Merrill Peterson | Historian

Merrill Peterson has written numerous books and articles on Thomas Jefferson, including the groundbreaking Jefferson and the American Mind. He served for many years as the Thomas Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia and was recently chairman of the Federal Thomas Jefferson Commemorative Commission.

  If you could be a fly on the wall, what moment in Jefferson's life would you want to witness?
I think one of his presidential dinners in the White House. You know, when he was president, he entertained a great deal; usually three or four times a week he would have guests for dinner. Partly congressmen, diplomatic envoys and residents, ministers, ambassadors, secretaries, cabinet officers, guests in town. He did this in part because there was so little going on in Washington at that time. The White House became kind of the social center. And Jefferson was a man who was a great entertainer and a great conversationalist. He had an oval table, the idea being that an oval table doesn't lead to any problems of precedence in seating. And he introduced a kind of hoi polloi etiquette into the presidential style, and that worked well for him. And there was no head of the table or foot of the table, and Jefferson was always the center of the conversation and always the one who was trying to draw people out and draw people in. And John Quincy Adams said that you couldn't be at Jefferson's table without hearing something marvelous. And so Jefferson would talk about his experiences in France, his other experiences, and about anything that appealed to his omnivorous intellectual interest. And so I think that would have been a great experience—not any particular dinner, but just one of those dinners. He used these dinners in part, you know, to influence congressmen, to work his magnetism on congressmen, so that he would be effective politically. And he was accused of backstairs influence through his dinner parties.

“...the fact that he was a great wordsmith is part of what he is.”

  Who is Thomas Jefferson?
Well, Thomas Jefferson is first of all, I think, the man who propounded the fundamental principles to which this nation became dedicated. And those principles became the nation's creed. And I think we recognize it today as the principles, the ideals—the goals, if you like—for which the country is constantly striving and yet never entirely realizing. Those are the principles embedded in the Declaration of Independence—that is, in the second paragraph of the Declaration. So that he is that. And he is the person who gave this nation its mission more than anybody else. And he formulated it in words. And the fact that he was a great wordsmith is part of what he is.

“It is a multifaceted genius that we associate with Jefferson.”

  Why is he so unknowable?
Ah yes, he is...he is unknowable, I think. He was a very approachable man, but he was not a man easily penetrated. It took a lot of time, I think, to begin to feel comfortable with him and to feel that you knew much about him. It was difficult to get under his skin. He was a very reserved man. I think there was a certain diffidence and reserve in his approach to the world—to the people, places, and events surrounding him. He was obviously a man of great intellectuality. I think intellectuality is one of the chief defining characteristics of the man. He was a man of great seriousness, of such seriousness that sometimes if persons were being humorous around him, he just didn't get it. John Adams would crack a joke and somehow it just didn't penetrate Jefferson. So, it'o it's difficult to get to know him for a great number of reasons—because of who he was, and then also because of the fact that he did so many things. He was involved in so many activities. It is a multifaceted genius that we associate with Jefferson.

  Talk about his contradictions.
Well, we know him in history books primarily as a political figure. But clearly he didn't like politics much. It was something he was necessarily caught up in because that was the important business of his time—the democratic revolution that he helped father and in which his life was necessarily absorbed. But he really wasn't comfortable being in politics. He felt that he was, by nature, born for the arts and sciences and that he should have been a writer, a scientist, or perhaps even a creative artist. Of course, he was the first great American architect. So that is a contradiction at the bottom of his being and of his place in history, that these things are there in a sort of tension always. Jefferson is constantly running away from politics, and then necessarily he's pulled back into it.

Another contradiction is the one that's discussed very much in our time, between his commitment to a fundamental belief in human equality as necessary to a free and democratic society. And yet at the same time, he was a slaveholder all of his life and a man who wanted to do away with slavery but found no real leverage in his time and in his place by which to do that.

“...he could not devote his life to the abolition of slavery in this country....”

  Are you troubled by that contradiction?
No, I am not deeply troubled by that contradiction because, as a historian, I can understand it very well within the limits of his own time. And I think Jefferson himself did try very much to do things that would limit, contain, and eventually lead to the extinction of the institution—so that he was antislavery. A lot of his policies worked in that direction. But he did not, he could not, devote his life to the abolition of slavery in this country, and if he had, he would have destroyed his influence in every other direction.

Autobiography, Excerpts on Slavery

  How do you reconcile the author of our creed owning more than 200 human beings and never freeing them? Did that set in motion the great American fault line?
There is an inherent dilemma that he faced throughout his life with regard to slavery. There is no doubt about that. But he really felt that, given the options available to him at the time, that he could not get rid of this institution. And it depended upon the will of the people in each of the states, of course, at that time. Virginia is where he particularly focused his efforts. But he discovered very early that there was no public opinion to support the containment of slavery or the abolition of slavery in his time.

  This would lead to the Civil War...
Well, in the long run he suspected this would probably be the outcome, especially after the Missouri Compromise in 1820, because the Missouri Compromise drew a geographical line between free states and slave states. And Jefferson sensed the agitation and thought it would constantly be a source of conflict and hostility that might eventually lead to civil war.

  Do you think the failure of the founders to take care of slavery has created this tension, this fault line?
Well, no more than the very fact that slavery was introduced into the country, I suppose. No, I don't think that they could have taken care of it at that time and been able at the same time to have established a union and a constitution and basically democratic institutions within the white community.

  So there are more unbelievably excruciating contradictions...
Well, absolutely, absolutely. Slavery and freedom were, in a sense, two sides of the same coin. They certainly were within Virginia. And I think that Jefferson was quite well aware of that. Winston Churchill once said that a great nation can handle only one big problem at a time, and I'm not sure that's quite correct, but if you had tried to handle slavery at that time, you would necessarily have had to put aside some other matters that seemed more important.

  Do you forgive Thomas Jefferson?
Oh, it's not a matter of forgiving. Jefferson was a slaveholder who could not at the end of his life emancipate his slaves. He lived with the constant dilemma of slavery in the midst of freedom, and that was something he could not resolve. He said he would leave it to the next generation.

  And he did.
And he did, but of course his faith in the next generation was misplaced. Because the next generation was less interested in doing anything about it than he was, as it turned out—at least within the South.

“He's a pretty fussy character....”

  Do you like him as a man?
Yes...I like him. But Jefferson is not the most comfortable person to be around because of the high seriousness, the intellectuality of the man. He's a pretty fussy character—highly disciplined, systematic, and all of that. And he likes things his own way, clearly. He's a very sort of a masterful man in that regard. And some of those's not a question of whether one likes them or not, but they're not the most humanizing things. Lots of people who work on Jefferson are always looking for some humanizing traits or incidents, something that is a human-interest angle on Jefferson. I think that's one reason they focus on, say, something like the Sally Hemings story or the romantic affair with Maria Cosway in Europe, or Jefferson and his children. But I see him as a humanist to begin with. It's a certain kind of humanist, to be sure. I don't think he's an easy man to get to know. He had a tendency to hide his life under a bushel. And he sort of put off the world, I think, from inquiry. He was very sensitive to anybody who probed too deeply into his motives or his beliefs. He felt that this was a private matter; the public had no right to know what his religion was, for example. He was very, very private about that. He was a very private man.

  Why is it that, of all these founders, the most guarded should survive with the most respect?
I think a lot of Jefferson's power comes from the strength of his ideas and the certain ideology associated with them. If you read, say, the first inaugural address in 1801, there is a plane of ideology there describing the way the political system is supposed to operate, that you do not find in any other inaugural address. And it's one which is pitched to hopes and ideals that are very difficult to attain. And in the actual circumstances, of course, they cannot be totally resolved and obtained.

  Though we live in Hamilton's world, why is it that Jefferson lives in all of us?
Well, he lives first of all as the sort of hero of American democracy. He basically crystallized not only the conception of human rights that we associate with democracy, but the ideas of self-government as well. As the third president of the United States, he was the first president who really was elected through a democratic process and who in office accepted the fact that the opposition was perfectly free to oppose him in the most the most sometimes-libelous ways. They were free to mount a challenge to unseat him. Indeed, the significance of his election in 1800—one of the primary significances, anyway—is that it established a method by which American democracy goes forward. From one election to another, you change parties, you change policies, and so on, in response to the will of the people, a changing will of the people. So he's very central, from that standpoint, to our whole political way. And he did so many other things. Hamilton was essentially a person encased in his own official positions, one way or another: as an aide to General Washington, as a person in the confederation who was arguing for very, very strong centralized national government with aristocratic, monarchical features and so on, then as secretary of treasury, the man who establishes the basic fiscal structure of this new nation and a very, very dominant influence. He was a man for whom Jefferson had enormous respect. Jefferson said Hamilton was "a colossus unto himself." But, of course, he was very hostile to Hamilton's goals and objectives, and so there was a conflict between them, and that conflict summed up a lot of what was the struggle for democracy in the new nation. And the fact that Jefferson emerged victorious in that was a very key element.

And Jefferson, of course, was so many other things. You have Jefferson the cultural hero to turn to, the man who was the prophet of America's belief in education and the importance of public education to citizenship in a democratic government, a man who was the first great American architect and who set the style for the classical revival style in American public architecture. Jefferson, the man who was constantly nurturing American science in its infancy, contributing to American science. Jefferson, the man who contributed to exploration. Jefferson, who was the father of the American West. The Jefferson who did all these other things, who was the man who collected a great library and then sold this library to become the foundation of the Library of Congress. Jefferson the humanist. Jefferson the lover of the arts and music and all of that. So that you have these various avenues. Franklin D. Roosevelt said Jefferson led the steps of America into the paths of civilization. There's very little of that in Hamilton. And the fact that Hamilton Grange, Hamilton's home, is on the Upper West Side of New York and is now very obscure and virtually hidden away and hardly anybody knows about it, compared to Monticello which is a national shrine, which has great visitation, and which, of course, is well known to the American people. That's a telling part of the whole story.

Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress

  What is so great about those words that begin "We hold these truths to be self-evident"?
Well, Jefferson distilled in that second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence a philosophy of human freedom and self-government, and he did it in terms of basically four fundamental ideas. First, human equality—that all men are created equal—and this is something that is built into the whole state of nature; it's fundamental. And then the fundamental human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fact that Jefferson substituted "the pursuit of happiness" for the word "property," which was the usual formulation—life, liberty, and property—that altered the scale, the hierarchy of human values. And the goal of pursuit of happiness was an end as well as a right. That was really revolutionary. And then the idea that all just governments are founded on the consent of the governed and that that consent must be continuing and that laws must embody the consent of the governed—that was the whole basis of popular sovereignty and democratic government. And then finally, the right of revolution when governments become tyrannical. So that summed up, it is a philosophy of rights and of democracy. Jefferson said, you know, "I wasn't trying to think of any new ideas. I was trying to state the common sense of the matter." And that had become the common sense of the matter in America in 1776. He distilled something that was there—and some of it pretty old—to lay it there as a continuing foundation for this nation. What is unusual about the second paragraph is not its ideas, but the fact that they were laid at the foundation of a nation. And that was the first time that that had ever happened, you see—that a nation was basically built upon those ideas and committed to their attainment. Abraham Lincoln said that the Declaration stated the "definitions and the axioms of free society." And they were the principles which Lincoln was guided by in the Civil War, of course.

  How lucky we were that the task of writing our creed would fall to this young, relatively inexperienced Virginian.
Yes, he was 33 years old at the time. And so he was not the most prominent Virginian in the delegation in the Continental Congress. He was chosen because he had a reputation as a man with a certain felicity of expression. He wrote well. He was a facile and felicitous stylist. And also he was not objectionable in a significant way because he had not made enemies in the same way, for example, as Richard Henry Lee, who was a more prominent Virginian in the Congress than Jefferson. And so, circumstances simply made it possible for him to be named first on the committee, which generally meant that he was the chairman of the committee, and then Adams and Franklin talked him into drafting the document.

Declaration of Independence, Earliest Known Draft

  And the vagueness of the words seems to have allowed for their survival.
Oh, I think that the fact that these words embodied a set of moral principles and fundamental ideals to be constantly striven for and constantly repaired to, even though you perhaps never fully realized them, was the important thing. And the fact that they were on a plane of ideology—or of abstraction, if you like—was part of it. America begins as an idea, fundamentally.

  And that's radically new as far as nations are concerned.
It is radically new. Certainly as a state paper that was declaring the independence of the 13 colonies from the mother country, it could have been written strictly for that purpose. But Jefferson introduced into it, you see, a whole philosophy of human rights and of self-government. And that was revolutionary and it might not have happened if somebody else had drafted the paper.

  Was Sally Hemings his mistress?
Well, I can't just say no. Because I can't... No, I do not believe Sally Hemings was Jefferson's mistress.

Well, the reasons for that go partly to the fact that I think it would have been a moral and psychological impossibility for him to have engaged in that kind of relationship with one of the Monticello slaves, especially a person of that age, of that vulnerability, in the way that it's generally described. It is said that the relationship began when Jefferson was in Paris and Sally had come to Paris bringing Jefferson's younger daughter. And she would have been 15 or 16 at the time the seduction took place. And it is said that she came home pregnant by Jefferson and that the first child, one who was said to be named Tom, was born. There is no record of the Tom. But that is another question. There is no historical documentary evidence to support any of this. There is oral evidence. But the oral evidence probably came after the written evidence—after the story was written down by Callender and then by others—so that it could have entered into oral memory after it was written down.

  But you don't think he did.
No, I do not think that she was his mistress, no. That would have required—just to pursue this a little further—that he continue this relationship for a period of 25 years and that two of the children would have been born after the Callender story came out and while he was president of the United States. And that would have been a tremendous presumption on the American public, I think, and public sensitivities in this area as well as his own sensitivities. And so I think it's quite impossible.

Autobiography, Excerpts on Slavery

  Is Thomas Jefferson a racist?
No, I don't think he's a racist. But he clearly could not envision the possibility of a free and equal biracial society. And that was partly because he felt that the history of slavery—the legacy of slavery—was such in this country, and that the deprivation of the blacks was such, that there would be constant tension and hostility and it just would not be accepted. And so he felt that the best solution to the problem was colonization. And so he talked in terms of colonizing the blacks after a period of gradual emancipation, probably in Africa. And, of course, Abraham Lincoln talked that way too before he became he president and, indeed, after he became president and until he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and then he receded from that idea altogether, I think, in the course of time. But Jefferson could not envision the possibility of a free and equal biracial society under the circumstances, and he could not foresee emancipation occurring unless people were sure—the white people were sure—that the blacks would be removed, that they would not be raised to the status of free and equal citizens of this republic because they could not accept that.

And Jefferson had doubts about the intellectual equality of blacks, and he expressed those in the Notes on the State of Virginia. I think probably that those words that he wrote that were most regrettable, and I wish certainly that he hadn't written them. He was speculating about "Where does the Negro stand with regard to the natural history of humankind? Where do you place them? How do you account for this race? And what are their capabilities?" There was a lot of speculation by philosophers on this subject and whether or not the Negro was an equal with the white race. And some distinguished philosophers came down on the side: No, he was not. Hume, for example. Jefferson speculated in the Notes on the State of Virginia that, no, he was not the equal of the white in terms of intellectual ability or some other things, but particularly intellectual ability, reasoning ability. And he might have come down, one wishes he had come down, on the side of speculating that he was equal. And also that he might have introduced the factor of environment as the reason, along with their condition in life as slaves and the fact that they had not had much opportunity to prove what they could do. They hadn't the opportunity that white Europeans had in this society, and so on. And then he might have come down on the side of conjecturing that yes, they are equal. Instead, he came down on the side of conjecturing that no, they were not. And that was most regrettable.

First Plan of Monticello

  What does Monticello tell you about Jefferson?
Well, Monticello is first of all, I think, an expression in brick and mortar and wood of Jefferson's own outlook on life. There's a certain serenity about it. There's a certain proportion and order. It is an architectural expression of a Newtonian kind of balance and order. That's what Palladian architecture basically is, I think. And Jefferson always designed all of his architectural work in that mode. It's all basically Palladian in his formulation. And so it tells us a lot of things about him as a person, his sense of order. It tells us that he's a very private man. If you go through the house, you see that his quarters are separated clearly from the more public side of the house and that it's not just a bedroom, it's a study also. His bedroom opens into a gentlemen's cabinet, to use the terminology of the 18th century.

  Monticello is unfinished...
Yes... Well, he said, you know, with regard to architecture, that "putting up and tearing down is my chief occupation." He enjoyed it. He enjoyed constantly building. Yeah, it was never really finished—not to the point of suiting him. And, of course, he built another magnificent building, a small gem, an octagonal building, Poplar Forest at his Bedford County farm. And so he loved architecture, and that's partly what Monticello says to us. It expresses him so much as a person—his taste, the refinement, the delicacy of the place in many ways. All of this, I think, is embodied in Monticello.

  Do you have a favorite spot at Monticello?
No, I really don't.

  What about Monticello as a metaphor for the country, the fact that it was never finished?
Yeah, well, I always liked the metaphor of it, especially John Dos Passos' formulation of Monticello as "a portico facing the wilderness." I think that sums up so well a lot of what Jefferson thought in regard to what the nation ought to be, that there ought to be this sort of frame, a classical frame, and that it frames the American task of the conquest of nature. And John Dos Passos, the great writer, back in about 1940 summed this up in his marvelous phrase in a little essay called "A Portico Facing the Wilderness."

Head and Heart Letter

  Who won, the Head or the Heart?
The famous letter to Maria Cosway... Oh, I think the head wins. The head wins, certainly, in Jefferson's life. I think it probably wins in this letter. But it's a close call. Jefferson was a man of great reserve and a man who fundamentally was guided by reason, by intellect, although he's a man of affections too. There's no doubt about that. I just feel that he had set the reason to guide him through life. So even in that situation, where he was clearly drawn to this lovely young woman...still, because of the proprieties—she was, after all, the wife of Richard Cosway—and because of the circumstances, namely that he was going to be returning to Monticello eventually and her life was in Europe... I think all of those factors, along with his own emotional balance, where reason was firmly in the driver's seat, that that resolved the matter. And—as I read it, anyway—the head wins.

Louisiana Purchase

  Lewis and Clark is a magnificent chapter.....
The Lewis and Clark expedition was undertaken actually before the Louisiana Purchase. School children get the idea somehow that you get the Louisiana Purchase and then Jefferson decided to send an expedition out there to explore what he had bought. But that isn't the case. He had his mind set on an expedition which would have been through Spanish territory all the way to the Pacific before the Louisiana Purchase. As it happened, Meriweather Lewis set out from Washington the day after the news of the Louisiana Purchase arrived in Washington, just the day after. And the expedition, therefore, did occur once the territory had been given to the United States by treaty. So Jefferson had been planning this for a long time and, indeed, his ideas about western exploration go back 20 years. He had ideas about it back in the 1780's. He was himself a man intensely interested in geography and in the expanse of the continent and wanted to learn more and more about the natural history of continent, about the indigenous people who occupied this vast space out there, about the resources, about the rivers and the mountains and everything. He wanted to know all those things. And if you read the Notes on the State of Virginia, you realize that that is basically a book about the natural history of the country. And he even speculates in that book, though he has very little knowledge at the time, about the sources of the Missouri River, for example. And that was a territory which he, at that time, considered the state of Virginia had a claim to, a claim which was surrendered with the peace of 1783 finally with Great Britain.

  The circumstances of his death...
I suppose it could almost be said that Jefferson arranged his death to consolidate his legend, because he did die on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, almost to the hour. Add to that the fact that John Adams, his long friend and sometimes political foe, died in Massachusetts on the same day. And indeed, his last words were "Thomas Jefferson still survives." He did not know, of course, that Jefferson had died. That helped to consolidate Jefferson's place certainly in American history. It seemed almost providential to the American people at the time, particularly that these two great leaders of the country at the time of independence, who were also the second and third presidents of the United States, died at the same time. It marked a divide in American history. The age of the memory of the Revolution had gone and a new, commemorative age had begun. It was a new generation totally. The last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had gone except for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who lived on for several years.

  And Jefferson did survive in a way.
Yes, and of course he also left a famous last testament. In his last letter, which was addressed to a committee that had invited Jefferson to come to Washington for the 50th anniversary of the Declaration—an invitation Jefferson had to decline—he chose in that letter to make a last testament to the American people. And it was fundamentally a reaffirmation of the principles and ideals of the Declaration of Independence and an optimistic and confident belief that those principles, having taken root even in Europe—that those principles would eventually prevail, even despite the reaction that had occurred after 1815. Even after that, those principles had taken root and would prevail. He was a person who really fundamentally believed that the course of progress was in terms of the fundamental principles that he had asserted in the Declaration of Independence.

Statute of Religious Freedom

  So what is his legacy?
Well, his greatest legacy is in those principles, I think—in that creed which we as a nation strive to attain but perhaps never totally encompass. But he also has the legacy, I think, of a human being who conducted his life in a way that was highly disciplined, was very serious, and was committed to achieving excellence in a number of areas of arts and letters and science—that he was a planter by instinct and a builder. This was all part of him, and that's part of the legacy, I think, that's important.

And there are just so many things associated with those principles that he gave us. For example, religious freedom and the separation of church and state, which his Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom really established as the tradition in this country. Those same principles were embodied in the religious freedom clause of the first amendment and the establishment clause of the first amendment. Those twin principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state—that became a tradition in America that we still accept today. But they're still very much in controversy.

Jefferson is still embattled more than any other figure from the past; he is still fought over. It's partly because he has positions on so many different things, and often positions which seem to be in conflict. At least as we look at it today, they seem to be in conflict. And so he remains embattled in our consciousness and in our politics. Perhaps we don't throw the symbol around that much in the political forum anymore. It used to be thrown around a great deal. But the principles are still very much embattled. And the religious right today is very uncomfortable, I think, with Jefferson's legacy with regard to separation of church and state. They would like to see prayer restored in the school. Under Jefferson's principles, there's no way that can be accepted, for example. So there are so many things that contribute to this legacy. I think a legacy of beauty and proportion and order which you see at Monticello, which you see in the Jefferson Memorial. Education also is a terribly important legacy. And in this country today, we talk about giving up on public education. From the Jeffersonian perspective, that is the worst thing we could possibly do, because a paramount responsibility of republican government for Jefferson is the education of the future citizens.

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