Nobody embodies the paradox at the heart of the American founding more vividly than Thomas Jefferson, the slave owner who penned the American creed of liberty in the Declaration of Independence and who, with a slave as his concubine, would “dream of freedom in his bondsmaid’s arms,” as Irish poet Tom Moore jeered during Jefferson’s second presidential term. As young vandals torch our national heritage, in an infectious delusion that America was conceived in slavery, not in liberty, take a good look at our third president, warts and all. You’ll find, despite his undeniable flaws, one of history’s great men who helped build history’s greatest nation. He is especially relevant now, when the qualities he placed at the center of our culture are at once so beleaguered and so essential.
By his order, Jefferson’s gravestone identifies him only as the father of the University of Virginia and the author of both the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia statute of religious freedom — intellectual accomplishments all. Of his presidency and other government offices there’s not a word. He was a true child of the Enlightenment, most at home in the world of ideas and convinced that reason would lead to truth, material improvement, and moral progress. Hence his emphasis on religious freedom in a Virginia that, even after the Declaration of Independence, had an established Anglican church, exacting taxes from all citizens and forbidding the promulgation of unorthodox religious beliefs.
No one can make you profess or support dogmas you don’t believe, Jefferson countered. The first freedom is the freedom to think whatever thoughts you like and say whatever your reason tells you is true. No one can deny, his statute declared, echoing Milton’s sublime Areopagitica, “that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
So simple and so obvious: but can one find a college administrator or newspaper editor with the courage to say this to politically correct mobs howling down unorthodox speakers or writers today? Would any one of them declare, with Jefferson, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man?”
Then there is America’s foundational idea, proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, summing up Locke’s political theory with diamond-like compression and clarity, and adding to it a uniquely American flourish that makes it something new in political thought. Men are born equal in their rights to life and liberty, and they form governments only to protect those rights. Public officials thus work for the citizens; even “kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people,” as of course are the administrative state’s meddlesome “swarms of officers [who] harass our people and eat out their substance.” All can be fired for abuse or neglect of their trust, including failure to keep citizens safe in their homes and streets.
But there’s one more unalienable right with which we’re born: the right to “the pursuit of happiness.” “Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue,” wrote the great English novelist V. S. Naipaul, whose Trinidadian childhood as the grandson of Indian indentured laborers made him never take Jefferson’s formulation for granted. It is, he marveled, “an immense human idea” that contains a world of possibility: “a certain kind of awakened spirit, . . . the idea of individual responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement.” We are born, Jefferson declared, with the right to forge our own happiness in our own way, to make the most of whatever talents and energies, tastes and curiosities lie within us. Who before, in man’s history of serfs and lords, could dare dream of such liberty?
When Jefferson claimed to have fathered the University of Virginia, he was not kidding. Arguably America’s greatest architect ever, amateur or professional, he designed its meltingly beautiful campus as a textbook of classicism. He oversaw its construction, served as its rector, hired its faculty, and devised its curriculum, “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.” His educational aspirations had been even grander than this. Early in his political career he had lobbied hard, though unsuccessfully, for a purely meritocratic system of public education that would make every Virginian literate and send the most talented on to secondary school and then university, with the selection more rigorous at each stage, to generate a constantly renewed “aristocracy of virtue and talent.” Now that cities spend $25,000 a year to send each child to elementary school and parents shell out $65,000 for a year at an elite university offering more snob appeal than learning, we are rapidly discarding such a meritocratic ideal, heedless that our predatory global competitors are overtaking us in wealth and power as a result. But even in Jefferson’s day, his ideal was hard to realize. His students got drunk, brawled, shot off guns among his classical pavilions, and roughed up their professors. Jefferson, then 82, came down from his mountaintop home to remonstrate with them. He mounted the stage, tried to speak, and burst into tears.
Recently, among the Jacobin mobs vandalizing our cities, some yahoo in Charlottesville graffitied a statue of Jefferson near the university with the legend “Racist + Rapist,” making him an almost complete intersectional villain. What about those charges?
It is true that Jefferson owned slaves, and that Monticello, built to his exquisite design of bricks made and laid by slaves, as in Egypt of old, was a slave plantation, its rare and precious furnishings and books, even the Château Margaux and Château d’Yquem in its cellars, bought by the sweat of slaves’ brows. (I write this with some trepidation, lest the mob come to demolish America’s most beautiful house.) But he knew to the marrow of his bones that slavery was wrong, an affront to his most cherished principles and those of the new nation, and he began saying so publicly at 26, when he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the legislature to make it legal for Virginians to free their slaves. Later, he needed Benjamin Franklin’s avuncular consolation when his fellow congressmen edited out of his draft of the Declaration of Independence his condemnation of George III for allowing the slave trade, a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty.” The existence of slavery endangered the liberty of all Americans, he thought, for it undermined citizens’ belief that human liberty comes from God and is not to be violated without His punishment. Indeed, he wrote of the slaves, in words that sound like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, “when the measure of their tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a god of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light & liberality among their oppressors, or at length by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not to be left to the guidance of a blind fatality.”
Jefferson trusted to the advance of Enlightenment to end an institution that had existed in America for more than a century before the Revolution and that the Founding Fathers couldn’t abolish at a stroke if they wanted their new nation to comprise all 13 colonies. But they blocked its spread with the Northwest Ordinance; they set a date to end the slave trade; and they foresaw that tobacco’s exhaustion of the soil would make slave plantations uneconomical and slavery unviable. But then came the cotton gin and the 1820 Missouri Compromise, extending slavery westward and giving it renewed life. “Like a fire bell in the night,” Jefferson wrote, the compromise “filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.” It would have to be exterminating thunder, after all. In the midst of the Civil War’s bloodshed, it was to Jefferson’s immortal words that Lincoln turned to proclaim America’s new birth of freedom.
Finally: “Rapist.” The sans-culotte with the spray paint doubtless meant Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings, the half-sister of his beloved wife, who left him a widower when he was 39. Begotten by Jefferson’s father-in-law upon a slave woman whose own father was an English sea captain, Sally was three-quarters white and, according to one contemporary, “decidedly good-looking.” A teenager in Jefferson’s household when he was the American minister in Paris, she was pregnant when he was to return to the United States and, because she was free under revolutionary France’s law, would agree to come back with him only on his promise to free her baby and any others she might have when they turned 21, a promise he kept, as her son, Madison, recounted the whole story in 1873. Of other women in the normally hot-blooded Jefferson’s life after this we hear nothing. What DNA evidence exists is inconclusive. Historians have spun fantasies — that she looked like her half-sister, that he felt, . . . that she felt . . . But more we do not know.
Freedom of thought and speech; all men equal in rights, including the right to the pursuit of their own happiness in their own way; a meritocratic society: We need Jefferson’s seminal ideas, the ideas that formed the core of our American identity, now more than ever.
This article appears as “Thomas Jefferson” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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