From “The Shackles of Liberty” … Four Ideas about God

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.

Thomas Jefferson wrote this in a famous letter to his nephew, Peter Carr. So how did this unorthodox Christian react when his daughter Patsy decided that she wanted to become a nun? Nobody really knows, except that he quickly snatched Patsy and her sister Polly out of Pentemont Abbey, the Parisian convent school where they’d been studying.

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Pentemont Abbey, 1898

I play with this episode in my in my award-winning new play The Shackles of Liberty. When Patsy first broaches the subject with her father, he quizzes her about the nature of God …

THOMAS: Tell me—where is God? Where does he live?
PATSY: He is everywhere.
THOMAS: So I can reach out and touch him?
PATSY: No.
THOMAS: Why not? Of what stuff is he made?
PATSY: No stuff at all, Father.
THOMAS: So he is everywhere and yet comprised of nothing. He has infinite height, width, and depth, and yet none at all—a dimensionless geometrical point.

It’s an absurd proposition as far as Thomas is concerned. And yet he is no atheist. He agrees with the teaching of Jesus, that God is a spirit

He knew that spirit is material and real. Thin and light, an ethereal gas perhaps, subtler than our gross bodies, but material nonetheless. I don’t know where to look for such spirit, but that’s of small concern. God’s existence is manifest in the infinite beauty of natural design—from the growth of the flower to the precession of the equinoxes. He is Cause Perpetual, Cause Everlasting.

As Patsy confides to Sally Hemings later in the play, she pretty much agrees with her father. In the convent, Patsy can feel God’s palpable presence …

Father’s right, God is made out of matter, and there you can feel him. You can touch him. You can touch his face. And his face is so gentle. And he’s so full of love. Everybody there feels it. And everybody wants to do his will. They want to love him back. It’s all they ever do. I’ve never been any place like it.

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Yoruba Veranda Post, Brooklyn Museum

What does God mean to Sally, a third-generation slave? Much of the profound theology of Sally’s Yoruba ancestors has been lost to her. But she’s still deeply aware of ashe, the life force underlying all of creation, the spiritual power to make things happen …

I was really little when my nephew Andy was born. Still I had to take care of him best I could whenever my sister was working somewhere else, which was lots of the time, sometimes far away, stitching, cooking, stirring the lye pot boiling, but whenever little Andy began to whimpering, not even really crying, she’d be back on the spot, ready to feed him. Now how’d she always know he was hungry? She said it was ’cause she’d feel ashe moving inside of her, and ashe was what he was hungering for.… Ashe—it’s something everybody’s got moving inside, but you’ve got to keep giving it everywhere to everybody, sharing it always.

As a devout Catholic, Thomas’s European lover Maria Cosway fully accepts the message of John the Evangelist that God is love. But her belief is not as comfortable (or comforting) as one might expect. When Thomas begins to raise an age-old question, she fiercely interrupts him …

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John the Evangelist, El Greco

THOMAS: How can a loving God—?

MARIA: Oh, the old, old question always, and so foolish! Permit of evil? Allow there should be pain, and cruelty, and sickness, the death of your Martha? Listen to what I say, Thomas. He is not a loving God. He is Love. And if you do not understand God, it is for that you do not understand Love. There is nothing—nothing—in the world, or the heaven, or the hell—more—implacabile, more—more terrible or—cruel than Love. There is not justice, there is nothing kind or gentle in Love, none. Love kills all dream of perfection, every hope we have. It is the hardest, coldest thing of all there is.

(The Shackles of Liberty is the winner this year’s Southern Playwrights Competitionsponsored by Jacksonville State University.)

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Sally, Maria, Patsy, and Tom …

Why did I write a play set in Paris more than two hundred years ago?

It’s something of a cliché that Thomas Jefferson is just about the most contradictory figure in American history. In his Declaration of Independence, he articulated the very founding ideals of a new nation—the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” and were “endowed” with the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet the writer of these eloquent words was a lifelong slave owner.

I started working on The Shackles of Liberty during the 1970s, when I read Fawn M. Brodie’s biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Before the appearance of Brodie’s book, the story of Jefferson’s lifelong relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had been a nagging rumor that few historians took seriously. The evidence Brodie presented was groundbreaking—and extremely controversial.

When I first cracked the book open, I immediately came across a story told by Sally’s son Madison Hemings about his mother’s relationship with Jefferson. It began in 1789, when Jefferson was in Paris serving as America’s Ambassador to France:

… [D]uring that time my mother became Mr Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enciente by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. She refused to return with him.

I was instantly hooked on the Story. I imagined the extraordinary scene. Sixteen-year-old Sally, three quarters white and the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, stood face to face with her 46-year-old master to demand her freedom. For a stunning moment, this courageous young woman demanded complete equality with one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Then came the bargaining as described by Madison Hemings …

To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father.

I knew right away that I had to write a play that culminated in Sally’s fateful bargain. In my mind’s ear, I started hearing fragments of dialogue:

SALLY: You won’t free me, free our child.
THOMAS: No.
SALLY: Little by little, not right away, over lots of years.
THOMAS: I can’t.
SALLY: Teach him. Things you know how to do. Fiddling, cutting stone, working with wood.
THOMAS: Impossible.

As I read Brodie’s book (and many years later,  Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), the story grew richer and richer, and Jefferson’s contradictions grew ever more troubling. While Jefferson could at least conceive of the emancipation of African-Americans, the same was not true of women. In Paris, he was shocked by the power and assertiveness of European women,

some on foot, some on horses, & some in carriages hunting pleasure in the streets, in routs & assemblies, and forgetting that they have left it behind them in their nurseries …

How different were these independent women from the docile ladies he had left behind in America? To him it was “a comparison of Amazons and Angels.”

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Martha Jefferson Randolph

Not surprisingly, Jefferson was something of a despot to his two daughters, albeit a loving one. In 1783, he wrote these explicit instructions to his eleven-year-old daughter, Martha:

I do not wish you to be gaily clothed at this time of life, but what you wear should be fine of its kind. But above all things and at all times let your clothes be clean, whole, and properly put on. … Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours.

Slaves, women, and children. They all shared a strange place in Jefferson’s mind. And he had crises with all three during his years in Paris.

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Self-portrait of Maria Cosway

For one thing, he fell in love with the brilliant European painter Maria Cosway, a woman with talents, thoughts, and ambitions that were very much her own. Beautiful, charming, and diminutive, she nevertheless had something of the European Amazon about her.

Meanwhile, Jefferson’s daughter Martha, better known at the time as “Patsy,” was studying in a Parisian convent school. Imagine her anti-clerical father’s shock when she announced that she wanted to become a nun!

Finally, there was Sally, whose voice kept calling out to me about freedom and hope …

It’s awful, hope—like drowning. Or not drowning, but getting held under, and you can’t guess how deep. And you’ve got to hold your breath, and your lungs are busting, and you can’t keep it in long, but you know when you let out the air, you’ll only have water to breathe in again. Hope’s just this—long—holding in of something you know you can’t keep.

So there they were—Jefferson and three women, who together somehow embodied the conflict and contradictions that we all live with today. Appropriately the backdrop of the play was Paris in 1789—the dawning of the French Revolution. In those days of precarious hope, Jefferson’s words about liberty and equality hung in the Parisian air.

 

(The Shackles of Liberty is the winner this year’s Southern Playwrights Competition, sponsored by Jacksonville State University.)