Requests for Information Related to Thomas Jefferson



>I am researching Jefferson for a personal project. I am interested in the
>It has been said that the most consistent trait of Jefferson was his

The issue you raise is an extremely interesting one.  I have run into the
above opinion many times, and I will explain to you my perspective on it.

First off, I should explain my own peculiar approach to the study of
Jefferson.  I have focused almost entirely on his writings, and what he
himself said.  My purpose was to make a thorough and accurate
presentation of his ideas, principles, and political philosophy based
entirely on what HE wrote, rather than on interpretations of what he
wrote and what he did.  As soon as you admit value judgments related to
what he did as compared to what he said, you are no longer studying
Jefferson, but rather what some lesser mortal said or thought about
Jefferson.   As a result of my approach, I deliberately avoided reading
other persons writings ABOUT Jefferson, and tried to form an organized
presentation of his ideas from the body of his writings alone.  The result
is the website at UVa, "Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government."

From my perspective, the reputed inconsistency of Jefferson is a myth.  I
believe that if you were to read my website from start to finish, you would
become aware of an almost perfectly consistent political philosophy to
which Jefferson adhered throughout his lifetime.  Certainly, HE believed
it was consistent.  He wrote:

"I know my own principles to be pure and therefore am not ashamed of
them.  On the contrary, I wish them known and therefore willingly
express them to everyone.  They are 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." (letter to Samuel Smith, 1798)

My website is not a careful selection of Jefferson's principles, with
inconsistencies edited out.  Instead, I attempted to include
EVERYTHING that Jefferson wrote that expressed an idea or principle in
the area of politics and government.  Indeed, if I discovered something
that only seemed to be inconsistent, I was careful to put it side by side
with its opposite, and then force an explanation and accommodation.
Although I have not read every word Jefferson has written, I have
carefully examined the 20 volumes of the Memorial Edition of his
writings, and I have been informed by the researches of other persons
who have presented the writings of Jefferson on the subject of politics
and government.

So, how do we explain this opinion that seems to be about that Jefferson
was "inconsistent"?  In the first place, it should be pointed out that it is
an opinion, and expresses the reaction of certain individuals based on
THEIR understanding of Jefferson.  As such, it may or may not be
accurate or even fair.  In the second place, I think the opinion arises
basically from an interpretation that mixes up what Jefferson wrote and
what he did, and fails to take into account the changing circumstances
or context of his actions.  The promoters of the idea of inconsistency
believe that Jefferson was likely to say and do one thing at one point of
time, and then something else at another point.  And in that respect,
THEY ARE CORRECT!  But this (in MY opinion) is where such persons

As a practical man, in the real world of politics and government,
Jefferson always responded to practical situations.  It would have been
foolhardy for him to do otherwise.  He wasn't interested in writing a
"Theory of Government."  Situations are constantly changing; that is the
nature of life on this planet.  An intelligent person, therefore, responds to
changing situations in an intelligent and practical manner.  This means
that the principles that might be applicable at one stage of national
development, become inapplicable or overruled by other principles at a
later stage.  Thus, you may have two different principles, related to one
another in a heirarchy, each being perfectly suitable for the situation
they address.  But this does not mean they are inconsistent, and far less
does the change represent hypocrisy.  This can best be explained with a
real example.

Early on, in the 1780's, Jefferson extolled the virtues of agriculture, and
denigrated manufactures.  These positions, and their changes, are
clearly demonstrated in the chapter "Commerce & Agriculture," at the
UVa website.   He at first felt that we should devote ourselves to the
pursuits of agriculture, and leave manufacturing to the European
nations.  But then, changed circumstances created a different view.  The
War of 1812 convinced him that if the republic was to survive, we must
be self-sufficient in manufactures.  All of a sudden, Jefferson is writing
things like:

"I have not formerly been an advocate for great manufactories.  I
doubted whether our labor employed in agriculture and aided by
the spontaneous energies of the earth would not procure us more
than we could make ourselves of other necessaries.  But other
considerations entering into the question have settled my
doubts." --Thomas Jefferson to John Melish, 1813.  ME 13:207

Is this inconsistent?  Of course not!  It merely reflects the surfacing of
different principles that take precedence over former ones because of
changing circumstances.  The first principle of life is to survive.  It is a
foolish consistency that adheres to a stated position when that position
is no longer tenable.  And that basically, multiplied many times over, is
the story on Jefferson's supposed "inconsistency."  It is not a matter of
consistency, but of deciding which set of principles properly apply in the
given circumstance.  Only a true pedant would ignore the totality of the
circumstances in which he applied his principles.  Indeed, that is the
path to the typical "Dr. Strangelove" kind of solutions to practical

Thus, I believe the so-called "inconsistencies" of Jefferson only reflect
the lack of comprehension of his detractors.  It reveals their attempt to
elevate theory above reality.  Were Jefferson to have remained "consistent" 
in the terms and expectations of his detractors, he would have gradually 
moved into irrelevancy during his lifetime.  He would have clung to 
principles that were no longer relevant while ignoring the changed 
circumstances that demanded the application of different principles.  The
demand that Jefferson should have done that only reflects the failure of
his critics to exercise sufficient vision to understand what is truly at

>Again someone said, "The immortality of Jefferson does not
>lie in any one of his achievements, but in his attitude toward mankind."

Another "opinion."  The immortality of Jefferson lies in his principles
which, when properly applied, are the solid intellectual foundation of
American democracy.  As Abraham Lincoln put it: "The principles of
Jefferson are the axioms of a free society."

>Was he a President of "principle or pragmatism"  or both?

Jefferson was a brilliant combiner of principle and pragmatism.  He was
(again in my opinion) the greatest political philosopher of all time, but he
goes unrecognized as such because his was an entirely workable
philosophy and became the foundation for the greatest nation of all time.
If you look over the field of political philosophers, and compare them to
Jefferson, you begin to suspect that in order to become renowned as a
political philosopher, you must set out a theory of politics that either
doesn't work (Marx and other socialists) or that is incomplete and
insufficient for practical application (Locke, and most of the remainder).
Something that is either incomplete or unworkable provides food for
endless argument and investigation concerned with whether it really is
unworkable or incomplete.  If you set out a theoretical foundation that is
actually implemented and results in the formation of a great nation, then
scholarly types do not look upon it as an intellectual "system" to be
analyzed and criticized and dissected and refuted, but rather as simple
existential reality, against which those other flawed theoretical systems
are employed to critique it and to assess the value they themselves have
for forming a view of reality.

Think about it:  the very suggestion that principle might be separate from
pragmatism as either/or concepts, expresses the theoretical and
unrealistic view that it is possible to have valid principles that are
somehow detached from reality!  That was never where Jefferson was
coming from.  In that respect, I believe his brilliance outshone them all.

Best wishes,

Eyler Coates


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