The second anniversary is the approaching 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth, which will be marked in many ways during the coming months. Indeed, the observances have already begun, with a major scholarly conference at the University of Virginia in October. Whether the word “revolution” properly applies to the legacy of Thomas Jefferson is not in doubt.
Jefferson was, of course, the quintessential man of parts—not only drafter of the Declaration of Independence and President of the United States but also architect, naturalist, humanist, musician, agronomist, educator. The roundedness and depth of Jefferson’s learning is an aspect of his character that most Americans know at least by repute—and the one to which John F. Kennedy alluded in his famous toast at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” But Jefferson was also a human being, who confronted moral quandaries—sometimes, as in the case of slavery, confronting them in ways that today are difficult to comprehend. Douglas L. Wilson, a historian and the author of The Atlantic*, January, 1991, cover story, “What Jefferson and Lincoln Read,” examines Jefferson in the light of what we today call the character issue. And he warns against the dangers of “presentism”—of reading meaning into history through the lens of a modern sensibility. Wilson’s article in this issue is the first of several that we hope to offer about Jefferson in the coming year.