A New World Man
Just read Joyce Appleby's Thomas Jefferson (Henry Holt, 2003), a short biography of our finest president. So accomplished was he that being President for eight years did not even make his short gravestone resume, which notes the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, and the University of Virginia as the three achievements he was most proud of. He was one of only a handful of men to witness both revolutions that define the modern world, the American Revolution in the 1770s and the French Revolution in the 1790s. This frontier aristocrat, whose boyhood backyard stretched 500 miles to the Mississippi, defined the Enlightenment for succeeding centuries. Not Rousseau, not Voltaire, not Locke, not Adam Smith, but this young American wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
He paved the way for modern America. First, he almost singlehandedly defeated the Federalist agenda of establishing an American social and political aristocracy by forming an opposition party, getting elected President in the election of 1800, and sweeping away the pomp and circumstance grafted onto representative government by Washington and Adams. And he did it peacefully -- it was a bloodless democratic revolution. Second, he purchased Louisiana (for a mere $15 million), doubling the size of America and paving the way to the Pacific. He gave us a continent.
Great men have their tragic flaws. Hagiographies gloss over, ignore, or simply rewrite these flaws, especially for religious figures and leaders, but one must open one's eyes to the flaws to really know the man, warts and all. His ambivalent position on slavery tarnishes Jefferson to the modern mind, although had he pushed an anti-slavery theme he would have been marginalized politically. He did include an anti-slavery paragraph in his first draft of the Declaration (it was removed in view of southern sensibilities). Even so, Washington manumitted his slaves at death; Jefferson did not. And his relationship with Sally Hemmings, while still controversial, is increasingly regarded as probable. Perhaps it shows us something of the limits of even the most exemplary human character.
In a burst of synchronicity, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the same day as his nemesis turned friend John Adams passed away, fifty years to the day after they both signed the Declaration of Independence. He is buried on the estate at Monticello. Look west across the misty Blue Ridge Mountains and you'll glimpse the American promised land he never entered.