Thomas Jefferson is the most enigmatic of the American Founding Fathers. The author of the Declaration of Independence, he is sometimes called the “Author of America.” As a son of the Enlightenment and the American founding, he is claimed by many sides.
And as Thomas Kidd reminds us in his splendid new biography, we still haven’t quite got Thomas Jefferson right, especially in his religious and philosophic views. What Kidd reveals is that Jefferson was, and remains, America’s chief political theologian articulating a theology of liberty.
Jefferson is the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the United States, a former governor of Virginia, and former secretary of state. That is generally how his political life is remembered, and in that order.
But what many people also remember of this spirited statesman and Founding Father is that he was a quasi-philosopher and theologian, a man energized by the new discoveries of science and pushing the edge of moral philosophy that verged on radicalism. He was, and remains, America’s great political intellectual.
Kidd entered the always fruitful world of Jeffersonia, and we certainly benefit from his entry into this garden of abundance. “Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Flesh and Spirit” offers a new reading of Jefferson — one sorely needed in today’s polarized environment in which Jefferson, of all the Founding Fathers, is the most mischaracterized and misrepresented by admirers and critics alike. In entering the rich world of Jeffersonia, Kidd reveals the portrait of a man who is “hardly … a secularist hero, or (even less so) of a predecessor of the Christian Right.”
Age of Intellectual Experimentation
Jefferson the thinker, and “sect unto himself,” was a man who combined elements of “Christianity, Epicureanism, the Enlightenment emphasis on rationalism and universal rights, and the republican values of virtue, limited government, and political liberty.” The problem with discerning Jefferson’s moral universe and commitments from our standpoint comes from the fact that we live in an age of dogmatic ideology.
We impose a dogmatic reading of Jefferson, whereas Jefferson lived in age of intellectual experimentation that usually left contradictory and incompatible philosophies contesting, without seeking to resolve them. Jefferson’s mishmash of views was only possible to weave together because of the intellectual excitement and relative openness the Enlightenment afforded.
Dogmatists of the secularist post-Enlightenment want an only secular and rationalist Jefferson and misleadingly (ignorantly or otherwise) present the third president in that light. Dogmatists of the new Christian right present a misleading portrait of what Kidd describes as a “brilliant but troubled person,” as they selectively cobble together some of Jefferson’s positive comments about the relationship of Christianity and public virtue with contemporary anti-statist politics.
There they find tentative resonance with Jefferson’s worry of a centralized federal government. Jefferson, however, was always a favorite among dissenting Christians in America for his stance on religious freedom, which benefitted Baptists, Methodists, and other lower-class Christian groups fearful of established Anglican and congregational churches.
The reality is the Enlightenment era was very fluid in intellectual experimentation in which Jefferson perfectly fit. Jefferson’s universe was one of open and exhilarating experimentation. That also characterized the Christianity of the same period, giving birth to new denominations and movements. In guiding through this open and experimental moral universe, we discover Jefferson anew.
Jefferson’s moral universe begins, naturally, with his childhood and the lovesickness many of us also experience. “At the threshold of adulthood,” Kidd writes, “Thomas Jefferson’s mind was brimming with thoughts of Bible characters, satanic torments, and a desirable young lady.” The Jefferson at “the threshold of adulthood” was a young man steeped in the writings of Anglican Christianity, the Greek and Latin classics, English literature (especially Shakespeare), and, upon his entry into the College of William and Mary, the latest trends in Enlightenment science and the jurisprudence of English Common Law.
All of the above contributed to Jefferson’s moral imagination. And not a moment too soon, either, for it wasn’t long after his graduation that the French and Indian War and the gradual drift toward revolution and independence demanded the contributions of Jefferson’s intellectual gifts.
A God of Liberty and Justice
The French and Indian War, Stamp Act, and the beginning of the American Revolution coincide with Jefferson’s development of political thought that had started back in college within the Common Law tradition. In the 1770s, on the eve of revolution, Jefferson’s political beliefs in personal liberty shaped by his attitudes of the Common Law and some personal law cases gave rise to a “mastery of providential rhetoric in the defense of colonists’ rights,” Kidd writes.
Jefferson wove together what was already commonplace in colonial America but made it distinctively his own: the belief in a God of liberty and just judgment overseeing the advancement of human and political liberty.
As Jefferson continued to mature, so too did his reliance on the classical tradition of thinkers — the republican historians of Rome and the harmonist philosophers of Greece, foremost among them the Epicureans and Stoics. Jefferson’s moral universe, a universe undergirded by a God of justice, a moral order knowable through rational inquiry, and an individual soul seeking the felicity of tranquility in all relations, becomes the spirit and flesh that comes to govern — however imperfectly, and imperfect it was — Jefferson’s life.
Jefferson’s life seeking union with the moral universe that he conceived in his mind became, in soft cultural form, the moral universe of the United States and its people, even if we don’t always realize it. We too want a God of justice, a moral order to conform to by the dictates of reason, and a tranquil soul and community where liberty abounds within that harmony under God’s justice and moral rationalism. In sum, we are still Jefferson’s children. Jefferson’s political theology has become our own.
A Man of Many Worlds
We find in Jefferson a man of many worlds, not just one world. He was a son of the Enlightenment in the sense that this world was one of intellectual openness and experimentation rather than the post-Enlightenment dogmatism of Steven Pinker or Michael Shermer.
He was a son of the classics — revealed in the aesthetic of Monticello and the University of Virginia as well as in his steadfast commitment to republican political principles drawn from Cicero, Livy, and Demosthenes — who nevertheless read modern writers and absorbed their discoveries and insights. He was, most of all according to Kidd, America’s own political theologian, developing a political theology of liberty, justice, and judgment couched in biblical rhetoric but whose conceptualization of God leaned toward an enlightened providentialism compatible with certain strands of Christianity.
Because Jefferson’s moral imagination and universe drew upon many worlds, Jefferson remains an enigma for narrow-minded dogmatists who want an equally narrow Jefferson contrary to who Jefferson actually was. But, as Kidd shows in this splendid biography, we benefit by entering Jefferson’s worlds on his terms, not ours. We do ourselves, and Jefferson, a gross abuse by trying to impose our ideological presuppositions on him rather than becoming better humans by learning from the life and intellect of the Sage of Monticello. And Jefferson’s moral universe was one in which God, liberty, and man were meant to be united
Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of “The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Greek Books” (Wipf and Stock, 2021) and contributed to “The College Lecture Today” (2019) and the forthcoming book “Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters.”