In my youth, Thomas Jefferson was depicted as the elevated philosopher-statesman who crafted the truly magnificent Declaration of Independence, clearly placing him high in the pantheon of our Founding Fathers as the great visionary of the people’s republic. This role was often attributed to him in specific and pointed contrast to the putatively less lofty instincts of Hamilton – and even Washington – who supported what was described as undemocratically centralized power.
But that legacy has been the subject of rather heated – and healthy – criticism in more recent decades.
Jefferson’s greatness, though, is surely monumental, and deservedly recognized as such, for at least two accomplishments: of course, the Declaration of Independence takes pride of place here, but close behind, and of equally enduring and profound importance, comes the Louisiana Purchase.
The writing of the Declaration of Independence was not assigned to him because he was universally deferred to as a great political genius, but for two more prosaic reasons. First, he was a Virginian. Virginia was the most populous and important colony, and having a Virginian so prominently involved in this document was seen as important to its acceptance. Second, he quite simply had a reputation as an artful wordsmith. It was these two factors that served to outweigh his relative youth and inexperience, and land him the role of principal author.
Still, what he accomplished revealed at least an innate Socratic genius in him – the Declaration lit the way for Americans across the generations, binding them together in a shared nation as well as inspiring and proffering hope to peoples around the world. It shaped then, and has since, our understanding and our debate about that – of what our country means. Lincoln himself once famously noted that he never had a political instinct that didn’t derive from the principles of the Declaration. From the Civil War of his time to the social uncertainties of our own, the meaning of the Declaration drives our debate, works to inspire us to continue striving to practically achieve in our society the ideals there outlined that we all acknowledge as ours.
The Louisiana Purchase was the consequence of a wide range of wonderfully converging coincidences that culminated in a final, stunning bit of good luck. Jefferson was initially (and properly) only concerned to secure the port of New Orleans for American commerce, but wound up essentially being handed the entire Louisiana territory, more than doubling U.S land area, as well as obtaining dominating control of the Mississippi River – a geopolitical masterstroke. Yet none of this could have happened without Jefferson’s prescient impulse to look to westward expansion as key to the country’s future, and to his being alert for opportunities to facilitate that. He further cemented the grandeur of this accomplishment – and of this abiding drive westward of the American nation – with the commissioning of the spectacular Lewis and Clark expedition.
On the other hand, unlike the mythical Jefferson I learned about in school, the real Jefferson had some genuine shortcomings, many of which speak decidedly ill both of him and of the young nation, as well as some grievous failures, many of which cast long, dangerous shadows over that nation’s very prospects.
We’ll address some of these more broadly in coming weeks. Here, I just want to identify one that always struck me as odd about some of the Jeffersonian quotes selected, in my school days, to represent his greatness. There always seemed to be an astonishing conflict between his characterization as a steadfast, uncompromising advocate and defender of individual liberty and democracy expressed by the people, and his hazily idealistic images of a happy, peaceful country of contented, virtuous farmers blissfully tending their fields under the benignly watchful eyes of elite philosopher-statesman specially trained for their roles at institutions like the university he founded to that specific purpose. Such Jeffersonian fantasies about what he felt to be the true nature of the fundamentally agrarian United States he envisioned, unavoidably call to mind impossibly bucolic and jarringly undemocratic images of a lord in his manor, snugly surrounded with verdant fields worked by happy, care-free peasants. A striking thing about the notion is that this self-deceiving, self-serving instinct to both seduce and subordinate the benighted people is, surely, with us still.
The story of Jefferson gives us much to ponder about who we are, as both a nation and a polity. It’s a dialogue we’ve been having in our politics and culture since, and one we’ll touch on further here, presently.