Thursday 12 May 2016

Thomas Jefferson

"I think one approaches Thomas Jefferson with the sense that he is, in a biographical sense, the Holy Grail of American History." (Ken Burns)

Thomas Jefferson, a Renaissance man, represented two polar opposite ideas.  As Ken Burn explains, "He may be the man who distilled a century of Enlightenment thought into this sentence that begins:  'all men are created equal.'  But he was also the owner of more than 200 human beings and never saw fit in his lifetime to free them..."

Jefferson believed in education:  when he lost his entire book collection to a fire at his birthplace home, he responded:  "I cannot live without my books."  He spent the next several years re-amassing his literature, which would total 6,500 titles (  When the British Army burned the White House in the War of 1812, the retired president sold his beloved collection to replenish the shelves at the Capitol.

While Jefferson was an avid reader, he was also an avid writer; his writings have been condensed into 19 volumes.  His most famous work was the Constitution of the United States, which he penned in 1787:  

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America..."

As Ken Burns says, the statement "all men are created equal" is one of the most important, and revolutionary, parts of the Constitution.  However, when it came right down to it, Jefferson didn't "walk the walk".  He kept over 200 slaves, like so many other Americans.  It never occurred to him to free them, even though he pushed for equality among men.  

Even so, Burns believes that Jefferson's influence on America was more positive than negative.  As Burns explains:  While Jefferson's words "gave comfort to the secessionists and the army of Jefferson Davis.... it is more important that his words inspired Abraham Lincoln, a generation of abolitionists, and thousands of runaway slaves."

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