By Geoff Elliott
NEWS, the saying goes, is telling someone something they didn't know. That's tricky writing about a man about whom much has been written.
But Michael Kranish, deputy Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe, accomplishes it as a journalist and historian in a new book about one of America's more remarkable founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, who died 200 years ago.
The pen portrait of Jefferson is well known: the principal drafter of the declaration of independence, whose words have inspired the world. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
But less well-known are the events after America's unlikely victory over the British and how they came to haunt Jefferson.
Kranish, who was in Sydney last week under the auspices of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney for a conference on Jefferson, is the author of Flight from Monticello (Oxford University Press). He has written a wonderful account of Jefferson's decision to flee his home before British soldiers came to capture him. "It was five years after he had authored the declaration of independence, he was governor of Virginia, the largest and most powerful state in the US at the time, and the British invaded," Kranish tells Media. "He was forced to flee the capital, Richmond, and then forced to flee his mountaintop home of Monticello.
"It gives you a really good sense that five years after the declaration, the revolution against Britain was still on a razor's edge and Jefferson was on the run. A lot of people thought this was not going to end in victory.
"That Jefferson had to flee was something I did not know much about and it got me thinking."
Kranish had the enviable task of holing up himself at Jefferson's beautiful Monticello home to research the book, availing himself of the third president's library.
And in coming to know him better, Kranish says the label of Jefferson as America's renaissance man applies, though it is a label not without contradictions.
The slave-owning Jefferson wanted to spread the rights of man around the world, but Kranish says even today people interpret Jefferson's words in different ways. The inalienable rights he charted were cited in the US Civil War as a reason to abandon slavery while others say his words were a framework for state rights over centralised power.
Kranish says the debate in the US will continue. It might be said that it is a truth that is self-evident in a country were the battle of ideas is as contested as ever.