Thomas Jefferson and the Complexity of America

I am just coming back from vacation, having time to hike, play tennis, river raft and think. I read several books, including Bush, the Jean Edward Smith biography of George W. Bush; a biography of former Secretary of State George Marshall; a history of the French and Indian War (the first global conflict, fought in India, Mainland Europe, the Caribbean and North America by the British and French); and most importantly, Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, called The Art of Power.

I have never been a Jefferson devotee. He was a plantation owner who had hundreds of slaves whom he did not free at his death; he lived beyond his means, and his family had to sell Monticello on his death to pay debts; his vision of America was profoundly rural, not urban; he fathered several children with a slave (Sally Hemings); and he favored continual revolution as a means of refreshing democracy.

This summer, I also visited Jefferson’s home in Monticello. It is a place of wonder. The front hall is festooned with items sent by explorers Lewis and Clark. There are American Indian head dresses, animal skulls and antlers. On either side of the entrance are busts of Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, his arch rival in President Washington’s cabinet. There is a quintessential man-cave, his bedroom, with everything from a reclining chair with an outside view to a secret stairway to his clothes closet. Then there are the books, thousands of them, even after he contributed 7,000 of his volumes to the Library of Congress after the British burned Washington, D.C., in the War of 1812 to restart the collection. He was an omnivore, a relentless intellectual who embodied The Enlightenment.

His greatest contribution is the Declaration of Independence, the preamble of which I had to memorize and recite in grade school. As Jefferson said later about the seminal document: “It was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion [meaning the separation from the mother country, Britain].”

But there is much more to Jefferson as a politician. He was deeply pragmatic. He was able to make deals with his ideological opponents, for example the designation of Washington, D.C. adjacent to his home state of Virginia in trade for his support of the Hamilton plan to have the central government assume state debts incurred during the American Revolution. He had a near paranoid fear of the restoration of a monarchy in the United States.

He stood for freedom of the press, vehemently opposing the Sedition Act, which forbade anyone to “write, print, utter or publish any false scandalous and malicious writings against the Government of the United States with intent to defame or bring them into contempt or disrepute.” One of his first acts as President in 1801 was to pardon the printers convicted under the Sedition Act.

He recognized the opportunity to expand the country through the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory. France, under Napoleon, was overextended in its Continental wars with Britain and had to contend with a violent slave revolt in Haiti. Having served for five years as America’s ambassador to France, Jefferson understood how to forge a deal with the Emperor, paying $15 million or effectively three cents per acre and doubling the size of the country, from 434 million acres to 1 billion acres.

He recognized the need for political parties; in fact, his party still survives as the modern Democratic Party. “Men have differed in opinion and been divided into parties by these opinions from the first origin of societies…Whether power of the people or that of the best men and nobles should prevail, were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions,” Jefferson wrote.

He understood that freedom of religion was central to the American promise but also appreciated the cultural role played by faith in the new country. Meacham writes, “Jefferson hoped that subjecting religious sensibilities to free inquiry would transform faith from a source of contention into a force for good; the wisest course was not to rail against religion but to encourage the application of reason to questions of faith.”

He recognized the central mission of education. He wrote, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education.” That is why he spent much of his later years in the creation of the University of Virginia, whose mission was to “form the statesmen, legislators and judges on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” I had to giggle when I read his comment about the need for a local university instead of sending young Virginians to Harvard, “from whence they will return to us fanatics and Tories.”

I ask each of you reading this blog post to consider the U.S. election to be held two months from now, to register to vote, and to go to the polls on November 8. Remember the legacy of Jefferson, perhaps best expressed by that consummate ordinary American, Harry Truman, who in running for re-election in 1948, said, “I have profound faith in the people of this country, in their common sense. They love freedom and that love for freedom and justice is not dead.” Or Ronald Reagan, of a very different party and philosophy, forty years later, saying, “Jefferson believed that man had received from God a precious gift of enlightenment, the gift of reason, a gift that could extract from the chaos of life meaning, truth and order.” For Americans it must be the possibility of freedom, not the dark and dire vision of isolationism, protectionism and discrimination.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.