Annette Gordon-Reed Reviews Alan Taylor's Book Thomas Jefferson's Education for The Atlantic

Historians in the News
tags: books, Jefferson, Annette Gordon Reed

ANNETTE GORDON-REED is the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School. She is a co-author, with Peter S. Onuf, of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.

Thomas jefferson had a severe case of New England envy. Though that region had formed the most consistent bloc of opposition to him and his political party, almost from the beginning of his time on the national stage, he admired many things about the place. First and foremost, he looked with longing toward New England’s system of town meetings, which gathered citizens together to discuss and make decisions about their local communities. Jefferson considered this form of participatory democracy crucial to building and maintaining a healthy republican society.

And then there was the region’s profusion of educational institutions. Jefferson admired those as well—even if he did not always agree with what was being taught there. The hard work of democracy, including well-ordered community decision making, required an educated populace. That is why he waged a campaign for a system of publicly supported education in Virginia for many years. In the late 1770s, while serving in the Virginia General Assembly, Jefferson proposed a bill that would provide at least a rudimentary level of education to all the children in the state—white children, of course. Among his goals was that talented youths would be, as he rather uncharitably put it, “raked from the rubbish” and given additional schooling at public expense. That proposal (along with his advocacy of making land available to the poor) went nowhere; legislators, understanding their constituents’ preferences, balked at raising taxes to pay for a communal effort to educate the state’s children.

The Revolution and the creation of the United States of America broadened Jefferson’s vision in many ways, and by his mid-40s, he had taken to insisting that the job of reforming Virginia—above all, ending slavery, a system in which he participated—would fall to “the rising generation.” He and his fellows in the revolutionary generation had done their service by founding a new country. It was now up to the young people who inherited that legacy to carry the torch and continue the advancement of what he considered Enlightenment values. But Jefferson could not totally bow out of the quest to transform the place he was born and had long thought of as his “country.” After 25 years in national public service, he was at last able to return to the project in 1809, and he did so decidedly in his own way.

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