Those of us who grew up in the middle of this century thought that Jefferson’s star could never be dimmed, much less flicker or go out. In fact, we were surprised to learn that in the early decades of the century the star had disappeared behind clouds of hostility. Theodore Roosevelt referred to our saint as a “scholarly, timid, and shifting doctrinaire” and described any cult of him as “a discredit to my country.” Roosevelt reflected the imperial mood in which America ended the nineteenth century, with naval adventurism into Cuba, the Philippines, and the Far East. The prophet of naval power at that time, Alfred Thayer Mahan (surely the only admiral who was ever the president of the American Historical Association), joined others in seeing the active government envisaged by Alexander Hamilton as the vehicle for America’s rise to the status of a world power. Henry Adams, though he did not share his fellow imperialists’ admiration for Hamilton, made endless fun of Jefferson for his belief that America could sustain a realistic foreign policy with the help of a few shore-hugging gunboats.

As the country moved from turn-of-the-century imperialism into the Progressive Era, reformers found that they, too, needed Hamilton’s strong government for the remaking of society. The leading voice here was that of Herbert Croly, who found in Jefferson’s libertarian ideals only “individual aggrandizement and collective irresponsibility.” Well into the Twenties, Americans were assured that ordinary people were incapable of conducting their own affairs in a time of rapid and necessary technological innovation. Robert and Helen Lynd, famous for Middletown (their sociological study of Muncie, Indiana), concluded that the bewildered modern housewife could not keep up with the new tools and markets she must use, and turned her over to the advice of experts to be specially created for her guidance. Walter Lippmann, in The Phantom Public (1929), claimed that the average voter could not judge complex issues involved in modern public policy, and wanted boards of experts to make the real decisions, which voters would simply ratify.

It was only with the crash of the high hopes for governmental omnicompetence—it was only with the Great Depression—that a new emphasis on the plight and dignity of common people led to a resurgence of the great celebrator of the American yeoman, the plowman, the common man, the citizen. By the 1940s both political parties were invoking Jefferson—even Republicans now remembered that their own greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, called Jefferson, in his 1854 speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the man “who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history.” They had discovered the whole founding dream of America in Jefferson’s words. The dedication of the Jefferson Memorial on April 13, 1943—the two hundredth anniversary of his birth—lodged him in that high stellar place where my contemporaries first encountered him. It seemed there would be no further wavering on the place of Jefferson at the center of America’s historical commitments.

Yet Jefferson’s formerly unquestioned greatness is now very thoroughly questioned. There are several confluent reasons for this, but the greatest is no doubt a deeper awareness of our national sin of slavery. When I first went to Monticello in the late 1950s, the role of slaves at that plantation complex was muted and made barely visible. The civil rights movement made such historical evasiveness impossible. The presence of slaves, their crucial labors (in a double sense), began to be marked, not only at Monticello, but at Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, and other sacred places in our history. In itself, this new clarity about our racial history should have told no more against Jefferson than against other presidents who ever owned slaves—Washington, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, Andrew Johnson. But there are three things that add a special note of hypocrisy to Jefferson’s purchasing and sale of human beings:

  1. He was more passionate and effective in his calls for human freedom than was any other Founder.
  2. He maintained an extravagant life style that kept him heavily indebted (to the very banks he called sources of corruption), and this made it impossible for him to free any but a few slaves (unlike Washington, who stayed solvent and could support the slaves he freed at his wife’s death). Debt forced Jefferson to sell slaves in ways that disrupted family life, a step some other slave owners deplored and Washington was able to avoid.
  3. The charge that Jefferson had a secret affair with his own slave Sally Hemings and lied about it gained new plausibility as a result of DNA testing.

A shift in the climate of any reputation leads to sharper looks at other aspects of the person’s life than the one that caused that shift in the first place. So even on issues not directly related to slavery, Jefferson’s credentials have come under increasing challenge. Contradictions in his policies toward Native Americans have received harsh new scrutiny, notably by Anthony Wallace in his Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans.1 James Morton Smith’s running commentary on the Jefferson-Madison correspondence suggests that Madison was not only the deeper thinker but that he may have been a more consistent defender of liberty.2 A romantic picture of Jefferson the democrat who received diplomats in his slippers was dealt a blow by the great Monticello exhibit and catalog of 1993,3 which revealed how elitist was the life he led in France, in Virginia, and in Washington. A guest at one of his famous White House dinners wrote:


His maitre-d’hôtel had served in some of the first families abroad, and understood his business to perfection. The excellence and the superior skill of his French cook was acknowledged by all who frequented his table, for never before had such dinners been given in the President’s House, nor such a variety of the finest and most costly wines.

We can no longer forget that the fine wines, like the almost frantic collecting of art works, books, and furniture, were paid for with money wrung from the bodies of Jefferson’s human property. This can only make us shake our heads when Jefferson professes a creed of thrift: “Would that a missionary [might] appear who would make frugality the basis of his religious system, and go thro the land preaching it up as the only road to salvation, I would join his school….”

Pauline Maier’s recent reappraisal of Jefferson’s claim to authorship of the Declaration of Independence is evidence that Jefferson’s image is under assault. She even once nominated him as “the most overrated person in American history…but only because of the extraordinary adulation (and, sometimes, execration) he has received and continues to receive.”4 Conor Cruise O’Brien, in his book on Jefferson and the French Revolution, adds the final insult when he calls Jefferson the son of the Parisian Terror and the father of the Oklahoma City bombing.5 And, as has happened in the past, a sinking of Jefferson’s claims has been paired with a concomitant lifting of Hamilton’s. Though Hamilton’s biographer, Henry Cabot Lodge, was not entirely justified in claiming that all Americans are either Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians, the two men’s reputations do tend to move in contrary directions, if not quite on a historical seesaw, then as part of a sensitively poised Calder mobile.

Can we, in this climate, continue to hold that Jefferson is our “genius of liberty”? Certainly not, if that means denying some of the critical insights gained in recent years. But a reconsideration of the man may indicate that we misconceived his greatness rather than that he lacked greatness. Many people in the past thought of Jefferson as a theoretician, a French rationalist, even a metaphysician—timid, as Theodore Roosevelt thought, because so airily abstract and scholarly. Actually, of course, Jefferson despised metaphysicians. He lumped them together with the Platonists who had corrupted with their abstractions the plain moral instincts of Jesus. Jefferson was not a rigorous thinker. He was a rhetorician, an artist, an aesthete bordering on the dilettante. Henry Adams went right to the heart of this paradox when he spoke of Jefferson’s “intellectual sensuousness.” In discussing hypotheses, Jefferson would not sacrifice to scientific accuracy their symmetry and elegance. Even his handwriting showed his compulsion to the chaste ordering of shapes (uppercase letters were not allowed to violate the letters’ formal ranks). He evened off his letters as he evened off the generations of men at a tidy nineteen years. He wanted “natural” measures of American weights and moneys, disregarding irregular intrusions of friction in his means of arriving at these all-too-neat numbers.

Not only was he an architect of talent, he was a romantic architect. His plantation was highly impractical because he placed it high above sublime views, where he could “ride above the storms” (and above mundane tasks), to “look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet!” Despite his years of obsessively collecting meteorological data, he never formulated a theory from them, as Franklin did from the experience of one storm at sea. Jefferson was the observer, who wanted to be awed by nature in its purity. When he compares his view from Monticello with other sights, they are all of untouched nature—“the Falling Spring, the Cascade of Niagara, the Passage of the Potowmac through the Blue Mountains, the Natural bridge.”

In his aesthetic primitivism, Jefferson wanted to get back to a pure state of nature—pre-feudal, pre-urban, pre-monetary. The religion of Jesus was sound because non-institutional, non-theological, non-professional. It had no priests or ceremonies. Debts must be abolished periodically, to start over, to have a clean slate. America was superior to Europe, in Jefferson’s eyes, because closer to nature. Europeans must be admitted into this paradise only slowly and grudgingly, if at all, lest they bring the evil fruit of their training, foreign to the ethos of our law, to “warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”

For the same reason, wrote Jefferson from France, young Americans should not be allowed to study in Europe, where, in an atmosphere of monarchs and priests, they may come to feel “the hollow, unmeaning manners of Europe to be preferable to the simplicity and sincerity of our own country.” The encroachments of “civilization” must be fought off as long as possible, since “when they [Americans] get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as is Europe.” Since even the Bible has been corrupted by the priests, children should not be allowed to read it before they have been taught the self-evident maxims of honesty. Then they will accept from it only “the facts [that] are within the ordinary course of nature.”


In Jefferson’s primitivism we can discover the moral aspect of his aesthetics. For the Encyclopedists in France, for Shaftesbury in England, for Hume and Hutcheson in Scotland, the perception of moral beauty was closely allied with the aesthetic sense. That is why Jefferson thought that the sublime vistas of nature not only uplift but educate, a philosophy that he expounds in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Though he upheld harsh removal measures for the Native American, he thought that “his sensibility is keen” because he lives close to nature, while his natural self-control makes him “endeavour to appear superior to human events.” The Indians’ aesthetic sense led to “the most sublime oratory” in leaders like the Mingo chief Logan. The link between this aesthetic sensibility and moral probity was seen in the fact that “crimes are very rare among them.”

Here we have to ask how Jefferson could at times be so appreciative of Native American dignity under conquest yet so blind to human worth in the oppressed African-Americans. People have thrashed about looking for a basis in intellect for this distinction, but have neglected the regnant principle with Jefferson, his sense of beauty. He found that blacks lack “the circumstance of superior beauty” that is taken into account even in animal husbandry:

Is it [skin color] not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?

This is Jefferson’s aestheticism at its worst. But he had the strengths of his weaknesses. He thought that his “beautiful people,” the ordinary white yeomen, had a sense of order that was at once artistic and moral. His treatise of prosody says that all people are able to sense the order of accents that is most pleasing because of “the construction of the human ear.” Why do rules jump out at us from the very nature of the English language? “The reason is that it has pleased God to make us so.” Even the whole complex of grammatical constructions was grasped without rules by those who spoke Anglo-Saxon, that pre-learned language of nature that he recommended to students at his university. It was such natural beauty, existing before theories, that he thought he discerned in the poems of the Scottish bard Ossian.

This complex of aesthetic notions about natural perception gave Jefferson the assurance for one of his most famous democratic statements: “State a moral case to a ploughman & a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” It was in the context of his letter on the sublimities of nature that Jefferson told Maria Cosway, “Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain combinations of the head. She [nature] laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.” The head must make “combinations,” create a chain of linked arguments, in order to reach a point that the heart leaps to directly. Jefferson even attributes the American Revolution to the direct perception of right that bypassed the head’s more timid reflections:

You [the head] began to calculate and to compare wealth and numbers: we threw up a few pulsations of our warmest blood: we supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers: we put our existence to the hazard, when the hazard seemed against us, and we saved our country: justifying at the same time the ways of Providence, whose precept is to do always what is right, and leave the issue to him.

His estimate of the heart’s moral certitudes also made Jefferson prefer the emotional yeoman of the South to the scheming banker of the North. When he listed the attributes of the two regions, he said that Southerners were generous, candid, and “without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that of the heart,” while the “chicaning” Northerners were “superstitious and hypocritical in their religion.”

For Jefferson, then, the preservation of the heart’s moral instinct is the true aim of education. That is why aesthetic response to a novel is a mode of moral formation:

We are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life.

Tears for another’s plight, even for an imaginary character in a sentimental novel, show how the moral sense turns pain into the pleasures of benevolence: “And what more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven hath smitten….”

Jefferson the aesthete, then, is not really Jefferson the dilettante but Jefferson the moralist. And the democrat. He felt that human beings respond nobly to nature if their contact with it is not broken by adventitious accretions to it—by institutional religion, by systems of financial credit and debit, by cities, by theories, by governments. The defense of freedom, for him, meant not obtruding on natural man an artificial compulsion. As he wrote to Abigail Adams:

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.

That last sentence returns us to the storms brewing in the “laboratory” below Monticello’s height, and to the fundamentally artistic sense Jefferson had of politics. In his oddly mandarin way he had arrived at the basic dem-ocratic insight—that every human being is Humanity itself. It is an insight G.K. Chesterton put in many earthy ways—that we do not shout that “a Nobel Prize winner is drowning” but that “a man is drowning”; that the jury system expresses the truth that ordinary persons should be the judges of moral truth; that “democracy is like blowing your nose, you may not do it well but you ought to do it yourself.” The contradictions of Jefferson had their dark side, but they also had this one dramatically benign side as well: he was the most uncommon of men, but he had a deep faith in the common man. For all his own elite life style, he was anti-elitist in principle—anti-priest, anti-banker, anti-theoretician, anti-politician. No other Founder had his deep reverence for the dignity and freedom of the individual.

Naturally, the nation has expanded on his insights—but it is to those insights it recurred when the work of expansion was to be done. The rights he found in his idealized yeoman are the model for those we try to uphold for every person in America. He voiced his faith in a rhetoric that has resonated far beyond any results he could have expected himself. His statement that “all men are created equal” is one of those formulations that ends up meaning more than it meant to mean. It became the lodestar to Lincoln, who taught us to read the Constitution itself in the light of the Declaration of Independence. It was appealed to by Martin Luther King, Jr. The legacy of Jefferson, as passed on by Lincoln, is at the very heart of the American love of freedom. Here is the way Lincoln phrased the matter:

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society…. All honor to Jefferson—to 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, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyrany and oppression.

In Lincoln’s own version of the American melting-pot concept, expressed in a July 10, 1858, speech in Chicago, he says that people who come from different countries, cultures, and status will be made equal in their American liberties by the Declaration. The statement that all men are equal “is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”

Jefferson’s most transcendent gift may have been the gift of expression. His words continue to inspire what is deepest and best in America’s struggle toward equality for all. They are applied to blacks in ways that Jefferson did not intend, and have reached others going beyond his own anticipation—women, gays, the disabled, minorities of all kinds. He intuited, with his fine sensibility, an ethos he could not always act on himself, but he conjured it up with undispellable words. That ethos was liberty, and he remains its genius. Even Henry Adams, often Jefferson’s critic, had to admit that the privately visionary words of Jefferson embodied, in time, the shared public beliefs of the American citizenry.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Garry Wills

This Issue

March 9, 2000