Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

Foreword

Of all the great figures in American history, Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the most difficult to write about adequately. Yet at the same time he is the most fascinating. To him may truly be applied the famous Shakespearian line: "Age cannot wither, nor custom stale (his) infinite variety."

His long life spanned the birth and establishment of a new nation, and no man contributed more to both than he did. Yet he was much more than a political leader. In an era of complex and many-sided men, he was without doubt the most complex and many-sided of them all. He literally took all knowledge to be his province, and his insatiable curiosity and probing intellect took him along amazing highways and byways. In all he did supremely well.

Had not fate and the times destined him to preside at the birth pangs of a nation and to help guide it along the broad vistas of democracy as he envisioned them, he could have been famous in any one of innumerable other fields. He wrote with clarity and precision, and phrases tipped with immortality rolled happily from his pen. The mot juste, the pregnant apothegm and the ringing affirmation may be culled from every page. His contributions to political philosophy were many and various, and have formed a significant underpinning to any understanding of America. He was an educator par excellence, and no one has done more to set this counttry upon the path of the free and universal diffusion of knowledge. His powerful advocacy of religious liberty and the eternal freedom of the human mind are too well known to require any comment.

He was an extraordinary architect as well, and an artist in landscaping and gardening. He dabbled in many sciences, and helped illuminate them all--ethnology, archaeology, practical astronomy, geology and geography. He conducted researches in scientific farming and the breeding of animals. He sought to transplant new strains of olives, vines, rice and cotton from the Old World to the New. He invented an improved plough, and numerous ingenious mechanical gadgets that still delight and astound the visitor to Monticello today. He explored history and the former institutions of men, and sought to apply their lessons to the problems of his own day. He profoundly believed in the perfectability of mankind, and foresaw an endless vista of upward and onward progress. He forged for himself a religion and an ethic peculiarly his own, though he firmly refused to impose them on others; and he compiled a Bible for himself, stripped bare, as he said, of the excrescences of later obscurantists.

At the same time, Jefferson was no mere intellectual machine. No matter how many-sided and various his genius, he would then have been but poor

-vii-

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