(ARCHIVES) Being Thomas Jefferson: Reenactors impersonate the past, speak to the present

Rob Coles (above right), a direct descendent of THomas Jefferson, has played his eminent ancestor nearly 120 times per year for the past 36 years. Coles' career as an impersonator has taken him to 48 states in addition to Italy, Poland, and France, where he has offered reflections on subjects like Jefferson's time as ambassador to France and his relationship with his mentor, George Wythe. (Photo by Jack Looney) Rob Coles (above right), a direct descendent of THomas Jefferson, has played his eminent ancestor nearly 120 times per year for the past 36 years. Coles’ career as an impersonator has taken him to 48 states in addition to Italy, Poland, and France, where he has offered reflections on subjects like Jefferson’s time as ambassador to France and his relationship with his mentor, George Wythe. (Photo by Jack Looney)

Editor’s Note: This story on Rob Coles’ life as a Thomas Jefferson descendant and impersonator originally ran in C-VILLE Weekly on June 19, 2012. According to his obituary in The Daily Progress, Mr. Coles died peacefully Tuesday.

For a few minutes before he goes on stage, assuming 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 clothing: breeches, a ruffled white shirt and embroidered waistcoat, a heavy greatcoat, and buckled shoes. The introduction will come soon (it’s always the same because the familiar words help get him into character), and Coles will walk onstage and do what he’s done for 36 of his 60 years. Wearing a costume, he’ll pretend to be somebody else. The audience knows he’s not who he pretends to be, obviously, but they’re willing to suspend their disbelief, because he looks like Thomas Jefferson and speaks like Thomas Jefferson 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, the Founding Father, come from the dead, come back to tell you all. I shall tell you all.

Jefferson impersonator Stephen McDowell pulls up a chair in Court Square during Charlottesville’s living history exhibition in early June. The co-founder and president of The Providence Foundation, “a Christian educational organization whose mission is to train and network leaders to transform their culture for Christ,” McDowell uses his platform to correct what he believes are incorrect assumptions about Jefferson’s religious beliefs. (Photo by John Robinson)

Living history
There is an oft-repeated maxim writ down 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 focal points of its 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 troopers led by General Sir Banastre Tarleton rode into Charlottesville with the hope of capturing the Virginia Legislature, temporarily relocated from Richmond, and Governor Thomas Jefferson. The raid ultimately failed, albeit narrowly, and 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 cannons— what’s not to love? But none of those things 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, told his audience. He wore a nicely patterned gold coat, a flowered waistcoat, and red breeches, and he delivered what amounted to a sermon enumerating the many ways in which Jefferson (himself) was a devout follower of Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible, the foundations upon which, McDowell (as Jefferson) said, he and his fellow Founding Fathers had built America.
“It is not my belief that we need to separate religious principles from daily life,” McDowell 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 been portraying Thomas Jefferson since the early ’90s, although it’s something he only does a few times each year. With a red wig on, he bears a strong resemblance to our third president, a bit shorter but with a similarly angular face and piercing glare. McDowell is 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 and/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 streets (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 devout Christians who established the country soundly on ideas that come from the Bible and on 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 told me, “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.

Mark Belles portrays James Monroe. (Photo by John Robinson)

For the record
“[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, O.K.? It’s just so tiring and boring and it destroys your credibility from the outset.”

That’s Peter Onuf, 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,” Onuf said.

Jefferson was a Deist, and Deists were Christians, but Onuf calls him a “serious student of religion,” who had real doubts about Christian doctrine, pointing out that at one point Jefferson referred to himself as “a church of one.”

The popular story of how Jefferson made his own Bible by removing all of the parts he didn’t like is true. Jefferson didn’t believe in the Trinity, Onuf said, 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 it also made me realize how tightly I hold on to 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 local 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, one of his slaves.

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

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 and regional identity, a question of family, heritage and, 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 DayGlo Volkswagen 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.

The burden of blood
Rob Coles’ reasons for impersonating Thomas Jefferson are also personal, but intimately 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 Coles told me he didn’t inherit from his famous ancestor is Jefferson’s intellect. He said this many times, and maybe it was a calculated bit of PR, taking care to be properly deferential to eminence. 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.

Coles 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, ladies’ 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 said. “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 in 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 demonstrating 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 characters and the past with reverence. Because of this, living history often seems 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 relationship to 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 have begun 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.

Straight from the source
There were two other reenactors sitting next to McDowell during Charlottesville’s living history weekend, dressed as fellow local heroes James Madison and James Monroe, but it was Jefferson the 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, 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 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 a 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,” one of the women 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 Jefferson has been playing him longer than probably anybody alive. But then there’s also Bill Barker, the man who fills the role 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 pick McDowell?

Choosing 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 Jefferson, and if they did, what they thought of his performance. But the reason McDowell was picked is most likely the work of the committee’s co-chair, a man named Mark Beliles.

Beliles co-founded the Providence Foundation with McDowell and serves as 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 Ph.D. 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.

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 U.S. 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 referred 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 UVA’s Peter Onuf, the Barbary War was primarily fought over commercial issues; North African pirates had been threatening European trade for years, and had begun attacking American ships as well, capturing sailors and holding them hostage for ransom.
“Of course they were infidels,” Onuf said. “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.

History is a broken record
“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
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 said, 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 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? 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 “the idea that he would be up for grabs in these silly ways would turn him over in his grave,” Onuf said.

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.

“[N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law,” Jefferson wrote to 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 history, each generation needed the freedom to craft laws and solutions that fit their times. Just as he feared any human despot, Jefferson also feared the tyranny of the past.

Our Founding Fathers were defined by their desire to sever their connections to what came before, by words and laws—if necessary, through war. I tend to roll my eyes when someone in Charlottesville uses a Jefferson quote to defend a position or make a point. Given the frequency with which that happens here, understanding who’s using the words, and to what end, is vitally important.

We want to talk to the 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 historical reenactors 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.

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