Just WHO was Thomas Jefferson?

I am frankly utterly confused about Thomas Jefferson and how we should regard him as a figure in American history. He drafted the Declaration of Independence. He was Governor of Virginia. He was the third President of the United States. He founded the University of Virginia. But as I have planned our May trip to Charlottesville, Virginia to better understand the legacy of this Founding Farmer, it emerged that Jefferson’s legacy is not without blemish. While there are those who hold him up in a a shining example  of one of the two or three Founding Fathers most worthy of our admiration and ongoing allegiance, others feel just as strongly that Jefferson’s  reputation and public legacy are exaggerated and  undeserved.


  • Jefferson’s extraordinary capacity to express in the written word his commitment to the principles of human equality and freedom with a simple eloquence that is as fresh today as the day he put pen to paper. He crafted the emblematic statement that characterizes the human spirit of the modern world: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
  • Jefferson’s belief in the transparency of government. He was the only one of the Founding Fathers who thought that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 should have been open to the public. He believed that ideas should circulate, not be discussed in secrecy.
  • Jefferson’s understanding that public education was essential if the republic was to thrive and then laboring to establish an excellent example of what he had in mind by founding the University of Virginia.
  • Jefferson’s observations about the futility of torture, the utter ineffectiveness of coercion.
  • Jefferson’s outspokeness in his belief that slavery was immoral and should be abolished.


  • Jefferson’s lifelong ownership of slaves and his inability to extricate either himself or his nation from the institution of slavery.
  • Jefferson’s words about racial inferiority that are so jarring that we can’t read them today without feeling a profound sense of shame.
  • Jefferson’s inconsistency with regard to civil liberties. He took a civil libertarian position only when it was convenient for him to do so. His interference in the Aaron Burr treason trial makes even Richard Nixon’s much-publicized meddling in the Ellsberg case seem like child’s play by comparison.
  • Jefferson’s lack of financial responsibility. He owed more than $100,000 to creditors at the time of his death. His heirs were forced to auction Jefferson’s slaves and the contents of Monticello and Poplar Forest.

During our Founding Farmer: Thomas Jefferson at Home, trip  in early May, 2011, we will explore who this complex man was. We do not expect history to offer us simple lessons or perfect heroes; but we do believe that we will come to better understand Thomas Jefferson and his place in American history by reading and discussing his own writings, on his home turf. Why don’t you join us?

In the meantime, here is what several prominent American historians had to say about Thomas Jefferson and his legacy, in a special issue of TIME magazine devoted to “The Radical Mind of Thomas Jefferson.” June 27, 2004.

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