Last month, I answered the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”—for one book, anyway: Those Rebels, John and Tom.
Having grown up spending so much time with the characters of the Broadway musical “1776”, it’s not surprising I’d one day want to write my version of Adams and Jefferson.
But a picture book needs a tight focus, and so, early on into writing the book, I had to decide where to shine the spotlight on these two, remarkable figures.
My goal for Those Rebels, John and Tom was to give an inkling of who these two men were, how they worked together, and how much their partnership benefitted the country.
Writing about a famous person can be tricky, as they often have a kind of mythology tied to their fame. Those Rebels, John and Tom has not one but two famous people, stuffed into the same book. Talk about mythology! Jefferson is carved in stone on Mt. Rushmore—you don’t really get any bigger than that.
It’s the job of a biographer to dig deeper and present a richer portrait, to take readers past the myth to the man (or woman.)
How does a biographer do this?
Secondary sources are invaluable to paint an overall picture and provide a cultural and historical perspective. But my favorite source of information is primary sources—what I think of as ‘eyewitness accounts.’ That’s where all the juicy details come from.
And it was in primary sources that I found details to help uncover just who these men were.
And so, for example, we have Adams, detailing in his diary all the culinary wonders he experienced when he first came to Philadelphia in 1774:
“A most sinfull Feast again! Every Thing which could delight the Eye, or allure the Taste. Curds and Creams, Jellies, Sweetmeats of various sorts, 20 sorts of Tarts, fools, Trifles, floating Islands, and whippd Sillabubs.”
(I loved those last two names, by the way – floating islands and whipped syllabubs. As soon as I read them, I just had to find out what they were. The first is a meringue island floating on a sea of custard. The second is a frothy mixture of whipped cream, lemon zest, and wine. Delicious.)
Primary sources showed me that the champion of democracy had a real sweet tooth.
And it was in another primary source—Jefferson’s Memorandum Book—that I read his meticulous notes on his shopping trips in Philadelphia in 1775 and 1776:
“Paid Starr for shoes -- 21 shillings”
“Paid for handkerchiefs -- 6 shillings 8 pence”
“Paid for pair of gloves -- 7 shillings 6 pence”
“Paid Currie for leather breeches -- 35 shillings”
“Paid For a straw hat -- 10 shillings”
The author of the Declaration of Independence, I discovered, was a bit of a clotheshorse.
Biographies are built upon the whipped syllabubs and ten-shilling hats which take men and women off the pedestal (out of the portrait, off the face of Mt. Rushmore) and place them squarely before us, not to be admired as mythological figures, but to be understood as the extraordinary and yet all-too-human people they were.
One thing that struck me early on in the research process was how very very different John and Tom were. And there’s no easier way to see that than by comparing their homes.
Jefferson was born into Virginia aristocracy—and his house, Monticello, reflects that. Monticello is beautiful—and if you have never been, I recommend you go sometime.
But it was not in any sense a practical house.
Most wealthy people in Virginia built their mansions alongside a river, if they could. It made transportation issues simple as you could just float supplies to your doorstep. Alternately, they built their mansions on a road—again, simplifying the transportation of building supplies.
Tom did neither. He erected his mansion on top of a little mountain. He had to have roads cut through dense forest to haul the supplies up and up and up. When the building process started, there wasn’t even enough water onsite to mix the clay to form the bricks—it had to be hauled in from a stream.
Tom drew up the plans for Monticello himself, basing the design on a villa with grand stone columns. In fact, he was intimately involved in all aspects of the design and construction. And when I say “intimately involved” I mean just that—I mean intimately, meticulously, some might say obsessively involved.
Tom designed everything from the placement of those stone columns on the portico down to the size of the individual bricks, measuring and calculating, sometimes down to the ten thousandths of an inch. One of his calculations was a measurement for 1.89916 inches.
This, in an era where bricks were made by hand—filling wooden forms with clay, letting the bricks dry, and then firing them in brick kilns built onsite.
Not two inches; not one and three quarters. 1.89916
Tom liked to oversee the bricklayers’ and carpenters’ work closely, and I can only imagine some of the comments they must have made when he was out of earshot.
Monticello became a life-long obsession with Tom. He began working on the project in 1768 and was still working on it 40 years later—with additions, demolitions, and renovations in between.
The bulk of this work—the building and rebuilding—was done by his many slaves. Jefferson himself did not do manual labor.
Contrast all that to John, the son of a shoemaker.
John may have been a lawyer and Harvard graduate, but he was also a farmer. He prided himself on being hardworking and frugal:
He pruned his own fruit trees, cut his own hay, carted manure out to his fields, and split his own firewood. On occasion, he hired men to help him with the big jobs: building stone walls, digging up stumps, and plowing the fields to plant corn and potatoes.
When John inherited his modest, 100-year-old wooden home, he built a small addition onto the back—just a lean-to of a couple rooms—and then called it good.
He and Abigail lived there for the next 27 years.
John and Tom were certainly compelling characters to write about. And next month, in the third and final segment of this FoundingFathersPalooza, I’ll talk about the themes that brought these two very different men together—and drive the narrative.