Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy

By Francis D. Cogliano | Go to book overview
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Chapter 1
History

I

Throughout his adult life Thomas Jefferson dispensed academic and educational advice to younger relatives, friends and protégés. For fifty years he based his ideas on a 'course of reading' that he had developed during the 1760s after he completed his own studies at William and Mary. Jefferson recommended that students should read across a range of subjects because 'Variety relieves the mind, as well as the eye, palled with too long attention to a single object.' According to Jefferson's plan, the period from sunrise until eight o'clock in the morning should be devoted to the study of the natural sciences, ethics and religion. From eight o'clock until noon, students should read law. The hour from noon to one in the afternoon should be given over to politics. 'In the Afternoon', Jefferson counseled, 'Read History'. From sunset until bedtime the followers of this ambitious program could relax with belles-lettres, criticism, rhetoric and oratory.1 Students who followed Jefferson's program would devote most of their time to two subjects the law and history.

Jefferson read widely in history throughout his life, believing that it was an essential subject. In his retirement he professed to be disgusted with current affairs and claimed a preference for history.

I turn from the contemplation [of politics] with loathing, and take refuge in
the histories of other times, where if they also furnished their Tarquins,
their Catilines & Caligulas, their stories are handed to us under the brand
of a Livy, a Sallust, and a Tacitus, and we are comforted with the reflection
that the condemnation of all succeeding generations has confirmed the
censures of the historians, and consigned their memories to everlasting
infamy, a solace we cannot have with the Georges & Napoleons, but by
anticipation.2

For Jefferson, history did not simply offer diversion; it offered a guide to the present and provided moral and political lessons for the future. Further, it was a subject in which he had a personal stake. As a figure

-19-

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