Interview with George Will | Columnist

George Will is a syndicated columnist, best-selling author, and ABC News analyst. His recent political books include The Leveling Wind, Restoration, and Statecraft As Soulcraft.

“...he gave us our creed.”

  Why should I care about Jefferson?
A late-20th-century America is concerned about its identity, and it’s come to be aware of the fact that we are a creedal nation—and he gave us our creed. He made it accessible. A lot of nations emerge from the mists of history and their basic identity is tribal, it’s rooted in groups. Ours is rooted in a great ascent, an ascent to certain propositions. We are, as Lincoln said—Lincoln being the greatest student of Jefferson of them all—“a nation dedicated to a proposition.“ Jefferson wrote the proposition.

  How do you reconcile a man who could write the sentence, with a man who owned more than 200 slaves and never saw fit in his lifetime to manumit them?
Jefferson was a man of his time and his place. And in 18th-century Virginia, property in human beings was the fabric of society. Still, Lincoln, the man who was to end that institution, said, “All honor to Jefferson,” because Jefferson had taken what was a merely national struggle, the American struggle for independence, and cast it in rhetoric that made it a human struggle. And by doing so, he sowed the seeds of the end of the peculiar institution of slavery.

“I think Jefferson was torn and the nation has been torn and will for the foreseeable future be torn by this legacy.”

  Do you think that there is an American fault line along which this question of race lies and that Jefferson himself embodies that tension?
I think Jefferson was torn and the nation has been torn and for the foreseeable future will be torn by this legacy. But what, to me, is more remarkable than the fact that Jefferson kept his slaves, is the fact that he was putting down political markers expressing commitments, affirming values, rooting the nation in commitments that were bound to be resolved one day. He didn't know they'd be resolved in four years of fire and bloodshed. But he knew, it seems to me, he had to know that ideas have consequences, and the consequences of Jefferson's ideas had to be the end of slavery.

“And he emphatically said yes to life....”

  Do you find in Monticello a metaphor for the man who attempted to build it and for the nation?
Exactly. What Jefferson exemplifies in his person is the fecundity of freedom, the tremendous possibilities, the unknowability of freedom and its consequences. Diplomat, executive, educator, mathematician, inventor, architect, agronomist, ethnologist—the list goes on... It was a polymath. And he emphatically said yes to life—in all its capacities—in a way that, in an era of specialization and intellectual compartmentalization, no one has the self-confidence to do in the late 20th century. In the late 18th century, a man could say, basically, “I have brought into my compass all of human endeavor.“ What a wonderful sense of serenity and confidence and power he must have had.

“Remember he said democracy and self-government will work if, but only if, a certain kind of society existed.”

  What did he mean by “the pursuit of happiness“?
I think Jefferson thought the pursuit of happiness was a rigorous discipline. It was not easy. Jefferson is so wildly misunderstood because he is widely thought to have been an optimist, and his optimism is portrayed as facile, almost fatuous. In fact, he had a dark, pessimistic side. He was interested in the ecology of liberty or the sociology of virtue. They’re both fragile and perishable, he said. Remember he said democracy and self-government will work if, but only if, a certain kind of society existed. Keep your workshops in Europe; don’t have people piled up in cities. If you’d gone to Jefferson in the 1790s and said, “By the way, Mr. Jefferson, 200 years from now 2 percent of the American workforce will be engaged in agriculture, and we’ll have these vast cities, and indeed a majority of the voters will live in something called suburbs, an unintelligible concept in that day... This, after all, was a man who said we mustn’t have cities at a time when Boston was the size that Muskogee, Oklahoma, is today. Jefferson would have been horrified. Frankly, he was too pessimistic. He thought democracy wouldn’t work in the kind of society where today it is working. Furthermore, Jefferson said that people are the safe repositories of sovereignty if, but only if, they are made safe—and they must be made safe by education. And one of the things they must be educated to do is to pick appropriate elites to govern them. This is the man, after all, who said he believed in a natural aristocracy and in a political system that would conduce to getting the natural aristocracy power. Granted, he said that in a private letter. He said it in a letter, I believe, to John Adams after he’d left politics. He was back at Monticello. Still, he believed it.

  So why is it that both sides of our political debate claim him as their mentor?
The strongest continuous thread in America’s political tradition is skepticism about government. It’s a necessary evil, necessary but problematic, and evil at worst. It’s a very curious thing: everyone in America talks the language of Jefferson while living in Hamilton’s country. This is the country Alexander Hamilton described in the Report on Manufactures. This is the mobile, shifting, dynamic, risk-taking, entrepreneurial, capitalist society of striving elites that Hamilton had in mind.

“Jefferson...had to know the probable consequences of his ideas. ”

  So how do you reconcile this man who wrote these beautiful words about liberty and nevertheless owned over 200 slaves?
Jefferson was a man of his time and his place. In 18th-century Virginia, property in human beings was part of the fabric of life, the fabric of Jefferson’s life. On the other hand, Jefferson knew and exemplified the fact that history is the history of mind, that ideas have consequences. Indeed, that only ideas have large and lasting consequences. And being a man self-aware and sophisticated about history, Jefferson, it seems to me, had to know the probable consequences of his ideas. He did not know, surely, that sowing this proposition “All men are created equal,“ would one day work itself out in four years of civil war, but he had to know that at the end of the day, the consequence of his ideas would be liberty for the enslaved.

“It is the lost sense of innocence that we could live with a very minimal state, with a vast sense of space in which to work out freedom.”

  So how do we reconcile this with our life in a Hamiltonian world where Hamilton is forgotten and Jefferson’s ideas are the most incendiary ideas going?
I suppose there’s a melancholy tone at the back of the American mind, a sense of something lost. And it’s the lost world of Thomas Jefferson. It is the lost sense of innocence that we could live with a very minimal state, with a vast sense of space in which to work out freedom. We feel a little cramped. We’re not cramped and it’s not a congested country, but we feel that way. And we feel faintly guilty about having moved so far beyond republican—small “r” republican—simplicity. But it’s good to be haunted by ideals.

  So this is an important man for us.
Oh, certainly. I mean, this is the man, again, who defined the American mind.

  How important is Thomas Jefferson?
He’s important to the United States because he defined our creed and we are a credal nation. He’s important to the world because he cast the American truths as universal truths. When the Soviet empire collapsed and Eastern Europe rose, you had, in effect, a second European Reformation—but no charismatic leader. No Martin Luther. Instead, you had the rhetoric supplied by the third and the sixteenth presidents of the United States. And the sixteenth, Abraham Lincoln, was always candid about his intellectual pedigree, which ran straight back to Jefferson.

“The story of this millennium is the gradual expansion of freedom and the expanding inclusion of variously excluded groups.”

  What do you think about Jefferson’s place in the world?
Jefferson was, I think, the man of this millennium. The story of this millennium is the gradual expansion of freedom and the expanding inclusion of variously excluded groups. He exemplified in his life what a free person ought to look like—that is, someone restless and questing through a long life under the rigorous discipline of freedom. Freedom’s not the absence of rigor; it’s the absence of restraints imposed by others. But it also, if it’s going to be successful, it is going to be lived the way Jefferson lived it, this life of freedom—under severe restraints imposed on yourself. The severe restraints of scholarship and learning and the quest to get better and better—which Jefferson kept up right to the end. He also had a great sense of the perilous equipoise of a free society. You could put it in Shakespeare’s language: Shakespeare said, “Take but degree away, untune that string and hark what discord follows.“ Jefferson understood that you had to have an educated population living in certain kinds of circumstances, under certain kinds of institutions, with certain assumptions and beliefs. Take any of them away and hark what discord follows.

  What is the role of government here in terms of promoting that life of the mind?
Jefferson had a classic, minimalist view of government. Government was to be sharply focused, but very strong where focused. The great Jeffersonian, Lincoln, during the Civil War signed the Morril Act that created the land grant college system—a classic Jeffersonian measure to have agriculture and applied science spread across the country. That’s Jefferson. Government has the role of suiting people for freedom. People aren’t made for freedom spontaneously. There’s sort of a 19-year race between when people are born and when they become adults. And government has a role in making them, at the end of 19 years, suited to be upright, trustworthy repositories of popular sovereignty.

“...the role of government is not to give us happiness—it is to suit us to pursue it.”

  What is the octane of Jefferson now? How do we engage him actively?
What we try to keep in the front of our minds from Jefferson is that the role of government is not to give us happiness—it is to suit us to pursue it. That is, to make us suitable for freedom. Not to define what we do with our freedom. Not to spare us the rigors of freedom. Not to spare us the dangers of freedom. Not to provide us security at every turn. But to make us as secure as education can make you in a world defined by the uncertainties and exhilarations of a free society.

  Because of the junk that comes out of this society, does the government then redouble its efforts to educate?
Freedom means the freedom to behave coarsely, basely, foolishly. Nothing in a free society guarantees that everyone will be what Jefferson was or had in mind. A natural aristocracy is, by definition, a minority achievement. And Jefferson was clear about this. He had a very cool eye about the nature of life and its compromises. This is, after all, a man who, while decrying factions, became really our first great political leader of parties. This is a man who celebrated the common man but was the most uncommon of men, who lived at a time when he could walk down the streets of an American town or city and not be recognized by anyone. This was before graphic journalism. This was a man who founded the oldest, most successful political party in the world, the Democratic party of the United States, yet almost never met the masses, had no occasion to. He never even gave political speeches. So it’s a man of contradictions.

  If you could be the fly on the wall, what event would you like to have watched?
I’d like to have seen, because it was a moment when two adversaries were together, that meeting in the tavern in Manhattan when Alexander Hamilton sat down with Jefferson and said, in effect, “Let’s do a deal. If you will support the assumption of the state debts incurred during the Revolution, I will agree to the location of a capital south of Philadelphia.“ It turned out to be Washington, DC. I wish Jefferson had had the foresight to put it in San Diego where the climate’s better.

  Was he a true revolutionary?
These were hard men who founded the United States. They took on the dominant military power of their time. And they took it on when no one in their right mind would have given them much chance of succeeding. Jefferson, furthermore, saw the coming of revolution in France. Death, violence, gunfire was part of the experience of the late 18th century. It may have been the Age of Reason, but it was also the age of good horsemanship and marksmanship and swordplay.

  Can you talk about the significance of the Statute of Religious Freedom?
Today the United States is much concerned with its diversity. We were a diverse nation from the start. One of the first laws that Congress considered passing—and very nearly did—was to print American laws in German as well as in English because we had so many German speakers. The framers of our government were aware of the power of religion, of the intensity with which religious differences that today might strike us as minute, the intensity with which those religious differences were cultivated and nurtured, if you will. And they knew the dangers therein. And so they said, “We’re going to have our unity based in a political creed, not a theological creed. And we’re going to separate the political institutions from those that deal with religious faith. And in this separation, of course enshrined in the first amendment, we will find such safety as a passionate people can have.“

  And yet there seems to be almost a spiritual devotion to his ideas and to him.
Well, we have a civil religion in this country. And he provided a catechism. I mean, every religion ought to have a catechism: here is what we believe. Want to be an American? Here’s what you will believe. No one knows how you become French. No one knows where Germany comes from—it sort of emerges from the mists. We know when we started. We know the afternoon: July 4, 1776. And we know how to become an American: you come here and you assent. Then you’re an American, just as American as anybody whose family has been here for 10 generations. You’re in. You’re it! That’s what an American is. What Jefferson did was, he said, “Here’s your catechism. We hold these truths to be self-evident: all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that all just governments derive their justice and their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. “ You go down the list and at the end of the day say, "I tick them off, put them on the refrigerator door, and....see, I’m an American."

  Do you like Jefferson the man?
Oh, immensely. Yes, I mean shuffling around in his bedroom slippers...Tell you what I like, something to adore about Jefferson. In Washington today, a lot of people come to Washington. No one ever leaves. You serve for a while, and then you become a lobbyist or something. Jefferson left office on the 4th of March, 1809. Seven days later, the 11th of March, he rode out of Washington and lived 17 full years after that and never again came back to Washington. Sound fellow.

  And how did he die?
There are many magic moments in American history that convince you that there’s something miraculous about the American experiment. And one of them is the simultaneous death, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. These great rivals, the crusty, awkward—not very lovable, frankly—New England Federalist and the graceful Virginia gentleman striking up this wonderful correspondence that becomes one of the treasures of American letters, dying simultaneously on July 4, 1826. And John Adams’ last words were, “Jefferson still survives.“ Indeed he does.

  What kind of president was Thomas Jefferson?
Jefferson was a tormented president, because, like so many subsequent presidents, he found that events were in the saddle riding mankind, that foreign policy took far more attention than he wanted. Being a good American, he wanted to look west, not east across the Atlantic. And he was drawn into worrying about the Old World and its troubles and tumults and prejudices and superstitions and all the things we were supposed to transcend. So he was an unhappy president in that sense. But he was also a president who did his duty and knew when to quit. He was heavily petitioned to seek a third term and said no, that one of the great legacies of George Washington is the tradition of walking away from power, of not doing all you can do, of knowing when to stop.“ It’s a sign of political genius to know when to stop, and Jefferson did.

  What did he see as our role in the world?
Our role in the world was to be a great example. And here I think Mr. Jefferson exaggerated the power of example, however brilliant and however beautiful the example might be. At the end of the 20th century, people are rather less sanguine about the power of good example to deter evil. Still, he did say that the United States could be a beacon—a role model, in that somewhat cloying 20th-century phrase—and indeed, so it has proven to be. The United States at the end of the 20th century is supplying, via Thomas Jefferson, the rhetoric of aspiration for free peoples everywhere.

  Tell me what that beacon is about—what is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson said you can found a government on the revolutionary proposition that rights are prior to government and governments are legitimate only to the extent that they respect these rights that precede government.

  Tell me what Jefferson meant when he said that the earth belongs to the living.
Jefferson thought that the earth belonged to the living in the sense that the past could be a dead hand. It’s very funny now that Jefferson is our past and we keep turning back—we sort of live, as Americans, with a crick in our neck, looking back to Jefferson. We do not believe the earth belongs simply to us. We believe it’s lent to us by Jefferson and the founding fathers. No other nation in the world has founding fathers—uppercase F and F—it’s not a dead hand of the past. It’s a sustaining hand. Jefferson slighted the traditions of Europe, but they were not as elegant and reasonable and temperate as the one that he bequeathed us.

  What was he like?
Laconic, I think. An arid sense of humor. Tall and relaxed, to the point of rumpled. But I think his dress and demeanor were really a political statement. Someone said that Eisenhower’s smile was a political statement. In a sense, it was. Jefferson’s complete absence of pomp, when combined with a great sense, I’m sure, of dignity, was a statement of republican—small “r“ republican—simplicity, republican virtue, republican—not meant unpleasantly—severity.

Declaration of Independence, “Original Rough Draught“

  Could you parse the second sentence, “We hold these truths....“?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,“ didn’t mean that a self-evident truth is one that everybody understands and agrees with. It is one that a mind unclouded by superstition can apprehend and would assent to. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.“ That’s not an empirical statement about height and abilities; it’s an assertion of moral worth, that we are going to govern ourselves and act toward one another, not just through government, but in neighborly ways, that all are equally valuable, equally deserving of respect. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.“ You can believe in a creator that endows, you can not believe in a creator, you can be whatever theologically, but if you assent to that, you’re saying, We’re endowed by our creator with rights. We’re endowed with rights that did not come from government. We had them; and we instituted government to secure those rights. Government is to make us secure in our rights, not in anything else. Its not supposed to make us secure. Freedom’s supposed to make you insecure. The life of a free society should be tumultuous, uncertain, insecure. But government exists for one great act of securing, and that’s to secure rights that government didn’t give us and can’t take away.

  And among these...
And among these rights are life, liberty —we are naturally at liberty—and the pursuit of happiness. No one guarantees you’re going to catch it. You can pursue happiness. Government’s not going to hand it to you. You can’t take it from your neighbors but you can otherwise pursue it.

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