By JOHN MARTIN
Does Thomas Jefferson deserve to be called a "genius of liberty" in light of new scholarship on the conflict between his professed ideals and his own life? Scholars Joseph Ellis and Annette Gordon-Reed debated this question during a "Books & Beyond" panel discussion sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book on July 25. The two authors are contributors to Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty (Viking Studio, 2000), the companion volume to the Library's Bicentennial exhibition about Jefferson, which closes on Nov. 16.
Gerard W. Gawalt of the Manuscript Division, the Library's Jefferson specialist and curator of the Library's Jefferson exhibition, introduced the speakers. Mr. Gawalt said that the exhibition and the companion book have "a primary and an interpretive aspect." The primary aspect is reflected in Jefferson's written legacy. The interpretive aspect attempts to use those writings to enter Jefferson's life and try to assess his impact on his times.
Ms. Gordon-Reed said that the goal of her essay was to better understand the meaning of "genius" as applied to Jefferson's life. "We should not let the idea of a genius overwhelm the man himself," she cautioned. The third president was also a Southern slaveholder whose own life cannot be entirely reconciled with his public ideals.
"What Jefferson most needs today," she declared, "is a rescue from symbolism. He is not a plaster saint." A professor of law at New York Law School, Ms. Gordon-Reed is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1997), and is currently working on a history of the Hemings family to be published by W.W. Norton.
Ms. Gordon-Reed went on to explain that in the 18th century the word "genius" did not have the rarefied meaning it does today. Rather, "genius" connoted one who possessed a natural talent or lively imagination. If Jefferson was a genius, she suggested, it is because his imagination led him to "annunciate ideas that have universal application." Despite Jefferson's limitations as a man, as a thinker he was a pioneer.
"He posed the right questions at the right time," she said. "Even without finding answers, he paved the way." While left behind in Jefferson's day, she observed that American minorities have taken Jeffersonian ideals of liberty and equality to heart, expanding their meaning in ways Jefferson himself never believed possible.
Mr. Ellis also qualified the use of the word "genius" in the book's subtitle and commented that Jefferson himself would probably object to being enshrined in this manner. "If not a genius of liberty, Thomas Jefferson was the great rhetorician of American freedom," he concluded.. In contrast to other Founding Fathers, for whom the past was "the lamp of experience," Jefferson saw his life's work as an effort to "remove the dead hand of the past" from the American political experience. A professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, Mr. Ellis is the author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Vintage Press, 1996), which won the National Book Award, and of Founding Brothers: Stories from the Early Republic, which will be published this fall by Alfred A. Knopf.
According to Mr. Ellis, Jefferson was not a genius like Einstein or Aristotle. Instead, America's third president was essentially a derivative thinker whose intellect was remarkable for its range rather than its depth.
The panelists took questions from the audience, some of whom objected to what they perceived as "revisionist" interpretations of Jefferson's life and impact. Mr. Ellis related an anecdote in which he was similarly challenged.
"I have been accused of being a 'mere pigeon on the great statue of Thomas Jefferson' by those who prefer the myth," he said. "That I am a pigeon is not important. What is important is that we not see Jefferson as a statue."
Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty (Viking Studio, 2000) includes an introduction by historian Garry Wills titled "Jefferson's Genius" and contemporary commentary by Joseph J. Ellis, Annette Gordon-Reed, Pauline Maier, Charles A. Miller and Peter S. Onuf. The book is available for $35 in major bookstores and from the Library of Congress Sales Shops (202-707-0204). The Library's Bicentennial exhibition on Jefferson may be viewed in the Thomas Jefferson Building through Nov. 16.
Mr. Martin is an examiner in the U.S. Copyright Office.