Thomas Jefferson: Reflections on the Enlightenment

When we reflect back on Jefferson’s life, we tend to focus on his association with the American Revolution, particularly as principal author of the Declaration of Independence. We may consider his monumental role in opening up the West (e.g. The Louisiana Purchase), as well as his time spent in various positions in government, including as two-term president of the United States.  What we may under appreciate, however, are the influences the 18th century Enlightenment had on his beliefs, actions, and even his character.

In the “dining room” of Thomas Jefferson’s retreat home of Poplar Forest, located in Forest, Virginia, there are features that seem to track nicely with the Enlightenment.  In that room, Thomas Jefferson commissioned artisan William Coffee to construct an entablature[i] resembling the one found in the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, the latter a Roman emperor of the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries A.D.  Like Diocletian’s entablature, Jefferson’s version included images of the “face” of the mythical Roman god, Apollo, although the Jefferson entablature also included ox skulls, something not part of the original Diocletian entablature.  More on that later. 


There is no known record as to why Jefferson decided to re-create the entablature of Diocletian, to include its bearing the likeness of Apollo.   However, during the Enlightenment, the image of Apollo was often used as a kind of metaphor representing illumination, especially the illumination of the mind through acquired knowledge and reason.

Even the great skylight, seen in the dining room at Poplar Forest, hints at a connection both to antiquity and to the Enlightenment. For example, the skylight is set in an east-west orientation, directly above a centrally positioned likeness of Apollo. In Greco-Roman mythology, Apollo moved the sun across the heavens in an east-west direction. Such a metaphoric representation may have been on Jefferson’s mind with his design, in addition to perhaps a more mundane interest of optimizing sunlight for practical purposes.  Thus, the dining hall is illuminated by light, while the mind is illuminated by the “light of reason.”

As Enlightenment scholar, Professor Dorinda Outram emphasized, “Enlightened people moved as a matter of course among words and images of radiance, of sunlight, illumination, and clarity.”[ii]  So did Thomas Jefferson.  

This brings us to the ox skulls and to Diocletian.  How might these relate to Jefferson and the Enlightenment?  Foremost, we do not know for certain if there is a connection.  However, in Roman times, ox skulls were symbolic of sacrifice. Perhaps Jefferson’s insistent addition of ox skulls was also intended as a metaphor, something pointing to self-sacrifice in service to the nation and liberty.  Finally, what about Diocletian?  The answer may lie in who was Diocletian.  Diocletian became emperor following a very tumultuous period in Roman history, referred to by historians as the Crisis of the Third Century.  Diocletian stabilized the empire by reorganizing the administration, restructuring the military, and advancing economic reforms such as lowering taxes.  Then he did something unheard of for almost any time in human history, much less during the period of the Roman Empire. Diocletian abdicated the throne voluntarily—walking away from Imperial power.  In a sense, on 4 March 1809, that is precisely what Thomas Jefferson did in following the peaceful transition of power previously institutionalized by both the Washington and Adams administrations.    

Upon further reflection, I wonder if President Jefferson’s entire Poplar Forest retreat was meant to be a kind of metaphoric grand temple of inexorably linked light and liberty: 

“…this ball of liberty, I believe most piously. Is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light and liberty go together.” –Thomas Jefferson (1 June 1795)

Dave Dietrich


Dave Dietrich served for over forty years as a professional national security analyst and educator at the international (NATO), national, and military service levels.  Since his retirement in 2015, he has been working both as an Assistant Professor of Political Science (adjunct) and as a volunteer docent at a Thomas Jefferson historical site.  Mr. Dietrich is also an occasional guest instructor at the School of Education of Johns Hopkins University (History of Intelligence).  He holds a Master of Science degree in Strategic Intelligence.  


[i] Photo Source, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, with permission


[ii] Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment; (New York: Cambridge University Press, 3d edition 2013); ISBN-978-1-107-02739-8, p. 37


The Parliamentary Manual

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After Jefferson became vice-president and presiding officer of the Senate, he was concerned there were no written procedural rules to which every member could easily refer. With the initiative that defined him in so many endeavors, he began the composition of a manual of parliamentary procedure.

By this time, Jefferson was a legislative veteran. He had served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, on a committee in the Continental Congress to draw up rules of procedure, and in the Virginia House of Delegates, before he reached the vice presidency. Beginning with his student days at William and Mary, he had acquired 40 years of notes on parliamentary procedure. “It is typical of Jefferson’s finely organized and persistent mind that the beginnings of the manual can be traced to his student days between 1760 and 1762 at William and Mary College.”[i]

 After he became president, Jefferson organized the manual and had it published in 1801. It was a small pocket-sized edition so that it could be readily accessible. Jefferson’s concern was with the rights of those in the minority. Adherence to standard rules and proceedings “operated as a check, and control on the actions of the majority, and … they were in many instances a shelter and protection to the minority, against the attempts of power.”[ii]

Even though this is a compilation of existing rules, and not an original devise, the intellectual effort required was prodigious and has often been overlooked. His desire to provide this manual reveals his passion for order and his sense of duty. He writes, “It is much more material that there shall be a rule to go by, then what the rule is.”[iii]

Excerpted from Thomas Jefferson and Philosophy, Edited by M Andrew Holowchak, “A Lawyer’s Path to a Legal Philosophy,” by Richard E Dixon, (Lexington Books, 2014)


[i] Thomas Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice (Applewood Books, 1801), vii, from the introduction by James Gilreath, American History Specialist, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library Of Congress.

[ii] Jefferson quoting Onslow, Speaker of the House of Commons: Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, 1.

[iii] Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, 2.

Northwest Ordinance

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 settled the claims of the Revolutionary War. It provided that “the said United States.” i.e., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, were “free sovereign and independent states.” In addition to the territory of the states, Article 2 further described the additional land west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River as the territory of the United States. This area was known as the Old Northwest.

The claims for this land had been in dispute for some time. After the French and Indian War, England issued its Proclamation of 1763 to assert dominion over this area and to prevent western migration by the colonists. Seven of the states took the position that their boundaries should be extended to encompass these lands. This claim created a dispute with the other six states, which felt that this would destroy the balance of influence and importance among the states.

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At this time, the new “United States” was governed by the Articles of Confederation adopted on March 1, 1781. To resolve the problem of how this new territory would be divided and governed, the Congress Assembled appointed a committee headed by Thomas Jefferson. He submitted what became the Northwest Ordinance of 1784 at the Statehouse in Annapolis, which then served as the Capitol of the new country. Jefferson provided a plan for division of the territory into ten states and for them to be admitted on an equal basis with the original states. He also included a provision banning slavery:

                That after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall neither be    slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states.

The ordinance was passed, but Jefferson’s prohibition against slavery failed by one vote and it was deleted.  Jefferson commented that, "The voice of a single individual ... would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country. Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven was silent in that awful moment!"

No states were formed under this ordinance and it was later supplanted by the Ordinance of 1785. The issue of having a plan for the territory became important again in 1787 when the Constitution convention did not want to deal with the issue of slavery. Jefferson was in Paris as the minister to France and did not participate in the decisions that led to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, but his prohibition against slavery was now included for the territory north of the Ohio River.

The issue of slavery was not fully resolved by the inclusion of Jefferson’s prohibition in the Ordinance of 1787. There were still Indian claims based on the guarantee of King George III that they would have the land west of the Appalachians. This was supported by the British traders who did not want the Indians displaced. The conflict eventually led to an Indian uprising under Tecumseh which was defeated by William Henry Harrison. It was not until the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent (1814) that it was finally recognized as United States territory.

It was not until 1865 when Jefferson’s words were included in the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution that slavery was outlawed in the United States. The states of Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were formed from the Old Northwest.


The Batture on the Mississippi River

Lawyers, no less than others, do not want to be sued. Thomas Jefferson was greatly upset when this occurred to him and tested his legal expertise. What became a stressful ordeal for him resulted from the claim by an Edward Livingston that he owned a batture, a stretch of beach along the Mississippi River. Jefferson, as president, on recommendation of the Attorney General, had ordered Livingston removed from the property. He retaliated by filing suit against Jefferson in the circuit court in Richmond. It added to Jefferson’s concern that John Marshall, in addition to his duties on the Supreme Court, was sitting in Richmond as the Circuit Court judge.

“Shocked at this unprecedented suit, Jefferson sprang into action. He hired three expert attorneys, George Hay, Littleton Waller Tazewell, and William Wirt. Jefferson had by then left the presidency, but he did not leave the matter to his lawyers. Jefferson proceeded to research and brief the legal issues, which Wirt praised as a “masterpiece of legal erudition.”

Livingston had been the US attorney in New York but while he was ill, a clerk appropriated funds from the office. Livingston accepted responsibility to repay these funds, but Jefferson would not give him time and demanded his resignation. Livingston surrendered his appointment and his property and moved to New Orleans, now in the new Louisiana Territory, to recoup his fortune.

Livingston was a formidable lawyer in his own right, and Jefferson sensed that animosity was behind Livingston’s claim against Jefferson personally, so Jefferson did not hesitate to use whatever defenses were available to him. It actually ended well with Livingston obtaining some portion of the land and reviving his career. John Tyler, the District Court judge, wrote an opinion with Marshall concurring that Jefferson could not be sued in Virginia for a cause of action arising out of land situated in the Louisiana Territory.

Jefferson was upset that the case did not go to trial. Still in a combative mood, he arranged for his brief to be published under the title, The Proceedings of the Government of the United States, in maintaining the Public Right to the beach of the Mississippi adjacent to New Orleans, Against the Intrusion of Edward Livingston.

A number of historians who have examined this case have faulted Jefferson for his treatment of Livingston. Indeed, legal maneuverings are always open to post hoc debate, but Jefferson had acted in the office of president, and was being sued personally for damages in the amount of $100,000. Livingston may have received the batture as a legal fee, so he would have been aware that the title was in dispute.

Jefferson was by now in his 70s and his legal career was four decades in the past, but his instincts remained. He approached the legal issues just as methodically as he did when a young lawyer in the General Court.

-Richard Dixon



TURNER: Jefferson’s legacy is worth defending


U.Va.’s founder contributed to the cause of human freedom

At the risk of offending 469 University faculty colleagues and students who protest University President Teresa Sullivan’s practice of quoting University founder Thomas Jefferson “in light of Jefferson’s owning of slaves and other racist beliefs,” I would submit another Jefferson quote:

“This institution [the University] will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Jefferson did not want to suppress “error,” but to allow competing claims to the truth to do battle in the intellectual marketplace of ideas. We call that “academic freedom.”

Facts affirm the wisdom of Jefferson’s vision in this instance. Censoring Sullivan’s references to Jefferson would impoverish our students and faculty alike, and — as is so often the case with censorship advocates — it is premised upon ignorance.

When Jefferson inherited slaves upon the deaths of his father and father-in-law, it was unlawfulin Virginia to free slaves without permission of the governor and his council based upon extraordinary service. In 1769, Jefferson drafted a statute permitting manumission of slaves — a rule finally enacted in 1782.

In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson denounced King George III for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere… ” The language was deleted to keep South Carolina and Georgia from walking out of the convention.

Among his other antislavery efforts, Jefferson drafted an amendment to prevent the importation of new slaves into Virginia that was enacted in 1778 — and proclaimed that all children born to slaves in Virginia after 1800 would be born free, and “should be brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts, or sciences according to their geniuses… ” That radical proposal was never introduced, because the votes clearly did not exist. Jefferson wanted to have it ready, knowing public opinion would eventually change.

Like virtually every other national leader of his generation — including many who, like Jefferson, spoke out passionately against the evils of slavery — Thomas Jefferson was a racist. But he was a reluctant racist. In a Feb. 25, 1809, letter to Henri Grégoire, Jefferson clarified:

“Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to the negro by nature . . . . But whatever be their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.”

As a member of the Second Continental Congress in 1787, Jefferson drafted rules for the governance of the Northwest Territories, Article Six of which read: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted… ” If the language sounds familiar, that’s because seven decades later the authors of the Thirteenth Amendment selected Jefferson’s language to honor his courageous struggle against slavery.

Today we face the sad spectacle of nearly 500 misinformed University professors and students seeking to ban the thoughts and words of Thomas Jefferson from our community. Will they demand next that the Law School remove the Thirteenth Amendment from textbooks because it embodies Jefferson’s words? Will they censor the writings of Aristotle because he, too, was a racist?

George Washington owned far more slaves than Jefferson and never once spoke out publicly against slavery. Washington did free his slaves in his will, but only after he and Martha died. Jefferson did not free his slaves in his will, because he was deeply in debt and Section 54 of the Revised Code of Virginia of 1819 prohibited the manumission of slaves until creditors had been fully compensated. Freeing his slaves upon his death in 1826 was simply not a legal option.

Some of the most respected American presidents of the 20th century were racists. Racism is a manifestation of ignorance, and all human beings are ignorant about many things. Some of the most visionary scientists of the ancient world were both racists and sincere believers that the Earth was flat. Should we ban their positive contributions from our schools because of their ignorance in other areas?

The answer to ignorance is not censorship, but education and enlightenment. Let us not censor those who would seek to suppress the views of Thomas Jefferson, but rather subject their thoughts to the intellectual marketplace and allow each member of our community to draw his or her own conclusions in their search for the truth.

Perhaps the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society would be willing to organize and host such a debate — I’ll be happy to take on the three most prominent champions of censorship, so long as I get equal time and adequate rebuttal time.

Robert Turner is a Law professor and editor of “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy.” He may be reached at

Jefferson and Thaddeus Kosciusko

 Colonel Thaddeus Kosciusko

Colonel Thaddeus Kosciusko

Thaddeus Kosciusko (pronounced KOO-chus-co) was freedom fighter, a colonel in the Continental Army, and close friend of Thomas Jefferson.  He became an American citizen, and several cities and counties in the U.S are named in his honor.

Trained as an engineer at the Royal Military Academy in Warsaw, he came from France to help the struggling American Army.  He fortified Philadelphia and was later assigned to Fort Ticonderoga. He was key to the victory at Saratoga, the first for the Americans, and a major turning point in the war.  

George Washington tasked him with the defense of West Point, a key stronghold for the struggling nation.  Kosciuszko’s brilliant defensive plan proved so effective that the British feared attacking.  It was his plans that Benedict Arnold tried to pass to the British when he turned traitor.

 President Jefferson wearing Colonel Kosciusko's gift

President Jefferson wearing Colonel Kosciusko's gift

When he returned to Poland, Kosciuszko gave his cloak, with a large, fur collar, to Thomas Jefferson as a token of their friendship. Jefferson reportedly wore it in the famous painting of our third president by Rembrandt Peale. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote of Kosciuszko,  “He is as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.”