Writings of Thomas Jefferson

When John F. Kennedy hosted a dinner at the White House for a bevy of the most brilliant scientists, artists, and writers in America, he began by observing that there had not been such a concentration of talent and knowledge in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential Enlightment Man: fluent in English, Latin, Greek, and French; well-read in most the philosophers and all of the Latin and Greek classics; endlessly curious about science, mechanics, technology, and agriculture; and, above all, dedicated to reason. He is generally ranked as the third-greatest President, after Washington and Lincoln, but as an intellectual, he had no peer.

Jefferson wrote prodigiously; the complete set of his writings occupies 20 volumes. The volume I read contains only his most salient writings, and runs to 1500 pages. I spent the last year chipping away at it, a few pages at a time. The range of material covered is too vast to be well summarized here; I can only present a taste of this man’s broad range of intellectual achievement.

His most famous document is, of course, the Declaration of Independence, which continues to inspire humanity. And a mighty document it is, presenting in crisp, clear language the logic that the signers felt compelled them to revolt against British rule. These were careful, prudent men, and they were fully cognizant that their declaration would trigger bloodshed and suffering for many thousands of people; none of them rejoiced at the declaration of independence.

For me, the most striking discovery came from his letters during a trip he took along the Rhine River. As he went, he carefully recorded architectural, mechanical, and agricultural techniques not in use in America. He made drawings of simple devices that he felt worthy of imitation. Back in America, he frequently wrote distant correspondents requesting seeds of some potentially useful plant for experimentation with in Virginia.

Advising a young man on his education, he wrote: “I advise you to begin a course of ancient history, reading everything in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith’s history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up ancient history in detail, reading the following books in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon’s Hellenica, Xenophon’s Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin…” This is only the beginning; Jefferson goes on to list a huge array of books. I myself have read only perhaps a third of the items on his list, and I’m older than Jefferson was at the time he wrote this letter!

In another letter, Jefferson declares that “not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded. A person not sick will not be injured by getting wet. It is but taking a cold bath, which never gives a cold to anyone.” Jefferson’s primary form of exercise was a brisk walk, which he engaged in every day until his seventies, when age finally closed in on him.

Herewith some other quotables:

“…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

[In discussing the Whiskey Rebellion]: “Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the physical world as storms in the physical.”

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Jefferson was in France during the framing of the Constitution, but he advised his compatriots in Philadelphia to include a declaration of rights “which shall stipulate freedom of religion, freedom of the press. freedom of commerce against monopolies, trial by juries in all cases, no suspensions of the habeus corpus, no standing armies.” Note that his stricture against monopolies was not respected.

In a letter to James Madison from Paris in 1788, he related a conversation with Buffon about chemistry. Buffon was dismissive of the utility of chemistry, but Jefferson wrote “I think it, on the contrary, among the most useful of sciences, and big with future discoveries for the utility and safety of the human race.” However, he expresses concerns that the field is as yet too young to provide much certainty. He also relates how LaPlace had revealed perturbations in the moon’s orbit caused by the sun, a major advance in the application of mathematics to physics. In the same letter, he wrote: “As to political news, this country [France] is making its way to a good constitution. The only danger is, that they may press so fast as to produce an appeal to arms, which might have an unfavorable issue for them.” Coming one year before the storming of the Bastille, Jefferson’s assessment was dead on.

In early 1789, he wrote something that I heartily endorse, and urge upon others with little hope of success: “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”

Or contemplate this radical idea: “Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires in 19 years [his calculation of the length of one political generation]. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.”

“We have already given, in example one effectual check against the Dog of war, by transferring the power of letting him loose from the executive to the legislative body, from those who are to spend to those who are to pay.” Isn’t it sad that Congress, too frightened to accept the responsibility, has given that power back to the Presidency?

Regarding policy towards the Indians, Jefferson wrote, “The most economical as well as the most humane conduct towards them is to bribe them into peace, and to retain them in peace by eternal bribes.” As historians have long observed, a peace purchased with gold always costs less gold in the long run than a peace won by the sword.

There has been some controversy regarding Jefferson’s attitudes towards slavery; he frequently denounced the institution even while keeping slaves himself. This item from a letter in 1791 is revealing: “Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and in America. I can add with truth that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit.”

Here’s another example of how far ahead of his times Jefferson was. In 1793 Britain imposed a trade blockade on France, which Americans objected to on the ground that they were neutrals and had the right to trade freely with France. Talk of war against Britain fluttered through the American body politic. Jefferson wrote to Madison that Congress should deliberate and decide the question: “But I should hope that war would not be their choice. I think it will furnish us a happy opportunity of setting another example to the world, by showing that nations may be brought to do justice by appeals to their interests as well as by appeals to arms. I should hope that Congress, instead of a declaration of war, would instantly exclude from our ports all the manufactures, produce, vessels, and subjects of the nations committing this aggression… This would work well in many ways, safely to all, and introduce between nations another umpire than arms.” Thomas Jefferson proposed trade sanctions as a peaceable instrument of policy 220 years ago!

Here’s a statement from 1793 that I embrace emphatically: “There has been a time when… perhaps the esteem of the world was of higher value in my eye… But age, experience, and reflection… have set a higher on tranquility. The motion of my blood no longer keeps time with the tumult of the world.”

Here’s a statement reflecting Jefferson’s opinion of conservative philosophy: “The Gothic idea that we are to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion and in learning and government, is worthy of those bigots in religion and government by whom it is recommended, and whose purposes it would answer.” Take that, Constitutional originalists!

Jefferson served as President for two terms, hating every minute of it. He hated the slanders printed in the newspapers of the day. Here’s a view of the press that applies just as well to modern news media: “A coalition of sentiments is not for the interest of printers. They, like the clergy, live by the zeal they can kindle, and the schisms they can create.” He hated the political tribalism that sought power rather than good policy. He hated having to deal with political creatures. He expressed his loathing of politics before, during, and after his tenure. In this sense, he was the ideal man for the job; the only people you can trust with power are those who really don’t want it. Jefferson served out of a sense of duty to his country, not personal gratification.

I have mentioned only a fraction of the sticky tags I have festooned my copy of the book with while reading; Jefferson’s writing teems with examples of his insight and intellectual power. I recommend the book only to those possessed of a fair knowledge of the history of his times, for his letters make mention without explication to events of his times. I warn you: this is heavy sledding. Jefferson was a master of prose and his sentences are long and complex as befits the nuance of his thinking. But if you are adequately prepared and sufficiently persistent, you’ll harvest a bumper crop of wisdom in these pages.