In the summer of 1786, still mourning his beloved wife’s death four years earlier and soon to begin sleeping with her 15-year-old half-sister, his slave Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson fell in love with a beautiful English painter named Maria Cosway. Head over heels in love: for the 43-year-old minister to France tried to impress the twentysomething Maria by jumping a fence, and the resulting dislocated wrist troubled him the rest of his life. With his good hand, he wrote Maria a 4,500-word love letter, a half-mock philosophical “dialogue” in which his “Head” contends that he should have stuck to “intellectual pleasures” that “ride serene and sublime above the concerns of this mortal world,” while his “Heart” replies, in highly charged terms, that the happiness of love is worth the pain of loss, and that “the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart” outweighs all the philosopher’s “frigid speculations.” The letter, whose stated conflict stands for an unspoken conflict over Jefferson’s love for a married woman, goes on to spin a fantasy that one day Maria will come and stay with him at Monticello, the mountaintop architectural masterpiece near Charlottesville, Virginia, that is the outward embodiment of this Enlightenment magus’s brilliant mind. And like the letter to Maria, it, too, reveals the deep conflicts between its author’s intellectual Head and the confused, darker realities that his philosophy can’t resolve.
To walk through the house is to feel oneself in a microcosm of Jefferson’s conception of the universe, a complex order whose parts mesh precisely, as one sees once one grasps the plan. With blueprint in hand I wandered from room to room, figuring out how the octagons fit together with the squares and rectangles to compose the balanced recessions and projections of the brick exterior, glowing deep red in the hot summer sunshine, beneath sparkling white pediments and dome. You can’t feel closer to the Great Watchmaker of the eighteenth-century philosophers than in the demi-octagon of Jefferson’s study, or “cabinet,” with its beautifully crafted brass models of the universe—an armillary sphere whose rings show how the stars revolve over the earth, and an orrery, a clockwork model of the solar system in which tiny planets revolve around a little brass sun. Next to them stand a brass-mounted telescope and microscope to peer into the workings of that universe, along with compasses and other instruments to map out its structure.
Jefferson built his house on a mountaintop so that he could “look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet! and the glorious sun, when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains, and giving life to all nature!” Such a late-eighteenth-century taste for the sublime didn’t come cheap: Jefferson had to level the mountaintop to construct his house, and water, building materials, and supplies were costly and slow to get to the summit. But sitting in Monticello’s always cool and breezy garden pavilion and looking out over the rolling clouds and Blue Ridge Mountains below, as Jefferson liked to do, you can see why he took the trouble.
In the parlor, a different set of precision instruments, a superb London-made harpsichord and a little American piano, speaks of the many evenings when Jefferson, a keen violinist, together with his musical daughters, filled the house with the eighteenth-century compositions whose complex architecture weaves an order and harmony that intimates another, transcendent, order and harmony. Certainly Jefferson understood that higher order. “When we take a view of the universe,” he wrote, “it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces; . . . insects, mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organized as man or mammoth. . . . It is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is in all this design, cause, and effect up to an ultimate cause, a Fabricator of all things . . . their Preserver and Regulator.”
This is a rational universe, and human reason can grasp its laws. Jefferson set out to know them as fully as possible. Just beyond his cabinet, his cozy book room formed as complete a repository of what philosophers and naturalists had discovered of those laws as America could then boast. Jefferson owned not just the works of his intellectual heroes—Locke, Newton, and Bacon, pioneers of scientific rationalism—but also their portraits, hung high on Monticello’s parlor walls. Assembled over 50 years from booksellers across Europe, the library became the nucleus of the Library of Congress when the debt-ridden ex-president had to sell its 6,487 volumes to the nation for $23,950 in 1814.
He was especially proud of his book room’s works on America—dealing with “whatever belongs to the American statesman,” he boasted—and he turned Monticello’s airy two-story hall into a little museum of Americana. Big maps of the country adorned the walls, including one of Virginia as surveyed by his father. Prominently on display were the thighbone, jawbone, and tusk of a mastodon dug up in Kentucky—which clearly refuted, in Jefferson’s view, the famed French naturalist Buffon’s derogatory theory that the productions of nature had degenerated in the New World, so that plants, animals, and men were smaller, weaker, less various, less sexually ardent, and shorter-lived in the Americas than in Europe. Could Europe produce an animal so . . . mammoth? And how about the elk and moose, whose antlers bristled challengingly above the maps?
Most striking was Jefferson’s display of Indian objects—pipes and headdresses, spears and buffalo robes—many brought back by Lewis and Clark, whose expedition he sent out in 1804 to plumb the vast lands gained in the Louisiana Purchase, his presidency’s greatest (if not wholly constitutional) achievement. Jefferson admired the Indians’ daring and eloquence, yet further refutation of Buffon’s degeneration theory, and he liked being “the Great Father.” He understood the Indians in terms of the Enlightenment theory of human “perfectibility,” the idea that man, having developed through barbarism to civilization, can achieve yet higher development of intellect and refinement.
In fact, he wrote toward the end of his life, a trip across the American continent is a “survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day.” If a “philosophic observer” were to start with “the savages of the Rocky Mountains” and travel eastward, he would begin by seeing man “in the earliest stage of association, living under no law but that of nature,” hunting animals for food and wearing their skins. He would next come upon men “in the pastoral state, raising animals to supply the defects of hunting. Then succeed our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization, and so in his progress he would meet the gradual shades of improving man until he would reach his, as yet, most improved state in our seaport towns. . . . I have observed this march of civilization . . . passing over us like a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition. . . . And where this progress will stop no one can say.” As for the Indians, the sooner they join the march of progress the better. They need to give up their hunting and communal agriculture and settle down to a life of private property and individual farms, with arithmetic and writing to keep accounts. And to speed the process, as president he sent out Christian missionaries to teach them to be less Indian and more American—to the continuing consternation of today’s multiculturalists and strict separationists.
It’s true that Jefferson had his moments of wanting to withdraw into “intellectual pleasures” that “ride serene and sublime above the concerns of this mortal world,” as he told Maria Cosway: his taste for unworldly abstraction is nowhere clearer than inside Monticello’s empty dome, a stupendous and costly exercise in pure geometry, breathtakingly beautiful with its giant, Michelangelesque baseboard and the light pouring in from its round windows and central oculus, but virtually unusable because its echoes make conversation impossible, it’s unheated, and its access is steep and narrow. Even the sumptuous mahogany double doors built for symmetry opposite the dome’s entrance open only onto a jumble of rafters and attics.
But usually Jefferson’s intellectual pleasures fully engage the world: for him, the increase of knowledge is meant to improve man’s condition. When Buffon “affected to consider chemistry but cookery,” for instance, and to equate the laboratory with the kitchen, Jefferson took sharp issue; chemistry, he lectured the count, is “big with future discoveries for the utility and safety of the human race.” Did not people justly esteem “Dr. Franklin’s science because he always endeavored to direct it to something useful in private life”? Were not phosphorous matches, for example, a boon to mankind, and would not interchangeable musket parts, which he saw in France long before the Colt factory used them for mass production in America, change history?
Jefferson was himself an amateur inventor who designed a plow blade that needed less than half the pulling power of ordinary plows and a device that connected two pens, so that while you wrote with one, the other made a duplicate. “As a secretary which copies . . . what we write without the power of revealing it, I find it a most precious possession to a man in public business,” he remarked. In addition, he constantly sought seeds and plants from abroad, looking for better fruits and grains for Americans to grow, from rice that didn’t need disease-breeding paddies to olive trees and continental wine grapes that would flourish here. Presiding over the Senate as vice president and feeling the lack of a guide to parliamentary procedure, this compulsive improver wrote one that remains in use in the Capitol today.
But it was his special intellectual achievement—and that of the American Revolution, in his view—to use reason to bring the march of civilization to government. “We can surely boast of having set the world a beautiful example of a government reformed by reason alone, without bloodshed,” he wrote. “We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.” What early Americans found, of course, when they directed their power of reason to political matters, were the self-evident truths of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: that men are created equal and free. Their rights are not “the gift of their Chief Magistrate,” he wrote in his 1774 pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (over which that magistrate, George III, was still fuming 12 years later, when Jefferson met him), but are “derived from the laws of nature.” Moreover, “Kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people.”
These truths were always true, but they were not always self-evident, since kings, aristocrats, and priests had obfuscated them. Intellectually, men had long slumbered in “the sleep of despotism,” their minds “shackled by habit and prejudice,” as Jefferson wrote of the French before their revolution. Not just external coercion but also a state of mind kept people unfree: in the 1760s, for instance, the American colonists’ “minds were circumscribed within narrow limits by a habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country,” and to that day the Indians had remained in “barbarism” because of their “bigotry” in favor of “the practices of [their] forefathers” (like the Iraqis of today). So a revolution involved reforming not just political and social institutions but also the minds of the citizenry. It was in this spirit that Jefferson famously declared: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” And in the last public letter he wrote, he was happy to say that “the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.”
Shortly after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson left the Continental Congress to join the Virginia legislature, aiming to carry out, as a model for the rest of the states, a program of liberation “by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy and a foundation laid for a government truly republican.” He outlawed the inheritance practices of entail and primogeniture, which, by keeping land in the family and passing it undivided to the eldest son, served to perpetuate a landed aristocracy. He disestablished the Episcopal Church, on the ground that people had a natural freedom of opinion and should not be taxed to support a sect (and a snobbish one, at that) that they didn’t believe in. On the same ground, he later tried, unsuccessfully, to repeal the laws against heresy, since “the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction.”
To wake up Virginians from the intellectual sleep of despotism, he envisioned an educational system that would make every child literate and numerate in three years and then send the ablest kids to tough regional grammar schools. The best of those who made it through six grueling years there would go on to college at William and Mary. Since all this schooling would be at public expense, the talented poor could rise to the top—“the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish,” as Jefferson put it—and the aristocracy of wealth would have to make room for “the aristocracy of virtue and talent.” More crucially, the ordinary Virginian would be well enough educated to understand that he was a free man with equal rights, a citizen not a subject. That’s why a republic should fund education: “the tax which will be paid for this purpose,” argued Jefferson, a limited-government libertarian in most other matters, “is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” But his fellow legislators voted down his plan.
However decisive a step, the American Revolution did not achieve all the perfectibility of which man is capable—as how could it, since no one could foresee what heights mankind could reach? To progress further, men’s minds must be left free to inquire and invent. “Reason and free inquiry,” Jefferson pronounced, “are the only effectual agents against error.” Accordingly, Jefferson didn’t believe that Americans should hold even their own Constitution “too sacred to be touched.” “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, . . . institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.” In his most extreme mood, he believed that all the laws should expire after each generation, to be made anew. “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.”
That implacable spirit of Enlightenment inquiry pervades Monticello in a way that dawns on you only gradually as you walk through the rooms. The house seems to be saying, as Goethe supposedly cried on his deathbed, More light! It’s not just that there are few dark corners in a house made up of so many semi-octagons, but that Jefferson designed it so that light pours in from everywhere—through oversize windows and lots of them, through glass doors, through multiple skylights made up of glass louvers that let in the sunshine but keep out the rain, all reflected and bounced back across the rooms by mirrors everywhere, from huge ones in the parlor to mirrored panes in the two round windows flanking the door into the dome, where the building itself would have obscured clear glass ones. Nowhere is the flood of light more intense than in Monticello’s exaggeratedly high dressing room, its ceiling mostly glass louvers. One can imagine the lanky Jefferson getting out of his bed between his cabinet and dressing room as soon as he could see the clock that hung at the bottom of his sleeping alcove, rinsing his feet in the basin of cold water that has stained the dressing-room floor, and bathing in light.
When he left the presidency in 1809 and returned to his native state, which he never again left, Jefferson threw himself into a new scheme for enlightening his fellow citizens, the University of Virginia, of which he was not just the founder and rector but also the architect of its buildings, supervisor of its construction, designer of its curriculum, recruiter of its faculty, and chief lobbyist with the state legislature. This “hobby of my old age,” Jefferson said, “will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.” As architecture, it is breathtaking, a work of genius; beside its purity and delicacy even McKim, Mead, and White’s later buildings, at a respectful distance, seem ponderous and flabby. Jefferson aimed to make the connected pavilions of his “academical village,” each based on a different Roman model as built or drawn by Palladio, a concrete textbook of classical architecture, and indeed vast numbers of American houses for the next half-century seem to spring straight out of his designs.
But as an intellectual enterprise, the university proved less satisfactory to its creator when it opened the year before he died. The students turned out to be not so much an aristocracy of virtue and talent as a gang of rowdy young men with a taste for drink, gambling, breaking windows, firing guns into the air, and thrashing professors who tried to stop them. The horrified Jefferson came down from his mountain to Charlottesville to reprimand them. Flanked by his dear friends and fellow trustees, James Madison and James Monroe, the frail 82-year-old patriarch drew himself up to his full six foot two, began to speak, and burst into tears.
At Monticello, too, that temple of Enlightenment, there were dark spots. In Palladian fashion, two pavilions flank the main house, connected by L-shaped wings, which from the front appear to be low terraces, made for promenades. From the back, because of the mountain’s slope, you can see that the wings are in fact covered passages that lead out of the cellar of the house and contain the semi-subterranean kitchen, dairy, and other rooms for those who waited on Jefferson. Since those latter were slaves, it’s hard not to walk through these passages without thinking of H. G. Wells’s Time Machine, with its airy, playful creatures of light enjoying the surface of the earth, while the dark Morlocks toil hidden beneath the surface, not to be spoken of.
Everyone knows about Monticello’s gadgets—the cannonball-weighted clock visible both inside and outside the house, the double doors that open at one touch, thanks to a figure-of-eight chain joining them beneath the floorboards, the space-saving clothes closet built in above the alcove bed. But two of this inspired tinkerer’s most famous contrivances—the little dumbwaiters hidden on either side of the dining-room fireplace to bring bottles of wine up from the cellar, and the lazy-Susan pantry door on whose shelves platters of food could be laid and then rotated into the dining room—seem designed to keep the slaves out of sight and out of mind, hiding even from its master the grim reality on which Monticello rested.
From the start of his public life, slavery was the circle Jefferson couldn’t square. His wealth depended on it—without slaves, southern land was valueless—but he knew it was evil. True, he believed blacks to be an inferior race, genetically low in intelligence and without the capacity to assimilate that he ascribed to Indians. (When, to refute Jefferson’s assertions of black inferiority, an ex-slave and self-taught mathematician sent him a complex almanac of his own devising, Jefferson concluded that the man must have had help.) Even so, with unflinching logic, Jefferson insisted that, as far as rights were concerned, all men were created equal. “Whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights,” he wrote. “Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.” Slaves are men; all men are created equal; QED.
Slavery didn’t just contravene America’s fundamental principle of liberty but subverted it, Jefferson believed. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” he wrote. “That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?” If our liberty rests on self-evident propositions rather than musty parchments, what happens to freedom when the propositions no longer seem so self-evident—when beliefs, which are as powerful as institutions, begin to waver?
Jefferson wrestled with this problem beginning with his first House of Burgesses term, when the 26-year-old newly fledged lawyer tried (and failed) to make it legal for Virginians to free their slaves. In 1778, he persuaded the state legislature to ban further importation of slaves. He believed that the institution could be limited and then gradually eradicated, after which the slaves would be expatriated—largely because their owners would have much to fear from their resentment. And justly: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” he wrote. The American slave owner who fought for independence inflicts “on his fellow men a bondage one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose up to oppose. . . . When the measure of their tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved Heaven itself in darkness,” Jefferson wrote in words that prefigure Lincoln’s prophetic Second Inaugural, “doubtless a God of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or, at length, by his exterminating thunder manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not to be left to the guidance of a blind fatality.”
As a member of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, Jefferson strove to ban slavery in any new states carved out of the western territory won from Britain in the Revolution, but a sick delegate didn’t show up to cast the winning vote. Four decades later, when Congress did exactly the opposite and passed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, permitting slavery in Missouri and in any new states formed in the southern part of his Louisiana Territory, he was aghast, viewing it as “the knell of the Union.” He correctly predicted that the antagonism of slavery and antislavery factions would spark a nationwide conflagration. Though he held fast to his original solution, he no longer thought it would come to pass. The slave-owning states, he ruefully concluded, “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.”
So what to make of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, which has come to symbolize the conflict, tragic to some and merely hypocritical to others, between America’s highest ideals and its slaveholding Founding Fathers—a conflict that Jefferson fully recognized and that Irish poet Thomas Moore satirized as early as 1806, when he jeered at then-president Jefferson as “the patriot” who liked to “dream of freedom in his bondmaid’s arms”? The Hemings family, whom Jefferson had inherited when his father-in-law’s death left him one of Virginia’s biggest slaveholders, made up almost all of Monticello’s household staff, probably because they were so light-skinned that visitors mistook them for white. The Hemings matriarch, Betty, was said to be half-white, the daughter of an English sea captain, and at least seven of her children had white fathers, including Sally, the daughter of Jefferson’s own father-in-law, John Wayles. Such was the state of race relations on the eighteenth-century Virginia plantation.
The question of whether Jefferson fathered Sally’s six children, which her son Madison Hemings alleged in a lengthy 1873 newspaper interview, has now been settled by DNA testing, cross-checked with records showing which Jefferson men were at Monticello nine months before each child’s birth. It was Jefferson himself. And unlike all the other Monticello slaves, Sally’s sons were named for Jefferson’s good friends.
The story Madison Hemings told is this. Jefferson had sent for his eight-year-old daughter, Polly, to join him in France in 1787, and her 13- or 14-year-old nursemaid, Sally, brought her across the ocean, one little girl in charge of another. When Jefferson was to return to America shortly after the fall of the Bastille, the pregnant Sally refused to come, since French law made her free. Jefferson promised her special privileges if she would return, and vowed to free her unborn child and any others she might have at 21, a promise he kept with their four children who reached adulthood.
No one can know the nature of their apparently monogamous relationship. Sally lived in one of Monticello’s semi-underground rooms and looked after Jefferson’s apartments and wardrobe, very light work. The only two extant eyewitness accounts describe her as “decidedly good looking” and “mighty near white”—three-quarters white, in fact—with “long straight hair down her back.” Some historians opine, on no evidence, that she must have looked like her half-sister, Jefferson’s beloved wife, Martha, whose deathbed she and her mother (who had helped raise Martha) never left, while the faint and grief-stricken Jefferson had to be carried to his room. Perhaps he loved her in Martha’s place, they theorize. Perhaps she welcomed the attentions of her powerful and fascinating master.
I hope so; but it’s all speculation. One can’t forget Jefferson’s own description of the master-slave relationship, with despotism on one side and submission on the other—written, to be sure, before Sally arrived in Paris. Nor can one forget that Jefferson’s greatest anxiety—panic, almost—about having Polly cross the ocean was that she might be captured by the Barbary pirates, then holding 22 Americans in slavery. “My mind revolts at the possibility of a capture,” he wrote, as well it might, since he knew what slavery meant.
When you compare the houses of Virginia’s other Founding Fathers with Monticello, what strikes you is how they’ve grown up organically, the products of historical development. You can see George Washington’s increasing importance written all over Mount Vernon, for example. This gentleman-architect first raised the story-and-a-half 1740s house he had inherited from his half-brother to two stories, then expanded its middle to accommodate a grander hall and staircase, then added a pediment to try to disguise the asymmetry he had created, and finally built additions on either side with splendid presidential rooms, stylishly neoclassical by contrast with the earlier rococo. Similarly, as a young congressman, James Madison brought his bride home to his parents’ 1760s brick house, Montpelier, and in 1797 built a private four-room extension for the two of them, with a separate entrance, like a duplex townhouse in a modern condo development. A new Tuscan-columned portico helped the two-family house look more like a single mansion, and in 1809 a new front door and new wings made the house look truly unified and presidential, with plenty of space for entertaining as well as for Mother Madison, who lived with them until her death at 97. But inside, you can still trace the piecemeal development.
Monticello, by contrast, looks like the product of a single, unified conception, springing from Jefferson’s brain like Athena from the head of Zeus. It didn’t, of course. It was over 50 years in the making: Jefferson and his wife began their ten years of marriage in one of the little pavilions, basically a studio apartment with a basement kitchen, all that then existed of Monticello. Jefferson kept changing his mind about what he wanted, especially after he returned from his four years in Paris, filled with visions of French neoclassicism and smitten with the Roman Maison Carrée at Nîmes, which he gazed at “whole hours . . . like a lover at his mistress.” He tore down walls, designed historically accurate details in all the classical orders, extended porticoes, moved stone columns, enlarging and perfecting. “Putting up and pulling down [is] one of my favorite amusements,” he commented, with the result that for years he found himself “living in a brick-kiln” with unplastered walls. But he produced something transcendent, like Palladio’s villas or Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House.
The years of turmoil to reach this result make one reconsider skeptically his description of the American Revolution as “a beautiful example of a government reformed by reason alone, without bloodshed.” What about the years when Washington froze and his men starved trying to outlast British armies that chased them for 600 miles? As Jefferson’s experience building Monticello should have taught him, nothing springs forth like a fully formed Platonic ideal. Yes, there is a self-evident right to liberty, but it took six years of bloodshed to establish that right in the New World. And many of those fighting believed that they were safeguarding not an abstract idea of liberty but the historical liberty that they had enjoyed during five or more generations of self-rule here in America and that belonged to them as freeborn Englishmen, protected by such “musty records” as Magna Carta.
There is a certain otherworldliness to Jefferson’s political philosophy (compared with his hardheaded pragmatism as president). But one remembers that he did not fight in the Revolution, since he was serving as Virginia’s governor. An unintentionally funny story he tells about having dinner with Alexander Hamilton and John Adams in 1791 perfectly encapsulates this quality. Hamilton gestured toward Jefferson’s beloved portraits of Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and asked who they were. “My trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced,” Jefferson replied, naming them. Hamilton paused a moment. “‘The greatest man,’ said he, ‘that ever lived was Julius Caesar.’ ” The aghast Jefferson took this crack as yet one more proof of the anti-republicanism and monarchism he ascribed to Hamilton. But most likely Hamilton was having fun pricking Jefferson’s piety, reminding him that statecraft isn’t a matter of reason alone.
Jefferson’s casualness about how the ideal actually gets made into reality, his willingness to put up and tear down and put up again, and live oblivious to the rubble meanwhile, rather than to extend and update what already exists like Washington at Mount Vernon or Madison at Montpelier, leads him to another political obliviousness, this one bloody rather than bloodless. He was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution, which broke out several weeks before he returned home to become secretary of state. He even helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
As the Revolution lurched leftward and the terror sent some of the uprising’s early, moderate supporters—Jefferson’s close friends—to the guillotine, his support did not waver. He deplored his friends’ deaths, but the “liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest,” he averred. They were like battlefield casualties, who “would never have hesitated to give up their lives” for the goal that was at stake—though it was their supposed friends who had killed them. “My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause,” Jefferson wrote, “but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it is now.” As Burke said of the French revolutionaries and their effort to rebuild the world from scratch according to their idea of reason alone, without regard for history, prudence, or human life—and as has so often been true of rationalists in politics—“In their groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”
One other remark Jefferson made about Hamilton sums up the otherworldly quality I have in mind. The treasury secretary “avowed the opinion,” Jefferson complained, “that man could be governed by one of two motives only, force or interest.” Government by force was out of the question in America, and that left interest. Here one remembers that Jefferson also didn’t take part in the Constitutional Convention, since he was in Paris. Far from envisioning a republic of philosophers, where carefully educated citizens reason their way to self-evident truths about liberty and republican government, the writers of the Constitution created a republic of ordinary men, moved by ordinary interests that, checking and balancing one another like the centrifugal and centripetal forces that keep the planets in their orbits, would add up to liberty. Hamilton was merely expressing the fundamental American principle of government. At more than a few moments, Jefferson’s rationalism clouded his realism.
Yet his rationalism proved invaluable to the republic not just at its founding but at its moment of greatest crisis, when it had to break with its historical past and square the circle he himself couldn’t square. At Gettysburg, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln invoked the words of the Declaration of Independence to explain what the war was about: that the nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” needed “a new birth of freedom” to include all men in that proposition. The abstraction, not the history, was at that moment our true national identity. And in the ever-growing consciousness of man’s freedom that is the true meaning of history, Jefferson might have said, so it became.
“Mine, after all, may be a Utopian dream,” as Jefferson said in old age in another context, “but being innocent, I thought I might indulge in it till I go to the land of dreams, and sleep there with the dreamers of all past and future times.” He is among the greatest of those dreamers.