Interview with Garry Wills | Historian

Garry Wills is a professor of Public Policy and American Culture at Northwestern University and an award-winning author of books on American culture including, Inventing America, Under God: Religion and American Politics, and most recently, Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership.

“...Jefferson was always off to the side on his own and a little quirky and sometimes hare-brained.”

  Why are you drawn to Jefferson?
Well, of course he's a brilliant stylist, great with language. He couldn't write a bad sentence; it's astonishing. He was a great artist. He's considered a great thinker, and there I'm not quite sure. After all, people are impressed rightly that he seems to do everything: plays the violin and knows about science and knows about versification and all of that. Well, in the 18th century there were a lot of encyclopedists. That's the last time when it was feasible that you could go over the whole range of knowledge so that you had David Hume, Samuel Johnson, Diderot, D'Alembert, Voltaire—the encyclopedists were all around. What's interesting about Jefferson is that he's paradoxically a provincial universalist. Unlike Franklin, who went over and stepped right into the scientific world in France, Jefferson was always off to the side on his own and a little quirky and sometimes hare-brained. He loved theories that nobody paid any attention to. For instance, his 19-year contract. He said that every 19 years all contracts should lapse, including the Constitution of the United States. And he got there by an elaborate mathematical analysis that once you reach 21, you have 25 years or so, but by the time you've gone 19 years beyond 21, half of the people who are also beyond 21 will have died, so they are an old generation, and now you're dealing with a new generation and you should not entail things from one generation to the other. And he puts it out in beautiful language, you know: "The earth belongs to the living, we should not have our children pay for us," and all this kind of thing. But the minute anybody looked at it—Madison, for instance—he said, "Well, you know, 19-year contracts run 19 years if you sign them right at the beginning. But if you sign it one year before the lapse, it's a one-year contract and you're trying to avoid 19-year intervals, and if you're 21 and sign a contract with a 51-year-old...." So the whole thing was really hare-brained, crackpot. And yet he hung onto it. And he did that with other things—the educational scheme, for instance. He wanted hundreds in Virginia, groups of a hundred. And they would school everybody at public expense. But then only the best one from each hundred would be sent forward to another school. And then out of those, the best one would go forward until they got down to 20, and 10 could go to the university. Well, what if one 100 has five brilliant people and this one has none? One will go forward, four will be knocked off, and one who's not a genius will go forward. And again, they pointed it out to him. He liked the exquisite shape of the thing. He was an aesthete. The beauty, the neatness of the formulation, is what appealed to him even if it made no sense at all.

“He was not a strong, forceful, personal presence.”

  What did he look like?
When he testified before Congress when he was the secretary of state, Senator Maclay said that he slumped in his chair, he was collapsible, he didn't seem to have any presence, he mumbled. He was not a strong, forceful, personal presence. He was quite shy and diffident in person, though he had these soaring, theoretical, daring things to say in his writing. He didn't like to give a speech. He didn't like to deal with strangers. When he gave his State of the Union address, he mumbled so that they couldn't even hear him, and so he stopped giving them and that set a precedent for a long, long time. Nobody, no president, would deliver the State of the Union address to Congress, because Jefferson didn't like to speak.

  And yet this is a man who wrote the most cherished words in our canon. How did this happen?
He's a great writer. He's a great artist. He's a great architect. And he had this love of vast theories and he had a way of putting almost any doctrine in very startling, striking ways. A good example of that is that he opposed Washington's neutrality policy when Washington formulated it. Later, when he became president, he adopted it. But he called it a "no entangling alliances" policy. And that just obliterated everything else that had been said about that, so that now some people think Washington formulated it that way, but it was Jefferson. Anything that he turned his hand to, he could formulate this wonderful rhetorical exposition of it.

“...Jefferson knew he could never free his slaves.”

  And yet there's an abstraction with these words that has both let us off the hook and, because of their lack of specificity, allowed these words to endure. What do you think about a man who distilled the essence of the Enlightenment into one remarkable sentence that begins " We hold these truths to be self-evident," and yet who owned other human beings?
Well, of course, he was trapped, as all of the well-intentioned southerners were. What's disappointing about him is that, unlike some people—Washington, for instance, who did free his slaves—Jefferson knew he could never free his slaves. Freeing slaves in Virginia was a very difficult thing. The law was that you had to give them a job, an assured place, or an assured income, because obviously they didn't want masters to be able to turn loose sick, incompetent, dying old slaves and just allow them to wander the countryside. Also, they had other reasons: they didn't want a lot of freed slaves around. And so Jefferson had no way, because his own debts were so high and his own property was so entailed that he could not get the money to free slaves in any quantity. You know, he could only free a few at his death. But what's tragic is that he knew that while he was driving himself into debt.

And I think the reason is that he had this extraordinary aesthetic need, a kind of compulsion to have beautiful things around him, and he lived in a very fancy way. During the Revolution, when he was the governor of Virginia, he invited Hessian prisoners—nobles, officers—up to converse at these wonderful dinners at Monticello. You know, here's Washington out at Valley Forge and all these other places, not going home to Mount Vernon since he knows his army will fall apart. And so there's this kind of dilettante side to Jefferson.

  Does that cheapen the words?
No, I don't think so. I think that he was sincere in them. Of course, he didn't know when he wrote the words that he was going to live in this high style for the rest of his life. No, they are great words and he meant them and they disturb people and they've had a tremendously benign effect through history.

Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  What did he mean by "all men are created equal"? It's not what we think...
No, he meant political man, not "man" as such. And the proof of that is this: they are equal in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the example he gives of the pursuit of happiness is, you can change the government when you want to. Well, women did nothing to change the government in the Revolution. They did not vote for the Declaration; they did not serve in the army; they did not get elected; they did not vote for people who got elected; they did nothing, so obviously he excluded women as a practical matter. He didn't mean that you have an equal right to pursue happiness by changing the government for women. And obviously he didn't mean it for blacks either.

  And yet we think that these words have had an effect on our sense of it. How did it get transformed?
There was a development in the early 19th century toward a more egalitarian society in general. And people began to read it that way. And the climax came when Lincoln used the Declaration over and over and over in his attitude toward Stephen Douglas and others. He kept saying, "Does this mean that all men are really created equal, or are we just going through a charade every Fourth of July when we read this and honor it?" And of course a lot of people had forgotten the precise 18th-century meaning that Jefferson had by then, and a lot of people wanted it to mean more, and Lincoln made it mean more and that's what it's meant ever since. So it's a benign misreading of what Jefferson said—which is very common in history, by the way. Jefferson himself had benign misreadings of history. He had this myth of the Anglo-Saxon race as the true democratic race that was suppressed over in England for a while and was re-emerging. Terrible history, but it was useful and, you know, he believed it.

“So he had great possessiveness about his words, and rightly so. They were the most powerful weapon he had.”

  Can you set the scene for the writing of the Declaration? He seems to have a cool eye as he observes the fractious goings-on. He seems to understand a larger music there.
Yes, he knew that his writing was very powerful. And he had pushed himself forward to write various things—drafts for laws in Virginia, complaints against the king in England. So he was happy that of the five who were chosen to write this, he was chosen the penman. He was very unhappy when large parts of his drafts were excluded by Congress. And he went out of his way to try to make those live and they haven't, by the way, by and large. So he had great possessiveness about his words, and rightly so. They were the most powerful weapon he had.

  But we were looking at 13 seaboard colonies that were just as content to be individual states, and he somehow saw something that threaded them together...
Well, he did. Others did too, of course. Washington did. I think more and more as the war went on, a lot of people did. Madison certainly did. They saw that the Congress, the wartime Congress, had not been able to support the war, to create a system that was fair for draft, for recompense of soldiers, for supplies, for all that kind of thing. So the need for unity was there, and people recognized it.

“...the greatest amateur architect in America and the greatest professional architect in America arguing tooth and nail over what to do with the Capitol of the United States.”

  If you could be present at one moment in Jefferson's life, what would it be?
Oh that's very hard. I think that one very interesting moment would have been his arguing with Benjamin Latrobe over the shape and the ceiling of the House of Representatives. Here you have the greatest amateur architect in America and the greatest professional architect in America arguing tooth and nail over what to do with the Capitol of the United States. And Jefferson wants authority and precedent: "Show me some Roman example." And Latrobe, who said "I'm a bigoted Greek when it comes to architecture," didn't want Roman examples and didn't want authority. He wanted to make new things. That's another fascinating thing about Jefferson, is that in his thought he early got archetypes and patterns and authorities, and he stuck with them most of his life. Palladio in architecture. And in one sense, he was not open to the new. For all of his love of progress and all of his praise of the new, his taste in poetry and his authors that he admired stayed pretty much the same after his early formation.

  You said earlier that you were interested in what he didn't do.
Jefferson did so much, it's fascinating to ask yourself why he didn't do some things. For instance, when he was over in Europe, he was in France and he traveled down to Italy, got down as far as Milan, and in a day and a half he could have been in the Veneto and seen the Palladian villas that he had loved and praised all of his life and studied. He never went. And here he was, perched on the edge of the West on his mountaintop at Poplar Forest and Natural Bridge and Monticello, and he praised everybody who went and looked at the West but he never went himself. He was afraid to venture outside his sphere in some ways. His circle in Paris, for instance, was much more narrow than that of Franklin. He met people that he knew and that knew him and respected him, but he didn't really enter into the scientific life of Paris the way Franklin did.

  Did he really have friends? Can you talk about his personality?
Well, of course he had friends in the sense that he was in that planter class and they all were hospitable toward each other, they all intermarried, they all had cousins in every direction and he was kind of officially nice to everybody, but he loved to be alone. He didn't like a lot of company around him. The reason he went and built Poplar Forest away from Monticello is that he wanted to be alone. And that house will not really sustain any visitors for anything more than an afternoon. There's no place for them to sleep. He called Monticello, when he first planned it, his "hermitage." And there was that streak in him, that he'd like to be alone. His daily routine was really killing, you know. The amount of tabulation that he did. He'd get up and do all of these meteorological things. He would keep close track on all the plants in the garden and on his plantation. He had this tremendous correspondence, tremendous reading. So I don't think he liked to be troubled with too many people around him most of the time. He didn't meet people easily. He didn't impress people easily. You know, it's one of the interesting things that we tend now to think of the Founding Fathers as this glorious galaxy. But if you had asked any of them, "Do we have great men among us?" they would all have said, "Of course, two: Washington, Franklin." But nobody would have thought Jefferson was in that category. You know, he and Madison and Adams and Rittenhouse and Witherspoon, all these people were distinguished enough people, but they never had any sense that superhumans were among them except in two cases.

“Jefferson wrote beautifully and had this wonderfully fertile mind full of rich inventions and schemes and ideas....”

  Why has he survived, then? What is it about Thomas Jefferson?
The writer's revenge. Washington was not a writer. Washington bowled people over when they met him, and he was very good at theatrical gestures and dramatic moments, but he could not express himself well in writing, and he knew that, and he was afraid to commit himself there because he knew he could communicate so much better in other ways. Jefferson wrote beautifully and had this wonderfully fertile mind full of rich inventions and schemes and ideas, so you feel that you know him much more intimately. And we all feel—I certainly have most of my life—that you could walk right in and be at home with him because you've lived in his mind, in his writing. I think we would be terribly shocked if we tried to do it.

“...he is a person of tremendous inventiveness but for whom almost everything went wrong, in a right way.”

  Do you like Thomas Jefferson?
Yes, I admire him tremendously. I don't think I would want to spend much time with him. I think the shrewdest critic of him is Henry Adams, who sensed some of his own problems in Jefferson and follows him very closely and sees that he is a person of tremendous inventiveness but for whom almost everything went wrong, in a right way. That is, he wasn't able to do what he wanted to do, but what he did do turned out to be better. So, you know, he wanted to decentralize the government; he centralized it. He wanted to get rid of the Federalist program; he adopted it. You know, he had this amazing ability to land on his feet no matter what.

“...there is a sense that Jefferson first dreamed many of the dreams that the rest of us have spent our history dreaming.”

  He seems like the quintessential American, filled with all these personal and political contradictions, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the question of race. Are we drawn to him because he is a metaphor?
Well, yes, he is a metaphor for the ability to start new in a new continent and dream large dreams. I think that's what his real meaning to most people is. He had a sense of American greatness from the outset. He wanted, of course, to exclude a lot of the immigrants. And he wanted to include Canada and Cuba so that you would have a clean slate for this wonderful new experiment, this sense that America was starting over. Some of the bad effects of that were shown in the West, where people thought of it as a clean slate where they could do what they wanted even though there happened to be Native Americans on the slate. But underneath it all, there is a sense that Jefferson first dreamed many of the dreams that the rest of us have spent our history dreaming.

  Can you talk about his appeal?
Yes... Because his words are so powerful and they translate so well around the world, what we have in him is not simply an example, like Washington, but somebody who has praised and thought through the advantages of liberty, the advantages of democracy, in ways that students all around the world ever since have studied. Most countries that want to be independent want to have a Declaration of Independence of their own. And some take Jefferson's own. Some rewrite it in their own way. But, sure, he's a beacon in history—not for America only, but for the world.

“If you want to talk about liberty and the development of it in the modern world, you almost have to talk about Jefferson.”

  And you used this example of his being a streetlamp...
You know, when people talk about the canon or the great people of the past or great texts, they often say, "Well, but you know, those were tainted, they came out of cultures that were wrong, that had sins and crimes and evils...." Which is all quite true. Nonetheless, when we go back in history, we choose out the things that are of continuing use. And those become meeting places, so that they're like a streetlamp where everybody comes together to talk and argue together where they can see each other. That's the way he has been. If you want to talk about liberty and the development of it in the modern world, you almost have to talk about Jefferson. And since people have been doing that for 200 years, there's a rich continuing conversation which we join when we get under that lamp.

  The circumstances of his death are remarkable, the stuff of myth.
He died on the same day as John Adams, and they were the last of the signers that were aware of each other's life. So John Adams says, "Jefferson still lives," even though he was dying at the same time. And it was the end of this great era of the heroic founders. There had been a sense that there was a falling off, that we were losing the virtue of the early founders, and so a national mourning occurred over this. And people are right to say that you couldn't put that into a novel if it weren't true, because it's so improbable.

“I think he probably was more ambitious to be a great architect or a great writer than to be a great president.”

  He claimed to be unambitious, but he seems to be almost the opposite.
Certainly he was ambitious, because he gave up many of the things that he most enjoyed in order to pursue a public career. But I think that there was a genuine sense of sacrifice, that he did it out of duty. I think he probably was more ambitious to be a great architect or a great writer than to be a great president. He put in more work sometimes on his private projects than on his public ones. He also liked to have other people do things for him, do his dirty work, write controversial things. He shrank from conflict in some ways. He didn't like it even though he would put other people up to doing it. So there's this sense of a tortured ambition, I think. It was not an easy thing for him to do what he considered his duty. And, of course, that was part of the code of the plantation aristocracy. They were all born into public responsibility. Almost everybody who was a major owner was colonel of the militia, justice of the peace, vestryman of the Church, sittechurch, sitter in the House of Burgesses. You know, in recent times, the Republican contract says that the Founding Fathers were unable to conceive of a professional lifelong politician. Well, you were born into being a professional lifelong politician. Most of these people sat in the House of Burgesses for most of their lives. And the ones who went on to federal government, if they left, they usually came back to state government and served there for awhile and then went back to federal government. But the idea that they would just retire from government and pursue an entirely private career was not true at all. You were born to have a public career.

“...he tried to hide from himself the reality of slavery.”

  How can we know him? He seems completely contradictory.
Jefferson is very difficult to know. I don't know if he knew himself. He lived on several different levels, and he tried to keep some things away from himself. One of the astonishing things about him is his extraordinary optimism. He was living in a world where things seemed to be going against him, where the war was going against him, where his debts were piling up. He sustained this almost sappy sense that everything will turn out all right. And he applied that to the United States, too. He said, "Well, people will be more enlightened later on so we'll get rid of slavery." You know, "They'll just be too smart not to. " And he tried to hide from himself the reality of slavery. He moved his slaves quarters down farther away from him at Monticello.

And at Monticello you didn't see slaves very much. Even when you were being served dinner, often they didn't even come into the room. The food was sent up the dumbwaiter. So he was able to put away, to put aside, unpleasant things. And that makes for a lack of self-knowledge. One of the things that Henry Adams says about him is that he had no sense of humor. And no sense of irony, especially about himself. Other people would say "Mr. Jefferson tends to exaggerate," or something of that sort. But he never had that sense that he was doing that. There are no tales of him collapsing in laughter, as George Washington did or Franklin did. He held himself very stiffly and was very much aware of his dignity and didn't want to risk it.

  Why does he alone among the Founding Fathers seem so modern?
Well, he did invent and create all kinds of great things. Just look at that house of his. Monticello is an amazing house. Here's a house that grew over the years, and you would think it would lack unity. Well, it certainly lacks obvious unity—from the outside anyway—it's a house of illusions. It looks different from every angle. It looks like a thin, long house. Actually, it's a big, boxy house. But he has so extended the ends out like a telescope, almost, that when you come at it from either side, it seems like a very long thin house. Now some architects attack it for that. They say you should have form made manifest. You shouldn't hide it. It shouldn't be a little den of tricky alcoves and that kind of thing. But I think it was a wonderful thing for his own mind. There were parts of that house that nobody else could go into but himself and a very rare friend that he would invite in. His own working area, his library and his study and his bedroom. And the rest of them were very open and they were arranged in this intricate plan. The order of each room and what kind of ornament went into it, what kind of art went into it. You know, there was a hall of heroes. He turned that house into a museum, a living area, an office, a plantation center, a hospitality center. It's just an astonishing achievement.

“We can know Jefferson because we can approach him through his writings.”

  But I'm stunned that someone so unavailable could be for us someone that we're drawn to.
We can know Jefferson because we can approach him through his writings. And when a great politician sways an audience or creates a dramatic moment, unless there is a great writer there or the politician is himself a great writer, it tends to be an evanescent affair. Great moments in the career of Washington are very hard to recapture. And for that matter, there are not really great moments in Jefferson's life. What we have from Jefferson is this kind of steady flow of mellifluous prose turning all kinds of things in life over and over and over, carrying on this amazingly long correspondence with Madison and with Adams, with others, in which the energy of mind and the clarity of expression is just a perpetual wonder.

Sally Hemings Accusation

  Sally Hemings.
The story that he had an affair with her I don't believe for a number of reasons. He did have one sexual indiscretion: he approached the wife of a friend, John Walker, when the friend was away. And he admitted that. If you have any sense of Jefferson's character, I think it would be very hard to imagine that he would have this woman, near his daughter and of his daughter's age, as his mistress, beget children by her, and not educate the children, not prepare them in any way to be free people. That's so far from what I conceive Jefferson to be. He denied it; I don't think he was a liar. It was a common charge, of course, and there she was, a mulatto, producing mulatto children. He was a very cautious person, a very emotionally contained person. Even his one emotional effusion, to Maria Cosway, was written after he had left her when he was in America and he knew very well that they were not going to get together again. He wrote the wonderful love letter to her. But that was a doomed affair, and he knew it. She was a Catholic. She was married. There were all kinds of reasons why that was not an affair that was going anywhere. And I think that Sally Hemings is on the same plane, that he would not have laid himself open to the kind of emotional blackmail that would have existed by having her that close in the house and to his daughter, whom he loved and respected.

Head and Heart Letter

  He talks about the battle between the head and the heart. Who wins that battle?
He wrote this letter to Maria Cosway describing the head and the heart in a battle. And he thought of the heart as the moral side of man and the head as the calculating side. For instance, he had also said the South represents the heart; the North represents the head. Well, obviously, he thought of himself as the heart. So the moral, sentiment side of man wins and should win over the narrow, calculating side. Now, I think he may be misreading himself, and there, actually we think of him more as a calculating, cool customer. But he wanted to think of himself and to present himself to Maria Cosway as this emotionally warm, accepting, sympathetic person. You remember sympathy was a very high moral quality in the 18th century. In order to enter into other people's lives with any kind of affection and regard and care, you had to have sympathy for them. And there was a whole Enlightenment philosophy built around that. So when he talks about the heart, he doesn't mean the heart in a kind of momentary impulse. He means what is best for everybody involved. "How can I sympathize in ways that will be beneficial to both of us?" Now, that's a kind of calculus of the heart, but it's not the utilitarian "How can I make money? How can I succeed? How can I promote my career?" That's what he thought about the head. The heart he thought was the kind of thing that you wanted to rely on.

  So the head won?
No, I think the heart won, in the sense that he declared his love even though nothing could come of it but the declaration. But he thought that was a noble thing for both of them to express, even though that was the end of it.

Statute of Religious Freedom

  Why is the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom an important document?
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was a tremendously important document because he and Madison together at the same time formulated the idea that religion, for its own good, should be freed from the state. The argument in the Statute, and the argument that he made when he presented it to the legislature of Virginia, was all in terms of keeping religion pure. That if you entangle it with the state, it will become corrupt, the clergy will be self-serving and climbing political agitators, the state will have power to encourage or discourage this or that within the church. And, of course, it's amazing that people had not said that before. If we look at the history of established churches, it's a very sad history. It's a history of churches submitting to political dictation or having to fight it under great disadvantages. So for him to have formulated that so beautifully and for Madison to have pushed it forward so well and for it to have been passed in Virginia was an extremely important thing.

And it was far more sweeping than we conceive of today. One of the arguments that Madison brought up against the idea of putting a separation clause into the first ten amendments of the Constitution was that we were not up to observing it yet. He said even in Virginia "we're not observing our own Statute of separation." He wanted real separation; he wanted no chaplains, no official chaplains, anything of that sort. So he wrote that to Jefferson, and Jefferson wrote him a very interesting thing. He said, "Put it in the law, and then judges in the future will apply it and begin to enforce it." Now, later on he had a very low opinion of judges trying to do things with the law. But in this case, he said "Declare the principle and perhaps we can live up to it through a long course of litigation."

  Talk to me about John Adams.
Well, you know Jefferson and Madison started out thinking that Adams was a buffoon, that he was not really going to be any good as a diplomat over in Europe, and they wrote these really snotty comments about him back and forth. And then they became quite good friends over in Europe, and then they had their falling out over the different administrations and finally were brought back together by Benjamin Rush later on to have this long correspondence. But it's a kind of autumnal chamber music in those letters that they're playing to each other. They're a little bit showing off. "I've read this and you've read that and I'm keeping up this and you're keeping up that." And Adams had this sense of fun about himself. And he did change, by the way. He started out by being rather rigid, theologically rigid and other ways, and he became much more a humanistic, broad person by the end of his life. Jefferson started out that way and continued that way throughout his life. But I always get the feeling that they were speaking from different continents nonetheless. There's an exquisite politeness and a resumed respect and all that kind of thing but it's a very, strange relationship.

“I think the Jefferson presidency was a very powerful and important one.”

  Was Jefferson a good president?
I think the Jefferson presidency was a very powerful and important one. Of course, it expanded the country by half. And he had set a number of precedents for centralized power, which was not what he wanted to do. So it turned out that it probably was a very useful, beneficial presidency, but nonetheless, it's not the kind of presidency that he had promised that he wanted to exercise. One of the things about Jefferson is that he loves theory, so that every incident will call forth a theoretical justification. And that's why you can get him having wonderful theoretical justifications for completely different things. You can have him speaking for central government, against central government, for unfettered freedom of the press, against unfettered freedom of the press, for the judiciary, against the judiciary. And they're all phrased in this absolutist terminology. That's what's so wonderful about the fellow, that he didn't seem ever to remember that he'd said the exact opposite.

  Alexander Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton was a striving, upwardly mobile person who started from nowhere. He was a scrapper. He was somebody who had a military career and was proud of it. And Jefferson, I'm afraid, thought of him as rather arriviste. He was not quite part of the old established order. And he thought he was a climber, that he was a sycophant toward Washington, that he was going to lead the country back toward monarchical ways. Hamilton was, in some ways, a victim of one of Jefferson's real phobias. He had this great Francophilia and Anglophobia, in that he thought that the English were behind a lot of our troubles. He was taught by Scots, who are not quite fans of England, and his heroes in the international scene were mainly French. So his attitude toward the British showed in all kinds of ways—English gardens weren't even as good. He was a little unbalanced in his hatred of all things English.

  And Hamilton represented this.
Yes, Hamilton sided with the English forces in America. His attitude was, "We fought a war, we have ended the war, we really can't get along without their trade and so we'll have to learn how to live with them." Well, Jefferson would agree with that, but he wanted to keep them at arm's length as far as possible. On the other hand, he was a little too embracing of French connections, like citizen Genet when he came to America and embarrassed Jefferson very much by becoming a nuisance.

“This was part of his optimism, that the world was really a basically good world and all things worked to good because God had set it up that way.”

  Did Jefferson believe in God? What was his religious practice?
Well, you know, it's a funny thing. When it comes to religion, people say Jefferson didn't believe in God because he was a deist. A deist is a theist. That's what the word means; it doesn't mean "atheist." He said he believed in God. I think he believed in God. He believed in a god, though, who was Providence, who was a benign overseeing Providence whose ways were seen in the working of nature, in the laws of nature. And to break the laws of nature would be against God's purpose, according to Jefferson. This was part of his optimism, that the world was really a basically good world and all things worked to good because God had set it up that way. So for God to interfere—to answer prayers, for instance—by breaking the laws of nature, to commit miracles was to commit a crime, in Jefferson's eyes. So his attitude toward religion was one that a lot of people would not consider a very congenial one but it certainly was a religious one. He knew that that would not be accepted by a lot of Americans, and so he hid his religious views. He was very careful in choosing the people to whom he would entrust his confidence about his attitude toward religion. That being said, he certainly liked some kinds of religion better than others. He liked Unitarianism; he liked Quakers; he liked Presbyterians; he immensely disliked Catholics; he didn't much like Jews. So his attitude on religion was that what he considered the "enlightened" religions were very important. The other ones were sources of tremendous corruption. When he talked about European corruption, he meant two things: monarchy and Catholicism. He thought that was a religion that took away the dignity of people, reduced them to mental slaves and that kind of thing. So he was not an ecumenical fellow.

“Jefferson, I think, was a true revolutionary in the sense that he was willing to rethink the whole world.”

  Was he a true revolutionary?
Jefferson, I think, was a true revolutionary in the sense that he was willing to rethink the whole world. To say, "We're given a chance right now to launch a tremendous experiment in which we'll do things almost totally differently from the way they have been done before." Well, that's a very breathtakingly revolutionary attitude. So, in that sense, he certainly was. He was optimistic about possibilities. He thought progress was inevitable. Our children are going to be more intelligent than we; they're going to do better and we should just trust that that's going to be the case. He was not a revolutionary in the sense that he did not like to take on conflict. He was a colonel in the militia and he was commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces, but he didn't like his military role. He didn't play it very well. He liked to talk in grandiose ways about rivers of blood irrigating freedom and that kind of thing, but when it came actually to shedding blood, he was not much for that. In fact, at the turn of the century, there was that whole group of people—Henry Adams and Theodore Roosevelt and Mahan—who said that he was a pacifist who really blew it because he was unable to face up to the fact that America will have to fight a war now and then. And to prevent that, he came up with his most disastrous experiment, the embargo. So, in trying to keep government out of people's lives, he actually forced government into people's lives and told them what business they could do, whom they could trade with, that kind of thing, in far more detail than what would have happened if we had gone to war, probably.

“No matter what he did, what he said lives on....”

  And yet his words endure. There is a music to his words that we are still dancing to.
That's right. No matter what he did, what he said lives on and I think always will live on, because even when he is wrong or perhaps irrelevant sometimes, he stills touches something in Americans that they like—the optimism, for instance. America is a country that has put such an investment, an emotional investment, into thinking things are better over here, they're going to get better, that when there's any faltering of that, as there has been in recent times, there's an immense disorientation that comes across people's minds. An America you don't expect to be better tomorrow is not America as Thomas Jefferson had taught us to believe.

Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  Is this optimism the final legacy of Jefferson?
I think his final legacy probably is the statement of high ideals, the willingness to think in the grandest terms and to encourage other people to do that and to make them take his words, at least some of them, and turn them into realities, as Lincoln turned the words of the Declaration of Independence into the reality of the abolition of slavery.

View of the University of Virginia

  Talk about the University of Virginia.
The University of Virginia is such a beautiful place, and he worked it out in such wonderful detail. You know, when you go up the lawn, there are these little columns that engage the pavilions and run between them as a kind of integument or nerve system. And the interesting thing is that none of them is the same. They're all different. There's a tact in working out exactly what relationship this pavilion will have with that that makes them all different. So no matter how many times you go up and down that lawn, if you keep looking at those, you'll see there's a new kind of rhythm involved in what he planned there. But it's fascinating that, h here, too, he loved control. He loved to have a place for everything and everything in its place. It's not surprising, perhaps, that some of the models he looked at when he was designing the University of Virginia were military academies and prisons. You know, it is a complete system. And once you enter into it, there's a place for you to stay, for the professor to stay, where you meet the professor, where this is taught, where that is taught, so that there's an amazing sense of regimen which I think would encourage some people to want to break out of it.

Curriculum for the University of Virginia

  What's significant about the University of Virginia?
We should remember that Jefferson stayed true to his principles of religious freedom in the state of Virginia. When he set up his university, he did a quite extraordinary thing for the time: he made no chapel. The chapel had often been the centerpiece of universities' planning before that time, and they always had a chapel. But he did not put in a chapel in his university, and of course he put in exactly what he wanted there. He said that the people could study religion in ancillary private associations; but at the center of his university, he put the library on top of the rotunda—that was a kind of cathedral of learning, I suppose. That's what the university was concerned with, and religion was a private matter and shouldn't have public support.

“Jefferson...made us rethink the role of education, rethink the role of religion.”

  So really we're appreciating the replacing of the old forms with something equally compelling which survives today. Is that true?
Jefferson, by steps like omitting the chapel, made us rethink the role of education, rethink the role of religion. And he started what was the most revolutionary thing about America, when you stop to think about it. Separation of church and state had not occurred in our culture, in our whole history. It simply never occurred before. The most revolutionary thing about the Revolution as it worked out into a new government was that one step, the separation of church and state. You can't exaggerate its importance and, of course, you can't measure Jefferson's greatness without his contribution to that.

  So let us parse the music of that wonderful sentence "We hold these truths to be self-evident...."
Well, when we look at the Declaration of Independence, it seems so clear and easy: "We hold these truths to be self-evident...." Well, of course, they're not self-evident. Jefferson thought they were because of the Enlightenment background that he shared with other people. They were a lot more sure of things than we are now. But it was a blessed mistake that they assumed that we were going to consider these things as self-evident or keep trying to work back to an understanding of them as self-evident. Because, after all, if you start out with an argument, we have to set up this government because A is true and B is true and C is true, and the reason they are true is that we have these supporting arguments; then, if you disagree with the argument, you have nowhere to go except to part company. But if you try to find some common ground that you're going to declare self-evident, that will at least set the goal of an argument, somewhere that you can find a basic area of agreement to work from. So, in a way, it's a dodge, although he didn't consider that. We think of it as a dodge because we're not so sure that anything's self-evident anymore. But what a wonderful breezy first step off into the future!

Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  What does "pursuit of happiness" mean to Thomas Jefferson?
Pursuit of happiness was a concept in the 18th century that was measurable. There was a pain-pleasure calculus that a number of people were trying to work out in the Enlightenment. To show that, for instance, this system is better than that system because the amount of bread available is greater, the amount of torture is less. And they worked these out in elaborate algebraic formulations. But what is meant basically is that people have to shape their lives in such a way that they can have control over pleasure and pain in their lives. And so when he's saying that a system is denying us our pursuit of happiness, he's saying that we get more pain, more torture, more imprisonment, more illegal procedures under that system than we would get pleasure out of this other system. He worked it out, as I say, in a very scientific way, and it's hard for us to take seriously some of those formulations of William Petty and Hutchinson and Diderot and others. The encyclopedists would say things like "This town has a greater quantity of happiness because fewer communion wafers are distributed in it, which means there's less superstition so it's more enlightened, and therefore the pursuit of happiness is more successfully carried on there."

  So the pursuit of happiness is sort of shedding an old form; it's about evolving to something higher, something more enlightened.
Not only that. It's saying that people are able to make this calculus, that they're able to see other possibilities, that this system is not something that you've just inherited and you have to put up with and improve and hobble along with, but you take four or five different societies and you look at them and you say "This is better than this one, that's worse," and you work it out in terms of what would work here for your own greater pleasure and less pain. And then you make a decision. So it gives the citizen credit for a great intelligence of weighing and measuring.

  And that's new.
Oh, absolutely. That's a brand-new thing.

“...the thing to remember from Jefferson is the power of the word.”

  What should we take from Thomas Jefferson? What should we remember about him?
I think the thing to remember from Jefferson is the power of the word. That ideas matter. That words, beautifully shaped, reshape lives. That a person who has certain disadvantages and flaws and even crimes, like holding slaves, can transcend his imprisonment within reality by casting out words that take you into a new reality.

  The vagueness and abstraction of those words also seem to be agents of their survival.
Well, some people think that the words are vague. I think when you really look at him, Jefferson almost always had very specific, even literalistic, senses for his words. If anything, he thought that words were more perspicuous, more able to express reality than we do now. When he made his drawings, wrote his handwriting, it was done with great meticulous care and it's a beautiful thing to look at, just his handwriting. So he loved specificity. He did not like vagueness. And most of the things that he wrote have very specific meanings. Sometimes they don't apply anymore because, for instance, the calculus of pain and pleasure as the pursuit of happiness is not what comes to most people's minds anymore, even though historically that's what he had in mind. So you have to work with him, as with all historical characters, that there's a meaning that's caught in the moment when the words are enunciated. And there's the possibility of something more that he may or may not be aware of that has to be worked out as we go along. But a great artist, a great poet, a great user of language, in a way always means to me more than he means. The words, if they engage reality, engage a reality that's bigger than the words, and the interaction of the word and the reality can continue on for a long time, even after the immediate limited meaning has almost disappeared.

“But he was...sending a signal to the future: ‘I wanted to do this. Do it.’”

  I'm interested in that "more." Has the history of this country been about that "more"?
I suppose that we could say that the history of this country is the meaning that was more than the meaning he meant to mean. That he thought himself—that because of progress, enlightenment, the growth of intelligence, and education, there were going to be further possibilities in his formulations that his descendants would be able to see and to develop.

Certainly he felt that way about slavery, that no matter what he said about slavery, his ability to do anything was limited, even if he had tried to do more than he did. But he was, in a way, sending a signal to the future: I wanted to do this. Do it.

It should be remembered, though, that despite his love for the new and the looking to the future and his trust in progress, he also had a tremendous love for the past. He ended up reading the classics again at the end of his life, Greek and Latin. He had a sense that the real lessons of the past are always going to be with us. He was a classical rhetorician. He was a classical architect. His prose is very classical. So the idea that you have a choice, either you're going to stick with the past or go with the future, is not something that would ever have occurred to him. He was a great lover of the past, of the classics, of ancient masterpieces. And he thought that our job, as we go into the future, is to not only preserve those things but to build on them.

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