I accept the notion that I can never truly know someone like Thomas Jefferson, but I want to feel like I understand him and how he approached his world. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I feel like Jefferson has been one of the more elusive presidents I've encountered. I've read Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf's Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. I've watched the Ken Burns's documentary and visited Monticello. I've read much of his own writing. And despite all of this, he feels more out-of-reach than any other president I've spent so much time with.
Which makes me wonder what it means to "understand" a president or any other historical figure. I feel like I have a solid understanding of John Adams and what drove him or Abraham Lincoln and how he approached holding the nation together during a perilous moment. So what is there about Jefferson that feels so different? Or is the real issue that I'm mistaken in thinking I get these other people? I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to answer this question satisfactorily, but it's one that I plan to return to frequently in the weeks and months ahead.