A day doesn’t go by that I don’t hear or see Thomas Jefferson referenced for some piece of wisdom concerning a modern problem. Jefferson, who spent so much time working against the “dead hand of the past,” would likely be alternately pleased and chagrined by the modern fixation on his words.
Far be it from me to suggest that Jefferson does not have much to teach us, even about how we might approach complex modern problems that he could not possibly have contemplated. Yet, to seek a Jeffersonian perspective on such problems directly requires great care in translating Jefferson (or any of his Founding colleagues) for a modern debate. A deep appreciation of context is generally a prerequisite, and programs like the UVA Summer Jefferson Symposium are excellent places to gain such an appreciation.
As an initial matter, one should start by insisting upon accurate quotation. Seemingly simple enough, but as Anna Berkes, a librarian at the International Center for Jefferson Studies reminded attendees at the Virginia Forum conference last week, pages are filled with spurious Jefferson quotations, some benign, some less so. (I must confess to using a spurious quote in passing once while on a fellowship at Monticello, unfortunately found on an .edu website – a transgression for which I was promptly (and repeatedly) called to task.) Even more instances exist of taking Jefferson completely out of context. As Anna points out, it is essential to ask if a particular quotation seems entirely out of character for Jefferson (or any other historic figure being cited). I recently saw Jefferson, erroneously referred to as a “gunsmith,” suspiciously quoted in the context of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Whatever ones views on gun rights, it is a topic on which Jefferson does not seem the most likely protagonist and, sure enough, the quotation, while nominally accurate, was being taken entirely out of context. Jefferson was referring to a political dispute with Alexander Hamilton when he suggested that while “one loves to possess arms, … they hope never to have occasion for them,” and the only “arms” that he was referring to were trenchant arguments.
History is a fascinating subject, and one can spend hours pleasantly wandering the idylls of the Founding Fathers. A deeper appreciation, though, has greater benefits. Learning about Jefferson’s love of the written word is, we hope, an exercise in understanding.
Over the next several months, we hope to find an opportunity to send thoughts on various aspects of Jefferson that might garner some attention at this summer’s Symposium, and, as time permits, respond to comments.
Mostly, we hope to see you in Charlottesville in June!