Jefferson: The Dispensable Founding Father

Thomas Jefferson gets more praise than he deserves. While I generally agree with his ideology, his importance to the country’s founding is overblown.

Jefferson is best known for writing the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s use of words is most impressive, possibly creating the greatest document in history. However, if a lesser hand had written the Declaration, the United States would still have been declaring its independence and history would largely be the same. Furthermore, Jefferson was merely expressing the sentiments that already existed across the colonies. [Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson Vol 12 408-409.]

After penning the Declaration, Jefferson acted as Governor of Virginia, where he fled from the invading British and his popularity declined. He also spent a number of year as Minister to France and was there during the Constitutional Convention and debate over whether to ratify the Constitution. He then became Secretary of State under George Washington, where he took the wrong side on many position. For example, he sided with the French even as that country descended into anarchy and tyranny.

Up until this time, Jefferson had only one accomplishment of national importance: the Declaration of Independence. He most certainly did less of import than Washington, Adams, Hamilton, or Franklin.

So why the reverence for Jefferson? Thomas Jefferson was the country’s first successful party politician. Hamilton had his Federalists, but he never made a true party out of it. It was just a loose collection of similar factions. In fact, Adams and Hamilton constantly disagreed and this caused the fall of the Federalists. On the other hand, Jefferson created a party system with him at the helm. Jefferson won the presidential election in 1800 and his Democratic-Republics owned the White House for the next 24 years. History is written by the victors and Jefferson’s party was victorious. Jefferson was lauded as a hero of the Revolution, though he didn’t fight and had only one major accomplishment, while Hamilton, who acted as Washington’s lieutenant, was a major author of the Constitution, and its staunchest defender in the Federalist Papers, became a villain.

I must add that I believe that Jefferson was a great President. This has also helped his popularity. However, his presidency occurred a quarter of a century after the Revolution began and 12 years after the country’s founding. In this respect, Jefferson may be considered great as some consider Andrew Jackson, but not in terms of the Founding alongside Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Hamilton, whose careers were all basically over when Jefferson became President.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on this interesting and perhaps controversial topic….

Advertisements

11 responses to “Jefferson: The Dispensable Founding Father

  1. blackwatertown

    Very interesting post. I’m pleased to learn a bit more about Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries. He seems to be lionised by what is called the Left in the United States these days – or perhaps by the libertarians – so it’s good to hear a little about his feet of clay.

  2. I too value Thomas Jefferson’s prowess with the pen more highly than his other contributions to the Founding of America – although it is important to remember that he, like the other 55 signatories to the Declaration, pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor to the struggle for independence, and his personal risk was no less than the others. As a journeyman wordsmith, I can’t help but believe that the anthemic nature of the language in the Declaration played a large role in securing the support, sacrifice and loyalty of the future Americans throughout the War of Independence – but it is possible that a lesser document may have sufficed.
    Jefferson’s years in France produced critical support for our emerging nation, and while he was indeed on the wrong side of many issues, I cannot fault him too much for that. His Presidency was effective, and by contrast to the big-government/executive-President approach of John Adams it was much more closely aligned to my views as to the appropriate role of that office.
    In summary, then, I believe Jefferson made a critical contribution to the evolution of America across a longer span of time than any of the other Founding Fathers – and while at any moment his contribution may have been lesser than some others, in totality it is the equal of all but a few.

    • As I wrote, I do believe Jefferson was a great President, but that was long after the country was already founded. As President, one can put him in a category with other great Presidents. It would also boost his rank among Founders, but not as much as if he had been more active and successful during the war.

      I propose that Thomas Paine was in fact a more important “wordsmith” than Jefferson in founding this country. Paine wrote Common Sense which helped energize this country for war. Jefferson’s Declaration only came after the revolution had begun. Paine then went on to fight with George Washington and helped boost morale with The Crisis, which Washington had reprinted and sent to all the army camps.

      I must add that philosophically, I am more in the Edmund Burke camp than with Thomas Paine. However, in terms of energizing and influencing this country toward revolution, Paine probably did more than Jefferson. Jefferson’s real success came later as President and creator of the first real political party, which dominated for 24 important years.

      In terms of “founding” this country, I rank Jefferson lower than many other, most notably Washington, Hamiltion, Madison, Franklin, Adams. But in terms of making this country successful after its “founding,” Jefferson ranks among the highest in my book, along with Hamilton and Madison.

      I guess it really all depends how you define “founding.” To me, it would include the revolution, declaration, confederation, Constitution, and establishing the government. I would therefore start this period in 1775 when the first fighting began and end it in 1792 when Washington was elected President the second time. I could even go to 1796/7 when Adams succeeded Washington. You seem to include a longer period of time in your “founding” period. To each his own.

  3. I don’t think we have any significant disagreement… When examined in distinct segments, as is the historians’ wont, Jefferson’s contribution to the Founding period (1775 – 1792) was lesser than many other of the key figures of the time – and certainly lesser than those you mention. When examined in terms of complete lives, as is the biographers’ wont, Jefferson rises much higher on the list of great Americans as his contributions from the Founding and the Federal periods are combined. As to prose, Jefferson had an extraordinary gift that I cannot help admiring. Others among his contemporaries and near-contempraries (Paine, Hamilton, Madison, Jay) were also gifted, but Jefferson’s style, and his ability to reach both heart and mind, resonate with me as a writer.
    Personal note – while I do very much admire Jefferson (as I think this thread makes clear), he is by no means my ‘favorite’ figure of the Founding period. That would be Ben Franklin…

    • Jefferson’s gift, in terms of writing, was being able to say so much in so few words and make it sound so beautiful. On the other hand, when you look at Hamilton’s sheer production of words, most notably authoring the majority of the Federalist Papers, you have to respect that as well. Two different styles of writing, each with their own purpose.

      IMHO, Washington was far and away the most important Founding Father, as almost all would agree. But I think Hamilton was the most remarkable, given his background and success (prolific writer, “father of the government”). Jefferson was the most idealist of the bunch, in words if not in practice. Adams was probably the most educated. Franklin the most inventive and fun to be around. It was a great group and each brought his own strengths with him.

  4. Michael,

    I find myself in near total agreement with your opinions on this and in your comments.

    This is astounding. (I don’t often agree with people to this extent!)

    The only quibble I’d have with you relates to the caliber of Hamilton’s writing. This is not to diminish it’s value, the importance of his efforts, or the respect, appreciation, or high regard with which all Americans should place him. He was amazingly intelligent, energetic, honorable, as well as prolix.

    Jefferson let us with some fabulous quotes, but from a pure character standpoint, is not my favorite.

    I also found your remarks on Paine to be dead on. I loved his writing in Common Sense and The Crisis Papers. But, I think he loved discord for discord’s sake and kind of wigged out later on.

    • Thank you for your comments, Martin.

      You’ll notice that I wrote the most remarkable thing about Hamilton’s writing was not the quality, but the quantity. “On the other hand, when you look at Hamilton’s sheer production of words, most notably authoring the majority of the Federalist Papers, you have to respect that as well.” Jefferson was certainly the more eloquent writer (and Paine as well) and Madison was probably more politically knowledgeable (though Hamilton was knew finance and economics better), but when it came time to push through the Constitution, Hamilton vastly outproduced Madison (51 to 29).

      I will be writing a lot more about Thomas Paine and his ideology at the end of the next book.

  5. Gentleman – I’m late to the party here but glad to have arrived. I largely agree with the astute comments. I’m a Hamiltonian because Hamilton did what he said and had a vision for the future that was realistic and changed the world. The American Dream was Hamilton’s. Jefferson’s dream was subsistance farming – which would not have changed the world. The Declaration was a great document, but you have to give credit while remembering that the crazy items in the Declaration were edited out to prevent the Congress from sounding a bit nuts. I like how this is depicted in the John Adams movie. When we talk about the practical men who led you have to give Washington credit for making all the right decisions – he was virtually a lawless decision-maker as president. The man behind those decisions was Hamilton. Hamilton was Washington’s intellect. Jefferson hardly ever won a debate in that cabinet because he couldn’t match Hamilton. Jefferson left Washington’s cabinet hurt and vindictive and formed his Party to get his way through disloyal means rather than through direct debate. Thus entered the party system in America. Washington lost all respect for the man by the time he died and of course Jefferson skipped Washington’s funeral which was in his neighborhood.

    The point about quality of writing is a good one. Hamilton was a pragmatist and didn’t write to inspire. He wrote mostly to get things done. Jefferson labored to create the style he did. At the age of 18 Hamilton wrote his “rights of man” quote which is far more poetic and sweeping than anything I’ve read by any founder. It was in response to the Farmer – and this was 18 months prior to the Declaration.

    • Lou, I tried to connect with your link: restorehamilton.com, but no longer connecting and couldn’t find another link through my browser search. I am Rand Scholet, Founder of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness (AHA!) Society, aka The AHA Society, and appreciated the coherence of your arguments. Sorry we may not get a chance to connect. If we do, please see: The-AHA-Society.com (with the two dashes)

  6. Sorry – typo – I meant Washington was Flawless – not lawless. That detracts a bit doesn’t it?

  7. Then there’s the whole deist thing, and the rapist thing. (Today’s Christian conservatives are strongly against at least one of those.)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s