Thomas Jefferson – American Muse
Delivered at the Washington, D.C.
Spinoza Society, Goethe-Institut
In 1962, President Kennedy assembled the Nobel laureates from the Western Hemisphere
in the White House dining room. To this illustrious group he said: “I think this is 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.”
In modern Washington we identify people by their most celebrated occupation.
Jefferson, then, would be called a statesman. But as Kennedy suggested, he was highly
accomplished in an astonishing number of vocations and avocations. Jefferson was also a poet,
philosopher, architect, naturalist, inventor, correspondent, musician, farmer, educator, bibliophile
... The list is seemingly endless because his energy, curiosity and discipline were truly
In recent decades, Jefferson's name has increasingly been linked with yet another label –
hypocrite. There's more than a little truth to that critique. For bad as well as for good, Jefferson
exemplified this nation's spirit through his words and conduct. In some respects, he soared like
an eagle. In others, he refused to practice what he preached. Then again, so does America. For
all who wish to understand this country, for all who thirst to take advantage of the rights and
opportunities she affords, for all who are willing to grapple with her failings and comprehend
how she may rise to even greater heights, there is no better place to start than with Jefferson.
Perhaps that's why my favorite moniker for him is muse. When I've tried to understand
what it means to honor this country in all the right ways, no historical figure has influenced me
like Jefferson. When I've considered which American landmark can consistently excite my
American pride, I've found nothing that equals Monticello. Maybe I'm in denial – unwilling to
delve deeply into Jefferson's limitations. But I'm not alone in loving this man. Despite recent
findings about his sexual relationship with a slave, people still love him because we appreciate
what he has taught us about our country and our own potential as individuals.
As a religious figure, he falls short. As a man, he will always stand tall.
II. Jefferson and His Paradoxes
Jefferson is full of paradoxes. His powers as a muse are available only to those who are
willing to recognize and accept his glaring inconsistencies and his willingness to evolve.
A. Whig and Tory
According to the myth, Jefferson is the quintessential Whig. A progressive who stands
for modernity, liberty, democracy and enlightenment, Jefferson is celebrated as a man of the
people, by the people and for the people. He surely would have endorsed that description.
Intellectually, he believed in the Whig ideal.
Dispositionally, however, Jefferson was very much a Tory. He hated conflict. He even
had a distaste for debate. He instead sought the same serenity for his mind that he found in the
countryside at dawn. And who could blame him for his sensibilities? While the salt of the earth
he rhapsodized employed their children in the fields, young Thomas was learning Plutarch and
drinking in the virtues of Greece and Rome. His heroes were aristocrats, and their traits were
suitable for their noble stations. Honorable. Disciplined. Cultivated. These were the kinds of
characteristics to which Jefferson aspired.
In the 18th century, Tories weren't merely throwbacks to ancient pagans. They were also
pious – as steeped in Sinai as in Athens. Jefferson's piety was central to his character. For him,
though, religion wasn't transmitted at church. It was experienced by soaking in the peaks of the
Blue Ridge or the shores of the upper Potomac. Like the most orthodox churchman, Jefferson
believed in a providential, omnibenevolent creator. But Jefferson's creator wasn't known through
Biblical miracles but rather through the beauty and laws of nature. Anything that Jefferson
could connect to nature in its pristene form he absolutely adored.
Admittedly, human beings are often viewed in contrast to nature. Jefferson, however,
linked the two by seeing both as the products of a divine source. Just as he appreciated the
Godlike hand behind fauna and flaura, he found grandeur in humankind generally and
particularly in those people who remained close to the soil. What choice did he have? The Tory
in him demanded piety, and his chosen form of piety required faith in humankind, the crown
jewel of God's earthly creation.
This is how the teenage Jefferson came to be a progressive despite his wealth and his
schooling at the feet of a conservative teacher. Jefferson also came to be a patriot, and his form
of patriotism flowed from his manner of piety. In America -- unspoiled, limitless and far from
the decadent cities of Europe -- Jefferson's beloved nature was at her most glorious. There
would be plenty of land for the common men to divide up amongst themselves without having to
be dependent on a small group of tyrants who controlled their thoughts as well as their assets.
America, then, would have a glorious future, and the agents of that future would be the wise,
independent-minded yeoman farmers who nurtured its holy resources. That was the optimistic
vision of Jefferson the Tory and Jefferson the Whig.
Armed with this vision, Jefferson wrote the words heard 'round the world. I won't repeat
them. We all know what they were: nothing less than the organizing principles of the United
States of America captured in poetry.
It's ironic that the first concept Jefferson invoked was equality because that is the last
thing in which a Tory believes. Tories stand for hirearchy – a natural order in which the few rule
over the many – but Jefferson was tired of the old hirearchy, and that's what made him a
revolutionary. At least for members of his own race and gender, he dreamt of a form of equality.
Jefferson imagined an America where children of the poor as well as the affluent have a
legitimate opportunity to cultivate their own God-given talents to the full. To Jefferson, this
cultivation, this nourishment of the glorious spirit that resides within every one of us, should be
the central focus of human existence.
Jefferson the Whig assumed that in the poorest villages and the most decrepid urban
neighborhoods, exceptionally talented and virtuous children can be found. Jefferson the Tory
viewed these diamonds in the rough as aristocrats, “natural aristocrats, and assigned to them,
together with the more able members of the moneyed class, the rights of leadership over the
American society. Jefferson the Whig assumed that the rank and file of white men, the ones
without exceptional gifts, are nevertheless wise and intelligent enough to be educable about
matters of politics. Jefferson the Tory assigned to these men the honorable, yet subordinate role
of identifying and electing the natural aristocrats. Like their more talented compatriots, the salt
of the earth in a Jeffersonian republic wouldn't simply be serving their society but would also be
realizing their own potential as individuals. That's what Jefferson meant by being free. It's a
positive conception of liberty – the freedom to be your best, not merely the freedom from
Freedom was the concept that truly obsessed Jefferson back in the 1770s. His version of
equality, his equality of opportunity, was all tied up with freeing the minds and unleashing the
talents of the people. But for all he thought about the beauty of freedom, I get the impression he
thought at least as much about the ugliness of tyranny. You can sense his indignation from the
Declaration itself. The Moses who crafted it had less of an idea of the Promised Land than of the
Pharaoh in the way. A rallying cry was implicit in the document: “Be gone, English monarchy,
and take your trappings with you! Big centralized bureacracies, standing armies, financial
speculators, plutocrats, all of it. It's not welcome on these shores. Here we breathe God's air and
we distribute power as liberally as God Himself distributes trees and grass.”
These emotions, these thoughts, these dreams have captivated Whigs ever since. But
they represent only part of the truth, don't they? The new Republic wasn't a land of opportunity
for all, and Jefferson the Tory didn't truly believe it should be. To women, he offered lives of
domesticity, not leadership. To African-Americans, he offered even less. Were they really
human beings, he wondered? Or were they a different, inferior species, the product of a separate
divine creation? Jefferson's mind remained open on the issue, though he opined that blacks
lacked the reasoning capacity, poetry skills and imagination of whites. More importantly, the
grandiose words in his Declaration of Independence didn't stop him and other white people from
denying African-Americans their liberty and their right to pursue happiness with dignity.
So Jefferson wrote words that he didn't fully believe. But the words had such power that
they transcended the limited 18th century mind of their author. Today, they represent a rallying
cry for Americans of every color who believe that freedom and justice should be universal.
When Barak Obama, America's fastest rising political star today and the son of a black African,
needed to introduce himself to the American public, he turned to the words that Jefferson penned
in 1776. He had to. Those are the words that ground the American consciousness. As Rabbi
Hillel would say, all the rest is commentary.
B. Idealist and Pragmatist
What is the best way to unleash the talents and virtues of at least the white people in the
new Republic? This was the predicament Jefferson faced during the years after he declared
independence on the Republic's behalf.
His solution starts with the common man – or should I say, the common farmer. As
conceived by Jefferson, the farmer is independent (beholden to no one), literary (as familar with
Plato as with agriculature) and equipped with the the fruits of science. Jefferson was no
Luddhite. He believed that once tyranical institutions were removed, the power of science would
be unleashed and labor-saving technology would be employed throughout the land. This would
free up the time for the farmers and others who work with their hands to enrich their lives
through higher, contemplative pursuits.
To retain their independence, these men of the soil craved property. Jefferson knew that.
Still, he viewed private property not as an end in itself but only as a means. He wrote in 1785, “I
am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this
enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent
too many devices for subdividing property.” He called for progressive taxation and for the
alteration of property laws at least once every 19 years to ensure that property inequalities are not
maintained. “The earth,” he famously claimed, “belongs in usufruct to the living” – not to the
indolent descendents of the wealthy.
Jefferson qua egalitarian didn't merely philosophize. He made concrete proposals to
ensure the disbursement of political and economic power. In 1778, he drafted a bill for the More
General Diffusion of Knowledge that would take tax dollars and use them to educate every poor
white child in the state of Virginia. With the help of progressive taxation, the natural aristocrats
– boys only, of course -- would get a free pass to his alma mater, the College of William and
Mary. Other bright students would get many years of schooling, but would have to leave before
matriculating in college, or even in secondary school. But every white child would get three
years of schooling. That, Jefferson assumed, would be enough to make them literate. Then,
armed with their God-given curiosity, they could reasonably be expected to become lifelong
lovers of knowledge, readers of newspapers, and voters who possess the wisdom to entrust our
nation's leadership to the proper hands. In other words, a little bit of education for children and a
ready supply of information for adults is all we need. In the spirit of these beliefs, the young
Jefferson wrote that “If I had to choose between government without newspapers and
newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter.”
As it turned out, Jefferson's educational proposal was too idealistic for the
Commonwealth of Virginia. The barons of the Commonwealth were unwilling to raise the tax
dollars needed to implement the proposal during Jefferson's lifetime. Consequently, the masses
of children remained barely literate, if that. In his later years, Jefferson was able to see to the
creation of the University of Virginia, but the immediate beneficiaries were aristocrats of the old-
fashioned kind – the kind that are nurtured by leisure as much as by talent.
And what of the electorate? The newspaper-reading yeoman farmers whom the young
Jefferson trusted with the fate of democracy? Jefferson never abandoned the belief that these
people were endowed by their creator with a strong “moral sense.” Social in orientation,
essentially altruistic, empathetic and loving, this sixth sense, he claimed, is present in all people
who have not been thoroughly corrupted by societal decadence. It impels us to perform our
duties to others. But don't these yeomans need information to understand how best to discharge
their duties? Newspapers perhaps? The older Jefferson wasn't quite so optimistic about what
they would read if, in fact, they sought to inform themselves about the world of politics.
Jefferson's romance with newspapers went out with the scandal mongering of his middle-age
years – some of which he himself fomented. At an advanced age, the sage of Monticello said
that “the man who never looks into a newspaper is better than he who reads; inasmuch as he who
knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehood and errors.”
Let's face it. The young author of the Declaration was a visionary. The older Jefferson,
a battle-worn pragmatist. The former decried the prospect of political parties. The latter recalls
how candidate Jefferson played hardball partisan politics – supposedly to save America from the
threat of the “monarchists” in power. The young Jefferson wrote polemics against slavery and
proposed bills to limit its expansion. The mature Jefferson toasted the value of slavery's
untrammelled diffusion, even yearning for a time when small farmers had a slave or two of their
own. The young Jefferson criticized centralized institutions like the Bank of the United States or
the U.S. Navy. The older Jefferson, having been elected President, recognized the need to
maintain them both. The young Jefferson spoke of the value of limited government. President
Jefferson, however, couldn't resist the opportunity to purchase the Louisiana Territory though the
Constitution didn't explicitly authorize him to do so. The young Jefferson saw America as a
haven for farmers and rural craftsmen. The mature Jefferson spoke of the need for balance
between farming and commerce – in short, for an economy that reflected Hamiltonian federalism
as much as the agrarian vision of Jefferson's early days.
What happened? You might say Jefferson grew up with his country. His pragmatism
reflected his nation's mentality: ideals are fine, but not if they get in the way of results, and
particularly our prosperity. Jefferson took pride in the fact that he wasn't one to tilt at windmills.
C. Freedom Fighter, Freedom Neglector
There was one area in which Jefferson's teachings were remarkably consistent – his
commitment to religious freedom. As a fighter for that type of liberty, Jefferson was tireless. He
drafted his bill to protect religious freedom in the state of Virginia as early as 1777. As
President, he coined the concept of a “wall between church and state.” And throughout his adult
life, he demanded that his government extend rights to all dissenters, not merely to unorthodox
Christians, as was suggested by certain other prominent enlightenment philosophers.
Thanks in large part to Jefferson, freedom of religion is as American as apple pie. Along
with it comes greater respect for other compatible liberties – freedom of conscience, expression,
speech, assembly, the press. These freedoms harken back to the message of the Declaration of
Independence without directly threatening the interests of property. Freedom to be educated
would have no doubt met with similar encouragement – until someone showed up with the bill.
Jefferson's work to protect freedom of religion and conscience was incredibly successful.
It's no wonder that if you look at his tombstone, you will find inscribed as one of the three
accomplishments in which he felt the most pride the drafting of the Statute of Virginia for
Religious Freedom. It's right up there with penning the Declaration of Independence and
founding the University of Virginia, his life's final project.
If preserving religious liberty was an area in which Jefferson's life was a great success,
his lack of success in many other domains was striking. Slavery provides the obvious example.
Jefferson must have understood the absurdity of declaring the United States to be the land of the
free while at the same time enslaving a large segment of its population. His professed desire to
ship the slaves back to Africa was impracticable. Wouldn't he have known that? He sometimes
expressed that to resolve the slavery problem, only divine providence could save America from a
bloodshed of Biblical proportions. Strangely enough, Ft. Sumter beat God to the punch.
As much as Jefferson wished to rationalize slavery by questioning the very humanity of
the black race, he couldn't possibly have been comfortable with these rationalizations. For
decades after his wife's untimely death, Jefferson maintained an affair with a mulatto, an affair
that resulted in numerous children. Would a man as cultivated as Jefferson have shared a bed
year after year with the same woman if he were convinced that some of her ancestors weren't
truly human? I find that difficult to imagine.
Why then did Jefferson tolerate slavery as a young man and support its diffusion in his
later years? Presumably, he merely fell prey to the very American desire to protect his own
economic self interest. He needed slaves to maintain his lifestyle, and he must have rationalized
that whatever was good for “Thomas Jefferson, Natural Aristocrat” was good for America.
As Jefferson the Intellectual grew older and watched the revolutionary generation turn
into the Hamiltonian generation, he bemoaned the fact that Americans are marked more by their
acquisitiveness than their inquisitiveness. This reaction only stands to reason. This Renaissance
Man possessed aesthetic as well as intellectual sensibilities that were far and away more
advanced that those of his contemporaries. And yet, when it came down to his luxurious lifestyle
and the slaves who made that possible, Jefferson was as American as Ado Annie. He just
couldn't say “no.”
Thoreau once wrote of the American farmer that He “would carry his God to market if he
could get anything for Him.” And so Jefferson's slaves were sold on the block after his death
because of the debt that resulted from his insatiable desire for luxuries. Ironically, many of these
luxuries were books touting the realm of the spirit above that of mammon.
De Tocqueville pointed out the problem quite well: 19th century Americans had both
egalitarian ideals and an enormous potential to generate wealth. How did the nation harmonize
these attributes? By seizing on the principle of equal opportunity above all else, and freely
encouraging everyone to acquire as much as his or her ingenuity can muster. “The first of all
distinctions in America is money,” de Tocqueville wrote. Jefferson would have shuddered at the
thought. But this prophet had to know that he lacked standing to respond with a jeremiad.
III. Jefferson The Muse
With that as prologue, let's take a critical look at Jefferson's ability to inspire.
A. Letting a Hypocrite into Your Heart
It's always easy to criticize. It's particularly easy to criticize Jefferson. Jefferson the
Hypocrite spoke of liberty but kept legions of people in bondage. Jefferson the Hypocrite spoke
of the need to exercise discipline and to live within our means but damned if he didn't saddle his
family and slaves with enormous debt. Jefferson the Hypocrite spoke of opening political
discourse to the “doors of truth, and to fortify the habit of testing everything by reason,” but that
didn't stop him from surreptiously supporting a journalist who peddled hyperbolic and
sometimes fallacious trash about Jefferson's political opponents.
Webster once said of Dartmouth that it is “but a small college. And yet there are those
who love it.” Jefferson is but a very human being, and yet there are those of us who love him,
too. We recognize that his hypocricies are not nearly as profound as his gifts – both his gifts
from nature and his gifts to us as Americans. Besides, after Guttenberg, isn't it true that to be a
public figure who dares to philosophize about great ideas is to condemn oneself to the ranks of
hypocrites? Is it really better to avoid those ranks -- by saying little and accomplishing less?
As was mentioned before, Jefferson had an incredibly wide range of interests. Yet he
was no dilettante. He threw his soul into all his activities and mastered craft after craft. Living
as we do in a society where television is king, Jefferson's example demonstrates how much
potential each of us possesses when we live actively and autonomously.
For myself, Jefferson looms largest when he's viewed as an aristocrat – that's right, a
Tory. He never got fat and happy. He always enjoyed the search for beauty and truth more than
their possession. Jefferson the Whig would have hated to be called American royalty, but for
those of us who are starved for home grown greatness, that's precisely what he was.
Most Americans aren't open to royalty. We disdain its excesses and selfishness. And we
constantly note that those who bask in the privileges of royalty seldom seem justified in doing
so. But Jefferson was different. Not only did he work from dawn until dusk to develop his
talents, but above all else, he developed a vision. And this vision, paradoxically, was that those
who disdained royalty were right all along.
What's endearing about Thomas Jefferson is that even though he was arguably the
quintessential aristocrat because of how he took advantage of the privileges that life had given
him, his crowning act was to take aristocracy to the guillotine and chop off its head in a decisive
stroke. He didn't condemn it out of hatred for aristocrats, but rather out of respect for we the
people, we the commoners. He respected our moral fiber. Our common sense. Our educability.
Our dignity. And he fought aristocracy out of respect for our creator, who endowed each of us
with unique talents just waiting to be developed, if only we could live in the right social climate.
The truth is that there is a particular group of talents that Jefferson wanted to develop
above all – the talents of the intellect. He was an unusual American aristocrat in that not only
was he tireless in his activity, but most of his activity was cerebral. He considered contemplation
to be the highest form of human conduct, yet he didn't simply seek to understand the world but
also to revolutionize it. All his life, he worked in one manner or another as a public servant. For
him, public service wasn't simply a choice; it was an act of duty.
Those various qualities make Jefferson a special figure in American history. I personally
find them inspiring. But his ability to move us extends even further. It extends to his piety.
We spoke before about that word. Meant in a theological sense, a pious person could be viewed
as someone who doesn't take life for granted and feels thankful for its source. Speaking in a
political sense, perhaps a pious American is one who doesn't take republicanism for granted and
feels thankful for the band of brothers and sisters in the 18th century who devoted themselves to
the great republican experiment. When you enter the mind of Jefferson, you're reminded of how
exciting this experiment was to him. He knew about democratic city-states. He knew how much
they've enriched us intellectually and artistically. What he didn't know is whether the idea of a
republic, a place where supreme power rests with the commoners, could take root over a large,
populated land mass.
Now, we live in a country with literally millions of square miles and hundreds of millions
of people that has enjoyed republican rule for well over two centuries. Are we to take that for
To go to church or synagogue is to experience a spate of opportunities to thank God for
water, food or light. To go to Valley Forge or the Old North Church is to be given the honor of
thanking a generation for the gift of republicanism. But none of the founding fathers explained
this gift as eloquently as Jefferson. None captured the excitement in a way that moved both the
heart and the mind. None, perhaps, understood better what was at stake when we said to George
III that where there is no autonomy there is no dignity, and all the security and wealth in the
world would mean nothing.
B. Lessons for the Modern American Society
So far, I've been talking about Jefferson as an individual who for all his faults can aptly
be termed a role model worthy of our admiration and appreciation. I'd like to address now just a
few of the many lessons from his legacy that can be applied to 21st century America.
First, the story of Thomas Jefferson teaches Americans to recognize and confront our
characteristic vice: greed. His generation of plantation owners wouldn't sacrifice their
“property.” Nor did he. As a result, many of their descendents paid the ultimate price.
Today, we cheer the fact that the descendents of the slaves are free. Yet they commonly
live in the grips of poverty, and they're not alone – millions of other Americans are similarly
impoverished. Jefferson himself spoke of the consequences of the “enormous inequalities” of
wealth. In 1785, he wrote that whenever a country has
uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so
far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to
labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated,
we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the
appropration. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the
Following in Jefferson's footsteps, I would ask whether our affluent society is sacrificing
as much as necessary to combat the scourge of poverty? Just as the Virginians of his day refused
to support the taxes needed to provide for universal public education, even for just three years,
Americans today are unwilling to support the taxes needed to wage a war on want. Perhaps a
modern-day Jefferson would be skeptical as well if a demogogue suggested to him that the
poverty problem could be effectively fought through taxes and bureaucracies alone. Lord knows
that a man who valued independence as much as he did would take a dim view of a welfare
program that focused primarily on handouts. Yet I don't doubt that today's Jefferson would
recognize the need for expensive public initiatives – such as in education and job training. And
more to the point, I don't doubt that today's Jefferson would seek to mobilize the nation's forces
against poverty with every bit the energy that his generation mobilized to fight George III. If
we've learned any lesson from the Civil War, that should be the one. Our national chain is only
as strong as our weakest links.
The second lesson I'd like to discuss is related to the first, and it involves the need for
societal unity. Let's say a number of Americans wanted to undertake an initiative to wage total
war against the scourge of poverty. Alternatively, we could pick another holy, Jeffersonian
pursuit – like cleaning up the environment. (Remember, this is the man who believed that one
generation cannot bind future generations to their detriment. Yet we today threaten to do just
that, such as by changing the climates across the globe or destroying the ozone layer in the sky.)
Pick whatever grandiose goal you'd like – whatever revolutionary, dramatic mission
would be worthy of the pen of a modern poet-statesman with Jeffersonian talents. How could we
achieve this goal as a society if we are as divided as we are today? How, for example, could
modern progressives hope to help the South Bronx without the full support of the business
community, most of which has found a secure home within the GOP? Is there anything more
vital to accomplishing great social goals in a democracy than the elimination of sharp divisions
among the body politic?
Jefferson knew full well the blight of social and political divisions. He helped foment
them and was rewarded with the White House. But I get the impression that if he had a chance
to live over again, he would have behaved more civilly to the Hamiltons's and the Adams's when
they were in power in the late 1790s. The evidence I'd submit for my assertion is one of the most
beautiful testiments to unity in our nation's history – the Jefferson-Adams correspondence that
began on New Year's Day in 1812 and continued throughout the remainder of their lives. In all,
these former combattants wrote 158 letters to each other, expressing their competing visions but
also their commonalties, with even an apology or two thrown in for good measure. Could you
imagine Bush and Kerry writing deep, loving, and sometimes apologetic letters to each other
throughout their golden years? Not likely.
If the leaders of the Democrats and Republicans are to someday bury the hatchet and take
on a common enterprise, they should look no further for role models than the Sage of Monticello
and his elderly friend from Boston. Read the correspondence, appreciate what it means to be
magnanimous, and remember that statesmanship is supposed to harmonize more with the ideals
of religion than with the joys of a boxing match.
Speaking of religion, it is from that domain that I would like to offer a third and final
lesson from Jefferson's legacy. Like many, if not most, free-thinking intellectuals, Jefferson was
commonly termed an atheist in his day. And the truth is that he wasn't exactly fundamentalist in
his beliefs. He refused to accept the the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth or the facticity of other
Biblical events that violated the laws of nature. As a Presidential candidate, he was attacked as a
“French infidel” who failed to keep the Sabbath.
How did Jefferson respond to these critiques? By writing an analysis of the New
Testament while in the White House. “Jefferson's Bible,” as it has come to be known, focused
on Jesus as moral teacher and social reformer. What's most interesting for our purposes is that
Jefferson never allowed his Bible to be published – except anonymously. He gave it as a gift to
his cabinet and a few trusted loved ones, but otherwise kept it to himself.
What was he thinking? Didn't he know that there was political capital to be made in
becoming part statesman, part theologian? Probably so. But Jefferson was appealing to a higher
principle, one that he held throughout his life. To Jefferson, in order for religion to be a holy
matter, it must be a private one. It must be cultivated in a peaceful, contemplative garden. As
we all know, Jefferson wasn't above invoking the name of God if needed to make a political
point. But he never appropriated God for himself or his fellow deists. He never attempted to
divide a body politic on the basis of their religious beliefs. He never attempted to say that public
policy should reflect particular interpretations of a divine injunction. When he spoke of God, it
was to empower people, not to deprive them of their liberties.
It's sad that we as a society still haven't learned that his way was the enlightened way. It's
sad that we haven't recognized the enormous power of religion to unify, which is potentially
every bit as great as its power to divide. Which of these two powers becomes dominant may
determine our society's fate as we move further into this new millenium.
It has been said about Jefferson that whichever side of the political fence you find