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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

[1196] Pendleton’s Lithography, Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States (c. 1828), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-117117].

President John F. Kennedy paid tribute to Thomas Jefferson’s many accomplishments when he told a group of Nobel Prize winners that they were “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Indeed, Jefferson’s intellectual talents extended to a wide range of subjects and pursuits. He made important contributions to American culture as a writer, politician, farmer, horticulturist, inventor, book collector, art curator, architect, and scientist. His commitment to and eloquent articulation of ideals of liberty and justice (most famously in the Declaration of Independence) have made him a hero to many, while his ownership of slaves and sometimes disingenuous political rhetoric have disappointed others. As historian Joseph J. Ellis puts it, “The best and worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson.”

Jefferson was born into a prominent family in Albermarle County, Virginia. After his father’s death in 1757 he was sent to the College of William and Mary, where he received an education in the classics as well as in eighteenth-century philosophy. Jefferson chose to pursue law as a career and studied with the influential legal scholar George Wythe. After setting up a successful law practice, he was elected to the Virginia legislature in 1769, thus embarking on his lengthy career in American politics. Jefferson soon became embroiled in the Revolutionary cause and published a fiery pamphlet on American rights. He also attended the Second Continental Congress as a strong advocate of independence. Jefferson was well known for his literary abilities, so he was a natural choice to serve on the committee selected to draft the Declaration of Independence. He accepted suggestions and editorial changes made by the committee and by the Congress (nervous congressional delegates removed his strong condemnation of slavery), but in essence the document is the product of Jefferson’s pen.

After 1776, Jefferson returned to Virginia, where he was elected governor. While serving his term, he received a request for information about the land and culture of Virginia from Francois Barbe-Marbois, a French diplomat. Jefferson composed the only full-length book of his career, Notes on the State of Virginia, in response. A comprehensive study of natural history, politics, and social customs, Jefferson’s work attempts to make a scientific argument for America’s potential as a land of freedom and prosperity. Notes on the State of Virginia contains insightful analysis of the natural world, intriguing political and social commentary, and some problematic racial stereotypes. In 1784 Jefferson was appointed minister to France, and the years he spent abroad proved foundational to both his politics and his sense of aesthetics (he became enamored of French art and architecture). When he returned to the United States in 1789, he served as the first secretary of state under George Washington and later as vice president under John Adams. Jefferson’s disagreements with Adams over the role of government in the new nation led to the formation of the first American political parties: Adams’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. In what is sometimes termed the “Revolution of 1800,” Jefferson defeated Adams and the Federalist Party to become the third president of the United States. He was the first president inaugurated in the new city of Washington, D.C., and during his term in office he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific.

After the conclusion of his second term as president, Jefferson returned to Monticello, the elegant plantation he had built on his family lands in Virginia. In his final years, he helped found the University of Virginia and maintained an extensive correspondence with friends, acquaintances, and admirers in Europe and America. His productive retirement was troubled, however, by his enormous financial debts and his consciousness of the discrepancy between his professed political commitments and his position as a slaveowner. He died a few hours before John Adams on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Teaching Tips

  • Students tend to view the Declaration of Independence as a kind of sacred document, forgetting that it was argued over and revised by the Second Continental Congress. Ask your class to examine the editorial changes to Jefferson’s original draft indicated by the underlining and marginal notations featured in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. How did the Congress change Jefferson’s original words? In what places did they tone down his language? Where did they make it stronger? In particular, you might focus on the removal of the passage condemning slavery (where Jefferson advances the unconvincing argument that the King set up the institution of slavery in America against the will of the white colonists) and the changes to Jefferson’s indictment of “our British brethren.”
  • Some background on Jefferson’s vexed relationship with the question of slavery could enliven class discussion: Now that DNA tests have proven that he had children with his slave Sally Hemings, and that he held those children in slavery for most of his life, the discrepancy between Jefferson’s belief that “all men are created equal” and the reality of his life as a plantation owner seems even more problematic. You should make it clear to students that Jefferson was by no means untroubled by the question of slavery–he sponsored unsuccessful political action to weaken or end slavery on several occasions and he devised elaborate architectural tricks at Monticello to disguise the slave labor that was foundational to its operations. But despite his discomfort with slavery, he never brought himself to free his slaves, nor did he free them after his death.
  • Ask one of your students to read aloud the speech that Jefferson attributes to the Native American chief Logan in Query VI of Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson (himself a notoriously poor speaker) once claimed that within the “whole orations of Demosthenes and Cicero and indeed in all of European oratory” one could not “produce a single passage superior to the speech of Logan.” Ask students what kind of response they had when they listened to the speech. Why might Jefferson have chosen this as a model of oratory? What values does the speech uphold? What image of Native American culture does it provide? You might give students a summary of historian Hayden White’s argument that the construction of the “Noble Savage” in America had more to do with debunking the idea of the superiority of hereditary aristocracies than with elevating “savages.” Ask your students whether they think this theory illuminates Jefferson’s discussion of Logan and whether it fits in with the rest of Jefferson’s ideology.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What grievances against British rule are outlined in the Declaration of Independence?
  2. Context: Examine the diagrams and photographs featured in the archive of the campus Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia. Why might Jefferson have chosen this design for his ideal “academical village,” as he called it? What kind of educational space does the campus construct for its students? What values are reflected in its design? With these questions in mind, think about the design of your own campus or school. What do you think the architects of your campus had in mind when they planned it? How might their goals have been similar to or different from Jefferson’s?
  3. Context: Read the contextual material in “The Awful Truth: The Aesthetic of the Sublime” featured in this unit. Examine Jefferson’s description of the Natural Bridge in Query V of Notes on the State of Virginia and then look at the image of the Natural Bridge featured in the archive. How does Jefferson describe the Natural Bridge? What effect does it have on him when he visits it? Why does he shift to the second person when he describes the Bridge’s effects? Why does he view it as “the most sublime of Nature’s works”? How does the Bridge compare to other natural or human-made wonders you may have visited (the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam, or Niagara Falls, for example)?
  4. Exploration: The Puritans’ Mayflower Compact, John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” and the Declaration of Independence all function as early American articulations of shared values. How do these documents compare to one another? How did American values change over the course of 150 years? What does the Declaration, an eighteenth-century text, have in common with the Puritan documents?
  5. Exploration: Sentences and phrases from the Declaration of Independence are often recycled in American political and cultural documents. Think of some instances when you may have heard the Declaration quoted. Which sections are quoted most often? Why? How do you think interpretations and uses of the language of the Declaration have changed since Jefferson’s time?

Selected Archive Items

[1196Pendleton’s Lithography, Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States (c. 1828),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-117117].
When the founding fathers affirmed their commitment to the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in 1776, they opted not to struggle with the troubling question of how slavery fit into this ideal. This engraving is from an original painting by Gilbert Stuart.

[1309Anonymous, Photo of Monticello (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW361-758].
Thomas Jefferson constructed underground passageways so that visitors to Monticello would not see slaves at work–others placed slave quarters in prominent locations as a display of their wealth and power.

[1401Thomas Jefferson, Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Eli Whitney, Nov. 16, 1793 (1793),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Eli Whitney, a northerner, conceived of his invention, the cotton gin, as one that would help end slavery by taking over much of the work done by slaves. In effect, however, the cotton gin helped ensure the continuation of slavery by making the cotton industry much more lucrative.

[1646Anonymous, The Providential Detection (c. 1800),
courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia.
Because Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs were in accord with the religion and politics of the French Revolution, many Federalists believed him incapable of leadership as illustrated in this cartoon: the eye of God commanding the American Eagle to snatch away the Constitution of the United States.

[3679Anonymous, Daguerreotype photograph of Isaac Jefferson (1847),
courtesy of Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.
Although he spoke out against the institution of slavery, Jefferson ran a large plantation through slave labor; recent DNA tests have provided conclusive evidence that Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings.

[7781Anonymous, University of Virginia (n.d.),
courtesy of the National Park Service.
Although Monticello is justly celebrated as an expression of Thomas Jefferson’s aesthetic values, his true masterpiece is the design for the University of Virginia. Conceived of as an “academica village,” the central campus of the university is composed of five neoclassical pavilions that housed five different branches of learning.

[9044A. C. Brechin & Son, Rotunda and Lawn, University of Virginia (1911),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-124456].
This early-twentieth-century shot shows the rotunda and lawn at the University of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson designed the university.

[9045Anonymous, University of Virginia, Pavilion VI (after 1933),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, VA,2-CHAR,1-O-].
This map shows the University of Virginia, Pavilion VI, East Lawn. A closeup can be seen at [9046] .

[9047Haines Photo Company, Natural Bridge, VA (1909),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-110212].
Sometimes dubbed one of the “Seven Wonders of the Natural World,” Natural Bridge in Virginia has long attracted visitors. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson called it “the most sublime of Nature’s works.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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