Was Jefferson a Jeffersonian?
Some declarations show otherwise.

As both the George Gershwin and the Ira Gershwin of America's founding, Thomas Jefferson wrote the words and music that we've marched to since 1776, and posterity has always disputed his legacy. Leftist foes of big business, such as radio talk show host Thom Hartmann, cite Jefferson as a critic of corporations, while right-wing extremists such as Timothy McVeigh have invoked him to justify violent attacks on what they see as an illegitimate federal government. But Jefferson doesn't fit neatly into the label "Jeffersonian."

Jefferson's commitment to the separation of church and state, for example, conceals inconsistencies. His "Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom," adopted in 1786, barred government from taxing to fund churches. As president, he wrote that he revered the First Amendment's "wall of separation between church and state." Yet he allowed and attended religious services in the U.S. Capitol and used federal funds to finance Christian missions to Native American nations. Jefferson hoped that converting Indians would induce them to embrace private property and live like their white neighbors.

Jefferson's embrace of strict construction, or limiting the federal government to powers explicitly granted by the Constitution, also masks contradictions. When in 1803 President Jefferson learned that the United States could buy the vast Louisiana Territory from France for a mere $15 million, at first he thought that a constitutional amendment would be needed to authorize the treaty. But instead, he directed American diplomats Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe to make the deal without an amendment. Jefferson argued that he held the presidency in trust for the American people. Like any trustee, he could use his powers creatively for their benefit. If they approved of what he did — even if it seemed to violate the Constitution — they could reelect him. When he won a second term in 1804, he took it as a sign of popular support for a measure that he might have opposed years before.

Jefferson's ownership of slaves also collides with the democratic spirit that "Jeffersonian" implies. The man who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" owned slaves all his life. His 1787 book "Notes on the State of Virginia" displays the discord over slavery that bedeviled him. In one chapter, he insisted that slavery was a dreadful wrong and that, in a contest between rebelling slaves and their masters, "the Almighty has no attribute which could take sides with us." In another, he suggested "as a suspicion only" that people of African descent were inferior to people of European descent, and that this inferiority might explain and even partly justify slavery. (As to what most people know about Jefferson — that he fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings — the subject's leading scholar, Harvard's Annette Gordon-Reed, points out that people seem shocked that he slept with Hemings, but they overlook that he owned her.)

His friend James Madison explained that, like "others of great genius," Jefferson had a habit "of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment." The third president's closest political ally, Madison learned the hard way to take Jefferson's inconsistencies in stride. Posterity ought to do the same, as expecting perfect consistency from imperfect human beings will always result in disappointment and cynicism. Instead of bowing down before Jefferson, we should have the courage to look him in the eye.


R. B. Bernstein teaches at New York Law School and is the author of "Thomas Jefferson" and "The Founding Fathers Reconsidered