For Jefferson, Liberty Without Learning Was Unthinkable

Terrence Moore

June 1, 2003

Anyone who doubts the power of ideas or the efficacy of a classical education should consider these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence have resonated throughout our history and have guided our great statesmen and moral leaders, from the Founders to Lincoln to Martin Luther King. It would not be too much to say that this nation’s success or failure must be measured against the ideals set forth in the Declaration. To better understand our Founding principles, we must look to the life and opinions of the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was a profoundly well-educated man. He learned Latin and Greek in his early youth. At the College of William and Mary other students recalled that he studied fifteen hours a day and carried his Greek grammar with him wherever he went. Among his favorite authors were Tacitus and Homer. His personal library of 6000 books became the nucleus for the Library of Congress. For Jefferson, education was not simply a matter of private happiness. Rather, he considered knowledge indispensable to the happiness and freedom of a people. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization,” Jefferson wrote in 1816, “it expects what never was and never will be.”

Because knowledge is “more important in a republican than any other form of government,” Jefferson helped establish schools and a university in his native state of Virginia. These institutions offered their students a liberal education, that is, an education suited to a free people. At the primary level, students learned reading, writing, arithmetic, and Greek, Roman, English, and American history. At the next level, the grammar schools, the children studied the Latin and Greek languages, English grammar, geography, higher arithmetic, and more history. Jefferson’s university featured a wider array of classical and modern studies. The ancient languages included Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the modern French, Spanish, Italian, German, and English. Mathematics were considerably expanded, and here students encountered the sciences, including optics, astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy, botany, zoology, and anatomy. History, consisting in classic texts read in the original languages, was augmented with political economy (economics), government, ethics, the laws of nations, and municipal law. Understandably, among the things read in government class were the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist. All these subjects, of course, are offered in universities today. The difference is that in Jefferson’s day young men often went to the university at about fourteen, that is, when we begin high school.

The most important subject for a free people, according to Jefferson, was history. By apprising people of their past, history “will enable them to judge the future.” History avails citizens “of the experience of other times and other nations” and qualifies them “as judges of the actions and designs of men.” Without a thorough knowledge of history, a people would most likely degenerate and become the willing accomplices of tyranny.

How should we regard Jefferson’s warnings two centuries hence? On the national holiday, let us take a brief history quiz. Ask your children these questions.

  1. From where are the lines in the first paragraph above taken? [The Declaration of Independence. NOT the Constitution.]
  2. Who wrote them? [Thomas Jefferson]
  3. Fill in the blank. “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our _____, our ________, and our sacred _____.” [Lives, Fortunes, Honor]
  4. What English philosopher most influenced Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration? [John Locke]
  5. Who was King of Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution? [George III]
  6. What is the legislature of Great Britain called, on which our Congress is modeled? [Parliament]
  7. True or False: Jefferson also wrote an influential pamphlet titled Common Sense. [False] Who did? [Thomas Paine]
  8. True or False: The first government of the United States was the present Constitution. [False. The Articles of Confederation.]
  9. Thomas Jefferson was the ___ President of the United States elected in ____. [3rd, 1800]
  10. Jefferson helped found which university? [The University of Virginia]

If your children score below 70%, we have a lot of work to do as a nation.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.