There is perhaps no more enigmatic figure in American history than Thomas Jefferson, born April 13, 1743.
Historian James Parton argued that Jefferson’s role in American history cannot be overstated: “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right,” he said. Documentarian Ken Burns described the third U.S. president as “the Holy Grail of American history.”
Jefferson was the aristocratic overseer of the rustic Monticello Plantation and was a defender of the vision of America as a yeoman farmer Republic. By contrast, his time as ambassador to France intoxicated him with the French Revolution and expensive Parisian tastes. Ostensibly an opponent of big government, once Jefferson became president he negotiated the massive Louisiana Purchase, which critics at the time said overstepped his presidential authority.
His views on press freedom are regularly invoked by media freedom absolutists. Jefferson once wrote, before becoming president, that he would rather have newspapers without government, than to have government without newspapers. And yet President Donald Trump recently quoted another remark from Jefferson castigating the practice of journalism. In a fit of pique over nasty coverage about his administration, Jefferson once wrote that nothing can be believed in what is found in newspapers.
And then there was race. His views on black people can only be considered racist, and, while a champion of liberty, Jefferson owned slaves and fathered slave children with his mistress Sally Hemmings. His views on race could only be described as retrograde. And, while expressing doubts about slavery, he lived with its benefits, both economically and personally via his relationship with Hemmings, something long denied by historians but now widely recognized via DNA testing of his mixed-race descendants.
How should this curious character’s legacy be understood 274 years after his birth?
The answer has long been a topic for heated argument. Jefferson is regularly invoked as a proxy for what is right and what is wrong with America.
His vision of a free society, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, is considered by many historians to be an American gift to the world. Yet some argue Jefferson’s role in formulating the Declaration, a committee effort, is much overstated. Others says his positive view of the French Revolution was foolish, and his habit of glorifying bloodshed in service of the revolution has been echoed by would-be despots from radical militias to Pol Pot.
The hagiographic view of Jefferson has definitely faded. Yet there is a call among historians not to go too far in the other direction, viewing a complex eighteenth- and nineteenth- century figure through a twenty-first century lens. But even in the context of his own time, when fellow Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton opposed slavery, much of what Jefferson preached seemed lacking in his own life. The man who preached freedom and extolled the virtues of the simple yeoman farmer lived well above his means and owned humans.
Jefferson, in a great historical irony, died July 4, 1826, the same day as John Adams, his former rival among the Founding Fathers. By the time of their deaths Jefferson and Adams had reconciled, their viewpoints on government and other topics the subject of a long and fruitful correspondence. Even in death, the sage of Monticello remained unpredictable.