Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Monticello and Thomas Jefferson

I know I was going to blog about my visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home, and I've been meaning to. But visiting the house and plantation as well as the learning center associated with it really got me thinking about the man and his life.

Here's a man who is the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, third President of the United States, second Vice President, US Ambassador to France, one of the founding fathers of the Democratic-Republican party, Founder of the University of Virginia. Really, as a man of the Age of Enlightenment, his accomplishments could take up an entire book and there are a few books to attest to that fact.

But that character of the man really blew me away. A staunch believer in his phrase "All men are created equal", he still owned slaves as a Virginia plantation owner. The plantation tour guide said that Jefferson was, by all respects of the era, a very liberal slave owner and probably saw the institution as a unnecessary thing that would be best for the country to ease out of. He was noted for paying a good wage to those who had training and facilitated the freeing and relocation of those who he could. He wrote about slavery, "We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

A confirmed believer in the virtues of the 18th century Democratic-Republican party, he none the less brought about the Louisiana Purchase. A move that many politicians at the time felt violated the Constitution and founding principals of the United States. He also formed and funded the Lewis and Clarke expedition to explore this purchase.

He was a strong believer in states rights and limiting federal power, yet the Louisiana Purchase and his support of the Embargo Act of 1807, to the point of calling out federal troops to enforce it, actually expanded that power on the federal level.

His commitment to his principals and values caused him to lose many friends while in office at both the state and federal level. In fact his differences politically with John Adams caused the two, by all accounts close friends, to stop speaking to each other till they had both retired from the public life years later. And only started corresponding then due to the intervention of an intermediary.

He amassed 3 libraries during his life. Considering the relative scarcity of printing presses and book binders of the 18th and early 19th century, that's no mean feat. The first was lost in a fire of this childhood home, the second became the core of the Library of Congress after Washington was burned in the War of 1812, and the third he collected in his retirement and was offered to the University of Virginia after he founded it.

The ability of Mr. Jefferson and the other men of this era to think is astounding. Just some of his thoughts on different subjects are are amazing. Of course, unlike today's so called "thinkers", these men understood the relationship between thought and action, between the realm of the mind and the landscape of the real world. They understood, that just because they could think it up, didn't mean it was a good idea to implement it. Contrast the original Bill of Rights with today's plans for universal health care to get an idea of what I'm saying.

On guns and arms:
"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms ... disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes ... Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man."

He also once stated, "The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."

On self-esteem:
"I never had an opinion in politics or religion which I was afraid to own. A costive reserve on these subjects might have procured me more esteem from some people, but less from myself."

On time:
"Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing. "

In fact, his house has a clock in virtually every room. To those of you who think this is no big deal, the average person in this era used the sun to tell time and to find 3 pocket watches in a room full of people would be an unusual thing indeed.

On his thinking, President John F. Kennedy was quoted during a meeting with 49 Nobel Prize winners as saying "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

And finally, for all this mans accomplishments as a horticulturist, statesman, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, author, inventor and founder of a University what does he want as his eulogy? This simple epitaph:

Three simple things from a lifetime of accomplishment. This more than anything else, I think, says what kind of man this was.

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