The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Brief Notes on Jeffersonian Topics

Jefferson's Influence

Q. Thomas Jefferson greatly shaped the time period in which he lived. In contrast, how do you think the changing time shaped Jefferson? (i.e. What role did the time period play in the development of Jefferson as a leader?)

Leadership was a great burden to Thomas Jefferson. He would have much preferred (or so he said; some historians are contrary in judging his motives) to spend his days with "my family, my friends, my farm and books." But the demands of the times in which he lived compelled him to come to the service of his country in order to meet a need that he felt he could fulfill. The times created an opportunity for someone of his intellect and character. Did the changing times actually shape his intellect and character? I think not. That was shaped by his circumstances, his upbringing, his education, and his own inner resources. After all, everyone living at that time could be said to have been subjected to the same changing times.

Q. What qualities did Jefferson possess that enabled him to become such an effective and influential leader?

First of all, his brilliant mind. He was apparently the only true genius to have served in the Presidency. His was also a wide-ranging intellect, and this no doubt contributed to his broad vision. A close second to his mind was his absolute integrity of character. Many dispute this, and wrongly in my opinion. They call him a hypocrite for being a slave-holder, etc. Without going into all that, let me say unequivocally as one who has intensely studied his writings on politics and government: Thomas Jefferson went right to the heart of every issue. I have not detected one hint of self-interest, bias, prejudice or lack of courage in any of his pronouncements. And he was also remarkably consistent in his philosophical principles. Some historians say that his opinions and positions changed on almost everything throughout his life. It may be that his policies changed and adapted to changing and developing circumstances; but in my opinion, his principles were rock-steady. And as the quote on the front page to the Jefferson Quotes site suggests, he himself considered his principles to have been "the same I have acted on from the year 1775 to this day, and are the same, I am sure, with those of the great body of the American people." (Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, 1798). Those who say that Jefferson's political philosophy was not consistent and that his principles changed over time reveal, on closer examination, that his philosophy was not consistent with their interpretation of it. Viewed in its own right, it is quite consistent, however. And although it certainly evolved and developed over time, it also changed very little. Jefferson made no substantial reversals in his basic principles during his lifetime, and certainly none that are recorded in his writings. Such "reversals" as are claimed are all based on interpretations and opinions, not on Jefferson's statements. As a part of his character, then, we may say he was a man of firm principle, and that these principles formed a complete, consistent, and well-integrated political philosophy.

Third, he was a gifted writer. He was able to create prose that clearly pointed to the issues and captured the essence of whatever problem he addressed in such a way that it stirred the hearts of his countrymen. It is as if he spoke directly to what lay hidden in the deepest recesses of their hearts, and they knew that "this was it." No doubt, this was one of the reasons why he was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence, and he obviously did not disappoint.

Jefferson was intellectually bold, but he was not a forceful personality in public. He seldom spoke out at meetings of Congress or in the State legislature. In those days, candidates did not really campaign for the office of President, and he was not required to mount a public campaign. But he was a quiet man with a bold vision, unafraid to take risks, but always willing to concede and to cooperate when his own judgment was overruled. He was a kind and generous man, easily approached and always willing to lend a helpful hand, even to strangers. There have been few men who have walked the face of the earth who have had such sterling qualities.

Q. How important are Jefferson's legacies and ideas in America today?

Jefferson's ideas are important for the potential they hold in showing us the true course that we should take in self-government. I do not believe his ideas are too well heeded today, even though they are generally accorded great respect. But either directly, or through their influence on others of his time, Jefferson's ideas helped shape this country at a crucial time in its development. They have inspired every President and every citizen who has come after him. I agree with Ronald Reagan, that we seem to have strayed from the original vision of our Founding Fathers. But if there is anyone and anything that can help us return to that vision and make us more a nation of justice and happiness for all of its people, it is surely Thomas Jefferson and his writings.


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© 1999 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.