The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson

By Adrienne Koch | Go to book overview

Introduction

THE CONTROVERSIAL DISCUSSION which Thomas Jefferson excited in his own time has grown, until today, two hundred years after his birth, it has become a habit of the American political imagination. In recent years the discussion has been going deeper. To be sure, scholars have still been focusing upon the purely political import of Jefferson's career. This is, in one sense, defensible; but it dwarfed our understanding of Jefferson's intellectual lineage and fostered our ignorance of the world in which he was mentally at home --his philosophic outlook. Not all statesmen can be expected to have philosophy, or to be philosophers. Jefferson, in the richness of his nature, happened to possess a speculative vein, luckily fostered by a favorable cultural tradition. He was a man so vitally interested in exploring ideas that to deny him the title of "philosopher" is to argue adherence to a prejudiced definition of the term.

Gilbert Chinard, for example, perhaps the most thorough Jefferson scholar of our age, has more than conceded that Jefferson had philosophic substance, but he has stubbornly withheld from him the title. Years ago Chinard set himself the job of digging into the little-known roots of Jefferson's intellectual world. The vast collection of Jefferson papers at the Library of Congress was an ample primary source to challenge the most patient or profound historian of democracy. Fortified by the accident of loyalty to both republican France and America, Chinard worked tirelessly upon these letters until he had disentangled several strands in Jefferson's opinions and inquiries very little adverted to in the past. However, Chinard did not cultivate his discoveries about Jefferson's ideas to the point of insuring full yield. The outlines of Jefferson's philosophy in all but its markedly political significance were left undeveloped and unrealized. Chinard's predilection for a formal tradition of philosophy made him unreasonably set against admitting Jefferson to that high estate. The climax in paradox came when Chinard, whose researches so amply furnished the data for the judg-

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