Thomas Jefferson, many scholars have thought, represented the ideal of human individualism and personality, a renaissance man who struggled mightily against mediocrity. In the spirit of Jefferson, an individual can reach his own unique potential by properly pursuing a liberal education.

Though perhaps odd to our ears in 2020, the time period dealt with in this essay, 1945-1960, was a time that produced an intense fear of conformity. Against uniformity in education, in ideas, in governments, in neighborhoods, in associations, public intellectuals and statesmen—from the conservatives Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet to the radical C. Wright Mills to the perennial golfer Dwight D. Eisenhower—from all parts of the cultural and political spectrum arose to challenge the hobgoblin of dreary sameness.

Thomas Jefferson, many scholars thought, had represented the ideal of human individualism and personality, a renaissance man who struggled mightily against mediocrity. “Where he proclaimed a society based upon a natural order of aristocracy of virtue and talent, we revere the low common denominator,” Julian P. Boyd wrote in 1952.[1] A year earlier, he had complained, “The compulsory uniformity now demanded of men in public life is the very antithesis of what Jefferson contemplated.”[2] Jefferson had done so, though, by reaching toward the past as well as toward the eternal. The American frontier, scholars such as Boyd argued, had created the blank tablet upon which the Founders could write.

The political fact of independence and the geographical fact of a new continent were powerful elements in this nurturing climate, but they were neither decisive nor paramount. The indispensable source of strength and vitality, the heady wine which Jefferson tasted and from which he never recovered, was a belief in the inviolability of the sacred inner being of the individual and a vision of his possibilities in a society which permitted him the maximum freedom of choice. The philosophy of this new day was expressed by Jefferson in an immortal paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The striking thing about its various elements is not their newness but their ancient background.[3]

The American West, it seemed, presented not just an opportunity for Americans, but also contained within it the very future of the American republic.

One could reach his own unique potential—thus separating him through excellence against the demands of a mob—by properly pursuing a liberal education. The unrestrained individual person would prove the only source of true progress in society. Boyd is worth quoting at length here.

For where he was required only to conform to an age ripe for rebellion, it is their fate to rebel against an age that demands conformity. But while we look confidently for the ultimate triumph of the Jeffersonian faith over these obvious tyrannies, the chains that are being riveted may ultimately come from a source from which, paradoxically, Jefferson sought the emancipation of the individual. ‘I join you,’ he wrote a young lawyer, ‘… in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advances. This is precisely the doctrine which the present despots of the earth are inculcating… and applying especially to religion and politics…. But thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened to listen to these impostures; and while the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde; what is once acquired of real knowledge can never be lost. To preserve the freedom of the mind then and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.’[4]

Only within such an education could each person—connecting himself to the past, the present, and the future, while also “liberated” from the things of this world—see his own rights and duties within the political culture of the United States.[5]

Such an education, which would tie each person to the eternal and the timeless, would also give the American something in which he could believe rather than knowing himself only as an opponent.

For we are in serious danger of having, if we are honest, to give a new answer to Crevecoeur’s famous question, ‘Who is this new man, this American?’ In his day the answer would have been Jefferson’s: He is a man self-confident and self-reliant; he believes himself capable of governing himself; he is weak in physical resources and national power, but his inner convictions are indomitable and will prevail. Today, we should have to say: He is a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth, but he is frightened—or at least his leaders in government, in the press, in the church, and even in the universities tell him that he ought to be frightened—by the specter of communism. And fright has caused him to do violence to the things which he once prized most dearly. As Tocqueville said with prophetic insight more than a century ago, ‘No form or combination or social policy has yet been devised to make an energetic people of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens.’ The weakness we have to fear is not one of material resources, but of the moral fiber of our nationhood and its principles.[6]

In other words, we must be more than merely anti-Communist. We must be pro-American, faithful to the liberal ideal of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Again, Boyd is worth quoting at length.

Toward tyranny in any form Jefferson had vowed eternal hostility and in his Empire of Liberty, therefore, tolerance of diversity was implicit. His devotion to this nation was not the narrow patriotism of the Greeks nor the barbaric sense of fatherland that Goethe and Lessing abhorred. Though he called it an Empire of Liberty, it was to be neither an isolated political entity nor an imperialistic force for compulsory extension of ideals of liberty: its domain and compulsions would be in the realm of the mind and spirit of man, freely and inexorably transcending political boundaries, incapable of being restrained, and holding imperial sway not by arms or political power but by the sheer majesty of ideas and ideals.[7]

Not surprisingly, then, Jefferson inspired not only his fellow countrymen, but, as a leading citizen of a republic of letters, he inspired hundreds of European intellectuals as well.[8]

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[1] Julian P. Boyd, “The Relevance of Thomas Jefferson for the Twentieth Century,” American Scholar 22 (Winter 1952-1953): 73.

[2] Julian P. Boyd, “Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Empire of Liberty,’” Virginia Quarterly Review 24 (Autumn 1948): 547.

[3] Julian P. Boyd, “The Relevance of Thomas Jefferson for the Twentieth Century,” American Scholar 22 (Winter 1952-1953): 72.

[4] Ibid., 75. See also Daniel Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (1948; Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1993), 218-225; Adrienne Koch, “Jefferson’s Books,” New York Times (September 7, 1952), BR6; Marie L. Vagts, “The Stoa and American Deism,” The Classical Outlook 27 (January 1950): 43-44; and Gerald W. Johnson, “Classics and Jefferson,” New York Herald Tribune (November 9, 1947), E26.

[5] Julian P. Boyd, “Thomas Jefferson Survives,” American Scholar 20 (Spring 1951): 164-165.

[6] Ibid., 168. See also Dumas Malone, “The Men Who Signed the Declaration,” New York Times (July 4, 1954), SM6.

[7] Julian P. Boyd, “Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Empire of Liberty,’” Virginia Quarterly Review 24 (Autumn 1948): 548.

[8] On Jefferson inspiring Europeans, see Adrienne Koch, “Jefferson’s Books,” New York Times (September 7, 1952), BR6.

The featured image is a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Matthew Harris Jouett and is in the public domain. It has been brightened slightly for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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