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Thomas Jefferson and His Accomplishments


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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA
vgvalent@utmb.edu



The more I read about Thomas Jefferson, the smarter he gets. We can spend nearly a lifetime learning the views or trying to learn the views of Jefferson on everything. There are literally thousands of his letters he penned. Above all, Jefferson is second to none in terms of American Character and Patriotism and yet he is the American Sphinx. This fact is easily supported by Dumas Malone, 1892 - 1986, who spent his life studying Jefferson, read over 60,000 correspondences written by him, poured over the letters exchanged between two of the most brilliant Presidents (John Adams and Jefferson) and above all completed a 6-volume magnificent compendium on Jefferson. Yet despite all of this focus on Jefferson, Dumas state he never got the understand him, "he eluded me."

Jefferson remains uniquely relevant to us today and can be found across the landscape of America. He is on our currency, on Mount Rushmore, on the names of streets, schools, counties and cities. There is the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC and Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Not unlike Washington, Jefferson is with us everywhere. But unlike Washington, he is one of the most controversial figures in American History, and unlike Washington, there a prodigious amount of written material left by Jefferson for us to examine especially thousands of letters, there's not much to read from by Washington. Most unlike Washington, Jefferson was a chronic debtor, he spent lavishly well above his means. Washington was a consummate businessman and had no debts.

Jefferson was the writer of the Declaration of Independence, pioneered the ideas on religious freedom, he was a biologist, botanist, political philosopher, anthropologist, archaeologist, architect, musician, inventor, a student of natural science and probably the only person in North America than could do the higher order calculus required to follow Newton's arguments in the Principia Mathematica. He studied sociology and political theory. He learned ancient and modern languages including; Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German and Anglo-Saxon. He was a Member of the House of Burgesses, delegate to the Continental Congress, Governor, President of the American Philosophical Society, Minister to France, Diplomat, Secretary of State, Vice-President and President of the United States, He authored A Summary View of the Rights of British America, wrote the Northwest Ordinance and was responsible for doubling the size of America with the Louisiana Purchase. He was a Statesman and obviously the most accomplished of all American Presidents.

Jefferson was an eternal optimist and very proud of the United States and its revolutionary accomplishments. Yet he was constantly troubled by slavery and education in American. Also, and unfortunately he did not think too highly of women. For that matter what was meant behind those inalienable rights, "that all men are created equal?" What about women, slaves and Native Americans Indians? Jefferson was full of paradoxes. But does anyone in history live up to his or her own ideals? Do as I say and not as I do therefore carries more meaning, everywhere.

Among his paradoxes he lived luxuriously but favored the simplicity of a yeoman farmer. He lived beyond his means and died in debt. In an effort to pay off his debts, the sale of his massive collection of expensive books became the foundation of the Library of Congress. His passion for learning was more suited for those of leisure rather than independent farmers. He hated slavery but preserved it and kept slaves of his own. A man of principle, he violated his own principles. On one hand, he was a visionary expansionist and realized his vision with the Louisiana Purchase, but it violated his own constitutional prerogative. He attacked the Barbary pirates with the Navy built by Adams that Jefferson fought against. The embargo against Britain in 1807 created hardships on New England.

One of the most enduring aspects of Jefferson character was his behind the scenes meddling and most of all, his mastery as a "dinner table" politician. He avoided confrontation and hated public speaking. He gave only two speeches during his eight years as President. However his gift was in his pen and yet he was behind the scenes of all ideas. Over dinner he solved many controversies.

Today, Americans from every political persuasion find inspiration from the words of Thomas Jefferson. Conservatives find great inspiration in his opposition to taxes and big government, his backing of States rights, his advocacy of individual freedom, his belief in natural rights deriving from God. Liberals, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, embraced Jefferson as the inspirational founder of his Democratic Party and pushed for the creation of the Jefferson memorial. Roosevelt enlisted Jefferson's commitment to freedom, liberty, self-government in the precarious struggle against the tyranny of fascist Germany and fascist Japan during World War II. Modern liberals find inspiration in Jefferson's opposition to special privilege, his campaign against superstition and ignorance, his crusade for religious and intellectual freedom, and his support of the common people against the wealthy and special interest.

Some of Jefferson's detractors want to banish him from the Pantheon of American heroes. Some critics believe he was an Anglo-Saxon imperialist, slave-holder who physically and sexually exploited his slaves. An opponent to positive government and a dangerous advocate of violence justified in the name of freedom. Nevertheless, historians argue that Jefferson was a classical liberal concerned with individual rights and a classical republican concerned with people's duties and virtues.

The debates about Jefferson are essentially the debates about the meaning of America. His principles guideposts for our lives. The efforts to understand the real Thomas Jefferson sharply aligns with our quest to discover the real America itself. He is an eloquent champion of political principles and a visionary thinker who often expressed his ideas with near perfect rhetoric and with some degree of abstraction lending itself and inviting opposing interpretations. It is easy to read what you want to believe in his writings.

Again, his obvious shortcoming is his myopic view on women, slavery and Indians, yet these are the actual groups who are inspired by Jefferson's legacy to help them secure their individual rights and freedom at a time away from the times of Thomas Jefferson who was a man of times. Although, he avoided action on the problem with slavery, he did take action on the problem with education.

Jefferson was a staunch advocate for education and education for all. As a result of his own personal success he championed that an ideal society should be through meritocracy of talent and ability, not aristocracy of birth and privilege. He promoted the cause of upward mobility, the result was his founding of the University of Virginia in 1819.

Finally, incessant education and inquiry to any new intellectual development were his passions. He was the most intellectual President. In 1962, when John F Kennedy invited a group of Noble Prize winners to the White House, he remarked "this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and human knowledge that has ever been gathered at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." No other President, including Abraham Lincoln is as much remembered for his words as is Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson supplied his own epitaph for his tombstone: Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


References:

  1. Joseph Ellis, The American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
  2. Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
  3. Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time: Volumes 1 - 6




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