In my latest post I shared my positive opinion of Joseph Ellis’s award winning book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Ellis ended his study by asking, “What, if any, are the values that the real person who was Thomas Jefferson embodied in his life that remain vital and viable over two centuries after he declared American independence?” Writing in the late 1990s, Ellis found only one that persists. “The principle that the government has no business interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices,” he concluded, “is the one specific Jeffersonian idea that has negotiated the passage from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century without any significant change in character or coloration.”

I would like to add one other dimension of American life in which I see Jefferson’s worldview alive and well. Over the course of my twenty-two years on the faculty at the University of Washington, I came to think of Jefferson as the patron saint of American higher education. If the modern secular university is not a product of Jefferson’s influence in a strictly causal sense, several aspects of his worldview are integral to its function and identity. Some have undoubtedly been positive in their effect, but two, at least, have been crippling: Today’s secular university (1) exalts reason but lacks a logical foundation for its dogmatic morals, and (2) exalts democracy but is averse to genuine pluralism. Both are classically Jeffersonian features.

Here’s what I mean:

First, when it comes to their moral arguments, both Jefferson and the twenty-first-century Academy embrace irrationality as the price of rationalism. Rationalism is a philosophy of knowledge that regards human reason as the only path to truth. It posits that the only way to make sense of the world is to put autonomous humans at the figurative center of the universe and rely on human reason to explain whatever it can.

To rationalism the contemporary secular university adds materialism, the unproven (and unprovable) assumption that outside of the physical world there is only nothingness. Everything is immanent, according to today’s secular Academy. Nothing is transcendent. The upshot is that “there is nothing outside the world that may explain anything within it,” to quote atheist intellectual Matthew Stewart.

From these dogma it follows that all moral values are human creations, or “social constructions” in academic jargon. Societies adopt them over time because they are useful or, more likely, because elites who “exercise hegemony” (wield power over the common folks) find them useful. By “deconstructing” these so-called values, academics claim to reveal the more fundamental power realities or social forces that underlie moral truth claims and explain what’s really going on.

And yet, at the same time today’s secular universities are awash in moral claims. Faculty and students speak glibly of “social justice” and “human rights.” They bemoan and condemn a plethora of social ills, from homelessness to human trafficking. This is surely one of the secular university’s most striking features: On the one hand, it rests on a theoretical foundation that denies the very possibility of objective moral truth. On the other, it promotes an academic culture characterized by pervasive, passionate moralizing.

Jefferson’s approach to moral values differed in the details but was similar at the bottom line. Jefferson’s starting point was what historian Gregg Frazer labels theistic rationalism. Frazer means that Jefferson was willing to concede the existence of God on logical grounds, but reason was always in the driver’s seat when it came to determining his religious beliefs. He rejected as irrational almost all of the fundamental tenets of orthodox Christianity (as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed, for example), was skeptical of the concept of special revelation, and insisted repeatedly that reason was the only reliable guide to virtue.

Thomas Jefferson, 1786, by artist Mather Brown

Thomas Jefferson, 1786, by artist Mather Brown

But whose reason? Well his own, of course. Following early eighteenth-century “Common Sense” philosophers, Jefferson insisted that men and women, by virtue of their humanity, possessed an innate moral sense that naturally led them to seek the good of others. If left free from external interference, this common moral sense would inevitably lead to social harmony. It goes without saying that Jefferson offered no evidence for this utterly hypothetical postulate. He seems to have believed it must be true because he wished it so and because he could imagine it from his writing desk. (Joseph Ellis writes that Jefferson was “accustomed to constructing interior worlds of great imaginative appeal that inevitably collided with more mundane realities. Rather than adjust his expectations in the face of disappointment,” Ellis finds that Jefferson “tended to . . . regard the disjunction between his ideals and worldly imperfections as the world’s problem rather than his own.”)

At the same time, it is clear that Jefferson took for granted that the liberation of the moral sense would free men and women to behave more and more according to his values. As Ellis describes him, Jefferson was convinced that anyone who was both intelligent and informed would look at the world exactly as he did. Although he would begrudgingly acknowledge the occasional exception (John and Abigail Adams come to mind), Jefferson instinctively believed that anyone who disagreed with him was either misinformed or malevelent.

Which brings me to my second point. As Ellis concludes, even a cursory examination of Jefferson’s views of his political opponents reveals “how alien Jefferson was to the pluralistic ethos so central to modern-day political liberalism, which accords respect to fundamentally different values and defines integrity as a civil, if spirited dialogue among opposing ideas.” A perfect example would be Jefferson’s approach to the creation of the University of Virginia. In his final years, Jefferson devoted the lion’s share of his time and energy to the project. The proposed institution—seated barely four miles from Monticello—was to be his living legacy, the institutional embodiment of his philosophical and educational ideals.

More to the point, he was determined that the new university promote his political values as well. Jefferson gushed to a correspondent that “the hobby of my old age will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.” But when rumors reached him that a leading candidate for the school’s professor of government was at heart a Federalist (i.e., a member of the opposing political party), Jefferson reached the limits of his own commitment to “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

In February 1825 Jefferson wrote to his old political ally, James Madison, who was also on the original governing board of the institution. Jefferson noted that he had long believed that the new faculty hires should be left free to choose their own textbooks and approach their subjects of expertise as they thought best. “But there is one branch in which I think we are the best judges,” Jefferson told Madison offhandedly, a field of such importance “as to make it a duty in us to lay down the principles which are to be taught. It is that of government.” Noting that the government professorship could conceivably go to a “rank Federalist,” Jefferson now considered it “a duty to guard against danger by a previous prescription of the texts to be adopted.” In sum, academic freedom was all well and good—as long as it reinforced Jefferson’s political convictions. To his credit, Madison convinced his friend to drop the idea.

If a “rank Federalist” might someday teach government at Jefferson’s university, he made sure that an orthodox Christian would never be appointed as Professor of Divinity. His stratagem for insuring this was simple: there would be no professorship of Divinity. At a time when almost every college in America was overtly church-related and had a minister as its president, Jefferson’s university would be different. Intentionally secular in its vision and design, the school would have neither church nor chapel. Jefferson’s “academical village” would be laid out in such a way as to take the eye naturally not to a house of God but to a temple of knowledge, to the Rotunda—modeled on the pagan Pantheon of Rome—which housed the school library.

The Rotunda, modeled on the Roman Pantheon, overlooks Jefferson's

The Rotunda, modeled on the Roman Pantheon, overlooks Jefferson’s “academical village”

With seeming willful obtuseness, David Barton insists that Jefferson’s goal was to create the first truly “transdenominational” school, that he wanted UVA to be robustly Christian, just not associated directly with any particular denomination. Nothing could be further from the truth. In confining religion in the curriculum to a course in “natural theology” to be taught by the Professor of Ethics, Jefferson was insuring that students would be inculcated in theistic rationalism, not Christian orthodoxy. Furthermore, in the very structure of the curriculum they would be reminded daily of the Jeffersonian dogma that revealed religion was irrelevant to the life of the mind.

In sum, Jefferson exalted the “illimitable freedom of the human mind” but balked at instruction that might challenge his political values. He wanted students to explore “every subject susceptible of . . . contemplation” unless that included religious beliefs that he rejected. That he saw no contradiction or inconsistency in these positions is testimony to what Ellis describes as Jefferson’s “capacity to keep secrets from himself.”

That same capacity pervades today’s secular universities. I had many wonderful colleagues at the University of Washington, men and women of integrity and kind and generous spirits, but overall the school was relentlessly homogeneous in its political values and worldview, especially so among its faculty. As is true across the Academy more generally, the school aggressively promoted “diversity,” by which it meant an equitable distribution of students and faculty by race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, among other categories, but it was deafeningly silent when it came to the value of intellectual or ideological diversity.

Jefferson would have understood.



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  4. Thanks for another great post. You did throw me a bit by throwing Barton into the mix out of nowhere. However, it did lead to me to review a couple of the things that Barton has written in defending his views on Jefferson.

    Along the lines of “obtuseness” again, he declares that what the “elites” don’t like about him is that he “makes history uncomplicated”. Seven or eight years ago I might have given him a pat on the back for “stickin’ it to the rascally professorial elites” (tic) and putting them in their place. But that was then. Now I find such as claim as “uncomplicated” history to be one of the most uneducated statements one can make. Uncomplicated history is nice if you need to use it as ammunition, but claiming history is “uncomplicated” would seem to denigrate those that have lived before us by almost presuming that they didn’t live unique and varied lives, but ones that were homogenous enough so as to claim that it is easy to look back on their “uncomplicated” lives and easily make claims about them.

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