Draft of Declaration of Independence, 1776
Library of Congress, Manuscript Division
It is impossible to sum up briefly the life, achievements, and philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. He is a towering Enlightenment figure who spent his life, it seems, investigating and writing about everything. A short biography runs six volumes; his published works, when completed, will fill a hundred. A few themes, however, deserve explication.
Jefferson's timelessness, his everlasting memorial, rests on his unceasing advocacy of a natural rights philosophy of liberty and equality, of democracy, individual freedom, and limited government by consent of the governed. He first set forth these "self evident" truths in his Declaration of American Independence: "all men are created equal" and endowed with "certain inalienable rights &among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These beliefs are the consistent theme of Jefferson's life; what he wanted to be remembered for; what he wanted inscribed on his tombstone. In his First Inaugural Address he called these natural rights "the creed of our political faith." He hated the artificial barriers of the past monarchy, aristocracy, "monkish ignorance and superstition." In the last letter of his life (June 24, 1826) he expounded "the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." These are American values, even today.
Jefferson's universal truths are, of course, contradictory and philosophically incompatible. Liberty implies individual freedom, including the freedom to be different; equality implies sameness, or uniformity. Liberty has historically been an aristocratic value: equality a democratic goal. A government guaranteeing universal rights and resting on the consent of the people poses a problem: What if the people agree to deny these rights to themselves? American political and public discourse is a constant balancing act between Jeffersonian extremes. Thus partisans of all stripes can and do invoke Thomas Jefferson to support various and nefarious schemes of both left and right. Jefferson is indeed our universal philosopher.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities