Celebrating Thomas Jefferson? (Written for ISU’s Alumni Magazine, Outlook, Spring 1993)


            On April 13, 1993, dignitaries from around the world will ascend the "little mountain" overlooking Charlottesville, Virginia, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson.  This man as drafter of the Declaration of Independence "invented" the United States.  As president, he orchestrated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France and sent Lewis and Clark toward Idaho.  In his later years, he helped create the University of Virginia and designed its buildings, grounds and curriculum.  Despite these accomplishments and scores of others, Jefferson's proper place in American history is far from well-established.  He remains a deeply controversial figure.

            Consider, for example, the current debate in Bannock County over whether the representation of the Ten Commandments in front of the courthouse violates the first amendment to the Constitution because it constitutes "an establishment of religion."  In an attempt to avoid a court battle over the issue, the Bannock County Commissioners have erected next to the original monument a new one containing language from Jefferson's "Statute for Religious Freedom," as the Virginia Assembly adopted it in 1786: “...that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”


            Jefferson -- like George Mason, James Madison, and others who worked for religious freedom in Virginia -- believed that religious beliefs should remain outside the purview of governmental bodies.  In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson amplified on his ideas, using even bolder language:  “our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them.  The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit.  We are answerable for them to our God.  The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.  But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.... What has been the effect of coercion?  To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.  To support roguery and error all over the earth.”

            These ideas led many, especially Jefferson's political opponents, to believe that he was against organized religion.  Although this conclusion is unfounded, Jefferson clearly favored the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution over Virginia's Statute.  The amendment placed religious freedom under fundamental law, thereby removing it from the whims of subsequent legislatures that might abolish it. 

            Today, some people argue that the establishment clause has destroyed religion in America.  During the Constitution's bicentennial celebration in the summer of 1987, Reverend Jerry Falwell was quoted in the Idaho Statesman as saying, "The idea that church and state should be separated was invented by the devil to keep us Christians from running this country."


            Other aspects of Jefferson's life and beliefs also provoke outrage in many circles.  He encouraged his daughters to develop themselves in music and domestic tasks so that they could be more pleasing to men.  He hated cities and urban dwellers, referring to farmers as "the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."  He convinced himself and his political supporters that Alexander Hamilton wanted a king for the nation.  He claimed "executive privilege" in order to withhold evidence from Aaron Burr's trial for treason.  He argued that states, not the Supreme Court, had the right to declare acts of the Congress unconstitutional and therefore "unauthoritative, void, and of no force."  He owned slaves and used the product of their labor to live so far outside of his means that when he died he left debts that his family had no hope of paying.  In the words of Yale historian, Edmund S. Morgan, "He lived from the labor of slaves, and he lived well....  He never got out of debt and never tried very hard to do so." 

            Atheist, sexist, secessionist, racist -- this person is a hero?  Outside of Virginia, only Alabamians celebrate his birthday, along with those of George Washington, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and not Abraham Lincoln.


            There is, of course, another side of Jefferson, and different sets of his words contain much to celebrate.  For starters, in the Declaration of Independence he captured perfectly Americans' beliefs in themselves and their hopes for the future -- equal opportunity, individual rights, popular control of government.  These themes resonate throughout our history. 

            Jefferson sought to liberate people from the past and from oppressive institutions.  He distrusted government at all levels and believed that the purpose of constitutions, drafted by and approved by the people, was to limit the government.  When governments operate within their proper bounds, individuals are free to pursue their interests and achieve happiness.  With limited government and industrious citizens, there is no need for bureaucracy or high taxes. 

            Not surprisingly, many presidents have borrowed Jefferson's words or his name to gain public support for their programs.   Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, kept trays of Jefferson quotes to be worked into his speeches.  President William Jefferson Clinton quoted from his namesake in the heart of his recent inaugural address, when he said, "Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the very foundation of our nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time."  The reference worked well for the new president because it prefaced the primary message of the address, that we need to embrace change in order to renew ourselves and our nation to face the challenges of the future.

            In fact, Jefferson never spoke of "dramatic change;" he advocated revolutionary change.  In Paris from 1787 to 1789, Jefferson sent three letters to Madison discussing the topic of periodic revolutions.  In response to Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts, he wrote, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical....  It is a medecine [sic] necessary for the sound health of government.”  In a subsequent letter, he wrote, “I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government.  It is always oppressive.  The late rebellion in Massachusetts has given more alarm than I think it should have done.  Calculate that one rebellion in 13 states in the course of 11 years, is but one for each state in a century and a half.  No country should be so long without one.”  Finally, just prior to his return to the United States, “[O]ne generation is to another as one independent nation to another....  [N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.  The earth belongs always to the living generation.... The constitution and the laws of their predecessors [are] extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being....  Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years.  If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”


            Honest disagreement persists over whether these words should be taken at face value.  Because he wrote them in private letters to a close friend on the eve of the French Revolution, many historians have suggested that Jefferson was expressing the excitement of the moment and not his true feelings.  It is also possible, of course, that he meant what he wrote and that he had to hide the ideas in private letters because of his position.  In either case, he never spoke publicly about the need for "dramatic change from time to time."  The important point to be made here is that President Clinton had to tone down Thomas Jefferson in order to work him into the inaugural address.  Everyone would.


            In the sesquicentennial celebration of Jefferson's birth, we need to remember that Thomas Jefferson said and did things that we have difficulty understanding today.  When we edit his words to serve our purposes, we do him an injustice and create myths that are not easily dispelled.  We shouldn't make him into what he wasn't. 

            As a culture, we have difficulty living with complexity and open-ended questions.  That's why we need to continue studying Thomas Jefferson.  That's also why there will never be a national holiday commemorating his birth.