JEFFERSON’S FAITH IN THE NEW GENERATION
“…SO ENTIRELY AM I WITHDRAWN FROM…PUBLIC AFFAIRS…TO LEAVE THEM TO THE GENERATION IN PLACE, IN WHOSE HANDS FROM THE ADVANCING STATE OF KNOWLEDGE, THEY WILL BE AT LEAST AS WISELY CONDUCTED AS THEY HAVE BEEN BY THEIR PREDECESSORS.”
President of the United States.
Autograph Letter Signed, one page, quarto, Monticello, January 31, 1819. To William Tudor. With his Autograph Free Frank, free / Th:Jefferson, on the separate address leaf.
“Your favor of the 13th was received on the 24th and I extremely regret that it is not in my power to give you any information on the subject of Mr James Otis. My acquaintance with the Eastern characters began with the first Congress. Mr Otis not being a member, I had never any personal acquaintance or correspondence with him. Colo. Richard Henry Lee of Westmoreland county had, I know, an active correspondence, from the early dawn of our revolution, with gentlemen of that quarter, and with none more probably than Mr Otis, who was then so conspicuous in the principles of the day. It is probable that he preserved Mr Otis’s letters, and that his family now possesses them. Of them I have no knowlege, as their residence is in a part of the state very remote from mine. But a certain & easy channel for your communication with them would be thro’ any member of Congress from your state, and the member from the Westmoreland district of ours. Who he is, I cannot tell you, so entirely am I withdrawn from all attention to public affairs, and so thoroughly satisfied to leave them to the generation in place, in whose hands from the advancing state of knowlege, they will be at least as wisely conducted as they have been by their predecessors. With this scanty information, all however which I possess, I pray you to accept the assurance of my high respect and esteem.”
A remarkable letter written ten years after Thomas Jefferson retired as the third President of the United States, in a very clear hand, to the author of a book about one of the early revolutionaries. The letter is significant for the equanimity with which Jefferson characterizes the passing of the political and leadership torch from his generation to the next. From the Founding Father whose forceful, facile pen gave him great influence from the first, and whose ability with words and ideas led to the honor of writing the Declaration of Independence, this is a humble letter.
It is a clear expression of Jefferson’s faith in the honesty of the people, and in their common sense, which he believed should be won by appealing to the reason of the voters. Jefferson believed that by education, ignorance can be eliminated and that human nature is indefinitely perfectible. In this letter, Jefferson references “the advancing state of knowledge” as a reason to feel sanguine about the future of the republic he was instrumental in creating.
Thomas Jefferson was right, of course. More than two hundred years later, the ideas he advocated and set to paper have become the very foundation of modern America. By his own labors as President, he vindicated his faith in the experiment of self-government. Might there be future revolutionaries, as he had once been? Jefferson did not seem to fear this possibility, trusting that the ideas and systems of his generation were large enough and flexible enough to contain this eventuality.
Jefferson’s mind was the most receptive of his time. His range of interests was remarkable. The author of the Declaration of Independence respected thinking and thinkers. Though professing faith in the next generation, Jefferson did expect to influence the outcome, in a very Jeffersonian way – through education. The year he wrote this letter, he founded the University of Virginia (which opened in 1825). It is notable for being centered around a library, not a church. Jefferson wanted his new institution of higher learning to be free of church influences and to allow students (regardless of financial means) to specialize in areas not offered at other universities.
The epitaph on Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone, which he authored, states: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statue of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the university of Virginia.” This is what he humbly thought would last, from generation to generation.
William Tudor, to whom Thomas Jefferson is responding, was a founder of the Boston Athenaeum, active in the Massachusetts Historical Society, and engaged in research for his biography, The Life of James Otis of Massachusetts (published in 1823).
James Otis of Massachusetts was a lawyer in colonial Massachusetts and a member of the Massachusetts provincial assembly. He represented pro bono colonial merchants who were challenging the legality of the “writs of assistance” (which allowed British authorities to enter any colonist’s home with no advance notice, no probably cause and no reason given). Otis is credited with the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”