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Greatness of the Founders: An Objective Examination, Part 3


While Benjamin Franklin became a symbol of the ability to succeed in the United States rising from poverty to wealth, Thomas Jefferson became the symbol of the advocacy against tyranny, the principles of the Constitution, and the battle against oppression. He has been the most quoted of the Founders and scrutinized for his seeming hypocrisy that all are created equal and at the same time retaining slaves. The first person to write Jefferson's biography was James Parton, who wrote:

If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right. [The Jeffersonian Image in the American Mind,Merrill Peterson, Oxford University Press, 1960; p. 234]

While some attributed Jefferson as a Democratic-Republican, like his party that stood against the Federalists, in practical political theory he was a Libertarian with a liberal attitude. He was different from his friend James Madison or John Adams in that he understood the basic principles of the French Revolution against an arrogant monarchy and egotistical aristocracy. [The Dubious Democrat: Thomas Jefferson in Bourbon France, R.R. Palmer; Political Science Quarterly, 72, 1957; pp. 388-404]

He was adamant that a bill of rights, amendments to the Constitution be added, not because he had analyzed it thoroughly like Mr. Madison, but because a bill of rights is what a good government should have. [Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789; Papers of Jefferson, 14: 650-51] Yet his views upon African Americans and slavery caused him to be censured, not separating his wisdom of what a good government is with his personal life as a slave owner. Yet they ignore the fact that he had grown to detest slavery feeling it was an affront to what he had wrote in the Declaration of Independence so eloquently about freedom and liberty. He knew that at the ratification of the Constitution that the united colonies turned to states united would be divided if that issue was pressed. He was honestly concerned about slaves as to what would happen to them if they were freed.

Those that admonish Jefferson for having slaves fail to acknowledge that in the 1780s he worked hard to prevent slavery from being allowed in the western territories and any new states that would be formed. If he was so adamant toward slavery, why would he do such a thing?

While Washington freed his slaves as part of his will, historians write that he kept slaves, punished them or hunted those that ran away with as much fervor as any other slave owner, and declared that American slavery was not as bad as that which the ancient Romans practiced. [Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia, Robert McColley, University of Illinois Press, 1964; pp. 503-526]

They also ignore his correspondence and private notes where he insisted that not only slaves be emancipated, but also sent to the West Indies or Africa in order for them not to be abused. His expulsion theory was said to be based upon fear of blacks and whites intermingling; while at the same time admired the native Americans and had no qualms of their assimilation into American society. He believed, like too many of his day, that the African American was inferior. This attitude is perplexing because of recent possibilities that his house slave, Sally Hemings, a mulatto, was his mistress and probably mother to his child. In 1998, the DNA test results of the Jefferson line shows that someone in the Jefferson line fathered children of Sally, and since Sally would often accompany him on his travels as a personal servant the theory had been fortified even before the DNA test result.

Like John Adams, Jefferson preferred not to wear the powdered wig. Unlike John Adams, his hair was his own and he was tall at six feet two inches. Adams suffered from early balding and wore a wig only to cover the baldness.

Jefferson's private money affairs consisted of constant borrowing in order to meet his spending habits; but when it came to the government he thought that public debts were against any healthiness of the state.

Jefferson was a good example of the enlightenment of the 18th century. Born into wealth and believed that men should not be judged by who their fathers were or whom they married but on personal character. He was a refined gentleman, a man of few words and did not like to show his personal feelings in public. Thus his background is also a contradiction, and while he held himself as any good aristocrat should, he was educated in the refinements of enlightenment and believed every word he wrote in the Declaration of Independence.

One of his talents was architecture, as Monticello is a good example. In the 1780s, he pressed for erecting a new state capitol in Richmond which would be a copy of the Roman temple built in 100 AD at Nîmes because he wanted a building as an object and proof of national good taste. [28]

When it came to wine, Jefferson was an expert, spending time examining French, Italian, and German vineyards and wineries to send the best wine delivered to the United States. President would seek his advice when it came to presidential dinners using his expertise in gardening, food, music, painting, poetry and wine. Franklin's forté was science and invention, while for Jefferson it was architecture, art, etiquette, and literature. He knew of and understood the classics, but was also tuned to the change of invention and progress. He wanted a national educational program that would be available to all citizens; because an educated people made good citizens.

His cutting and pasting of the New Testament to create what has come to be known as the Jefferson Bible, was his mind of logic against mysticism – he desired to entwine Christianity with Enlightenment and also the ability to answer those who viewed him as being against religion. Jefferson had believed that the parables and what Jesus said paralleled the modern age of enlightenment; like himself, he viewed Jesus as a person beyond his time.

Jefferson believed in keeping government to a minimum and hated bureaucracy; knowing that anything more would be corrupted with robbers, cheats and tyrants. No power should be independent from the people. He viewed, when he had become president, that the United States was bound by a loose confederation of states. While the atrocities of the French Revolution appalled his fellow Founders, he still remained a champion of it. He saw it as an extension of the American Revolution and was adamant that freedom and liberty spread around the globe. He envisioned this global freedom and liberty to be the trademark of the future, for Marxism had not been invented and made public as yet. He also feared that the outcome of the American Revolution would end up as what the French Revolution had become.

Jefferson and Adams was polar opposites. Adams was dynamic and outspoken, while Jefferson was quiet mannered and a man of few words – when it came to speaking, which also tended for people to listen to him more. Jefferson was a prolific writer and it was there that thoughts and wisdom streamed.

Jefferson viewed that the conduct of commerce was buying and selling and frowned upon the commercial avarice and corruption of speculation and buying/selling of stocks. [The Sage of Monticello: Jefferson and His Time, Dumas Malone, Boston 1981; p. 331 & pp. 148-150]

While he had been looking forward to the end of slavery and the expulsion of Negroes, he also believed that the Missouri Compromise of 1819-1820 was a warning that the Union was in danger and that it was up to the states to decide what to do with slavery, not the federal, central government. Yet, it was the federal government that was bound to the Constitution, which was jump started by the principles of freedom and liberty written in the Declaration of Independence; indeed it had become a complex issue. He feared that declared national emancipation – in which case all the whites within the United States south of the Potomac and Ohio must evacuate their States, and most fortunate those who can do it first. [Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, December 26, 1820; The Writings of Jefferson, 10:177]

No one believed more strongly about progress than Jefferson and the ability of the people to self-government. No one was more convinced that the age of Enlightenment would be against medieval barbarism, ignorance, and religious superstition. He stood alone on those thoughts because other Founders did not have that optimism.

Adams and Jefferson has been good friends during the Revolution; but as the new government was formed, so was political factions that became organized. When Adams ran for president when Washington refused to accept more than two terms, the rift between the two widened. It was not until the death of Abigail Adams, that John Adams began to once again correspond with his political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson – and continued to do so until both of their deaths, which occurred on the same day: July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the United States.

Jefferson, as he grew older, became despondent over the direction to which the United States was heading. He sensed that American society, like Virginia, was going backward and not adhering to the principles of the Constitution and what the revolution had been all about. He saw the division forming and feared America's future; as well as considering the popular Andrew Jackson as a man unfit to become the president. Superstition and bigotry had worked its way into the capitol's society and across the nation, which Jefferson had identified as the downfall of organized religion. Yet, Jefferson continued to believe that the people would eventually set things right. Few Americans today relate to James Madison as much as they do Thomas Jefferson. Mostly because that of all the Founders, Jefferson was the most prolific writer and left behind more thoughts than the others.




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