What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

A friend of mine and I recently began a two-man book club that focuses on reading books about the Founding Fathers of the United States, mostly to have a better sense of the truth about these men’s beliefs and actions, and the political history of our country.  Since I’m the library guy in the duo, I set about to find books to read for our project. It’s only just begun, but the project has already begun to bear fruit, as I’ve learned a lot from our first book, Jefferson on Jefferson, edited by Paul M. Zall.   

Jefferson’s autobiography is short and rather unrevealing. Zall fixed that with Jefferson on Jefferson by taking the bulk of Jefferson’s autobiography and adding excerpts from some of Jefferson’s other writings, as well as insightful notes throughout. Overall, the book is quite an eye-opener. For one thing, it reveals how little certain elements of our nation’s political culture have changed in the past 200 years. For instance, around 1809, Jefferson gave his college-bound grandson advice about “disputants” that reminds me of today’s fiery political scene:

“In the fevered state of our country, no good can ever result from any attempt to set one of these fiery zealots to rights either in fact or principle.  They are determined as to the facts they will believe, and the opinions on which they will act. Get by them, therefore as you would by an angry bull: it is not for a man of sense to dispute the road with such an animal” (119).

When one brings Jefferson up in conversation, someone almost inevitably asks, “but didn’t he own slaves?” Yes, it’s true, Jefferson did own slaves, but with a heavy heart. In fact, Jefferson’s slaves were inherited, and the laws of the time would not allow him to set them free.  But, he constantly fought — unsuccessfully, of course — for legislation to free all slaves, and ultimately foresaw a time in the future when slavery would be abolished: “Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing in the march of time. It will come . . .” (49).

Regarding education, as a Virginia legislator, Jefferson supported a bill to fund public schools in which “the expences [sic] of these schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, everyone in proportion to his general tax-rate” (47). Jefferson’s remarks to those who opposed funding public education were especially intriguing to me, because I think they’re equally relevant to funding public libraries: “the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobels [sic] who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance” (48).

I was also inspired by Jefferson’s strong support of religious freedom. Though a Christian himself, Jefferson was the premier advocate of the separation of church and state, and as such he was strongly opposed by the zealous “religionists” of his day, even being called Antichrist and atheist during his run for the presidency in 1800. Once again, how little things have changed.

For those interested, Jefferson on Jefferson reveals little about the Sally Hemings controversy, though Zall gives it some attention in his introduction to the book, suggesting that there’s little historical evidence to support the controversy, and that the DNA tests are inconclusive. Of course, there are always other resources you can check out to learn more about that interesting topic.



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2 responses to “What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

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  2. Pingback: Daydreams About Books I Need to Read « Eleventh Stack

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