Why We Love Thomas Jefferson

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(The Abbeville Institute) – “For ever this, the tribes of men lived on earth, remote and free from the ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates on men. … Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home under the rim of a great jar, and did not fly out the door; for ever that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus, who gathers the clouds. Yet the rest, countless plagues wander among men; for earth and sea are full of evils. ~Hesiod, Works and Days

There is consensus among scholars that Jefferson was a relatively unflinching optimist, whose faith in the eventual success in government of and for the people never wavered. Gordon Wood in “Thomas Jefferson in His Time,” typifies that sentiment. “No one of the revolutionary leaders believed more strongly in progress and in the capacity of the American people for self-government than did Jefferson. And no one was more convinced that the Enlightenment was on the march against the forces of medieval barbarism and darkness, of religious superstition and enthusiasm.” Such was his faith in progress and the people that he was unready for the ensuing revolution. “He had always invested so much more of himself intellectually and emotionally in the future and in popular democracy than Madison had. Jefferson was inspired by a vision of how things could and should be. Madison tended to accept things as they were. … Jefferson had nothing but the people and the future to fall back on; they were really all he ever believed in. That is why we remember Jefferson, and not Madison.”

Prima facie, it is an extraordinary claim: We prefer and remember Jefferson, not Madison, because of the former’s naïveté! While Madison was grounded in reality, Jefferson firmly believed in the goodness of humans and the inevasibility of progress.

Jefferson was not naïve to believe that the future will not be like the past. Even the staunchest conservatives acknowledged that. Yet Jefferson believed that the future would not be like the past because the future would be better than the past. Future generations would have a better grasp of how things work—nature being one of…

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