Thomas Jefferson will ever haunt us. The right eyes him suspiciously as a limousine Jacobin so enamored of revolution that he once suggested we should have one every 20 years. The left disdains him as your basic race hypocrite. And in the popular imagination, inflamed by Hollywood, the man is Mr. Sally Hemings.
All these views wildly miss the mark because no one view can begin to comprehend so large a man. In everything--talent, imagination, writing, indeed, curiosity--Jefferson was prodigious, Continental and, hence, supremely American.
The Library of Congress bicentennial exhibit of Jefferson's books and writings offers a splendid display of the vastness and the complexities of the man. The complexity begins, of course, with the central contradiction: prophet of freedom, owner of slaves. You see in his own hand the journal entry deploring the removal from the Declaration of Independence, at the insistence of Georgia and South Carolina, of the clause condemning African slavery. You recall the famous line regarding slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
But then there is that most peculiar door at Monticello, the revolving serving door outside the dining room. One side has shelves. The other is flat. Food would be brought up from the basement kitchen and placed on the shelves on the outer side of the door. It would then be swung around. What did Jefferson and his guests see? Dinner, minus the slaves who prepared it.
Jefferson resorted to many devices, architectural and intellectual, to enjoy the bounties of plantation life without having to face its injustices. He was more clear-sighted, however, in facing that other American conundrum, the Native American. Jefferson had great respect for the Indians. He considered them the equal of the white man. And yet he fully understood that America would have to be built at their expense. Hence his remarkable letter to Benjamin Hawkins on Aug. 13, 1786: "The two principles on which our conduct towards the Indians should be founded are justice and fear...After the injuries we have done them, they cannot love us."
Justice and fear. What modern politician would be bold enough to characterize foreign policy so starkly? "Behind every great fortune there is a crime," said Balzac. Behind every great nation too. Jefferson certainly wanted to do justice to the Indians. But he knew the white man needed to instill fear in the Indian or the American experiment would fail. How characteristically Jefferson: an offhanded trope that sublimely captures the central tension of all foreign policy--that between morality and necessity, power and principle.
Jefferson could not only hold two contradictory ideas in his head, he could also act on both. Here, after all, is the great champion of small, limited government perpetrating the Louisiana Purchase, arguably the grandest exercise of extra-constitutional Executive power in American history. But what else should we expect from the founder whose great vision of America was the Empire of Liberty, as profound an oxymoron as political theory can provide?