The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson

A Course with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

Seven Tuesdays, January 12 to February 23

“If we are made in some degree for others, yet in a greater are we made for ourselves. It were contrary to feeling and indeed ridiculous to suppose a man had less right in himself than one of his neigbors or all of them put together. This would be slavery and not that liberty which the (British) bill of rights has made inviolable and for the preservation of which our government has been changed. Nothing could so completely divest us of that liberty as the establishment of the opinion that the state has a perpetual right to the services of all its members. This to men of certain ways of thinking would be to annihilate the blessing of existence; to contradict the giver of life who gave it for happiness and not for wretchedness, and certainly to such it were better that they had never been born.”  — Thomas Jefferson, 1782.

Jefferson embodied for his contemporaries two related ideals: political freedom or self-government, and the Enlightenment’s dedication to reason.  He had the mind and the interests of a scientist, but, opportunities for science being limited in the colonies, under the pressure of political events he turned to the law and politics, at some cost to himself.  His favorite pastime was music, yet for it also there were no worthwhile possibilities, he said.  He loved domestic life with his wife Martha, yet she died after only ten years of marriage, leaving him a lonely man for the rest of his life.  He was a philosophical thinker, indeed he could be classified as a philosophe, yet he did not bring his ideas into an ordered system; his insights must be sought where they are scattered throughout his writings. Yet it can be argued that he has had more of an effect on the ideals and the history of his country than any of the other founders of the nation.

In this course we studied Jefferson’s main public statements, parts of the Notes on the State of Virginia, and a number of private letters, with special consideration of his views on the Constitution.