Thomas Jefferson at 265

In his third debate with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln quoted a resolution from 1850 in which the principles of the Ordinance of 1787 received “the sanction of Thomas Jefferson, who is acknowledged by all to be the great oracle and expounder of our faith.” Jefferson’s authority derived from the fact that, as Lincoln observed in his 1859 letter to Henry Pierce, he was “the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”

On Sunday Thomas Jefferson turned 265; April 13 was the 265th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth. The anniversary was marked by President and Mrs. Bush with a reception in the East Room of the White House on April 14. Harking back to Lincoln’s remarks on Jefferson, President Bush observed: “With a single sentence, Thomas Jefferson changed the history of the world.”

President Bush called on Wilfred McClay to speak on Jefferson. Professor McClay holds down the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also Professor of History. Professor McClay performed the difficult task of paying full tribute to Jefferson while acknowleding how his reputation has been diminished in recent years. “Perhaps, in the past,” Professor McClay concedes, “we have been too prone to place our forebears on a pedestal. But it is far worse, to feel compelled always to cut the storied past down to the size of the tabloid present.” Professor McClay’s remarks deserve the widest circulation. Here they are in their entirety:

Thank you, Mr. President and Mrs. Bush, for your warm welcome, and for the great honor of taking part in this celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s life.

Usually, when a greatly revered figure turns a year older, we feel older too, and the world feels a little colder and more fragile. But it’s a little different when a man turns 265. Remembering Thomas Jefferson makes us feel young. And not just by comparison. It’s because Thomas Jefferson embodies so much of the promise of American life. It’s because there is so much about him that is still vibrantly alive.

And living not only in America. Thomas Jefferson deserves to be remembered and revered as a man of worldwide influence, whose name is known and loved and invoked by men and women from Beijing to Lhasa to Kiev to Prague. His belief in the dignity and unrealized potential in the minds and hearts of ordinary people is at the core of what is greatest in the American experiment. It is in this sense that James Parton, his early biographer, was right in making the following proclamation: “If Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.” But the cause of Jefferson was always more than just that of America. It is the cause of all humankind.


Of course, we all know Jefferson’s words, or some of them. But we want to know more than that. We want to feel that we know the man himself.

But that is exceptionally hard with Jefferson. He eludes our grasp. He may well have been the shyest man ever to occupy the office of President, awkward and taciturn except in small, convivial settings, such as dinner parties, where he felt at ease, and shed his reserve.

In other words, he was not what people these days call “a political animal.” He loathed public speaking, giving only two major addresses while President, and none on the campaign trail. Of course, they didn’t campaign for office those days, the way we do now. If they had, he wouldn’t ever have run. He often felt that the work of politics ran against his nature, and complained that the Presidency was an office of “splendid misery,” which brought him “nothing but increasing drudgery & daily loss of friends.”

Twice he withdrew entirely from public life, first in the 1780s, after a disappointing term as governor of Virginia, then the second time at the conclusion of his presidency, when he left Washington disgusted and exhausted, anxious to be rid of the place. As he wrote a friend at the time, ”Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.” Never was he happier than when ensconced in his Monticello retreat, his “portico facing the wilderness,” the place that he loved, the place where he found renewal. His example reminds us of how many of life’s common comforts our leaders have to sacrifice, in serving us.

I contend that Jefferson is best known through his letters. He wrote almost 20,000 of them in his lifetime, and in them he seems to have felt freest and most fully himself. Although he complained to John Adams that he suffered “under the persecution of letters,” the opposite was true. He needed the buffer of letters, interposed between himself and his acquaintances, and the world. With that buffer in place, Jefferson was at his ease, poised and open, and elegantly expressive. He used his correspondence to clarify his emotions and organize his thinking, and it is there that we see his full humanity most fully on display.


But I may be in danger here of overstressing Jefferson’s reticence and reclusiveness, and that would be a grave error. The man was too many-faceted ever to be pinned down. Here is how James Parton described the Jefferson of 1775 — just one year before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, he said, was “a gentleman of thirty-two, who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.” And consider — at that point in his life, he was just getting warmed up.

In other words, Jefferson was a virtuoso and a prodigy, a jack of many trades, who mastered most of them.

Consider his political accomplishments alone — over four decades of public service, ranging from his entry into the Virginia House of Burgesses to his retirement from public life after two terms as the third President of the United States.

Or his keen interest in natural science, evidenced by eighteen years as president of the American Philosophical Society, an office he continued to hold through his tenure as President.

Or his love of architecture, as embodied in the graceful neoclassical Monticello, which he designed and built for himself near his Virginia birthplace; or the serenely beautiful central grounds of the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville.

Not to mention his overwhelming passion for gadgetry, which impresses visitors to Monticello, who nearly always remember the revolving bookstand, the dumbwaiter, the copying machine, the automatic double doors, the Great Clock, the triple-sash window, and countless other gizmos that the ever-inventive Jefferson himself either designed or adapted. If Jefferson was part Aristotle, he also was part Rube Goldberg.

You all probably know that Jefferson, that inveterate designer, even designed his own tombstone, and specified the three things that it was to say about his life: that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom, and that he was Father of the University of Virginia.

What did these three things have in common? Well, they go to the very heart of what he was about. They reflect his belief in the intrinsic dignity of the human person, and the unlimited capacity of the free human mind. Coercion, whether of the mind or of the conscience, was the enemy both of truth and of true religion. Only the free mind, he believed, can freely discover the truth, and freely choose to embrace it.


Some will object that all this praise fails to acknowledge the serious flaws in our subject. And that is true enough. I didn’t want to begin, as is overwhelmingly the fashion today, by emphasizing Jefferson’s contradictions and shortcomings. But there are negative aspects to Jefferson’s life and career that simply cannot be denied.

No one can deny that although Jefferson opposed slavery in theory, he consistently failed to oppose it in practice, including notably in the conduct of his own life at Monticello.

No one can deny that Jefferson’s racial views, particularly as expressed in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, are appalling by todays standards.

These are not small flaws, nor are they the only ones. We are not wrong to insist on their being remembered, even today. Still, I think it’s clear that the compulsion to criticize Jefferson has gone too far. Our era is possessed by a small-minded rage against the very idea that imperfect men can still be heroes. But we badly need such heroes. In fact, we can’t live without them.

Perhaps, in the past, we have been too prone to place our forebears on a pedestal. But it is far worse, to feel compelled always to cut the storied past down to the size of the tabloid present. Perhaps the time has come for that to change. Perhaps we are wise enough now, to know that imperfect heroes are the only kind there ever are, or can be.

So let it be for his ideas that we honor Jefferson, above all else. And for the cause of human freedom and human dignity that he so eloquently championed. His failings may weigh against the man, but not against the cause for which he labored so heroically. That should be a lesson to us today. Like Jefferson, we all are carriers of purposes far larger than we know. Purposes whose full realization cannot be achieved in our lifetime, or even be fully understood by us, but which we are called to carry forward as faithfully as we can — as charges to keep.

But unlike Jefferson, we have the benefit of his words to inspire us, and his shoulders to stand on. Consider these words of the civil-rights leader, Representative John Lewis: “We knew about Jefferson’s faults,” Lewis said. “But we didn’t put the emphasis there. We put the emphasis on what he wrote in the Declaration…His words were so powerful. His words became the blueprint, the guideline for us to follow. From those words,” said Lewis, “you have the fountain.”

It is the same fountain that today, 265 years after Jefferson’s birth, still nourishes our lives, and shows no sign of running dry. Today is a good day to drink from it anew. And to say, “We are all Jeffersonians.” Because in one way or another, we all are.

UPDATE: The long quotation from Professor McClay’s speech got a bit mangled in the transition from our old site to our new site. I have attempted to restore the text, which is available at the EPPC site here.


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