In almost every way, when we think about Thomas Jefferson, we think about America. When we’re proud of our heritage, we focus on his Declaration of Independence, his founding of the University of Virginia, his design of Monticello, his massive library, and his sending forth Lewis and Clark. In our uncertainty and embarrassment, we turn to his ownership of slaves, his alleged obsession with Sally Hemmings, and his bitterness towards Alexander Hamilton.
In so many ways, Thomas Jefferson is America, and America is Thomas Jefferson.
A conservative can appreciate him for his classical education, a libertarian for his promulgation of natural rights, a liberal for his love of choice, and a progressive for his optimism. Jefferson’s “right to life” might well adorn an anti-abortion placard, while his “right to liberty” might equally stand on a pro-abortion one. A marble 19-foot-tall version of the man might greet all who come to the imperial city of Washington, D.C., while a hastily drawn mimeograph of his face might appear at a protest in Tiananmen Square. Each is equally identifiable.
This month marks the 275th anniversary of his birth. The moment should give us all pause. Just who exactly was this extraordinary man—a man who seems to be the best of us, the worst of us, and, in some strange and mysterious way, also above us?
Whatever gifts Jefferson had, he was, to be sure, a man. He was born, he lived, and he died. He had a beloved wife, Martha, and when she passed all too young, his greatest friend and ally was his daughter, also named Martha. Certainly he loved books and wine, tangible pleasures, no matter the extraordinary talents of his mind. Six feet and one or two inches tall, one visitor wrote of him later in his life that he possessed a “face streaked and speckled with red, light gray eyes, white hair” and his stance was “bony, long and with broad shoulders, a true Virginian.” He was wearing “shoes of very thin soft leather with pointed toes and heels ascending in a peak behind, with very short quarters, gray worsted stockings, corduroy small clothes, blue waistcoat and coat, of stiff thick cloth made of wool of his own merinos and badly manufactured, the buttons of his coat and small clothes of horn, and an under waistcoat flannel bound with red velvet.” If nothing else, the description reminds us that Jefferson lived in another age, a more elegant and somehow voluptuous one, one that feels far more Hogwarts than it does Goldman Sachs.
If America has produced a more intelligent man—that is, at least as well rounded as Jefferson was in his intellect, perceptiveness, and creative drive—that person has yet to come forward. Few would claim Jefferson was a great president, but even in the White House he was unique. Washington might have had more fortitude and Lincoln more resolve, but Jefferson had already given us his everything by the time he entered office in 1801. He had, in the manner of a classical demi-god, articulated and perhaps bestowed upon us our founding mission, our purpose, and our greatest contribution to the world: the belief, however poorly practiced and implemented, that ALL men are created equal, each endowed by his creator with certain inalienable rights.
This contribution, though, raises vital questions not just about the man but by extension about America. Exactly what were Jefferson’s sources and influences? Was he merely a French radical living in the hinterlands of Western civilization? Certainly some have argued so. After all, when asked, he admitted in 1789 that he loved Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke above all others in the Western tradition as “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.” Taken at face value, this is an extraordinary claim by any standard, even one far less majestic than Jefferson’s. While each was an Englishman, each was also quite recent and modern in Jefferson’s day. And while Newton, Bacon, and Locke might each be highly intelligent in and of themselves, taken together they seem a bit radical and mischievous. Additionally, given Jefferson’s own life-long pursuit of the classics and liberal arts, one must ask, where is Greece and Rome in all of this, let alone medieval and Reformation England?
In his own extraordinary work on Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: Apostle of Americanism, the French-born American man of letters and Princeton professor Gilbert Chinard claimed that simply because Jefferson admired someone—no matter to what degree—it didn’t mean that person’s ideas were reflected tangibly and measurably in his writings. Endowed with an intense intelligence, Jefferson could well separate what he knew to be true, what might be true, and what ought—but never would—be true.
Chinard argued forcefully that when it came to the Declaration as well as to the laws of Virginia, Jefferson understood what would and would not work in America. “No greater mistake could be made than to look for his sources in Locke, Montesquieu, or Rousseau,” Chinard argued, most certainly exaggerating to make a point. “The Jeffersonian democracy was born under the sign of Hengist and Horsa, not of the Goddess Reason.” As proof of this, Chinard—himself, it should be remembered, of French birth and stock—drew upon John Adams’ description of Jefferson’s proposed seal of the United States in 1776. “Mr. Jefferson proposed, the children of Israel in the wilderness led by a cloud by day, and a pillar by night—and on the other side, Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs, from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” Even if you’re an extremely intelligent reader—and, after all, you wouldn’t be here at The American Conservative if you weren’t—you might be scratching your head as you read this. Newton and Locke, certainly. You know them well. But Hengist and Horsa? Who on God’s green earth are these two? Unless you spend your time reading early Medieval Celtic or Anglo-Saxon poetry—such as Beowulf—or modern British fantasy by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Hengist and Horsa probably mean almost or even less than nothing. The two Saxon chiefs reside more accurately in myth than they do in history, at least as professional historians understand the term.
For Jefferson, though, Hengist and Horsa represented the great republican tradition of the Germanic tribes sitting under the oak trees, deciding what was common law and what was not, speaking as representatives of their people in the Witan, and living as free men, bound to no emperor. To the American founding generation, Hengist and Horsa were as real as Cincinnatus, the Roman republican who threw down the sword, refused a permanent dictatorship of the city, and walked into the country to spend his life as a farmer. In the long scheme of things, the accuracy of the founders’ understanding of history matters little. They believed in Cincinnatus, Hengist, and Horsa, and they acted accordingly.
It isn’t hard to find the classical world that intrigued Jefferson’s mind. Probably no one has documented this as well as Carl Richard in his 1994 magnum opus, The Founders and the Classics. As late as 1810, Jefferson complained that any understanding of current events took precious time away from his reading of Tacitus and Homer. Roughly a decade later, he admitted, “I feel a much greater interest in knowing what has happened two or three thousand years ago than in what is now passing.” Though he loved Homer and Tacitus most, Virgil was not far behind. When Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in the late 1810s, he noted that all the science in the world meant little if a student failed to learn Greek and Latin. He wanted to exclude all professors and students who could not readily read the classics in their original language. Only this way could the nature of man, the temptations of power, and the attainment of the virtues truly be understood.
All of this came together for Jefferson in what he called, as historian Hans Eicholz beautifully put it, the “harmonizing sentiments of the day.” In an 1825 letter to Henry Lee explaining the purpose behind the Declaration, Jefferson wrote:
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, 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. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.
If Jefferson really is the best mind that America has produced—he probably is—and if his greatest contribution to the world is his Declaration that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights, we would be fools to ignore our classical and medieval lineage. Indeed, we would become nothing more than mischievous European radicals, bent on altering all things inherited from man and God, giving neither his proper due.
This article (and my views, such as they are) benefitted immensely from the thoughts and words of Dedra Birzer, Gilbert Chinard, Hans Eicholz, Winston Elliott, Kevin Gutzman, Christian Kopff, Don Lutz, Dumas Malone, Rob McDonald, and Carl Richard.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-in-residence. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.