thomas Jefferson.

And he’ll go on being Tomas Jefferson, and so will Stephen McDowell, and many, many others, because for every person who wants to speak for him, there’s a hundred who want the chance to speak to Jefferson, to challenge him and correct him and blame him, to ask advice and say thanks. We want to talk to our founding fathers because we feel that they got America right and we’ve gotten it wrong. Once, long ago, they gave us the answers. If we keep asking, maybe they’ll give them to us again. We speak to them as if they really were Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, but of course they’re not, they’re just the clowns at America’s birthday party, twisting the past into funny shapes so today’s children can be entertained.