Daniel Boorstin | Historian

Daniel Boorstin is a renowned historian and former Librarian of Congress who has written numerous books including, The Genius of American Politics, Democracy and Its Discontents, and The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson.

“He thought that every generation should have the opportunity to have its own revolution....”

  What does Thomas Jefferson say to us?
Jefferson, in my opinion, was the apostle of experience. In other words, he was the person who believed that everything had to change. He thought that every generation should have the opportunity to have its own revolution, to write its own laws, and that was his vision of the past and the future.

Statute of Religious Freedom

  What was his most important contribution?
Well, I think he summed it up in his own text for his tombstone, when he said that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the father of the University of Virginia. In those items, he summarized the spirit of his life and what his lasting contribution would be. He was able to see how the traditions of law could be made to serve future generations and could be the foundation of a whole transformed society because his main experience, his main training, of course, was as a lawyer. It was George Wythe, the man who taught him law at Virginia, who gave him the direction that was going to determine his contribution to American life. It's interesting, you know, that although he is considered the principal political thinker of the American Revolution, he never wrote a work of political thought or political theory. He was a student of history and of the past, and his main documents are really legal documents.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV,

  How do you reconcile this man who distills the essence of the enlightenment in this one remarkable sentence that begins, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," and yet could own more than 200 slaves?
Well, I think we must beware of the arrogance of modernity, the tendency to think that we are wiser and better than all previous generations. Now, one way of asserting that superior wisdom and superior virtue, which I don't share, is to assume that every man in the past had the freedom and the power to assert all the virtues that we believe in. Jefferson, of course, was not an abolitionist, but he did everything within the framework of his time to assert the evils of slavery. In fact, he—in his draft of the Declaration of Independence—included a provision condemning George the Third for having condoned slavery in this country. And his Notes on Virginia are savage in their strictures on the evils of slavery. But he was not an abolitionist; he was a man of his time, and we must accept his limitation with those of his age.

  Do you feel that the fault line of American life, which is about race, is embodied in him?
Well, Jefferson believed that the facts of life would be helpful. And he thought that the progress of science would help us understand ourselves and other people. He therefore made careful study of the different races, what he called the races or varieties of humanity. And he concluded that there was no evidence of the inferiority of the American Indian to the white European but that he was not so sure in the case of the black. But he qualified that by his hope that future discoveries and future evidence would deny any suspicions of the inferiority of any variety of the human species.

Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  If you could be a fly on the wall, at which moment of his life would you like to be present?
Well, I would have enjoyed being present in Philadelphia when he was drawing up the Declaration of Independence. And you know, we have failed to understand the dramatic significance of the Declaration of Independence by our exaggeration of the few simple ideas in the preamble. The Declaration of Independence is a very scrupulous legal document, a list of indictments against George the Third. And the list of the evils alleged of George the Third really is a pretty good list of the evils that have plagued us in our time, in the worlds of tyranny and communism.

“...he had practically no sense of humor.”

  What kind of man was he?
Well, you know, he was not perfect, unlike many of us, of course. He had limitations. For example, he had practically no sense of humor. I don't know anyplace in his correspondence where he seemed to have a laugh or suggest a laugh in anyone else. He also was very weak on the side of aesthetics and the imagination—but not in the case of architecture, which also makes us suspicious of any simplification of the character of a man like Jefferson. He was a great architect and left monuments of his sensitivity in Monticello itself, in the building of the University of Virginia, and in the capitol of the state of Virginia. But in his correspondence, we find that he was fearful that people were reading too many novels. It was the early days of the novel, and the novel was beginning to invite the attention especially of female readers, which troubled him. So he thought that people should read fewer novels and also read not too much poetry. He didn't have a feeling for poetry. But he did have a feeling for experience, for the possibilities of allowing our ideas on everything to be changed by what we learned about the world. And he attested to that by his leadership of the American Philosophical Society, which encompassed the study of all "new things." That was in the prospectus of the Philosophical Society, which still survives and tries to follow some of his traditions in Philadelphia today.

  Could you parse the sentence "We hold these truths to be self-evident," and talk about how revolutionary that is?
Well, I think we have not examined the full significance of that, of "We hold these truths to be self-evident...." There were several things that were stated there which have not often been recognized. One is the appeal to common sense, which is an anti-ideological way of looking at things. He didn't say that the study of the truths of politics have led us to this conclusion. He said these are "self-evident," and he made an appeal to the opinions of mankind. Now also, if you will look at that statement that "all men are created equal," we must realize that he made that statement in the context of the science of his time. He was talking, not about men being born equal, he was talking about their creation. And in his time, there was a debate going on as to how many different creations of mankind there had been. Had there been a separate creation on this continent? And Jefferson did not believe that. Jefferson believed there had been a single creation and it was from that single creation of all the human race that the consequences followed. And he also said that the only proper foundation for a people's freedom is belief that liberty is the gift of God, which is a rather surprising thing to hear from Jefferson.

  Where did this philosophy come from?
He had a very conventional background, of course, in Virginia, and was raised in a very respectable household and inherited 5,000 acres from his father and more from his wife. He had a conventional background and an insatiable curiosity—and an openness. And that openness made him suspicious of dogma, suspicious of people who thought they knew all the answers or that they didn't have to examine the recent evidence.

  What is "natural law?"
Well, it's interesting to know that, in his time, people whom we would call scientists were called "natural philosophers." The study of nature was another way of describing the purpose of philosophy, according to Jefferson. That is, the empirical study of philosophy as experience, not as speculation. So when he spoke of the "laws of nature," he spoke of those laws or those norms which he thought could be discerned by seeing the experience of people all over the world, past and present.

  What about his presidency?
I think first we should recall what people seldom remember: that when he was elected president, it wasn't the first time he had run for president. He was defeated by John Adams in an earlier time, in 1796, and he was not particularly resentful of the fact that Adams beat him out. He then was vice president, and I don't know whether we should think of him as the model vice president, but we mustn't forget that he did serve as a vice president. And then when he became candidate for president, it was not with great eagerness that he undertook that job. His interest was in learning and in the variety of the world and its possibilities, too much to be preoccupied with the infighting of politics. And that distinguished him, I think, very much from his bÍte noire, Alexander Hamilton who was interested in the inside story of politics and the details of fiscal policy.

  Even though we hold Jefferson's ideas dear to our hearts, it is Hamilton's view that has won out.
Well, I think it is unfortunate that Hamilton and Jefferson have been yoked together, as historical characters sometimes are. But they are perfect antitheses; almost every aspect of their lives was different. Jefferson was, of course, of very respectable background. Hamilton was of dubiously illegitimate birth. Jefferson spent the last years of his life in amiable correspondence with his former political antagonist, John Adams; and Hamilton died in a duel defending his honor against Aaron Burr.

  But do you think that Hamilton won?
Well, I think it's interesting to note that the creations of Hamilton—fiscal policy and certain orientations in foreign policy—are those that are most ephemeral, while the victory of Jefferson was a victory of the spirit. Hamilton was doing for our economy what Jefferson was doing for the national spirit. And while the spirit has survived, the economy has changed drastically. So the truths which seemed to Hamilton obvious in matters of national banking and finance no longer seem so obvious. But Jefferson's concept of national purpose survives.

  What is this legacy of Thomas Jefferson?
I would say that he is the apostle of experience. And I think that what distinguishes our kind of society and the Jeffersonian view of our society from others is that it is not ideological. It's not stuck in the prison of some dogma, but rather is constantly responding to the changes in the world, and Jefferson was the apostle of that experience.

  Can you tell me about the "sage of Monticello"?
Well, you know, we have a very interesting clue to Jefferson's spirit in his principal correspondence with John Adams. The dour John Adams who's always pessimistic—in fact, so pessimistic and so disappointed in the education of his own children that he refused to have any ideas about education. And Jefferson, on the contrary: calm, presenting a scheme of public education, organizing the University of Virginia, presenting plans for public schools—this antithesis is very revealing. And that is one of the main lessons that we learn from that remarkable correspondence. But it's interesting also to know that Jefferson, for example, uses his correspondence to attack ideologues. He says he can't understand why anyone ever thought Plato was a great thinker; he's never read such nonsense in his life. And he goes on to have a similar feeling about any other ideologue, while Adams very timidly says that he'd rather not take a position on such things. But those last years, the years which you've characterized as "the pursuit of happiness" are the years of exploration of the world also. That was when he continued to be leader of the American Philosophical Society, when he made his great gift of the library which became the foundation of our Library of Congress. That was a magnificent act, but not an entirely philanthropic act, because he was paid over $20,000 for his library, although he magnanimously told the Congress that he would accept any amount of money they offered for it. But he offered his library at a significant moment in 1814 when the British had just burned the library during the War of 1812. And so he said they must have another library. But as soon as he had sold and delivered his library to Washington, he immediately began collecting a new library of his own. He said, "I cannot live without books," and this is one of his utterances which I most respect and love. And in almost no time, he had collected several thousand additional books for what he called his "canine appetite for reading."

  Can you talk about his death?
Well, you would think that people still believe in astrology because he and John Adams died on the same day, and I don't know that much significance is to be attached to that. But I think the real significance is the fact that he was able to mellow in his last years and to exchange ideas freely and boldly with the person who had been his principal and most effective political antagonist on the national scene.

  Talk about religion, the separation of church and state, something in him that inspires almost mystical devotion.
Well, I think that he was certainly not an orthodox Christian. And you may remember that one of his most famous utterances was "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God," which is not obedience to the popular opinion, notice. But when it came to the details of religion, he was very vague. And one of his works which is not as well known as it should be is sometimes called the "Jefferson Bible." And it also expresses his suspicion of theology and his approach to religion in general. The Jefferson Bible is a selection of the utterances of Jesus which he thought were most significant and most enduring. And he put them together in a little book and made Christianity into a kind of set of Bible lessons of morality which, of course, outraged the pious Christians of his time. And, in fact, when his library was about to be sold to the nation, there were some members of Congress—a usually enlightened Congress—who said that it would be a mistake to buy Jefferson's library because it had too many books in foreign languages, most of which ought not to be read and many of which couldn't be read. But Jefferson had collected these books without discrimination of their orthodoxy.

  What does "the pursuit of happiness" mean?
I think people have not reflected often enough on the meaning of that phrase. If we follow Jeffersonian clues, and look at the meaning of the words in their time, and think about the word "pursue" and its significance in Jefferson's day, we find that it doesn't mean exactly what we had thought it meant. We must remember that we tend to think of a pursuit of happiness as something that's chasing after happiness. But we also use the expression "He pursues the law," by which we mean "practices the law." And the idea of pursuit of happiness in that day probably meant just as much the right to enjoy happiness as the right to pursue it. And there's a difference there.

  What's the genius of Thomas Jefferson?
I would summarize it in two simple ideas: first, experience/anti-ideology—the belief that there were no simple answers to any question and the belief that the meaning of life is in the seeking. That is exemplified in his concern for the Philosophical Society, his belief in science, and his refusal to produce anything that would be a political theory, even though he remains a great political thinker of our Revolution. The second characteristic, which is a corollary of that, is optimism. Very unfashionable these days, but you may remember that he said that here in this place, the happiness of the human race may advance to an indefinite, though not to an infinite, degree. He expressed his optimism and yet his refusal to be a utopian. So that the genius of Jefferson is in inspiring us to seek our answers to questions not in dogmas, but in a shared searching, a searching for experience either through the works of other scientists or the opinions of other citizens. And that was the meaning, I think, of John Locke's political philosophy to Jefferson.

  Is that why he survives?
Yes. Well, I think it's hard to say what enables a person to survive. People are more likely to survive, I think, if they are dogmatists providing banners to which others can repair and for which they can die or make others die, than they are by being moderate prophets of experience, which is what Jefferson was.

  So is there a metaphor for his life? I see him as a quintessential American, full of contradictions.
Yes, he was. But I consider that he was an exponent of what I would call an American humanism. He's always talking about the human species, and not just American possibilities. And in the optimism that he expressed there is an optimism about the human species in this place. And that's the way he thought of the experience that people were enjoying in America. It was an opportunity to demonstrate something new, not just for the people of Virginia or New York or Pennsylvania, but for the whole human race which was looking on.

  Did he see this country as an experiment, as a gift to the world?
Well, yes, because he had a vision of possibilities. And I think that one of his most important contributions was the Louisiana Purchase. But it was not just the Louisiana Purchase, it was expressed in the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was his concept. And he secured an appropriation of $2,500 from the Congress, with some difficulty, to send his own private secretary out West and examine the possibility of the trans-Mississippi West. And that leadership was what made possible the Lewis and Clark expedition and the American vision of a transcontinental nation. Now that same kind of vision, I think, is what we need today if we are to go out into outer space. John F. Kennedy showed it when he beckoned us to go to the moon, and Jefferson beckoned us all the way across the continent.

  Could you talk about the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom?
Well, he had the imagination to see that all dogmas, all theologies, however orthodox and plausible, were forms of tyranny because they confined people in their thinking and especially confined this generation against innovations and discoveries in the future. But the other thing to remember is that the Statute of Religious Freedom was only one of a whole array of statutes that Jefferson proposed and passed. For example, he proposed and passed a law against primogeniture, to provide equality of inheritance for people in Virginia. He reformed the whole criminal law system of Virginia. And he viewed legislation as an active enterprise and an enterprise of experiment.

“I adore Jefferson.”

  Do you like him?
I adore Jefferson. I adore his spirit, and I think that he sets an example of the way in which we should think about ourselves and the world.

  So what is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson?
Well, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson is that we can always learn something new and that his ideas, like those of others, will be subject to revision.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Contents and Map

  Talk about him as a "human magnet."
Well, it's hard to know what attracts people to another person, you know? And Jefferson...I think when Jefferson joined a brilliant group of American scientists, he had the great advantage of not seeming to be their rival. And I think that's one thing that attracts people. Jefferson was insatiably curious about everything. And the other members of the group—Benjamin Smith Barton, the botanist, and Rittenhouse, the astronomer, and many others—had various interests. There was a psychologist among them... They were...they were people who had theories of their own and were known for what they had discovered. But Jefferson's appeal was embodied really in the charm of a book of his which isn't widely enough read, his Notes on Virginia. He significantly called it "Notes" on Virginia, not A Treatise on Virginian Life. And in that he gives a clue to the miscellaneousness of experience and his openness to everybody else's ideas. And I think that quality, that receptivity, is what was much of his charm.

  Why do we all, from the left to the right, treat him as if he's ours?
Well, I think that's because of the openness of his mind and his approach to experience—because he did not have a dogma and he was suspicious of dogma. Although he was the principal political thinker of our Revolution, he was not a political philosopher. He was a natural philosopher, a student of nature and of society. And that meant that he was not jostling anyone's prejudices when he generalized about the laws or about the future of society.

  So we all end up claiming him, no matter what political side we're on.
Yes, and I think we probably have a right to.

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