Jefferson was a man of extraordinarily wide-ranging interests and accomplishments; but he himself suggested three core principles that guided his life.
In April of 1962 a reception was held at the White House, honoring Nobel Prize winners from all over the western hemisphere. Addressing the assembled dignitaries, President John Kennedy commented, “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.”
Jefferson’s Theoretical and Practical Knowledge
Kennedy’s remark was not much of an exaggeration. If one’s intellect can be measured by the breadth of one’s reading, Thomas Jefferson was an intellectual giant. In 1814 he offered to sell his personal library to the government as a replacement for the volumes that had been burned by the British during the War of 1812. The government accepted the offer; and Jefferson’s several thousand books, which he had collected over a period of fifty years, formed the core of what would become the Library of Congress. The volumes included works on history; geography; law; politics; anatomy, medicine, and surgery; architecture; mathematics; rhetoric and oratory; philosophy, religion and ethics; agriculture; botany and zoology; geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy; as well as epics, dramas, and romances.
For all his reading, though, Jefferson’s knowledge was not only theoretical but immensely practical as well. He designed his own homestead, Monticello, and also the buildings of the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville, and the Virginia state capitol building in Richmond. He devised the system of decimal coinage which spared Americans from having to deal with pounds and shillings. He invented, among other things, an improved plow and a machine to duplicate the many letters he wrote. And the earliest written recipe for that typically American dessert, ice cream, is in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting.
Jefferson’s Guiding Principles
Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 – the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. With characteristic thoroughness, he had already designed his own tombstone and composed the inscription for it. He wanted a simple monument: a cube surmounted by an obelisk, both made of the ordinary stone used in the columns at Monticello.
In his forty years of public service, Jefferson had held an impressive array of offices: member of the Virginia legislature, both in colonial days and following statehood; member of the Continental Congress; governor of Virginia; ambassador to France; the first Secretary of State; vice president; and two terms as president of the United States. The epitaph he composed for himself mentions none of that. Instead, he wrote, he wanted “the following inscription, & not a word more: Here was buried / Thomas Jefferson / Author of the Declaration of American Independance / of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom / & Father of the University of Virginia.” It was “by these,” he went on, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”
These three “testimonials” reveal the three guiding principles that Jefferson valued most:
- his adherence to the democratic process in civil affairs, summed up in his famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “the consent of the governed”;
- freedom of religion, embodied in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, emphasizing the value, as Jefferson said many times, of “reason and free inquiry”;
- public education – in Jefferson’s words, “the diffusion of knowledge among the people,” exemplified by the University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson dining alone: politician, scientist, architect, philosopher, educator, religious reformer – he did indeed embody in his own person, at least to some degree, virtually every aspect of human knowledge.