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Last Updated: Monday, 21 August 2006, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
Restoring Jefferson's reputation
David Cannadine
By David Cannadine

US President Thomas Jefferson's reputation has taken a battering in recent years, but his towering intellect and secular rationalism wouldn't go amiss today.

Mount Rushmore
Restoration work on Jefferson's sculpture at Mount Rushmore
According to a recent poll, more Americans have heard of Harry Potter than can name the British prime minister. This may seem an affront to our national pride, but it shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

Through films and books, Harry Potter must have made a far greater impact on American life and culture than anything Tony Blair has done or said. And once they become yesterday's men, our prime ministers often fade into almost complete obscurity: who today has much to say about Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman or Andrew Bonar Law or Sir Alec Douglas-Home?

Yet a select group of American superstar presidents are if anything even more famous in death than ever they were in life. Their homes are historic sites: Mount Vernon for Washington, Lincoln's birthplace, and Hyde Park on the Hudson for Franklin Roosevelt.

There are gigantic memorials in the federal capital: an obelisk for Washington, a temple for Lincoln, a performing arts centre for John F Kennedy. And their papers are published in multi-volume editions: five so far for James Madison, and 69 for Woodrow Wilson.

Among British prime ministers, only Winston Churchill can compete with such sustained and determined commemorative endeavour.

During the 20th century, a new form of presidential memorial became institutionalised in America, and that was the presidential library. The first of them was established for Franklin Roosevelt, and there are today 11 such monuments, encompassing his successors, and also Herbert Hoover, the incumbent he'd defeated in November 1932.

For any president, concerned with how history will eventually judge him, the presidential library is the most important legacy he can leave behind. In architectural terms, these libraries have ranged from the unpretentious to the grandiose. Someone once told me that the John F Kennedy Library in Boston was just this side of idolatry, whereas the Lyndon Johnson Library at Austin in Texas was emphatically the other side; and having seen both of them myself, I'm rather inclined to agree.

Presidential libraries serve several different purposes, and they're not easily reconciled.

They're a shrine to a former first citizen of the republic, and many presidents, among them Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, are buried in the grounds of their libraries. In their guides, their displays and their commentaries, they seek to give a positive appraisal of the man they memorialise. But this is not always easy for administrations which ended badly, as with Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam, and Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky, or which ended abruptly after one term or less, as with Herbert Hoover or Gerald R Ford.

Bill Clinton's
The Bill Clinton library in Little Rock
Yet they're also meant to be major research centres for disinterested scholarly inquiry, gathering together not only the president's papers but also those of his cabinet colleagues, advisors and assistants. So it's scarcely surprising that there have been some difficulties in establishing a Richard Nixon Presidential Library, and this won't be finally accomplished until the infamous Watergate tapes are transferred from Washington to Nixon's birthplace at Yorba Linda in California.

There were no such presidential libraries for the founding fathers of the American republic, but Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president, has been commemorated in every other possible way.

His house, Monticello, in Virginia, which he designed himself, is both a national shrine and a World Heritage site. At the University of Virginia, which he founded in 1817, he's still referred to in hushed tones as "Mr Jefferson". His memorial in Washington is a classical rotunda, replete with a statue and quotations from his most inspiring and uplifting writings.

In the company of presidents Washington, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Jefferson's face was carved on a gigantic scale on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota during the 1930s. His biography, by Dumas Malone, runs to six volumes, and took more than 30 years to complete, and the project of publishing his papers, based at Princeton University, seems set to last for about as long as Jefferson himself was alive.

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson: Governor, secretary of state, vice president, president
This is an extraordinary level of memorialising, but then, Thomas Jefferson was an extraordinary man. His record of public service is unsurpassed by any American president: he was governor of Virginia, he was secretary of state under George Washington, he was vice president under John Adams, and he was eventually his own president for two full terms.

He drafted a bill passed by the Virginia state legislature enshrining religious freedom, he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and as president, he acquired Louisiana from France in 1803. But public life was only Jefferson's day job. In his spare time, he was a scientist, an agriculturalist, a linguist, an architect: indeed there was scarcely any intellectual pursuit to which he could not turn. It was a remarkably distinguished and versatile life, and Jefferson rounded it off to perfection, by dying on the fourth of July 1826 -- the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the same day as his predecessor, John Adams.

Jefferson's posthumous reputation was at its peak from the 1920s to the 1960s. Those years saw the preservation and restoration of Monticello, the construction of his memorial in Washington at the behest of Franklin Roosevelt, the completion of the great biography by Dumas Malone, and the launching of the project to publish all his papers, however long it took.

Jefferson was a particular favourite of John F Kennedy, who especially admired his combination of cool rationality and high-style rhetoric. On one occasion, JFK invited a group of Nobel Prize winners to dinner at the White House, and during the course of his speech of welcome, he observed that this was the greatest assemblage of talent and brain-power gathered together for a meal in the presidential mansion since Jefferson had last eaten there alone.

Kenneth Clark
Kenneth Clark gave much credit for US's success to Jefferson
I first encountered Thomas Jefferson as an historical personality when watching Kenneth Clark's series, Civilisation, which aired on British television during the spring of 1969. The 10th of Clark's 13 programmes was called The Smile of Reason, and it was concerned with that period of European history known as the Enlightenment.

Clark looked at intellectual and artistic developments in England and Scotland and France, he described the triumph of religious toleration and the virtues of secular reason, and he spoke of the Enlightenment's indebtedness to Renaissance humanism. By the standards of the time, Clark had a large budget for making his series, and he ended this particular episode, not in Europe, but in America, in Thomas Jefferson's Virginia.

According to Clark, the United States was a nation created on the Enlightenment principles of secular rationality and religious freedom, and it was Jefferson who had made this possible.

The years since then have not dealt so kindly with Jefferson's reputation. These days, the Enlightenment, of which he was a transatlantic product and ornament, is now denounced by many non-western scholars as something wholly bad, for they regard it as the means by which Europeans created and manipulated knowledge to achieve and legitimate their power over the whole of the globe.

DIY design: Jefferson's home, Monticello
In the United States, the religious right is in full cry, and almost half of all Americans believe the Bible story about the creation of the world in seven days. In such a climate of opinion, Jefferson's brand of detached, sceptical rationalism seems to many at best outmoded, at worst wicked. His ideas of freedom and equality have also been criticised for their prejudice.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson may have urged that all men were created equal, but this noble vision was confined to white males, and it didn't encompass white women or blacks. To make matters worse, Jefferson had owned slaves on his Monticello estate, and in 1998 great controversy was aroused when it was alleged that he might have fathered an illegitimate child by one of them.

Yet there's one place where Jefferson remains a presiding deity, and that's the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

Almost 200 years on, it's no longer exactly the academy he founded. It began as a finishing school for Virginia gentlemen, who lived in close contact with their professors, and who brought their slaves to look after them while they studied.

Nowadays, UVA is one of the great intellectual power houses of the United States, and the student body is highly diverse, in terms of its social background, the gender balance and the ethnic mix. But Jefferson's influence remains. A plan to put up some new buildings in a modern style was recently rejected in favour of a scheme that was consistent with Jefferson's original classical architecture. And the university has always honoured its founder's vision that the library was a more important place than any chapel or church.

Thomas Jefferson may no longer be quite the unblemished hero he once was. But as we contemplate our own world riven by sectarian conflict and religious hatred, we could certainly use some of his cool, sceptical rationalism just now.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

On a recent trip to the US, and my first visit to DC, the place I wanted visit more than anywhere was the Jefferson Memorial. He has been, with some other notables including Thomas Paine, an inspiration for myself as a secular humanist. True heroes are a myth, but people who significantly change the world for the better should be remembered.
Neil McIntosh, Cambridge, UK

Comparing US Presidents with UK Prime Ministers isn't entirely rational. Presidents are both Heads of State and Heads of Government, with a level of personal power over policy, government and patronage unheard of in Britain. To be accurate, one should compare the degree of remembrance and memorial of British Royals and PMs with that given to US Presidents.
Andrew, Aylesbury, UK

One word above all others sums up the genius Thomas Jefferson - liberty. The ability of the human spirit to reach new heights and his words allowed an evolution of liberty down the ages.
Andrew Yale, Notting Hill, London

I think the comment on Kennedy library was dead on; moreover, what¿s more striking to me is how dead on your comments on Kennedy's Nobel laureates dinner truly are. All American presidents had major faults, Jefferson, JFK included, but that quote shows a respect for rational/intellectually curious thought at the highest levels of American government that is just lacking in US society and government today; if we don't become a more rational/intellectually curious people soon, I do fear for the republic.
Paul, Boston, Massachusetts, US

It's easy to find heroes in history; we can forget their weaknesses and concentrate only on those things we admire. Despite his detractors, I've long been an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and would love to see his like return to politics. Now more than ever we need to choose the men and women in our government based on their intellect, wisdom, knowledge and skills, not on their looks and personality. We need to be governed by people who are able to govern, not merely by people who fancy the idea of being MPs and who see the tedious business of actually running our country as a boring inconvenience that gets in the way of their media careers and non-executive directorships. As for Enlightenment, I agree entirely that with so many conflicting religions shouting to be heard, removing religious belief from government is the only way forward in the modern world.
Dave Johnstone, Bristol UK

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