Engaging Thomas Jefferson on Character

By Wortham, Anne | The World and I, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Engaging Thomas Jefferson on Character


Wortham, Anne, The World and I


Anne Wortham is associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University.

I never had done a single act or been concerned in any transaction which I feared to have fully laid open, or which could do me any hurt if truly stated.

--Thomas Jefferson

American history is a paradox if not a contradiction. Ours was the first nation to dedicate itself at the outset to a regime of freedom. ... Yet as a nation and as a people we have all too often strayed from this path.

--John W. Caughey1

Why should we bother about Jefferson's character? Because, writes historian Jean Yarbrough, "Jefferson is (in Merrill Peterson's apt metaphor) the mirror in which each generation finds reflected its most urgent moral and political concerns. Thus, at a time when questions of character are once again uppermost in the minds of many Americans, it is not surprising that supporters and detractors alike return to Jefferson, not only to revisit his character but also ... to consider his vision for the American character."2

The popularity of the topics of moral character and "civic virtue" are fed by the agreement of many Americans with Thomas Jefferson's observation that "if there is not virtue among us, if there be not good, then there is no form of government that can render us secure."3 Evidence of their concern is the proliferation of moral-character best- sellers such as Marva Collins' Marva Collins' Way (1982), William Kilpatrick's Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong (1992), and William Bennett's Book of Virtues (1993).

Yet despite all the public discourse on the decline in civic virtue in American political and social life, and the rediscovery of the importance of character and virtue for the health of the polity, led by warring phalanxes of "virtuecrats,"4 there remains a great deal of confusion over just what character entails. This examination of Jefferson's character not only presents a definition of character, but also offers a set of standards by which character may be evaluated. Judgments of character are necessarily moral judgments. Hence the judgments made are philosophical, based on Jefferson's actions, statements, and conscious convictions--not on inferences about his psychological state. It is Jefferson's conscious mind that is the object of inquiry, not his subsconscious.5

There are those like historian Gordon Wood who say we should not judge Jefferson by our contemporary standards but instead appreciate that he was a man of his time. "Let us not ask him to be something he wasn't," said Wood at a 1992 academic conference on Jefferson's legacy.6 For much of our history, Jefferson has stood for America and carried the moral character of the country on his back, says Wood. "No historical figure can bear this kind of symbolic burden and still remain a real person. Beneath all the images, beneath all the allegorical Jeffersons, there once was a human being with every human frailty and foible. Certainly Jefferson's words and ideas transcended his time, but he himself did not."7

The unwarranted symbolic burden imposed on Jefferson the man was hoisted on the back of his character long before his death. This examination does not intend to add to that burden; it does not ask Jefferson to be what he wasn't. Rather, its aim is to understand the character of the man and to argue that, although he was a man of his time, he is not thereby exempt from our judgment. It agrees with Paul Finkelman, though not in the spirit of his harsh assessment of Jefferson, that "scrutinizing the contradictions between Jefferson's professions and his actions does not impose twentieth-century values on an eighteenth-century man."8

JEFFERSON THE MAN

Thomas Jefferson was a man of contradictions. And it is those contradictions that must set the parameters of our evaluation, but in the knowledge that we are powerless to resolve them for Jefferson. That is, we cannot change the facts of his life. …

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