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Jefferson – The Ambiguities of Human Nature

I recently had the pleasure to attend a lecture at Broward College by Pulitzer Prize author Jon Meacham (Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power). Meacham’s conclusion, “Although Jefferson was flawed and a hypocrite over the issues of blacks and slavery, he still deserves credit as one of our greatest presidents.” Jefferson’s legacy is a fascinating issue. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (yet continued to own human property despite Washington and other peers having freed all of their slaves), authored the critically important Law in Virginia for Religious Freedom, was a major factor in our separation of church and state, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with France which doubled the size of our nation, authorized the Lewis and Clark expedition which opened “the American frontier for exploration and settlement, his handling of the Barbary War helped end the kidnapping and bribery of Americans by the Barbary states and the subsequent war with Tripoli led to the beginning of the U.S. Navy and the fortification of America’s reputation regarding national defense.”

Although he had great admiration for Jefferson, author Christopher Hitchens, raises a very different legacy in his superb book “Thomas Jefferson, Author of America.” “Jefferson,” he said, “did not embody contradiction, he was a contradiction and this will be found at every step that makes up his life.” Hitchens states that Jefferson ranged himself on many sides of many questions, from government interference with the press to congressional authority over expenditures, from maintenance of permanent armed forces to foreign entanglement. In many cases, his positions were the “higher cause of the growth and strength of the American Republic.” In a smaller number,” Hitchens said, “it is not difficult to read the promptings of personal self-interest.” The last two sentences of Hitchens book are the most thought provoking: “At the end, his capitulation to a slave power that he half-abominated was both self-interest and a menace to the survival of the republic. This surrender by a man of the Enlightenment and a man of truly revolutionary and democratic temperament, is another reminder that history is a tragedy and not a morality tale.”

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