By CHARLYNN SPENCER PYNE and BARBARA BRYANT
For historians, political theorists, philosophers and students, Thomas Jefferson is a study in paradoxes. He was a slave owner who abhorred slavery and a territorial expansionist who nevertheless insisted that shared principles were more important to the nation than land. While warning against government interference in citizens' daily lives, Jefferson called for the state to take responsibility for educating its citizens, believing, as University of Connecticut professor Richard D. Brown said, that schools were "appropriate as instruments of state policy."
On May 13-15, a select group of scholars gathered at the Library to discuss "Thomas Jefferson and the Education of an American Citizen." LC's Rare Book and Special Collections Division, its Center for the Book and the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Va., sponsored the symposium with support from the Library's James Madison Council.
The conference proceedings, edited by James Gilreath, American history specialist in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, will be published by the University of Virginia Press. Dr. Gilreath and John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book, organized the conference.
In Session I, led by summarizer J.G.A. Pocock of Johns Hopkins University, panelists discussed Jefferson's concepts of "A Virtuous Citizenry."
Paul Rahe of the University of Tulsa argued, in "Self-Reliance: Thomas Jefferson and the Inculcation of Modern Republic Virtue," that Jefferson, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, praised farmers as "God's chosen people" because their self-reliance bestowed civic virtue.
However, the ancients defined civic virtue as devotion to the state and its land -- in which the farmer had a stake. While Jefferson "was far more concerned with fostering resistance to government ... than he was with promoting the national defense." said Dr. Rahe.
Panelist Eugene R. Sheridan of Princeton University discussed in his paper, "Liberty and Virtue: Religion and Republicanism in Jeffersonian Thought," the relationship between Jefferson's personal religious views and his dedication to establishing an enduring republican government.
As a young man, Jefferson subjected his Christian faith to a critique based on reason and rejected his family's Anglican creed in favor of natural religion and classical ethics. His efforts to ensure religious freedom and the separation of church and state culminated in the passage of his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted during his tenure in the Virginia House of Delegates (1776-1779) and passed in 1786.
After the Federalist-Republican party battles of the 1790s, Jefferson perceived a breakdown in "republican values and social harmony," said Dr. Sheridan. Jefferson sought a moral system that promoted these values and eventually espoused a demythologized Christianity, rejecting God as a trinity and heralding the moral teachings of Jesus, Dr. Sheridan explained.
In Session II, panelists addressed "The Family and Public Culture," a topic that has been overlooked by scholars, according to summarizer Jan Brewer of Rutgers University.
Frank Shuffelton of the University of Rochester, in "Ties that Bind? Authority, the Family and the Public Sphere in Jefferson's Correspondence," discussed Jefferson's letters to his children. In his correspondence, he set out to shape the morality of his daughters and grandchildren and to bring them into the wider world of learning.
Michael Grossberg of Case Western Reserve University focused on Jefferson's efforts to reform the laws of inheritance in his paper, "Citizens and Families: A Jeffersonian Vision of Domestic Relations and Generational Change."
In 1776 Jefferson worked to abolish restrictive inheritance laws that allowed the initial heir to property to dictate later heirs for several generations, permitted the automatic inheritance of all property by the eldest son and prevented illegitimate children from becoming heirs. He thus sought to free the present and future generations from the past and to render each generation responsible for its own fate.
Holly Brewer, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Los Angeles, in "Citizens and Families: A Jeffersonian Vision of Domestic Relations and Generational Change," explained that children had an unequal status in the new republic because they were deemed "not reasonable." The "lack of reason" was also used to exclude women, blacks and Indians from becoming citizens.
Summarizer C. Vann Woodward of Yale University found the duality (his espousal of two distinct, and perhaps at times, contradictory philosophies), of Jefferson to be the common thread linking papers by Elizabeth Wirth Marvick ("Thomas Jefferson and the Old World: Personal Experience in the Formation of Early Republican Ideals"), Donald Grinde ("Thomas Jefferson as a Scholar of the American Indian") and James Oakes ("Why Slaves Can't Read: The Political Significance of Jefferson's Racism").
Ms. Marvick, a scholar from Los Angeles, examined this duality during Jefferson's appointment in France --from 1784 to 1789. During this period he indulged in the European luxuries that he nevertheless deplored as aristocratic and monarchial privileges.
Dr. Grinde of California Polytechnic University explored Jefferson's interest in Native American culture. He insisted that Indians and whites were equal in mental and physical capacity but had no compunction about predicting their extermination if they failed to assimilate or resisted white America's expansion westward.
James Oakes from Northwestern University examined what Dr. Woodward terms "the cruelest and most intractable dualities of all -- those involved in Jefferson's views of the black race and ... slavery." Jefferson argued that blacks were inferior to whites in mental and physical capacities. This mental inferiority or lack of reason meant that blacks could never be citizens. Jefferson believed that blacks could never attain citizenship or live peacefully with whites because of the legacy of slavery.
Yet Jefferson said he hated slavery. He sought to reconcile these conflicting views by suggesting that blacks should be freed, then colonized outside of the boundaries of the nation, Dr. Oakes explained.
In Session IV, summarizer Benjamin Barber, director of the Walt Whitman Center for Culture and Politics at Rutgers University, discussed papers on Jefferson's view of the type of education "an informed citizen" should receive.
Douglas L. Wilson of Knox College, explained in his paper, "Jefferson and Literacy," that, like many other leaders of his time, Jefferson "subscribed to the ... belief that persons of privilege had an obligation not only to cultivate their advantages and gifts but to employ them for the good of their country." Jefferson also had "a radical faith in the ability of ordinary citizens to arrive at responsible decisions, political as well as moral," Dr. Wilson said.
In 1779 Jefferson pressed, albeit unsuccessfully, for passage of "A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" that would have established a public school system in Virginia.
In his paper, "Bulwark of Revolutionary Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's and John Adams's Programs for an Informed Citizenry," Richard D. Brown of the University of Connecticut described the state-funded education system Jefferson proposed, which would be available to all &2citizens, &1a stipulation that limited participation to property-owning white males, DR. Brown pointed out.
In his paper on "Thomas Jefferson's Concept of "Utility" in the Education of an American Citizen" Jennings L. Wagoner Jr. of the University of Virginia spoke of Jefferson's belief in offering education geared to the needs of citizens in the new republic, rather than one based on schooling offered abroad. Dr. Wagoner mentioned Jefferson's insistence that girls should receive at least the same basic education as boys, to make them more useful in the domestic sphere and able to act as "paternal surrogates" if necessary. "In a letter encouraging his daughter Martha in her studies, Jefferson calculated that the odds were one in 14 that she might marry a " 'blockhead' and thus have to survive by her own wits!" Dr. Wagoner added.
Summarizer Gordon Wood of Brown University initiated Session V, "Political and Ideological Bases of Citizenship."
In his paper on "The Education of Those Who Govern," Ralph Ketcham of Syracuse University also described various influences on Jefferson's ideas. Torn between the "ancient dictum ... that good government required wise and public-spirited rulers" and the modern one "that government should be according to the consent of the governed," Jefferson had to reconcile the two, Dr. Ketcham said. As a partial solution, he called for broad education for all, a "modern" education that nevertheless stressed classical studies "as the foundation for moral and public education."
Suzanne W. Morse, of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change discussed a more tangible and utilitarian aspect of Thomas Jefferson's ideas in her paper on "Ward Republics: The Wisest Invention for Self-Government." Often described as virtually identical to the New England-style "town hall meetings," Jefferson conceived the ward republics as local gatherings where people would meet to discuss matters of importance and make decisions affecting their localities. However, he acknowledged the continuing need for federal and state governments to administer at those levels. Dr. Morse explained that Jefferson also viewed the ward republics as a learning tool and as "a system to supplement and protect the Constitution."
David N. Mayer of Capital University discussed "Citizenship and Change in Jefferson's Constitutional Thought." Dr. Mayer explained the "Whig aspect" of Jefferson's thought -- that constitutions should serve to check government's encroachment on individual rights -- and the "federal," or "republican," aspect that calls for division of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, each of which should be "equally accountable to the rightful majority will of the people."
Jefferson also thought constitutions should be changed regularly. "He believed that a new constitution should be drawn up every 19 years, the estimated average lifetime of a generation," but later "softened the doctrine somewhat, transforming it from a rationale for periodic, radical change to ... change whenever circumstances or the will of the majority calls for it," said Dr. Mayer.
On the final day of the conference, Merrill Peterson of the University of Virginia and a foremost authority on Jefferson, joined the five summarizers to debate questions posed by Ronald Hoffman, director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture. Dr. Hoffman asked how historians and political scientists could reconcile the dichotomies to be found in Jefferson's writings and career: his call for freedom but willingness to confine citizenship to white property-owning males and his conflicting words and behavior on slavery.
"Jefferson is not necessarily the best Jeffersonian," responded Gordon Wood. "His precepts could allow noncitizens to become citizens eventually and later on, they did. Others who came after Jefferson took his logic further, to its ultimate point. Women, for example, used his language to justify their argument for suffrage just 20 years after his death."
C. Vann Woodward pointed out that Jefferson and his writings can be interpreted in many different ways and for many different reasons. "Every cause seems to call on Jefferson for justification" -- a point that is not lost on current political observers who can hear both President Clinton and Ross Perot invoking Jefferson's thoughts to defend their respective positions.
Merrill Peterson offered a final word on Jefferson's ideal of an informed citizenry by asking why the issue of how best to teach citizenship to the young is a neglected topic today. "What happened to this campaign?", asked Dr. Peterson. "I think the subject of civics ... disappeared into the huge void that is social studies and fell prey to fears held by the far right and the far left, a growing fear of indoctrination and propaganda."
At the close of the conference, Liu Zuochang, a Jefferson specialist from Shadong University in China, stressed the importance of imparting Jefferson's ideas to educate the citizens of China. Jefferson's ideals, he said, "are sure to exercise favorable effects upon Chinese readers, broaden their outlook and strengthen their democratic consciousness. Indirectly, it would accelerate our process of democratization and rule by law," Dr. Zuochang said.