Corner of Presidents: Thomas Jefferson

by Michael Knox Beran

Jefferson’s is a double legacy: one living, the other dead. The apostle of liberty lives: The words of the man who, Lincoln said, worked out “the definitions and axioms of free society” will last as long as freedom does.

But the other Jefferson, the sage of Enlightenment, is now a curiosity: In his own lifetime, Burke and the French Revolution revealed the flaw in his brave-new-world rejection of tradition. Yet Jefferson’s belief that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” and that “the dead have neither powers nor rights over it” still does much harm, for it encourages the temporal provinciality that disfigures the modern democracies. Jefferson’s futurism — which curiously enough was at odds with his own practice in the spheres of manners and the arts — begets the sort of culture which, being too little nourished by the soils of the past, made Tocqueville say that “among democratic nations each generation is a new people.”

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— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal.

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