America’s Long Journey: Jefferson

Historian Dumas Malone spent a lifetime studying, and writing six volumes, on the life of Jefferson. How in the world can anyone do him justice in a few hundred words?

John F. Kennedy, speaking to a gathering of Nobel Prize winners in the White House in 1962, famously said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered 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.”

He also could, and did, write the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and bring into being the University of Virginia – which were the only three achievements he wished mentioned on his gravestone, “because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”

Jefferson’s long life of public service included a term as wartime Governor of Virginia, then Ambassador to France under the Confederation that preceded adoption of the Constitution. While in Europe, he studied its architecture, and the style he liked best found its way into public buildings first in Virginia, then throughout the country. He studied its vineyards and agriculture, and sent seeds and samples of many useful plants back to his native land. He studied Europe’s society and morals under monarchist governments, and reinforced his existing preference for republican simplicity.

Returning home at George Washington’s request, he became the first Secretary of State, then retired, then was elected John Adams’ vice president, then served as president in his own right for eight difficult and momentous years. Throughout his political life, he fought the centralizing and power-accumulating tendencies of the federalists, organized what is now the oldest political party in the world, and stage-managed the first peaceful transition of power to a loyal opposition. So successful were his policies that his federalist opposition vanished like spring snow, the leaders remaining in opposition but their followers changing allegiance. (His administrations and those of his friends James Madison and James Monroe stretched 24 years, the so-called “Virginia Dynasty.”)

After his presidency, he returned gladly to Monticello, the home he had planned and built and repeatedly modified, an architectural achievement that, with his design for the University of Virginia, was one of only 41 structures to be included in the 1987 UNESCO World Heritage List. (Monticello keeps company with such structures as the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis.) At Monticello, he functioned as elder statesman, prodigious correspondent, farmer, naturalist, amateur scientist, father, grandfather and master of his estate.

That he and John Adams died on the same day – and that day the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — did not leave their compatriots unmoved. The New York American, in language a little flowery to our taste, but transparently sincere, said, in part:

“By a coincidence marvelous and enviable, THOMAS JEFFERSON in like manner with his great compeer, John Adams, breathed his last on the 4th of July. Emphatically may we say, with a Boston paper, had the horses and the chariot of fire descended to take up the patriarchs, it might have been more wonderful, but not more glorious. We remember nothing in the annals of man so striking, so beautiful, as the death of these two time-honored patriots, on the jubilee of that freedom, which they devoted themselves and all that was dear to them, to proclaim and establish.

“It cannot all be chance. It may be permitted to us to believe, that the prayer most natural on such a day, in the mouths of such men, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” was put up and favorably heard. The god who gave them being, and inspired their hearts in the day of peril, and in a desponding land, filled them with hope and with confidence … may in his wisdom, and in his tenderness, have seen fit to interpose, and on the fiftieth anniversary of the great day of independence, have recalled to himself the spirits of these mighty TWO, who, having seen fulfilled and surpassed all that in the most daring aspirations of youthful hope and ardor, they had ventured to anticipate for their country, and having attained to the highest honors which a grateful nation could pay, could no longer worthily linger upon earth.”

Not that he didn’t have enemies! His entire public life from 1789 was lived under an unending stream of accusation, the most persistent of which was that he was an enemy of religion, that he was a “Jacobin” (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century equivalent of calling him a Communist). But there were other charges: that he was a willing or unconscious dupe of Napoleon; that he was an impractical theorist who would ruin the country; that he intended to destroy civil liberties. Oh, and a few minor peccadilloes, as well: that he was perfidious, untruthful, treacherous – you get the idea. It all amounted to his having ideas of his own, and the ability to bring those ideas to a trial in real life. The fury and the calumny that pursued him for 30 years were based, as much as anything, in frustration that in fact his ideas mostly worked, and that the people mostly trusted and supported him.

If he had his failures and disappointments, and enemies who conceded him nothing – and he did! — what public figure has ever escaped any of this? With Washington and Lincoln, each of whom was great in different ways, he was one of the greatest men ever to fill the office of president of the United States.

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