Jefferson Lives

Peter W. Schramm

July 1, 2000

My twelve year-old son insisted on going to Fort Sumter this summer. Anything to encourage his interest in American history (and an excuse to ride a good distance), I packed up my motorcycle and we headed out. The eight-day trip was grand. Everything went well, we saw Fort Sumter and Appomattox, and he liked them both.

But to my surprise what made the greatest impression on him was the day we spent at Monticello. He was intrigued by the place itself, the grounds, the stables, the house, the gadgets, the library. But I was struck by how taken he was with Jefferson himself. Everything that the tour guide—or anyone else—said about Jefferson he took in, noted, and later asked about. I was surprised.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I live with Jefferson. I read him, read about him, sometimes I actually think I have conversations with him (a good bottle of French wine helps the thought along). But in my engagement with Jefferson, combined with the unfortunate scholarly trait of attempted sophistication, I sometimes forget the obvious. I forget how strikingly original, how shockingly revolutionary, and how astoundingly clear-headed and persuasive this American original really was. I forget what an exceptional man he really was.

I should remind myself more often what Abraham Lincoln, in 1854, said about Jefferson: “he was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history.” Lincoln was a thoughtful man, a man who said what he meant, and meant what he said, and he was right.

We are a fortunate people. We can go astray and, arguably, we frequently do. But when we do so we can easily remind ourselves of some of our great men, of what they were like, of what they did, of what they stood for. And we are blessed that we can recall the virtues and actions of a Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and many others. Yet it may well be the case that Jefferson in some ways is the easiest to recollect, the most memorable, the most distinguished of the lot, the great lot.

Why is this the case, even in this skeptical age? Why is Monticello always packed with visitors, even in early June? Why do books about Jefferson continue to appear in great numbers? Why do presidents of both parties insist that they are Jeffersonians? Why do museums do well to show artifacts from Monticello? Why are movies made about him?

It seems to me that Jefferson stands above the other greats because he is not remembered for specific acts of statesmanship and decision-making, but rather he is remembered for his words, he is remembered because of his understanding. The words equality and liberty gave us life as a people and without them we would be something other than what we are. And we would become something other than what we should hope to be.

With these fighting words of the Declaration of Independence Jefferson created a people, a nation. He created a new kind of nation dedicated to a truth that was universally applicable to all men at all times. The formidable words have been from the beginning, and continue to be, threatening to all tyrants, a reminder to all of their ugly injustice. It is not surprising that Lincoln called the “immortal paper” penned by Jefferson “the definitions and axioms of free society.”

My son John was impressed with it all. He was struck by a massive fact that I had mentioned to him once, and was repeated by the tour guide at Monticello. When we heard it again—he glanced at me with a knowing eye—the fact that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the Fourth of July, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration, he sensed that somehow this was a large fact, full of implication.

So on this Fourth, the birthday of the nation, let us note Jefferson’s death, and reflect on his immortal words and note to ourselves (with Lincoln) how it is that we “have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”

Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.