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September 4th, 2019

Ranking the Presidents: Thomas Jefferson

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you grade Thomas Jefferson in his performance as President? Thomas Jefferson's historical reputation is a confusing one. On the one hand, he is hailed as an an icon of liberty, democracy, and republicanism. He is remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence, as well as a renaissance man who promoted science and scholarship. On the other hand, he was a practitioner of slavery, even going so far as to father children with one of his slaves. At times he undermined the efforts of his President (George Washington) and subsequent presidents in their pursuit of a strong central government, going so far as to propose that states had the rights to nullify laws they did not support. Yet for years many in his own party overlooked these contradictory and hypocritical points of view and celebrated his legacy. To give him your grade, go to this link. But first, let's consider his legacy.

Once on April 29, 1962, at a gathering of Nobel Prize winners held at the White House in 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously praised Jefferson, telling his audience:

"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. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.

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Jefferson was born and educated in colonial Virginia. He graduated from the College of William & Mary and briefly practiced law. During the American Revolution, he represented Virginia in the Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration of Independence of which he was the principal draftsman. He also drafted the law for religious freedom as a Virginia legislator, and served as the 2nd Governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781, during the American Revolution. He became the United States Minister to France in May 1785, and returned home to become the nation's first secretary of state under President George Washington from 1790 to 1793.

Jefferson disappointed his president when he and James Madison organized the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose the Federalist Party during the formation of the First Party System. Washington was opposed to political factions and the battles within his own cabinet between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were a source of grief for the President. When Jefferson lost the election to succeed Washington to John Adams, he became the nation's second Vice-President. Washington had imagined a government without factions, with everyone pulling in the same direction. Political parties changed all that and now the President and Vice-President were political enemies, each having a different vision of the nation's future when it came to the size and strength of the central government, relations with European governments, and how much democracy was too much democracy. When Jefferson disagreed with his President over the Alien and Sedition Acts, he and Madison anonymously wrote the controversial Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in 1798 and 1799, which sought to strengthen states' rights by nullifying the offending federal legislation. This would come to be used to support future instances of disunity and rebellion by states against the federal government.

As president, Jefferson pursued the nation's shipping and trade interests against Barbary pirates and against aggressive British trade policies. He also organized the Louisiana Purchase, almost doubling the country's territory. As a result of peace negotiations with France, his administration reduced military forces. He was reelected in 1804, but Jefferson's second term was filled with difficulties at home. His former vice president Aaron Burr was tried for treason, but much to Jefferson's dismay, not convicted. American foreign trade was diminished when Jefferson implemented the Embargo Act of 1807, responding to British threats to U.S. shipping. In 1803, Jefferson began a controversial process of Indian tribe removal to the newly organized Louisiana Territory, and he signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807.

Jefferson is remembered, as Kennedy observed, as a renaissance man. While he was primarily a planter, a lawyer and a politician, Jefferson also mastered many disciplines, which ranged from surveying and mathematics to horticulture and mechanics. He was an architect in the classical tradition. Jefferson's keen interest in religion and philosophy led to his presidency of the American Philosophical Society. He even rewrote his own version of the Bible and shunned organized religion, although he was influenced by both Christianity and deism. Jefferson understood several languages. He was a prolific letter writer and corresponded with many prominent people. He only wrote one book, Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785, but it is considered perhaps the most important American book published before 1800. After retiring from public office, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia.

Although regarded as a leading spokesman for democracy and republicanism in the era of the Enlightenment, Jefferson's historical legacy is mixed. Some modern scholarship has been critical of Jefferson for his private life. They note the glaring contradiction between his ownership of the large numbers of slaves that worked his plantations and his famous declaration that "all men are created equal." Although it was disputed for many years, DNA evidence now supports the conclusion that after his wife Martha died in 1782, Jefferson fathered children with Martha's half-sister, Sally Hemings, who was his slave. Despite this, presidential scholars and historians generally praise his public achievements, including his advocacy of religious freedom and tolerance in Virginia. Jefferson still continues to rank highly among U.S. presidents.

One of his most enduring positive legacies is his strong support for participatory democracy and for expanded suffrage. The measures he championed became a standard for later generations. Jefferson wrote over 18,000 letters of political and philosophical substance during his life, many of which were written to the man who had once been his biggest political opponent, John Adams.

Jefferson's reputation improved in the 1930s, when he was held in higher esteem by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt likened his New Deal and his quest to help the "forgotten man" to Jefferson's struggles for "the common man". Roosevelt reclaimed Jefferson as his party's founder. Jefferson has been memorialized with his name on buildings, and his visage on sculptures, postage, and currency. In the 1920s, Jefferson, was chosen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum and approved by President Calvin Coolidge to be depicted in stone at the Mount Rushmore Memorial, together with George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. The Jefferson Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1943, on the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth. The interior of the memorial includes a 19-foot statue of Jefferson and engravings of passages from his writings. Most prominent are the words inscribed around the monument near the roof: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

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Following the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Jefferson's slaveholding came under new scrutiny, particularly after DNA testing in the late 1990s supported allegations that he had a relationship with Sally Hemings. And that's where his reputation is today. Scholars and Jefferson biographers continue to attempt the reconcile the embarrassing contradictions between his claiming to be a champion of liberty and while supporting slavery enthusiastically. It is an issue that will attach to Jefferson's legacy in perpetuity.

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