I am rather a fan of Thomas Jefferson, not just because every time I read the preamble to the Declaration of Independence my heart swells with pride at the promise of those ideas, but also because of his amazing curiosity about the world. Jefferson always reflects a very human sense of what could (and should) be accomplished. I respect that perspective. I've read Notes on Virginia, of course, so I know that Jefferson also disappoints. But I still admire him, warts and all.
In fact, I keep a Jefferson quote at the top of my writing journal; it's been there for years: “No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity." The idea is one part consolation; one part karmic justice coming down the track.
Recently, I read Annette Gordon Reed's amazing The Hemingses of Monticello and though the book is really a detailed accounting of the rather remarkable Hemings family, for very obvious reasons Thomas Jefferson also looms large in their story. The book is full of impressive Jefferson quotations and quotes about him. In particular, these gems:
William Short, speaking of Jefferson, said this, "Jefferson's greatest illusions in politics…proceeded from a most amiable error on his part; having too favorable opinion of the animal called Man."
Writing to his daughter Martha, when she was frustrated by the actions of her father-in-law, he advised, "Every human being, my dear, must thus be viewed according to what it is good for, for none of us, no not one, is perfect; and were we to love none who had imperfections this world would be a desert for our love."
Jefferson on his dislike of big cities, particularly New York City, "I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man." Pestilence seems a rather strong a characterization, but it sure made me laugh.
Jefferson on his religious beliefs: "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know." No doubt this will be news to those loons on the Texas Board of Education who yammered on about the Founders and their creation of a Christian nation.
The first few weeks of U.S. History and American Government, during which time we study the founding and talk about the Constitution, are upon me. And with this time comes yet another opportunity for me to both appreciate Thomas Jefferson and share him with a new crop of students. I wonder again what Jefferson would think of the nation we've become. What would surprise him? What would make him proud? What would disappoint him? I look forward to having these conversations with my students in the weeks ahead.