The Jefferson enigma; he is the most fascinating of the Founding Fathers, in part because of the conflict between his life and his ideals

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The Jefferson enigma; he is the most fascinating of the Founding Fathers, in part because of the conflict between his life and his ideals. Kenneth Auchincloss.


Jefferson fascinates many authors because his ideals conflicted with his life choices. For example, Jefferson opposed slavery yet owned hundreds of slaves. In addition, he hoped people could live in harmony without authority imposed on them, yet he endorsed governmental intrusions such as the Embargo Act of 1807. He is the most fascinating of the Founding Fathers, in part because of the conflicts between his life and his ideals

WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON? OF ALL the Founding: Fathers, he is the most enigmatic and the most fascinating. His virtues were richly American virtues; his flaws were deeply American flaws. That, perhaps, is why we can never let him rest. Every generation tries to plumb the man anew, and we are now in the midst of another such reappraisal. A magnificent new book, "American Sphinx," by Joseph J. Ellis (365 pages. Knopf. $26), takes the measure of his character in a way that's both sympathetic and unadoring. In "The Long Affair" (367 pages. University of Chicago. $29.95), Irish scholar-diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien launches an intemperate attack on his sins and delusions. And Ken Burns, of "Civil War" fame, has turned his lush documentary lens on Jefferson in a two-part television series that airs on PBS this week.

By far the best of these accounts is "American Sphinx." The Jefferson who springs from these elegantly written pages--Ellis, a history professor at Mt. Holyoke, has a Jeffersonian gift for language--is a study in counterpoint, a man "who combined great depth with great shallowness, massive learning with extraordinary naivete, piercing insights into others with daunting powers of self-deception." He will always be revered for the principles he etched in the Declaration of Independence --"all men are created equal," "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"--and for the words of reconciliation in his first Inaugural after the nation's first transition of power from one party to another--"we are all republicans, we are all federalists." But his ideas soared so high into the heavens of idealism that they often lacked grounding in the realities on earth.

In some ways his own life was a rebuke to his principles. To a modem eye, there is no more glaring contradiction than his attitude toward slavery. In his early years Jefferson was quite forthright in his opposition to slavery. But in the 1780s he subsided into a long public reticence on the subject. In a rare descent into hardheaded realism, he came to see it as a curse that could not be lifted from the country in his generation. He was, it must be said, what we would call a racist. He thought that blacks were probably mentally inferior to whites, and that the two races could not live together in harmony if the slaves were freed, He himself owned hundreds of slaves, and the good life that he led at Monticello would never have been possible without them. It was, as Ellis puts it, "a disconcerting form of psychological agility that would make it possible for Jefferson to walk past the slave quarters on Mulberry Row at Monticello thinking about mankind's brilliant prospects without any sense of contradiction." To bring in more income--he was disastrously in debt till his dying day--he opened a small nail factory operated by slave boys ages 10 to 16, which as Ellis points out was "a graphic preview of precisely the kind of industrial world he devoutly wished America to avoid."

His views on government also sorted badly with his own actions as president. Essentially, Jefferson believed in a sort of benign state of nature in which men lived in harmony without any figures of authority set over them. It is not clear that he was ever very happy with the American Constitution, which strengthened the federal government (significantly, and perhaps fortunately, he was away in Paris as American envoy to France during the Constitutional Convention). In view of his innate suspicion of a strong executive, it's ironic that his greatest achievement in office, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which secured for the new nation the Mississippi Valley and the modem Midwest, was an act of executive flat never completely authorized by Congress. And his greatest failure as president, the Embargo Act of 1807, which ruined American commerce in an effort to thwart England, was another case of massive government intrusion of the sort that Jefferson the political thinker abhorred.

But these disparities are not what Jefferson is remembered for. Nor is he remembered for his warm embrace of the French Revolution, which led him into some intemperate language excusing its bloody outrages, as O'Brien points out. He is remembered, rather, for his ability to express in unforgettable words the hope, the optimism, the devotion to freedom, the spirit of soaring aspiration in which this nation was founded.

These sentiments occasionally reflect a moralistic smugness that can sound annoying, particularly to foreign ears. "One of the reasons," says Ellis, "why European commentators on American politics have found American expectations so excessive and American political thinking in general so beguilingly innocent is that Jefferson provided a sanction for youthful hopes and illusions, planted squarely in what turned out to be the founding document of the American republic. The American dream, then, is ... the Jeffersonian dream writ large." Or as Gore Vidal puts it at the end of the Burns film, "If there is such a thing as the American spirit, then he is it."

Auchincloss, Kenneth. "The Jefferson enigma; he is the most fascinating of the Founding Fathers, in part because of the conflict between his life and his ideals."  Newsweek. v129. n8 (Feb 24, 1997): p61(1). Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Thomson Gale. University of Phoenix - main account. 7 Jan. 2008 .

1. What beliefs and concepts is Jefferson most known for as a president?

2. What events and traits does the author feel may tarnish this American hero? Explain specific examples

3. After reading this article, do you think Jefferson should be remembered as a great president who represents the American spirit, or as an enigmatic leader who experiences more failures than successes? Explain!!!!

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