Victor Nuovo: America’s failed moral purist
19th in a series
To begin with, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was a hypocrite. Although he could speak and write eloquently in favor of human liberty and equality from what were evidently well considered principles, nevertheless he enslaved 600 African-Americans during his lifetime, some of them his own children. They contributed to his fortune, and yet he gave them no share in it. Although he was deeply devoted to his wife, Martha Wayles (1748–1782), so much so that he considered suicide after her early death, he cohabited regularly with her half-sister, Sally Hemings (1773–1835), who was also her slave. Together, they produced six children, who remained slaves. These are facts that every school child should know. They constitute one of the great ironies of American history, and American history cannot properly be understood apart from its ironies.
His learning was legendary. It was as John F. Kennedy said during a White House dinner for Nobel laureates: “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.” He also played the violin. But then, with variations, this could be said of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and others of that generation who took part in founding the nation.
Jefferson was also the most successful politician in U.S. history, as Jon Meacham tells it in his recent biography. He served as president from 1801 until 1809, and was succeeded by two Virginians, James Madison and James Monroe, whom he sponsored. His political dynasty was in power for almost a quarter century, until 1825, a year before his death. John Quincy Adams broke the chain, only to be forged again by Andrew Jackson who served as President from 1829–37.
This essay is about Jefferson’s mind and irony, not his skill in politics, and it is to these things I will devote the remainder of this essay. Jefferson’s moral beliefs were shaped by his reading of the Greek and Latin classics, and by the Bible. The moralists whose teachings he read were Socrates, Epicurus, Epictetus, Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Jesus of Nazareth, the last of whom he held in the highest regard. In a letter to Joseph Priestly (1733–1804), the English chemist, most noted for the discovery of oxygen, he described Jesus’s system of morality as “the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught … more perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers.” It is noteworthy that John Locke had the same belief.
Jefferson had little regard for the supernaturalism of the Bible or the dogmas of Christianity; he professed none of these things and scorned the doctrines of organized religion. But he had a peculiar interest in Jesus of Nazareth. In 1803, he undertook the task of editing a compendium of the moral teachings of Jesus. His method was to cut out passages from the Gospels using a razor and arrange them in a notebook, to which he affixed the title: “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted from the Gospels, in Greek, Latin, French & English.” Among the episodes that he included were Jesus’s harsh criticism of the hypocrisy of the Priests and Pharisees, moral purists, who revered the law and lived by the letter of it, but failed to abide by or even to comprehend the spirit of it. He did not understand that these narratives were mirrors in which one must first glimpse oneself. He did not seem ever to have experienced the sadness of moral failure, notwithstanding his high regard for systems of morality. But these are private matters to be treated in private, and Jefferson was a very private person.
Jefferson also revered and professed the Enlightenment and its very public principles of liberty and equality for all, but he lived and governed in a manner out of step with their demands, and therein lies the irony. It is not right to celebrate the achievements of the founders of this nation without recognizing their shortcomings in matters of social justice, and it is not right to worry over the shortcomings of the founders, without accepting the responsibility these principles of justice demand of us today.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever rolling stream.”
Postscript: For more about the ironies of our shared past, read Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Irony of American History,” published by the University of Chicago Press in an affordable paperback. Jon Meacham’s “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” offers an abundance of historical information, but no irony. Visit your local bookshop.
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