Students will examine the complexities of Thomas Jefferson's thoughts on race and his dual role of philosopher and politician.
Jefferson was a very skilled writer who could use the written word to inspire and persuade. His ability was widely known, which is why he was asked to pen the Declaration of Independence. This document is probably Jefferson's most extraordinary work. It is believed by many to be the most important document in American history and one of the most eloquent and influential expressions of liberty in world history.
Another piece of Jefferson's writing is a book entitled Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1784. Below are excerpts from these two writings of Thomas Jefferson.
1. Before viewing the film, direct students' attention to Jefferson's changing beliefs about race and slavery.
2. The excerpts below reflect substantially different points of view on the topic of race. Students will analyze these two excerpts from Jefferson's writings and determine their significance.
Declaration of Independence, 1776
3. The following four thesis statements account for the differences in the excerpts. Divide the class into four groups and assign each group one thesis statement. Each group will back up the statement with evidence from the film and other sources (see Resources section). When they have assembled their arguments, representatives from each group will present and defend their thesis.
"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness..."
Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
"[The negro is] inferior to the whites in body and mindäthis unfortunate difference in color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people."
- Thomas Jefferson was a very shrewd politician. He knew what to say to whom in order to persuade them or gain their support.
- These two contradictory documents point to the complexities of Thomas Jefferson and other enlightened thinkers of his time. Jefferson was drawn to the higher, more transcendent views and philosophies of the day, yet tethered by the harsh beliefs of race and class held by the Virginia aristocracy. These two statements tell us what we already know: Jefferson was a philosopher and a politician.
- Thomas Jefferson is clearly a confused individual, without any personal convictions. He did not really know what he believed in, and was easily swayed by his peers. He wrote what others expected him to write.
- Jefferson genuinely held these beliefs when he wrote them. When writing the Declaration, he was younger and more idealistic. By the time he wrote the Notes, he realized that such visions were out of the realm of possibility for his day. Like many powerful intellectuals, Jefferson changed his mind.
Assign an interpretive essay on these two excerpts. Students will do the challenging and exciting work of the historian by identifying facts (what Jefferson wrote), speculating on motives and reasons (why he wrote it), and determining significance (what it means to us). Remind students of the importance of determining who the audience was for these two writings.
Students will explore various criteria for choosing a president and determine which talents, experiences, and virtues are most important in choosing a president and evaluating a president's performance.
How do we evaluate a president? In recent years, there have been many opportunities to evaluate presidents, with several books, news stories, and films focusing on their private lives. Sometimes, when critiquing a president, we may not consider all of the talents, experience, and knowledge that are needed to carry out the duties of this highest office. Some of the characteristics are required by the Constitution, while others are left up to the voters to determine their weight. It is important to consider all the qualities we seek in the president as we examine Thomas Jefferson and head into a new presidential election.
1. As a class, students will generate a list of the characteristics a president needs to have to be an effective leader. Encourage them to identify types of skills, experiences, character traits, and values.
2. After they complete the list, share the characteristics provided below. Students will decide if they wish to add any from the list.
3. Each student will rank the various characteristics as primary, secondary, or tertiary.
Primary: Required, most vital to executing the office of president.
Secondary: Preferred and important for success, but not required.
Tertiary: Not necessary or important to executing the office.
|Constitutional|| 35 years of age; natural born citizen; 14 years residency in the United States||Government Experience|| Elected office(s) at local, state, and federal levels
||Personal Virtues|| Honesty, intelligence, fidelity, integrity, compassion, humor, charisma, respect for Constitution and laws
||Talents/Abilities|| Public speaking; ability to compromise; sense of resolve; consensus building; effectiveness under pressure, persuasiveness
||Spirituality|| Active faith; understand and respect diverse spiritual paths
||Education|| College degree(s); knowledge of history, economics, social issues, languages, and foreign cultures
||Military experience|| Armed forces training; war experience; knowledge of weaponry|
4. After each student sorts the characteristics into the three categories, he or she partners with a classmate to discuss the similarities and differences between their rankings.
5. Class Discussion
Ask the class these questions:
- How important are the private aspects of the president to you when choosing and evaluating a president? How do you think most Americans feel?
- Based on the characteristics you chose, how will you evaluate the candidates in the next election?
- How much should personal indiscretions count when determining the success of a president's administration?
- Do the characteristics you ranked as primary share equal attention in the media spotlight? If not, why?
- Were some of the characteristics more important in Jefferson's administration than in modern times? Why?
- Has the importance of these characteristics changed throughout American history?