Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is America's Founding Idealist. The values of this country—liberty and equality, freedom and individualism, republicanism and democracy all sprang from his mind and pen. From the moment he burst onto the national scene in 1774 with A Summary View of the Rights of British America, to his providential death on the 50th anniversary of his Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1826, he embodied America's highest goals and aspirations.
Charles Willson Peale, Philadelphia, 1791
Courtesy Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia
James Parton summed up: "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right." Today, at the Jefferson Memorial in the capital of the nation he helped to found, we admire his towering figure and read his inspiring words. Jefferson's challenge is as alive and relevant today as it was more than two hundred years ago, when he first summoned his fellow citizens to their revolutionary destiny.
Yet Jefferson's life and public policies are shot through with contradictions and even paradoxes. Jefferson the politician does not always measure up to Jefferson the ideologue. In his private life he lived out the dilemmas that vex his country still. But when old John Adams, also on his deathbed on July 4, 1826, croaked that "Jefferson still survives," he was absolutely right. He defined forever the rightful place of the Sage of Monticello in the hearts and minds of his countrymen. For as long as America struggles to live up to its creed—the values and ideals he cherished—the United States of America will be Jefferson's country.
Thomas Jefferson wrote his own epitaph, and it can be seen today on his gravestone in the family cemetery at Monticello:
Author of the Declaration of American Independence,
Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom,
And Father of the University of Virginia.
Nothing of his political or diplomatic career, as delegate, governor, minister, secretary, vice-president, president. Nothing as scientist, architect, naturalist, linguist, or philosopher-statesman. Nothing of the West—of Louisiana or Lewis and Clark. Jefferson's epitaph is the grossest understatement in American history. He chose to accentuate items at the beginning and end of his long public career. Since he did not fill the gap, we must.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities