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Jefferson passed down his ideas instead, many of them still fresh and controversial (the complete separation of church and state, the suspicion that money would conspire with power to establish a sinister homegrown aristocracy), a few of them outlandish and fanciful (his suggestion that the Constitution be revisited every 19 years so that each generation could establish its own government) and a couple of them that were repugnant even to some folks in his day (for example, his pseudoscientific notion that blacks are the mental inferiors of whites). All of them are impossible to ignore, though, because of the care he took in writing them down.
"He wanted to order the world with words," says R.B. Bernstein, an adjunct professor at New York Law School and one of Jefferson's countless biographers. "He also tried to order American history and politics through his words. He argues about checks and balances, what equal means, what liberty means, what freedom of the press means. His command of language really does shape our intellectual, political and philosophical worlds."
But Jefferson was a man of action too. In the 1790s, he became convinced that the Revolution was being betrayed by "deserters from the rights and interests of the people," led by the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, a fellow Cabinet member. A political brawl ensued. Jefferson helped found and back a friendly newspaper, the National Gazette, to help disseminate his views. He and his collaborator James Madison hurled pointed charges at his foes and assembled an influential coalition to oppose what he called "aristocrats" and "monocrats." His aggressive behavior, and Hamilton's, finally drew formal rebukes from the consensus-loving President Washington, but Jefferson did not back down.
To play the enlightening, fascinating and occasionally disquieting game of trying to picture Jefferson now and apply his ideas and policies to 21st century American issues, one first has to imagine a sort of figure who hasn't existed for a long, long time and seems unlikely to appear again soon: a philosopher-President. The son of wealthy, high-born, landed parents, Jefferson trained as a lawyer in the days when this meant memorizing and analyzing centuries worth of British common law. Along the way, he mastered Latin and Greek, several of the leading European languages and enough philosophy, science and mathematics that during his term as John Adams' Vice President, he was also chosen to head the American Philosophical Society. It was to this group that Jefferson, a self-trained paleontologist, presented one of his prize possessions: the fossilized bones of a prehistoric creature he called Megalonyx. Jefferson thought it was a huge, lion-like carnivore, but it turned out to be, alas, a giant ground sloth.