Thomas Jefferson’s Wisdom, Brilliance, Flaws and Idea of Democracy Shaped America

The Jefferson Memorial is getting a new underground museum, courtesy of a multi-million dollar donation from a local billionaire. More.

When I was in college, I greatly admired Thomas Jefferson, and reverently stood in awe at the Jefferson Memorial meditating on the engraved quotations:

“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We…solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of a right ought to be free and independent states…and for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.”

“Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the holy Author of our religion…No man shall be compelled to frequent or support religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.”

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.”

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”


I recalled the quip of John F. Kennedy to a group of Nobel Prize Winners of the Western Hemisphere: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”

Jefferson is less well-thought-of today, primarily because of the discovery, through DNA testing, that he fathered at least six children by his slave Sally Hemings, who was the half-sister of his deceased wife, and did not free her before his death.

Some students at the University of Missouri–Columbia and the College of William and Mary in 2015 criticized their universities for honoring a man that by modern standards they consider a “rapist” and a “racist” and that statues of him be removed.

The late Irish historian Conor Cruise O’Brien, writing in The Atlantic in 1996, condemned Jefferson as a radical and a racist even by the standards of his own time. “His flaws are beyond redemption,” he wrote.

Jefferson was once celebrated annually as a founder of the Democratic Party, through Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners around the country. The name of that event has been changed to Kennedy-King, to honor the legacies of more recent and more beloved leaders, John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, all tragically assassinated.

But in some ways, denigrating Jefferson’s brilliance and contribution to American history is the logical fallacy of “presentism,” imposing contemporary values on figures from the past.

Yet in the light of history, one does see Jefferson’s flaws more clearly.

John Green of Crash Course “teaches you about founding father and third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is a somewhat controversial figure in American history, largely because he, like pretty much all humans, was a big bundle of contradictions. Jefferson was a slave-owner who couldn’t decide if he liked slavery. He advocated for small government, but expanded federal power more than either of his presidential predecessor. He also idealized the independent farmer and demonized manufacturing, but put policies in place that would expand industrial production in the US. Controversy may ensue as we try to deviate a bit from the standard hagiography/slander story that usually told about old TJ. John explores Jefferson’s election, his policies, and some of the new nation’s (literally and figuratively) formative events that took place during Jefferson’s presidency. In addition to all this, Napoleon drops in to sell Louisiana, John Marshall sets the course of the Supreme Court, and John Adams gets called a tiny tyrant.” Transcript.

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