When President John F. Kennedy welcomed 49 Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
I was having a conversation with somebody or other the other day about people in history we would have enjoyed meeting. There are so many people that come to mind for me - Einstein, Franklin, Fu Hsi, Philip Dick, Lenny Bruce maybe. But the most fascinating man, in my humble opinion, in the last millennia or so was Thomas Jefferson.
I read his autobiography and collected writings a couple of years ago and recommend them to everybody. Though not without flaws, Jefferson was the embodiment of a renaissance man. I would like to list some of the accomplishments of our third President. People can not humanly get so much done. But he did!
Jefferson stood a straight six feet tall. He was a student at the College of William and Mary, studying philosophy, math and metaphysics. He spoke english, french, latin, greek and added gaelic later in life. He was the father of modern archaeology. He was an innovator of modern excavation technique. He amused himself by playing violin. He was a member of the mysterious Flat Hat Club.
A lawyer, architect (who invented the neo-palladian style), birder, farmer and botanist, he was also a first rate inventor, inventing the swivel chair, the rotating bookshelf and the physiognotrance, a mechanical drawing instrument. He also invented an improved plough and a macaroni machine. He was a seed collector and collected scientific instruments. He brought numerous new plants to this country. He had such an extensive book collection that he donated it to Congress in 1815 after theirs was destroyed in the previous year's fire.
He was a magistrate, county lieutenant, member of the Continental Congress and Governor. He served as Secretary of State. Jefferson was also the President of the American Philisophic Society. He pioneered state's rights and was opposed to Hamilton's more monarchical pretenses. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. The document proclaims that all men are equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that the government is the servant, not the master, of the people.
He was a stark advocate for the separation of Church and State, writing the Virginia Statutes for Religious Freedom in 1786. It offended many christians in his time.
The Louisiana Purchase was obtained on his watch and the Lewis and Clark Expedition undertaken. As President, he cut military expenditures, slashed the budget and lowered the tax on whiskey. He cut the national debt by a third and sent a naval squadron out to go after Barbary pirates.
He founded the University of Virginia. He was an opponent of primogeniture, the automatic awarding of land to a son in an estate.
It is said that Jefferson studied 15 hours a day. It is also said that he grew hemp. He envisioned a society of independent gentleman farmers as opposed to Hamilton's idea of mostly businessmen and commerce. Jefferson was called a man of the people and liked to dress down into ordinary clothes to meet his visitors at the White House.
The thing I took away from reading his book and studying him, the thing that floored me was how broad his brain really stretched. He institutionalized and codified a system of weights and measurements for the whole country. That is big.
He managed to identify and categorize every type of flora and fauna extant in the entire republic during his tenure. It just amazes me that one human being could create and conceive of so much. I can't think of anyone else who ever came close with the exception maybe of Nicolai Tesla.
Jefferson was not without his faults. He advocated a forced removal and extermination of the Native Americans in the eastern woodland. He was a major chauvinist who hated intellectual women. Adams evidently felt that he was nearly a treasonous francophile, if we are to believe David McCullough's reading of history.
I gloss over many of this great American's accomplishments. There are probably many other things that he achieved that I omit by my ignorance. What an amazing man. It would be hard to call him the greatest president because I think we reserve such terms for those that shepherded us through the times of greatest crisis, like Roosevelt, Lincoln and Washington. Yet you would be hard pressed to find an American who achieved more and was as committed to democracy. He died on the fourth of July, 1826.
"I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
Some quotes from the man of Monticello -
Every generation needs a new revolution.
Do not bite at the bait of pleasure, till you know there is no hook beneath it.
An injured friend is the bitterest of foes.
All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.
Be polite to all, but intimate with few.
I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.
I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.
I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
In every country and every age, the priest had been hostile to Liberty.
Leave no authority existing not responsible to the people.