Notable Comments on Jefferson - 19th Century

1823 June 17. (James Fenimore Cooper). "You know my antipathies, as you please to call them, to Mr. Jefferson. I was brought up in that school where his image seldom appeared, unless it was clad in red breeches, and where it was always associated with the idea of infidelity and political heresy...In short I saw nothing but Jefferson, standing before me, not in red breeches and slovenly attire, but a gentleman, appearing in all republican simplicity, with a grace and ease on the canvas..."[1]

1826 July 12. (Dabney Carr Jr. to Nicholas Philip Trist). "The loss of Mr. Jefferson is one over which the whole world will mourn. He was one of those ornaments and benefactors of the human race, whose death forms an epoch, and creates a sensation throughout the whole circle of civilized man...To me he has been more than a father, and I have ever loved and reverenced him with my whole heart...Taken as a whole, history presents nothing so grand, so beautiful, so peculiarly felicitous in all the great points, as the life and character of Thomas Jefferson."[2]

1826 August 3. (Ralph Waldo Emerson). "Yesterday I attended the funeral solemnities in Fanueil Hall in honor of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The oration of Mr. Wester was worthy of his fame and what is much more was worthy of the august occasion."[3]

1830 September 24. (James Fenimore Cooper). "Passed the day in reading Jefferson's letters. I cannot say but the perusal of this book has elevated the man in my estimation. He discovers an equanimity of temper, and a philosophical tone of mind, that are admirable. Some of his remarks are of the first order, and nothing can be better than his diplomatic language; frank, courteous, and reasoning..."[4]

1835. (Alexis de Tocqueville). "Jefferson himself, the greatest democrat whom the democracy of America has as yet produced..."[5]

1836 March. (Edgar Allan Poe, review of Francis Hawks Ecclesiastical History of the U.S.). "No respect for the civil services, or the unquestionable mental powers of Jefferson shall blind us to his iniquities."[6]

1837 January. (Edgar Allan Poe). "The sage, who had conceived and matured the plan of the expedtion to the far west, in his instructions to its commander under his own signature, has left us a model worthy of all imitation...The doubts of some politicians, that this government has no power to encourage scientific inquiry, most assuredly had no place in the mind of that great apostle of liberty, father of democracy, and strict constructionist!...The character and value of that paper are not sufficiently known. Among all the records of his genius, his patriotism, and his learning, to be found in our public archives, this paper deserves to take, and in time will take rank, second only to the Declaration of our Independence. The first, embodied the spirit of our free institutions, and self-government; the latter, sanctioned those liberal pursuits, without a just appreciation of which, our institutions cannot be preserved, or if they can, would be scarcely worth preserving."[7]

1846. (Edgar Allen Poe). [An essay by William Kirkland] "demonstrates the truth of Jefferson's assertion, that in this country, which has set the world an example of physical liberty, the inquisition of popular sentiment overrules in practice the freedom asserted in theory by the laws."[8]

1857. (Thomas Babington Macaulay to Henry Randall). "You are surprised to learn that I have not a high opinion of Mr. Jefferson...I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilisation, or both...Thinking thus, of course, I cannot reckon Jefferson among the benefactors of mankind. I readily admit that his intentions were good and his abilities considerable. Odious stories have been circulated about his private life; but I do not know on what evidence those stories rest; and I think it probable that they are false, or monstrously exaggerated."[9]

1859 April 6. (Abraham Lincoln to Henry L. Pierce and other). "The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society...This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it. All honor to Jefferson - to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression."[10]

1864 November 17. (Frederick Douglass, Address in Baltimore). "The fathers of this republic waged a seven years war for political liberty. Thomas Jefferson taught me that my bondage was, in its essence, worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose..."[11]

1872 July 24. (Frederick Douglass, Address in Richmond). "It was, Virginia, your own Thomas Jefferson that taught me that all men are created equal."[12]

1889. (Henry Adams). "A few broad strokes of the brush would paint the portraits of all the early Presidents with this exception, and a few more strokes would answer for any member of their many cabinets; but Jefferson could be painted only touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows."[13]

1893 March. (Frederick Douglass, Address to the Indian Industrial School). "Mr. Jefferson, among other statesmen and philosophers, while he considered slavery an evil, entertained a rather low estimate of the negro's mental ability. He thought that the negro might become learned in music and in language, but that mathematics were quite out of the question with him...The reply of Mr. Jefferson is the highest praise [on Benjamin Banneker] I wish to bestow upon this black self-made man...Jefferson was not ashamed to call the black man his brother and to address him as a gentleman."[14]

Footnotes

  1. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1960-1968), 1:95-96.
  2. Randall, Life, 3:551.
  3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson]. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press), 1963), 3:29.
  4. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1960-1968), 2:31-32.
  5. Democracy in America (New York: Walker, 1850), 205. (The book was first published in 1835, although the edition we link to here is one from 1850.)
  6. Poe: Essays and Reviews (New York: Library of America, 1984), 565.
  7. Ibid, 1246-1247.
  8. Ibid, 1124.
  9. Francis Rosenberger, ed. Jefferson Reader. (New York: Dutton, 1955), p. 270-263.
  10. Roy Basler, ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 3:375-376.
  11. John W. Blassingame and John McKivigan, eds. The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, Speeches, Debates, and Interviews (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), 4:42.
  12. Ibid., 4:307.
  13. History of the United States during the First Administration of America, during the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson. (New York: Scribners, 1889), 1:277.
  14. Douglass, 5:567.

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