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What Thomas Jefferson knew: Those who have knowledge must act to save their country
Thomas Jefferson considered the election of 1800 a “second revolution” — something I never learned in school or heard anywhere and only came across in a spate of deep reading a few years ago.
I was also startled to learn in one of the best Jefferson biographies, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation by Merrill Peterson, that Jefferson was not what you would call “bookish.”
Yes, he read for hours every day, devouring books on religion, philosophy, science, architecture and botany. His collection of books was so large and of such a quality that it was purchased by the federal government and became the foundational collection for the Library of Congress, as I’m sure many of you know.
But he could not really be considered bookish, wrote Peterson, because he didn’t consider reading an end in itself.
“With him, as with enlightened thinkers generally, ideas were meant to act on the world, not simply to reflect it,” Peterson wrote.
Jefferson did not closet himself away and read and do nothing else. He read to acquire knowledge and understanding, and he put that knowledge and understanding to use almost immediately.
Jefferson used the knowledge of architecture learned through books to build and rebuild Monticello (he had parts of it torn down and rebuilt for years before he was finally satisfied with the result).
He used the knowledge of science he acquired through reading in his own experiments. (He installed a Franklin rod on the roof of Monticello and credited it with preventing a lightning strike from burning down the house).
He used the knowledge of history and ideas about the nature of man and governments to begin to articulate for himself, in the Declaration of Independence and in the several state constitutions he helped draft, ideas about free people, and how they might be governed in a way that would best secure their freedoms going forward.
“With him, as with enlightened thinkers generally, ideas were meant to act on the world, not simply to reflect it.” — Jefferson biographer Merrill Peterson
And then, he took the knowledge gained from books and stepped into the fray, running for president in 1800, challenging his once close friend John Adams, who was running for a second term.
It wasn’t that he wanted so desperately to be president. He didn’t.
And he had no desire to leave Monticello, that beautiful mountaintop home, from which you can see for 50 miles on a clear day.
But he knew he had to do it.
Adams, a Federalist, was leading the country into close association with Britain, something Jefferson thought to be extremely dangerous.
Adams also wanted a strong central government, whereas Jefferson’s vision was of a nation of farmers, self-governing and self-reliant, needing almost nothing from government except for some local courts to settle disputes.
But maybe more than either of these was Adams’ wanton violation of the First Amendment rights of citizens.
At the time of the 1800 election, several newspaper reporters and editors sat rotting in jails for the crime of sedition — criticizing the government.
It was intolerable to Jefferson.
Jefferson’s win in 1800 was a triumph. He immediately opened the jails and let the journalists out. The young United States pulled away from Britain, away from its attachment to Europe and began to develop its own identity.
Jefferson served two terms, and his successors were his good friends and fellow anti-Federalists (then called Democratic-Republicans): James Madison and James Monroe, who followed the same course that he had set, generally.
If there is one image that stands out to me — one anecdote from the two dozen books or so books on Jefferson that I read— it’s the image of Jefferson on a horse traveling to Washington, D.C. after the 1800 election, to become president.
The election had been a tie, with Jefferson and Aaron Burr receiving the same number of electoral votes, and it would be left to Congress to declare a winner, something that would take three months and 36 ballots to decide, with the inauguration not held until March of 1801.
But Jefferson set out from Monticello anyway in November or December of 1800, with the idea that he was likely going there to become the president.
He left Monticello on horseback alone, without a single servant or family member accompanying him.
He stayed in public houses along the way, and once he got to Washington, he took up residence in a boarding house called Conrad and McMunn’s, across from the U.S. Capitol, where he waited for Congress to determine the winner of the election.
Jefferson was the finest writer among the Founding Fathers, but a weak public speaker, unable to project his voice. This was such a problem that his inauguration speech was inaudible to most of the people in the room.
He moved into the White House alone, with no wife and children to help him make it a home. It was cold and damp in those early years, with too few servants to attend to such a large residence.
If you’ve been to Monticello or read a little about Jefferson you may have heard that he died in debt and been under the impression that he was sloppy with his finances, or a profligate spender.
But he wasn’t either of these. He kept careful records, worked unceasingly and spending little on himself. His slaves ate more pork than he did himself, he noted in a letter once. He preferred to eat vegetables, and ate little meat in general.
He died broke because he was generous — generous in that he gave everything to his country.
The years he spent away from Monticello kept him from close management of his farm, and cost him dearly. The stream of visitors to Monticello, while he was president and in the years following, forced him to spend money on food and wine that he didn’t have.
When he died, after this home and everything in it was sold, the remaining debt was still more than $40,000 dollars — a huge sum that his grandson, charged with settling the estate, struggled to pay off his entire life, only managing to make the last payment on the principal 50 years after Jefferson’s death!
How many of us are willing to sacrifice so much for our country?
If there is to be another revolution — in the sense of a complete turning out of the old and a total change of direction — there have to be people willing to separate themselves from the comfort of home and family, people willing to risk their fortunes and maybe even incur debt, people willing to fight every day for a government that truly represents the interests of its citizens, and is held to account when it doesn’t.
I’m not ready to give up the country that Jefferson and so many others gave to us.