When Thomas Jefferson Failed
I admit: I write often about Thomas Jefferson. I explored his intriguing web of a mind in “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”.
Here I highlight something that rarely happened to him: failure.
Jefferson retired from the presidency of the United States to his beautiful estate, Monticello, in his beloved state: Virginia. By then, the man was a living legend. Thousands of people were making a pilgrimage to come and get a glimpse of him. His Monticello became a Mecca for those who saw in Jefferson an embodiment of the American dream that he, along with other founding fathers, had created.
Though he loved the adulation, by that time, the autumn of his life, he was, as very clear from his many papers, absorbed with his legacy .. not only on the American political system, but primarily on his state: Virginia.
Non Americans often underestimate the importance of the idea of the home-state, as opposed to the grand nation: the United States. And circa two hundred years ago, that belonging to the state was by far more powerful than it is today.
For Jefferson, Virginia was more than merely his home-state. His vision for the the United States, his colossal contribution to its foundation, to its constitution, were anchored on the values that he had acquired in Virginia. It is arguable that whereas Jefferson imparted his political ideas on the nascent country that was the United States, he was reluctant to impose many of his personal ideas – especially of religion and the conception of Divinity – on his own state.
His solution, however, was a new educational institution .. one that would instil in the young people of Virginia what he thought to be the true teachings of the enlightenment, all in an environment that was local (Virginian), rather than “northern” (such as that of universities in the northeast, mainly Harvard and Yale .. which then as it is today, had their own value system that was vastly different from that of mid and southern states).
Jefferson secured some seed capital for his educational institution. He also secured the legal charter from Virginia’s legislature. And he supervised the hiring of the initial faculty that was to start the university, most of whom he brought in from Europe. All of this marked the birth of the University of Virginia.
Ultimately, however, he failed – in two ways.
One: the institution turned out to be a classic higher-education one, teaching the same educational foundations that were the norm of Western universities in the early nineteenth century. It was a paler copy of Harvard and Yale, with touches from Oxford and Sorbonne. It hardly reflected Jefferson’s vision of an institution that would spearhead the promotion and promulgation of his ideas about genuine intellectual freedom, dramatic socio-political changes (as supposedly embodied in the creation of the United States), and crucially for him, the “old knowledge”, the true understandings of Divinity and Humanity.
Two: he failed to fight properly for his vision and for its materialisation.
The second failure is easy to understand. Jefferson was getting old. And like many supremely intelligent persons, he was – to put it bluntly – sick of repeatedly interacting with those he deemed ordinary. He thought that his position as a nationwide figure, a stellar founding father of the new republic, and a just retired president, would make his wishes sail through.
They did not. His ideas were seen by the legislators, by the wealthy landowners, and of course by the religious authorities as unfamiliar, probably disruptive, and for those with some far-sightedness, seriously dangerous. And so, they frustrated his efforts, not directly, for no one wanted to be seen to be opposing “progress” and “education”, but subtly, indirectly. The result was: a new university (that would later grow into one of the most respectable in the United States), but one that, nevertheless, was another pillar of the old temple. It was not the harbinger of a new message of enlightenment.
Somehow, Jefferson knew that his efforts would yield very little of what he wanted, at least in his lifetime. One senses from his papers that he felt “his world” was not ready.
But I think he felt compelled to try. Perhaps it was not only for his legacy in the classic definition of helping his community, but rather his legacy for himself, for his spirit. Perhaps, as he hinted to us especially in his elusive writings on “faith”, he was trying to complete the circle of his life. He had given a vast contribution to a political project he considered the most important in modern human history: the creation of the United States. He saw this, no doubt correctly, as having far-reaching effects on the way people live, initially in the US and later in the entire Western world. But a key part of the (virtuous) circle was missing: that of directly educating about, directly elucidating what he believed were, the key hallmarks in the road to genuine enlightenment and intellectual and spiritual growth. And so, he started that project.
Irrespective of the fate of the institution itself, we are left with the original source .. left with the thinking of Jefferson himself. And it is indeed a treasure of ideas, of debates within himself; it is a circular road, a labyrinth, that helps seekers on that most glorious road of illumination, that of knowledge.