Jefferson Part 1.

President John F. Kennedy, hosting a White House dinner to honor Nobel Laureates famously said, “this is the most extraordinary gathering of talent, of human knowledge, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Reading Jon Meacham’s fine biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, I was reminded again of how truly remarkable Jefferson was and how responsible he was for the shape of the new government of the United States of America. He was a man of the 18th and 19th centuries, an aristocrat, a slave holder, a widower and, as most historians including Meacham agree, he maintained a long relationship with his late wife’s personal servant and half-sister Sally Hemmings. Hemmings bore several of Jefferson’s children as a result.

He had a profound appetite for knowledge – reading philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, horticulture, theology – and developed a taste for fine French wine and believed passionately in individual liberty as the basis of a good society and a just government. Jefferson’s greatest personal flaw and political failure is that he never expressed his beliefs about God-given liberty when it came to slavery. He knew the institution was morally evil, but declined either to argue for abolition or to free his own slaves. He not only authored the Declaration of Independence, he advocated for and prevailed in including freedom of religion in the Virginia General Assembly, the model for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reflecting the philosophy of John Locke, Jefferson embraced the then radical notion that to use public funds to support and establish church was “spiritual tyranny”. Meacham says Jefferson thought that it did not speak well of the power of God, if he needed a human government to prop him up.

I was reminded that after the War for Independence and the Presidency of George Washington, the jury was still out on what kind of government would prevail in the new nation. Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, preferred a strong central government dominated by men of culture and education and pedigree, were suspicious of democracy which they believed led inevitably to chaos, entertained the notion of a monarchy, and looked favorably on a close relationship with Great Britain. Secession was seriously discussed and promoted by the Federalists. Jefferson’s Republicans, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with monarchy, centralized government and standing armies and navies, and were far more willing to trust the wisdom of the people to make responsible choices about their governance. Jefferson feared the resurgence of monarchy all his life. The conflict was bitter and I found it strangely comforting to realize the current ideological stalemate in Washington has plenty of precedent.

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