On Thomas Jefferson

He trusted to the advance of the Enlightenment to end
JULY 27, 2020, ISSUE

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

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
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
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
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.