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Thomas Jefferson: Where Are The Jeffersons Of Today?

4 minute read
Gordon S. Wood

No modern, developed nation idolizes its founders in quite the way America does. If other nations have founders at all, they are usually mythical characters, like Romulus and Remus or King Arthur, obscured in the mists of a distant past. Our founders are authentic historical figures about whom we know a great deal. Yet many of us insist on turning these real human beings into larger-than-life heroes against whom we tend to measure ourselves. They seem to be giants. So we wonder: Why don’t we have Thomas Jeffersons today, and if we did, what would they have to say?

In fact, these 18th century figures were extraordinary men, products of a peculiar moment in our history when the forces of aristocracy and democracy were nicely balanced. Although almost all of them were men of relatively modest origins, they were unabashed elitists who had a contempt for electioneering and popular politics. They rejected blood and family as sources of status, however, and were eager to establish themselves by principles that could be acquired through learning and education. They struggled to internalize the new, Enlightened Man–made standards that had come to define what Jefferson called the “natural aristocracy”–politeness, sociability, compassion, virtue, disinterestedness and an aversion to corruption and courtlike behavior.

Of these 18th century heroes, Jefferson has been the most important. No one has been more identified with our democratic heritage. Even into our own time, politicians want to get right with the third President. William Jefferson Clinton began his Administration by invoking the memory of Jefferson in his Inaugural Address. Ronald Reagan repeatedly called on Jefferson in order to justify his attempts to reduce the size of the Federal Government, urging us all to “pluck a flower from Thomas Jefferson’s life and wear it in our soul forever.”

Like the other revolutionaries, Jefferson was eager to prove himself by the latest, most enlightened values. His father Peter Jefferson was a wealthy Virginia planter and surveyor. But his father was not a refined and liberally educated gentleman. He did not read Latin, he did not know French, he did not play the violin, and as far as we know, he never once questioned the idea of a religious establishment or the owning of slaves. Jefferson aimed to be very different from his father. No founder worked harder at being civilized. Even by 1782, as an admiring French visitor observed, Jefferson, “without having quitted his own country,” had become “an American who…is a musician, draftsman, astronomer, natural philosopher, jurist and a statesman.”

At the same time, this cultivated natural aristocrat became the founder most trusting of ordinary people. All human beings, he said, rich and poor, white and black, had “implanted in [their] breasts” a “moral instinct” and a sympathetic “love of others.” “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” said Jefferson; the ploughman will decide it as well, and often better, “because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” This idea lay behind Jefferson’s belief in the natural harmony of society and his advocacy of minimal government. Government, especially monarchical government, was the source of evil in society. Get rid of its power to create distinctions and monopolies, said Jefferson, and people would be able to come together naturally in social equality and benevolence.

But as historians have been telling us over the past four decades, Jefferson was a deeply flawed human being. Not only was he sometimes deceitful and duplicitous, but he was also a racist slaveholder who never freed most of his slaves. Certainly, however, we should be able to admit these flaws in this timebound 18th century figure without denigrating the democratic ideals he set forth.

Although we quite sensibly renew our belief in these ideals by periodically reinvoking Jefferson’s words, we ought always to remember that his statements, along with the Constitution and the other institutions the founders created, have been expanded and developed by more than two centuries of historical experience, an experience that is the real wellspring of our democracy. It’s time we realize that our founding is not the source of our political and constitutional achievement. We owe our success to the common sense of the American people throughout our entire history, and our continued success will depend upon that virtue and not simply upon the creative moment of the founding.

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