“Students of reading, writing, and common arithmetick . . . Graecian, Roman, English, and American history . . .,” Thomas Jefferson advised that democratic education “should be… able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.”
Mid-April marks the 275th anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday. Given his world-changing achievements, this milestone is worthy of recognizing – and of being taught in our public schools. His contributions to the American civilization are incalculable; he was a revolutionary, statesman, diplomat, man-of-letters, scientist, architect, and apostle of liberty.
Rather than forcing a titan like Jefferson to conform to our era’s often Lilliputian-style narcissism, we should study history by entering the past with imagination and humility.
In drafting the Declaration of Independence, the most elegant and universally quoted political document in history, Jefferson displayed his greatest talents. He powerfully combined literary language and self-evident truths to shape the legal and political future of the United States.
The first member of his family to attend college, Jefferson loved books and classical learning. He could read six languages, including ancient Greek and Latin, while his 18th-century education taught him timeless principles.
Jefferson’s trinity of great thinkers – Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke – embodied what’s been called the Enlightenment’s “science of freedom.”
But his favorite writer was the ancient Roman historian Tacitus – a brilliant chronicler of warped, tyrannical emperors. Jefferson’s liberal-arts-centric education instilled in him a vigilance for liberty, which made him ever wary of threats to his republican experiment in ordered self-government.
Legal scholar David Mayer effectively summarized Jefferson’s strict federalism: “constitutions primarily [served] as devices by which governmental power would be limited and checked, to prevent its abuse through encroachments on individual rights…” Jefferson despised the corruptions of kings, standing armies, banks, and cities, which he identified with the Roman and British empires.
Jeffersonian liberalism is also defined by a strong commitment to freedom of intellectual, scientific, and religious conscience. His modern republicanism relied heavily upon locally controlled public education to perpetuate democratic merit, virtue, and reasoning.
As heirs to this public-intellectual mantle, John Quincy Adams and Theodore Roosevelt later joined Jefferson as the only presidents who understood Newtonian physics and could be called Renaissance Men.
It’s no wonder President John F. Kennedy famously said at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
In fact, Merrill Peterson, a biographer students should read, says that “[Jefferson’s] IQ was about 150…the same rank as Galileo, Handel, Michelangelo… and other geniuses.”
Nevertheless, Jefferson’s practical deal-making skills were also superb. He and arch-rival Alexander Hamilton struck a momentous dinner bargain in 1790 – the federal consolidation of states’ Revolutionary War debts in exchange for a national capital near Jefferson’s Virginia.
A stellar president-diplomat, Jefferson shrewdly purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon for $15 million. This deal escorted the French Empire out, doubled our country’s size, and diluted federal power. Jefferson’s Lewis and Clark Expedition then served strategic national, scientific, and diplomatic purposes by exploring the West.
According to Pulitzer-winner Jon Meacham, the basic tenets of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party dominated the political landscape from 1800 until the 1850s. Not surprisingly, Presidents Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan all celebrated Jefferson as the most graceful articulator of America’s fundamental propositions and ideals.
Finally, Jefferson’s exceptional gifts as America’s greatest architect are often underappreciated. His domes, rotundas, colonnades, terraces, gardens, and lawns are simply enchanting. Jefferson’s homestead, Monticello; the Virginia State Capitol; and the University of Virginia he founded and designed, reflect the neo-classical balance, harmony, and refinement of an American Palladio.
Sadly, these days, Jefferson’s waning reputation says far more about our own civic and cultural deficiencies than it does about him.
Given the cartoon-like superficiality of some contemporary presidents, schoolchildren would greatly benefit from learning and writing research papers about American figures who possessed enduring intellectual depth. In fact, we should insist schools focus on the excellence of our shared past.
If America seeks to restore its national dignity, elevate its political leadership, and improve educational quality, then studying Thomas Jefferson should be a guiding star.
Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. Will Fitzhugh is founder of The Concord Review, a Massachusetts-based journal that has published students’ history essays for 30 years.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.