Matthew Landis

this is my serious face

Deifying the Founders Actually Lessens Their Legitimate Greatness

I grew up thinking Jefferson was pretty much a god. I mean, of course I did, because in middle school I learned that he authored the Declaration all by himself—a gigantic deal, as it’s arguably our country's most important document behind the Constitution. In high school I visited the Capitol and gaped at his monstrously domed memorial. In college I pilgrimaged to Monticello and reverently strolled through his plantation and nearby university. To say that I put Jefferson on a pedestal would be to say that the Arctic was cold: an almost fatally hilarious understatement.   

And then I went to grad school.

Suddenly, Jefferson became more complex. I learned that other colonial legislatures had declared their independence from England prior to Jefferson’s document, and that he didn’t write it alone (a committee helped edit, including Adams and Franklin, followed by a further Congressional hack job).[1] I uncovered a self-promoting Jefferson, who masterfully participated in making sure posterity remembered his Declaration.[2]  I encountered a profoundly hypocritical Jefferson, seen most annoyingly in his elusive habit of playing hide and seek with his conscience (among these, bemoaning the evils of slavery while perpetuating the practice).[3] And I discovered a plantation owner whose estate was not the benevolent rural picture created by historians who were blatantly burying primary source material that highlighted the Founder’s crueler side.[4]

I wouldn’t say that I was devastated; I was just really disappointed. I’d deified this guy—or rather, he’d been presented to me as deity. And I liked that narrative. It was attractive and comfortable and supremely regal. I inhaled it. I washed it down and asked for seconds. The only problem was that flaws riddled this narrative. But that just created another problem, because the haters—modern observers who gleefully, albeit correctly, decry Jefferson’s glaring faults—also ignored his deserved accolades.[5] That is to say, the backlash of hard truths that tore down Jefferson’s god-like status inevitably downplayed what originally caused my misguided worship in the first place—further muddling his legacy. Ironically, deifying Jefferson actually ended up lessening the Founder’s legitimate brilliance.  

Take this hilarious example: in his mid-twenties, Jefferson fell for his best friend’s wife. He was crushing hard. So hard that he brazenly and repeatedly propositioned her over the course of several years. At a house party he secretly slipped a love note into the cuff of her dress sleeve; at another party, he pretended to feel ill, raced to her bedroom, and tried to bargain his way inside.[6] Let that sink in for a minute. These aren’t the actions of someone who belongs in the Founder Pantheon; they’re embarrassing plot points in the Real Housewives of Colonial Williamsburg.

But I think we’d all agree that to whitewash Jefferson based upon this instance—which we can also all agree was pretty devious—misrepresents him. The story only proves that Jefferson could be a scoundrel. I’m on board with that; I get it. I’m well aware that morality is not a prerequisite for statesmen (Google 'philandering U.S. Presidents' for a complete list). And I agree that examples like this help expose the silliness of deification. After all, deities don’t go around starting illicit affairs (except the Greek and Roman ones, who seemed to rather enjoy it).

But if, in warring against deification, we downplay Jefferson’s accomplishments—that too presents a misleading portrait of the Founder. After all, he did some pretty monumental things. Things like penning The Virginia Statutes for Religious Freedom that would become the forerunner of our much-loved First Amendment.[7] Things like authoring a bill to establish free public education for girls and boys.[8] Things like founding the University of Virginia.[9] Things like revolutionizing gardening techniques and American cuisine.[10] Things that have profoundly changed the political, educational, agriculture, and dietary landscape of this nation.

Since Jefferson was neither deity nor demon, let’s treat him as neither. Let’s treat him as a human, because doing so will a) allow us to fully appreciate his accomplishments and b) still mollify our inherent bloodlust for pointing out others’ hypocrisy. To use Jon Meacham’s summation of another much-maligned president, Andrew Jackson, “Not all great presidents were always good.”[11] This also applies to Jefferson, I think. He possessed astounding intellect across various spectrums, but he was also a hapless hypocrite who formulated mind-numbing excuses to avoid terrible truths. Why does that surprise us? We’re no different. Just because we haven’t tried to lure our best friend’s wife into an illicit affair (hopefully you haven’t, and if you currently are, stop it) or railed against slavery while practicing slavery, doesn’t mean that we’re not of Jefferson’s stock: human stock. Stock deeply flawed. Stock that habitually refuses to practice what we preach. Stock capable of great good, but also great evil.

I get that our acute cynicism, sharpened by enlightened modernity, justly won’t let this hero cult stuff stand. But neither should we get so busy tearing down the god-like status of Founders like Jefferson that we omit their astounding accomplishments. Striking a middle ground will no doubt make both the lovers and haters uncomfortable, but that vantage point provides a far more honest assessment.   


[1] Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 48, 99.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Thorndike, Me.: G.K. Hall, 2000), 308.

[3] Ibid, 315.

[4] Weincek, Henry. "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson." Smithsonian. Last modified October 2012. Accessed October 13, 2015. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-dark-side-of-thomas-jefferson-35976004/?no-ist.  

[5] A Sally Hemings message board on Monticello.org displays some hilarious back forth between the Jefferson lovers and haters—http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account 

[6] Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York: Random House, 2012), 42.

[7] Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom," Virginia Historical Society, accessed October 21, 2015, http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/thomas-jefferson

[8] Anna Berkes, "A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," Monticello, last modified April 2009, accessed October 21, 2015, http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/bill-more-general-diffusion-knowledge.

[9] "Founding of the University," University of Virginia, last modified August 3, 2010, accessed October 21, 2015, http://www.virginia.edu/uvatours/shorthistory/

[10] Peter J. Hatch, "Thomas Jefferson's Legacy in Gardening and Food," Monticello, last modified 2010, accessed October 21, 2015, https://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/thomas-jeffersons-legacy-gardening-and-food.

[11] Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2008), 97.