I spent Presidents' Day thinking about the best and worst presidents in American history. I don’t put Mr. Jefferson in the top five of our greatest Presidents, maybe not even in the top ten. However, he was, I feel, the greatest man who ever became President of the United States—he’s America’s Leonardo da Vinci—but he did not particularly want to be President, and he had a decidedly understated two-term tenure between 1801 and 1809.
Jefferson’s goal as President was to reduce the size of the national government, to reduce the size of the Army and Navy, to restore power to state authorities, and to reduce the national debt as severely as possible. He would have liked to create what he called “internal improvements”—a national museum and a national university—but he refused to spend money the nation didn’t yet have, and he believed that even such desirable projects must be pre-authorized by constitutional amendments. This is hardly a formula for presidential greatness.
As an ardent believer in a republican form of government, Jefferson distrusted the idea of a strong national executive. He believed in legislative supremacy. The people of America were sovereign, and the branch of the nation government closest to the people was the legislative branch, particularly the House of Representatives. One hundred years later, Theodore Roosevelt believed in taking all the authority granted to the President by the Constitution and as much more as he could get away with. Jefferson, by contrast, was an executive minimalist.
Still, Mr. Jefferson had the good sense to accept Napoleon’s offer of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803—perhaps the making moment of America’s transcontinental destiny—and he sent the Lewis & Clark Expedition out to take an inventory of the Great Plains and the American West.
In my view, the greatest Presidents in American history were men Jefferson would not have approved of: Lincoln, who held the union together with armed force and freed slaves by executive order; Theodore Roosevelt, the first modern President, who brought the American people into the 20th century and world arena sometimes kicking and screaming; FDR, who created the welfare state.
Jefferson’s list of greatest Presidents would have included George Washington, whom he revered even though he believed the Father of our Country stayed on the national stage about four years too long; and James Madison, his protégé and collaborator, who pursued a faithful adaptation of Jefferson’s idealistic principles, and helped the master establish what is known as the Virginia Dynasty—Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—that governed America for a quarter of a century and meanwhile created the world class University of Virginia to boot.
One of my old history professors, David Noble of the University of Minnesota, used to say that in the American pantheon George Washington is God the Father, Abraham Lincoln is God the Son, and Thomas Jefferson is the Holy Spirit. That is a great insight. Jefferson is the author of American Exceptionalism. He is the author of the American Dream, although my dream house does not quite rise to the whimsical grandeur of Monticello. He gave us our wall of separation between church and state. He provided the greatest expressions we have of freedom of the press and what he called “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.” He made the Library of Congress a universal rather than a narrow law library. He designed the template for secular higher education in the United States on orderly campuses—his academical village in Charlottesville—and he inaugurated the classical style for our most important public buildings, beginning with the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia.
Most of this was done when Jefferson was not the President of the United States. I repeat: Jefferson was the greatest man who was ever President, and our debt to him is truly incalculable.
And yet, if one person had to come off of Mount Rushmore—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt—the one to scrape away would be Jefferson. He was too modest for that sort of monumentalism, and he loved nature too much to deface it with heroic sculpture. Besides, he wanted America to celebrate its people, not create a pantheon of secular saints who look down at us from the empyrean.
The public domain photograph of Mount Rushmore National Memorial is courtesy NPS Natural Resources. Edited by staff.