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Thomas Jefferson: “flawed” and “amazing””

NEH Institute at SED delves into a Founding Father

   Peter Gibbon

Educators from around the country will spend the next three weeks at Boston University learning about the nation’s third president at the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Thomas Jefferson, Personality, Character, and Public Life. The program of study, which includes a final week at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, attempts to explore the complex paradoxes of Jefferson’s character. “The emphasis is less on his presidency,” says Peter Gibbon, the institute’s director, “and more on trying to get inside the heart and mind of a genius, learn what made him tick, and see how this might have affected his public policies.”

Each year the NEH offers K-12 teachers the opportunity to study various humanities topics in several summer seminars and institutes. Gibbon, a senior research fellow at BU’s School of Education, also directed last year’s NEH Institute on George Washington. He discusses Jefferson’s character, as well as the educator’s approach to his history, with BU Today.

BU Today: Why do educators need an institute on Thomas Jefferson?

Gibbon: I feel, as a historian and a teacher, that not enough, particularly in a testing era, is done on biography. Most adults, if you ask, how did you come to love history? they’ll say, I read this biography. So biography is sort of the gateway to history for many adults, and I think it should also play a more prominent and important role in the education of K-12 students.

And Jefferson in himself is a fascinating person. There are so many compartments to his life that also tell you a lot about the founding of the country and how to conduct your own life. I believe that Jefferson is a moral exemplar, a guide, a sage, a seer, as well as being a fascinating man.

Of course, in an age that’s obsessed with race, class, and gender, we look at the dark side of Jefferson — his rather patriarchal attitude towards women, his duplicity in political campaigns, his obviously deplorable statements on the inferiority of African-Americans. So I think it’s an attempt to achieve balance, to celebrate the genius of an amazing man who was a flawed and imperfect human being.

You became interested in Jefferson while researching your 2002 book A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness — do you still think of him as a hero?

I do think Jefferson is still a great hero. I think he’s fallen from grace because of the DNA discoveries that probably link him to at least one of [his slave] Sally Hemings’ children, so he is a less perfect Founding Father — a colleague likes to use the word founding guy, because Founding Father sounds a little too praiseworthy and triumphalist.

But I think it would be a shame to think of Jefferson only as a racist, only as the lover of Sally Hemings. There were so many dimensions to him. Jefferson was a believer himself in heroes; he could name his heroes — Bacon, Newton, and Locke — he made heroes out of his teachers, his law professor, his mathematics professor, and he also believed that a new nation needed heroes. He filled Monticello with busts of Washington, pictures of Ben Franklin, artifacts that Lewis and Clark brought back from their expeditions.

So I think that not only was he a heroic person himself, but he believed in the concept of heroism for a new nation.

How do you balance his achievements with his shortcomings?

That’s some of the things the teachers are wrestling with: how do you present Jefferson to kids, particularly to African-American kids? It’s not easy. On one hand he was a racist, on the other he was far in advance of many Virginians in his views on slavery.

My own sense is that today we are in a too-dismissive and tearing down and denigrating phase in our culture. We live in an age of full disclosure, so there are no secrets hidden from kids anymore, and we tend to emphasize the failures and flaws rather than the achievements, and I see this with Jefferson. I think Jefferson is a complex, imperfect human being, but I think there’s a tendency, particularly in the historical profession, to remember his flaws more than his greatness.

It’s a culture that distrusts politicians, that distrusts men in power, and that spills over into our evaluation of historical figures. But at the same time, there’s an enormous interest in the Founding Fathers, there’s a keen appetite among the general public for information. But we are certainly looking at them in a more realistic way. When I was growing up, they were myths, icons, idols. In a tell-all society, it’s very difficult to have the same kind of heroes.

What do you hope participants will take away from this experience?

I would hope that teachers would get interested in his family life and know about his wonderful relationship with his daughters, for example — he wrote marvelous letters to his two surviving daughters. I hope they learn more about Jefferson as a friend — he had an enormous capacity for friendship; James Madison and James Monroe looked to him for guidance and inspiration. I think Jefferson was an incredibly wise man; he writes these letters to John Adams on what it’s like to grow old and writes these marvelous letters to his grandchildren on how he thinks it’s best to live.

I also was telling the students today that they should know he didn’t just come to his achievements because God gave him these great gifts. He was, by his own self-description, a “hard student” — when he was in college he literally put in 18-hour days and had this incredibly ambitious reading program.

And he was not only interested in self-improvement, but also in improving his country — I think he was a great patriot. But of the Founding Fathers he is probably the most contested. Washington did free his slaves in his will, and Ben Franklin had very advanced positions on slavery.

The other thing that I think kids don’t know about is that Jefferson died in debt — he died with debts that would probably equal $2 million today. But weighed against dying in debt would have to be the University of Virginia — here’s a man who, in his 70s, designs the university, picks the faculty, raises the money.

So I think there are all these different compartments of his mind you can tap into, because he really was a genius, in my opinion. I think genius is a proper word.