The war he had helped launch and justify raged on, the enemy's army had swept through his state capital only hours before and his successor as Virginia's Governor still hadn't been selected by the legislature, but Thomas Jefferson was going home, convinced that his work for America was done. It was the summer of 1781, five years since the July in Philadelphia when the author of the Declaration of Independence had, in two inspired weeks of writing energized by years of thought and study and practical political activity, helped create a new nation with his pen. The course this nation would follow remained uncertain, the fate of its central ideals undecided and the question of its very survival unclear, but Jefferson's direction was firm and fixed: away from politics and public life and back to his cherished plantation, Monticello. Back to his loved ones, his gardens, his fields, his library and to the scores of people whose labor made his pursuit of happiness possible: his slaves.
The great revolutionary was calling it quits--or so he told his friends. In one of more
than 20,000 letters that scholars estimate Jefferson completed before his death on July 4, 1826, the future Secretary of State, Vice President, two-term President and founder
of the University of Virginia confirmed his premature decision to abandon the rigors
of government service for the pleasures of rural solitude: "I have taken my final leave
of everything of that nature, have retired to my farm, my family and books from which
I think nothing will ever more separate me."
Jefferson thought wrong, of course. He didn't retire in 1781. Events didn't let him, and he didn't let himself, whether out of ambition, a sense of obligation or, as seems most likely, a mixture of both. As would happen again and again during his lifetime--and after his lifetime, right down to the present, when the question "What would Jefferson do?" feels as relevant to contemporary affairs as it did in the nation's early years--the institutions and ideas that the Virginian so strenuously advocated and eloquently defended carried him away from home, out of domestic seclusion and into history as the conscience of our country. It's the place where he truly belonged and still resides, not always comfortably but probably permanently.
"Jefferson wrote the magic words of American history, the 55 words in the Declaration of Independence that begin 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,'" says Joseph Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and the author of the award-winning biography American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. "That promise and those words are probably the most important words in American history--and possibly all of modern history."
On the bicentennial of his re-election as President, Jefferson still intrigues Americans for another reason: his tantalizing inner complexity. The tall, soft-spoken Virginia squire who loved fine wines and whose enormous book collection became the core of the Library of Congress was no unfeeling, detached egghead but a passionate, somewhat elusive human being. When his wife Martha died in 1782, he wrapped a lock of her hair with a scrap of paper containing an excerpt from the couple's favorite novel, Laurence Sterne's comic masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, and stashed the token in his desk. Four years later, while serving in Paris as Minister to France, he fell in love with a married painter, Maria Cosway. The relationship didn't last, but before it ended, Jefferson wrote Cosway the longest letter of his life, a fanciful, romantic conversation between his "Heart" and his "Head."
Jefferson's soul was in conflict all his life. Nearly everything he wrote was contradicted at some point by something he did. The prophet of equality owned slaves and, it now seems likely, had at least one child with one of them. The man who said, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter," privately urged state officials to press seditious libel charges against editors unfriendly to his presidency. The advocate of a limited Federal Government and opponent of a permanent standing military doubled the size of the country in one stroke by making the Louisiana Purchase and went to war against Muslim pirates with a brand-new fighting force: the U.S. Marines. "He had outsized talents of statesmanship and outsized talents for self-indulgence," says Roger Wilkins, author of Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism. "I don't begrudge Jefferson his iconic status, because he was, in fact, a great, if flawed human being."
But inconsistency is not hypocrisy. If Jefferson's actions sometimes violated his high
and, at times, unrealistic principles, our present-day actions violate some of them too. There isn't much about today's America that its visionary third President wouldn't find troubling, in need of improvement or just plain horrifying. The peaceful republic that Jefferson wished for and did what he could to usher into being--a collection of independent gentleman farmers, moderately prosperous and highly educated, living
under a thrifty, modest government that was legally bound not to meddle in their affairs,
be they commercial, domestic or religious, and which staunchly resisted foreign "entanglements"--seems now like a large-scale version of Monticello, the grand but quixotic hilltop sanctuary that Jefferson never quite finished building and couldn't afford to pass down to his heirs.
Jefferson passed down his ideas instead, many of them still fresh and controversial
(the complete separation of church and state, the suspicion that money would conspire with power to establish a sinister homegrown aristocracy), a few of them outlandish and fanciful (his suggestion that the Constitution be revisited every 19 years so that each generation could establish its own government) and a couple of them that were repugnant even to some folks in his day (for example, his pseudoscientific notion that blacks are
the mental inferiors of whites). All of them are impossible to ignore, though, because of the care he took in writing them down.
"He wanted to order the world with words," says R.B. Bernstein, an adjunct professor at New York Law School and one of Jefferson's countless biographers. "He also tried to order American history and politics through his words. He argues about checks and balances, what equal means, what liberty means, what freedom of the press means. His command of language really does shape our intellectual, political and philosophical worlds."
But Jefferson was a man of action too. In the 1790s, he became convinced that the Revolution was being betrayed by "deserters from the rights and interests of the people," led by the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, a fellow Cabinet member. A political brawl ensued. Jefferson helped found and back a friendly newspaper, the National Gazette, to help disseminate his views. He and his collaborator James Madison hurled pointed charges at his foes and assembled an influential coalition to oppose what he called "aristocrats" and "monocrats." His aggressive behavior, and Hamilton's, finally drew formal rebukes from the consensus-loving President Washington, but Jefferson did not back down.
To play the enlightening, fascinating and occasionally disquieting game of trying to picture Jefferson now and apply his ideas and policies to 21st century American issues, one first has to imagine a sort of figure who hasn't existed for a long, long time and seems unlikely to appear again soon: a philosopher-President. The son of wealthy, high-born, landed parents, Jefferson trained as a lawyer in the days when this meant memorizing and analyzing centuries worth of British common law. Along the way, he mastered Latin and Greek, several of the leading European languages and enough philosophy, science and mathematics that during his term as John Adams' Vice President, he was also chosen to head the American Philosophical Society. It was to this group that Jefferson, a self-trained paleontologist, presented one of his prize possessions: the fossilized bones of a prehistoric creature he called Megalonyx. Jefferson thought it was a huge, lion-like carnivore, but it turned out to be, alas, a giant ground sloth.
Knowledge in those days wasn't broken up into the specialized fields that it is now. In a mind such as Jefferson's, everything connected. Observations of the natural world held deep implications for the human world. Both realms obeyed eternal, rational laws--"self-evident truths" that came from the Creator and didn't depend upon the whims of kings or make exceptions for class and nationality. In 1782 at Monticello, he began his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia, a kind of almanac that was partly intended to refute various European prejudices about life in the New World, among them a leading French scientist's belief that America's animal and plant life was punier, weaker and shorter lived than Europe's.
When Jefferson later visited France, then a tottering monarchy on the cusp of revolution, he experienced profoundly mixed emotions. He liked the wine and was awestruck by the architecture but the haughty, pampered nobility disgusted him. "A slight acquaintance with them," Jefferson wrote, "will suffice to show you that, under the most imposing exterior, they are the weakest and worst part of mankind." When the masses overthrew the bigwigs, Jefferson cheered. The indiscriminate, riotous violence that followed the initial uprisings struck Jefferson as the price of liberty, revealing a tolerance for political bloodshed that makes one wonder what he would think about Iraq. "Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in every country, & left free," he wrote, "it would be better than it now is."
It's a subject worth lingering over: Jefferson and Iraq. Would the nation's first Republican President (a "Republican" then was like a modern-day Democrat, though not identical to one) have even engaged in such a conflict? It's hard to know but tempting to ponder. On the one hand, Jefferson loathed oppression and looked upon freedom as mankind's natural tendency. "When [Paul] Wolfowitz and Bush say that if you plant the seeds of democracy in the Middle East, they will grow, that's very Jeffersonian," Ellis says. "In a pure Jeffersonian vision, these principles are universal and inevitable." Do these principles justify armed intervention though? Jefferson might have balked on several counts. First, the cost. In wartime, red ink flows as freely as blood, and Jefferson hated nothing more than debt, especially public debt. One controversy that led to his great split with Hamilton (and which ultimately expressed itself in the formation of rival political parties from a single original club of gentlemen who sought to work out their differences in private) boiled down to the financing of the Federal Government.
Jefferson also had isolationist instincts. "Jefferson saw France and England as capricious monarchies," says Lehigh University political scientist Richard Matthews, author of The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. "He believed in waging war for the right reasons--for example, a threat to U.S. sovereignty--not for capricious ones." Factoring into Jefferson's belief that America should restrain itself from engaging in international conflict was his optimistic image of the country's utter physical vastness and geographic impregnability. Here is how he characterized the nation in his first Inaugural Address: "Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation ..."
Distances have shrunk since then, of course, and Jefferson's notion that the country's population would never strain its seemingly limitless resources comes off as ridiculously shortsighted now. What's more, the Virginian couldn't have foreseen the way in which America's thirst for oil would place it at the mercy of foreign powers. A global economy changes everything.
Some things haven't changed since Jefferson's time, though, and one of them is the country's ongoing struggle with the role of religion in civic life. As the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which prohibited government interference in people's religious beliefs, Jefferson took a hard line in this regard, and it isn't difficult to imagine where he would stand on current debates about prayer in public schools, say, or faith-based funding for social projects. "If there is one field of constitutional law, and law generally, where Jefferson was amazing, it's the separation of church and state," Bernstein says. "He had come to believe not in traditional English deism--that God created the universe and was the Supreme Being--but that Jesus embodied 'every human excellence' and nothing more. He thought the alliance of religion and government corrupted both, and that that endangered the liberty of the individual mind."
If Jefferson were alive today, he would be shocked by the monstrous complexity and expense of modern politics. When he first ran for President in 1800, the Electoral College and the House of Representatives decided elections, by and large, and there was little campaigning in the current sense. The nonstop advertising, showy conventions and hectic travel would have repelled the shy Virginian, who found public speaking burdensome. "In [the Founding Fathers'] minds, the person who was ambitious and wanted high office was the one person you should never trust with it," says Yale historian Joanne Freeman, author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. "They would have been horrified to see candidates begging for votes."
Once he took office, Jefferson's views on limited government didn't inhibit his muscular use of power. A born defender of the citizenry's right to dissent from and even actively oppose its leaders' decisions, he strongly aligned himself against the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had been signed by his predecessor Adams. (To the extent that certain elements of the current U.S. Patriot Act smack of oppression, Jefferson might find it alarming too.) And following the Louisiana Purchase--whose constitutionality he questioned but whose practical benefits he found irresistible--he boldly claimed the nation's far-reaching wilderness by sending Lewis and Clark on their unprecedented expedition, the purpose of which was not only to seek knowledge but also to assert political dominion. To Jefferson, the advance of freedom wasn't something that happened on its own. It had to be pushed, and push it he did.
Today we don't live in Jefferson's America--not, at least, in any practical sense--and yet his ideals, if not always his actions, serve as a perpetual reminder of the country's potential to operate more freely, openly, rationally and fairly. Though not in a conventional religious sense, Jefferson was a man of faith. He expected that certain abiding truths, more durable than any physical monuments, would continue to guide the conscience of the nation long after he was gone. "The good sense of our people will direct the boat ultimately to its proper point," he wrote. Through his thoughts, words and deeds, he tried to steer this vessel, but he knew in the end that its course was up to us, despite our confusion, despite our imperfection. He was far from perfect too. Institutions evolve and circumstances change, but finally Jefferson trusted in the people. It's easy to forget but crucial to remember that he was one of them. One of us.