Thomas Jefferson is rightly revered for his contributions to the founding of the United States. He was a complex man of his time, with wide-ranging talents and interests—and many of the same flaws as his contemporaries.
Then, as now, Jefferson had his critics. He was, after all, a politician. And as a public servant depending on the will of the people for elective office, many of the complaints may sound surprisingly familiar today.
We asked Bill Barker, who has been interpreting Jefferson for more than three decades, what he considers some of the most common misconceptions about the author of the Declaration of Independence.
Make no mistake, Jefferson loved his wine! It’s well known that he had a large collection of fine vintages, and he hoped that the young United States would one day develop its own vineyards. But his fondness for the grape has led some people to assume that he drank, well, a lot. In reality, he started the day with coffee or tea, and drank quite moderately.
Jefferson did admit to doubling his doctor’s “prescription” of a glass-and-a-half of wine a day, and even tripling it in the company of friends and family, but declared that he drank “the weak wines only.” Barker points out that his wine glasses held only about three ounces, and that Jefferson would frequently cut its strength by adding water.
So while he considered wine a “necessity of life” (especially favorites from Bordeaux and Burgundy), Jefferson’s consumption was quite moderate.
Jefferson was the anonymous author of the Kentucky Resolutions, which gave the impression that states could nullify federal laws. But this strong stand was a one-time attack on the constitutionality of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts. He actually specifically discarded the word “nullify” after the first draft out of concern that it would incite thoughts of secession.
Jefferson was a true federalist, according to Barker, who sought to keep power balanced between the national and state governments. He was hardly as ardent a nationalist as Alexander Hamilton.
Barker points to Jefferson’s relationship with John Adams as a metaphor for American unity in the Republic’s early years. Adams represented the North, and Jefferson the South. Despite their personal and regional differences, the principle of compromise was the foundation of the American union.
After Jefferson defeated Adams in the bitter election of 1800, their relationship was strained for several years. They eventually reconciled and grew closer as they both recognized that the union was essential to protecting the principles of the Revolution.
John Adams wrote that he never heard Jefferson string three sentences together while they served together in Congress. When he read his inaugural address, it was reported that the people couldn’t hear him beyond the second row. He had his annual messages to Congress delivered in writing rather than in person.
Barker acknowledges that Jefferson never saw himself as a great orator, nor did he expect he would be perceived as one. But he points out that Jefferson’s eloquence was well known, and he regularly ascended to positions of leadership, so he must have had some verbal acumen.
Perhaps we shouldn’t assume our expectations of today’s leaders be so quickly attached to a different world.
Barker suggests that in Jefferson’s mind his highest priority was to communicate with the public, which was largely made up of the people who would later read his messages in the newspapers.
Barker imagines him thinking, “Here is my inaugural address, which I am reading and submitting to the press. This will go in the Congressional Record, this will be printed in the newspapers, so let me get the words right.”
Jefferson certainly wasn’t one for sectarian dictates and doctrines, but he was a great defender of religious liberty. He is often dismissed as a deist dedicated to a watered-down version of Christianity, or blamed, rather than credited, for talking about the separation of church and state.
But Barker reminds us that deism, which held that the Creator was the omnipotent prime mover in the universe, was not so much a religion as a philosophy. Indeed, a philosophy shared widely among Jefferson’s intellectual peers, the men and women influenced by the Enlightenment
Barker says that Jefferson’s chief purpose was to protect religion, not government. The “wall of separation” he talked about in his 1802 letter to the Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut was meant to ensure freedom for religion, not freedom from religion.
Jefferson said he was opposed to politics in the pulpit and the pulpit in politics. “The idea that the author of Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom is trying to disengage religion from our lives or deny the ability of a person to express their religious opinions is wrong,” says Barker.
Which Jefferson should we believe? The one who wrote that all men are created equal or the one who didn’t even emancipate his enslaved people in his will? Barker says both can be true, insisting that he was a sincere abolitionist. He called slavery “an abomination to our Creator.”
“Like many of his generation, he had inherited his property in slaves,” says Barker. “We were a nation of slave owners. In the midst of this, Jefferson became a turncoat to his class. His legislation and writings that looked for a way out of slavery served to aggravate and divide his neighbors in society.”
You can’t accuse Jefferson of ignoring the subject. His very first act in public office, in Williamsburg in the spring of 1769, was to second a motion by Richard Bland to debate banning the importation of slaves. Through much of his life, he continued to look for ways to change the system, but without a practical solution, the revolutionary generation kept kicking the can down the road.
Jefferson is also accused of hypocrisy because he sometimes changed his mind. It’s easy to cherry pick quotations from different periods of his life and find apparent contradictions. However, that can be unfair. Like all of us, he did change his mind, but as Barker points out, Jefferson was always open to changing his mind when he learned something new or circumstances changed.
“In this, do we not see ourselves as we grow older?” asks Barker.
Now there’s a civics lesson for all of us.