“For ever this, the tribes of men lived on earth, remote and free from the ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates on men. … Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home under the rim of a great jar, and did not fly out the door; for ever that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus, who gathers the clouds. Yet the rest, countless plagues wander among men; for earth and sea are full of evils. ~Hesiod, Works and Days

There is consensus among scholars that Jefferson was a relatively unflinching optimist, whose faith in the eventual success in government of and for the people never wavered. Gordon Wood in “Thomas Jefferson in His Time,” typifies that sentiment. “No one of the revolutionary leaders believed more strongly in progress and in the capacity of the American people for self-government than did Jefferson. And no one was more convinced that the Enlightenment was on the march against the forces of medieval barbarism and darkness, of religious superstition and enthusiasm.” Such was his faith in progress and the people that he was unready for the ensuing revolution. “He had always invested so much more of himself intellectually and emotionally in the future and in popular democracy than Madison had. Jefferson was inspired by a vision of how things could and should be. Madison tended to accept things as they were. … Jefferson had nothing but the people and the future to fall back on; they were really all he ever believed in. That is why we remember Jefferson, and not Madison.”

Prima facie, it is an extraordinary claim: We prefer and remember Jefferson, not Madison, because of the former’s naïveté! While Madison was grounded in reality, Jefferson firmly believed in the goodness of humans and the inevasibility of progress.

Jefferson was not naïve to believe that the future will not be like the past. Even the staunchest conservatives acknowledged that. Yet Jefferson believed that the future would not be like the past because the future would be better than the past. Future generations would have a better grasp of how things work—nature being one of the things—and they would have technological advances to ease the burdens of everyday life. Future generations would militate for opportunities to put their moral sense to more efficient use, militate against opportunities for war, and look to Jesus, as moralist and not deity, as a cynosure. Future generations, most importantly, would reap the benefits of republican governing—government of and for the people; government with fullest participation by each citizen; government by the most capable, most intelligent, and most virtuous citizens, serving in fixed terms, as primus inter pares, with the primary aim of securing the rights of the citizenry, and elected and, if necessary, recallable by the people; and government neatly aligned with the science of its day. Jefferson, like many others of his time—e.g., Condorcet, Mercier, Rush, and Priestley—was a progressivist, and republican government, Jefferson believed, was an advance over the stale (usually mixed) systems of the past. Jefferson writes to A. Koraїs (31 Oct. 1823): “The government of Athens … was that of the people of one city making laws for the whole country subjected to them. That of Lacedaemon was the rule of military monks over the laboring class of the people, reduced to abject slavery. These are not the doctrines of the present age. The equal rights of man, and the happiness of every individual, are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government.”

Yet Jefferson was clear that republican government, built on the notions of the freedom and of the equality of all men, was an experiment of sorts that had never been given full application. “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying,” writes Jefferson to John Tyler on June 28, 1804, “and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth.” Use of “experiment”—and Jefferson often uses the term—shows Jefferson has doubts, if only small doubts, concerning the effectiveness of popular democracy. He often argues for popular democracy through eliminative reasoning. There are two legitimate forms of government—government of a few (monarchies or aristocracies) or government of the many (with equal rights to all citizens)—and the former has been tried over millennia, with results disastrous for the people. Thus, government of the many must be given a try.

Republican governing, as popular democracy, entailed trust in the people, and here, from the distance of a couple of centuries, we might claim Jefferson was singularly naïve in at least three senses. First, why did Jefferson think that the people were qualified to pick out and oversee their political leaders? Second, and following the animadversions of both Adams and Hamilton, what reason did Jefferson have for believing that the people best knew what was in their own best interest? Finally, why did Jefferson think the “libertarianism” that his notion of republicanism entailed would lead to contented, even happy, citizens?

Jefferson had ready answers to those questions.

All persons were roughly equally endowed with a moral sense, in no need of schooling but in need of prompting, which enabled them to sense both moral goodness and moral obliquity. Moreover, given a modicum of education—i.e., instruction in reading, writing, and basic math—citizens would be enabled to conduct wisely their own affairs and participate in the process of governing, insofar as their time and talents would allow. Thus, sound moral sensibility and a basic education would enable them to elect and oversee politicians and to participate in local politics.

Also, the experiment of government, determining collectively the good of each citizen, has been tried and it has miserably failed. In addition, starting from the axioms, stated eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, that people are fundamentally free and equal (equal in terms of morality and worthiness of rights), who else can determine for any citizen his own good but each citizen? Thus, aristocracies, especially hereditary aristocracies, are by fiat eliminated.

The last difficulty is more pressing. Jefferson never foresaw the rise of consumer capitalism and the political contamination of special-interest groups. He merely assumed, or hoped, that there would be contagion to his anticity sentiments and that most citizens would choose a simple agrarian manner of living and that the rest of the citizens would engage in only that amount of manufacture to keep America self-sufficient. He seldom gave due attention to human greed.

Jefferson, especially late in life, saw glitches, retrogradations. They were, he hoped, symptomatic of local, perhaps even temporary global, depravity. He elaborates in a letter to Benjamin Rush (22 Sept. 1809), after his second term as president:

the interest I have taken in the success of the experiment, whether a government can be contrived which shall secure man in his rightful liberties & acquirements, has engaged a longer portion of my life than I had ever proposed: & certainly the experiment could never have fallen into more inauspicious times, when nations have openly renounced all the obligations of morality, and shamelessly assumed the character of robbers & pyrates. … if it can pass safely through the ordeal of the present trial, we may hope we have set an example which will not be without consequences favorable to human happiness.

Jefferson writes of enduring the harsh times—inter-European strife and tensions between American and England and, to a lesser extent, France—and then hoping that the “pendulum will vibrate the more strongly in the opposite direction,” so “nations will return to the reestablishment of moral law with an enthusiasm which shall more solidly confirm it’s future empire.”

Jefferson’s naïveté has been amply underscored in the secondary literature. I offer some examples.

In The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, Forrest McDonald says Jefferson’s political vision was oversimple, as it failed to accommodate human foibles. His political philosophy—with its eschewal of bribery, patronage, corruption and coercion—had this flaw: It could be instantiated “only with a Thomas Jefferson at the helm.”

Morton Frisch, in “Jeffersonianism and the New Deal,” asserts that Jeffersonian republicanism was a failed policy, because the political philosophy was unduly atomistic. “The essential failure of Jeffersonian liberalism as it projected itself through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth consisted in a one-sided and oversimplified concentration on individualism and all that this implies for politics and government.”

William Howard Adams, in The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson, writes, “A humane society that would somehow reconcile the needs of an active, industrious, virtuous people with a simple yet satisfying agricultural order was a fleeting, abstract goal.” “By its very structure, the republic of isolated yeomen farmers that he was promoting on the frontiers of America made it impossible to form the critical intellectual and creative mass that a prosperous, progressive society ultimately required.”

In “Jefferson and American Foreign Policy,” Walter LaFeber states that Jefferson’s “early belief in the virtues of, and need for, agrarian expansionism” is what led to actions inconsistent with Jeffersonian republicanism—e.g., military action and a strong presidency—in order to protect agrarian and national interests.

There is substance to all such objections. Jefferson was ever attached to theoretically attractive policies—e.g., free exchange of goods with all willing countries but no favored-nation policies and no entangling alliances—that could not work in the real world.

Of course, it is always facile to judge the demerits of a political philosophy and to criticize the person entertaining it from the high perch of the future. Our America is not Jefferson’s brainchild. Hypocrisy, mendacity, hyperbole, and broken promises are political norms, when Jefferson asked us to expect virtue, intelligence, and talent from our politicians and virtue and practical intelligence from our citizens.

Jefferson did have certain Cimmerian moments—e.g., Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia, where he writes of Americans, years after the American Revolution: “From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights.”

Yet such moments were infrequent, atypical. Jefferson was ever a stargazer and an incurable optimist, and he had a firm belief in the peoples’ ability to govern themselves through elected representatives. The role of elected representatives was for Jefferson representational—that is, to represent rightfully the will of the majority, so long as that will was reasonable. He could never envision a time like ours, when our representatives—firmly ensconced into two parties, each massively hostile to the other—would mostly turn a blind eye to the will of the majority. He could never envision a time like ours, when special-interest groups would dictate political policies, independently of the will of the majority.

Jefferson was naïve. As Wood notes, he never lost his faith in the future, his faith in the people. That is why we still love Jefferson. That is why we shall always love Jefferson. It is the Jefferson’s among us that give us reason to leave cheerfully our beds each morning and conduct our affairs.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • Earl Starbuck says:

    If future generations look to Jesus as moralist rather than Deity, they are lost indeed. I hope Mr. Jefferson realised that before his passing.

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    The devil felt his grip on humanity slipping and he found Marx and Engels to begin another chapter in the age-old story of good and evil. If Jefferson had only lived another 22 years, he could have seen what atheists bring to the table for government. If Jefferson could see governments run by those who deny God, he may have changed his mind about many things. Absent a moral code, government cannot help but to fail. Men are not the answer, good men are the answer.

  • Stephen Chaplin says:

    “Men are not the answer, good men are the answer.”

    This comment hits the nail on the head. Yes, “Jefferson was naïve.” He was naïve because he assumed that positions of power would generally be occupied by virtuous men. Were he alive today, Mr. Jefferson would witness such an absence of virtue in our rulers as would send him racing back to his grave.

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    Recalling that Satan’s self-promotion was not that he be greater than God but that he be an equal with God. “I will be like the most high” (Isaiah 14:14). Perhaps Jefferson (and subsequent student/followers) did not recognize or foresee the career-seeking permanent “governors,” evolving from the “experiment” who are adamant in their pompous and feint-swearing that they “just want to serve the people”; that they are just like them.
    Political parties don’t come with men dressed in red suits, horns and a tail. They come dressed up, pretty and always…always…with a smooth-talking desire to serve!
    I am no preacher–nor teacher; but I do know that God said that Satan was a liar and murderer from the beginning.
    And the beginning has not yet ended.
    Just my opinion.

    • William Quinton Platt III says:

      God rigged the universe. He doesn’t play to lose.

      Evil cannot exist without good; good does not need evil. Rule number one of the universe, followed closely by “you can’t get something for nothing”.

      Our “masters” designed this internet to keep us entertained and porn-addicted. Oh, if they could have only foreseen the unintended consequences generated by the slaves using their distraction to promote truth. You’d still be flipping pages in the Sears catalogue.

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    I agree with C.S. Lewis. That is, that there is NO “good vs evil.” God created ALL things and that would mean God created evil. That is hardly the case–that God would create evil.
    Lewis’s position is that there exists “good” and “good gone bad—or corrupted.” There is no (his opinion) equally created force of Evil facing off against an equal force of Good.
    The idea of finding “good” men is a fallacy (in my opinion). There is no such thing. Christians are not good because they are Christians, but Christians because they are NOT good—otherwise, what’s the point?
    I also agree with the above comment that TJ was not an atheist. He may or may not have been a Christian, but he hardly could be called an A-theist.
    Just my opinion.

    • William Quinton Platt III says:

      God did not create all things. God did not create slaves. God gave His creations the right to reject him.

      Many have speculated on the “why” God created when he “knew” some of his creations would reject Him. There is only one God. Anything “not” God is imperfect. So why bother with “creating” something that will by definition be “imperfect” and prone to be different from God and hence, not good but evil?
      This is where a person must accept his own limitations and realize it is impossible to “know” the mind of God. Wiser men than the few hundred who visit these pages have debated these questions and we are not going to stumble upon some “new” thought because we can not know who had expressed the thought originally. It is much as the ridiculous assignment of “no plan survives contact with the enemy” thought to the boxer Tyson who once mumbled supposedly, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

      Lewis is absolutely correct in his assessment of the relative power of good versus evil. As I stated above, (slightly altered for clarification)”good can exist without the presence of evil but evil must have good or it destroys itself”. There is nothing new under the sun, this has been stated by thinking men prior to my typing the above on the Abbeville site. Evil is illogical and insignificant. Anything that cannot exist without help from its opposite (or its enemy) is wrong.

      Einstein and Jefferson were both brilliant men. Einstein lied to the world about his own calculations to deny God. The “cosmological constant” never existed in Einstein’s math except for his rebellion against God. This is the curse of those who are “gifted”…they lose themselves at times to thoughts of god-like status. Jefferson decided to start ignoring or otherwise “pick and choose” what he believed. That is a bad habit, because as we have discussed, so much is and will always be “unknown”. Jefferson was too intelligent to believe in a “random” universe.

      I enjoy these types of discussions. It is too easy to know the truth about our struggle with the yankees. They lie without cease. If the yankees ever read the Corwin Amendment, they would still lie about the impact of an “unamendable amendment”. Philosophical statement of “evil needing good” is simple to understand when compared to an “unamendable amendment”.

      To those reading who are annoyed by such as the above, thank you for your toleration.

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