For almost 20 years, I have had a mild obsession with “The Thomas Jefferson Hour.” The format of the NPR radio show/podcast is simple: listeners write in questions, and the humanities scholar who portrays Thomas Jefferson—Clay Jenkinson—answers these questions for a modern audience. He and the semi-permanent host of “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” David Swenson, engage in lively conversations running the gamut from modern presidential elections and impeachments to taking deep dives into the philosophical and historical foundations of the United States. Some of my favorite episodes have included discussions of such diverse topics as Jefferson’s time in Paris; Jefferson’s opinions on the fourth chief justice of the United States, John Marshall; and the virtue of optimism. As of this writing, there are almost 1,400 episodes of “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and I have probably listened to more than a thousand of them. I recommend the podcast not only because Jenkinson is a pure, unadulterated genius and national treasure whose knowledge of philosophy, science, literature, and history is seemingly bottomless (aside from Jefferson, he also portrays Theodore Roosevelt, Meriwether Lewis, John Wesley Powell, and J. Robert Oppenheimer for live audiences), but because the vitality of the conversations he has with his co-host makes for absolute radio magic.
What I have come to appreciate most about the show is that it does not shy away from controversial topics, such as Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, his early opposition to slavery and his later acceptance of it, his deceitful treatment of George Washington, and his duplicity against John Adams.
The Very Definition of
American Classical Liberalism
Thomas Jefferson was revered when I was growing up. He was considered to be the seer of American civilization, a lyrical optimist devoted to social and economic freedom, to science and democracy, to individual rights and limited government. Jefferson, more than any other founding father, believed the United States represented a new and shining example to the world. In America would arise a “natural” aristocracy—not of wealth and blood, but “of virtue and talent,” where merit and hard work were rewarded, where everyone had a chance to succeed, where individual freedom and freedom of inquiry were honored and protected. Jefferson, as historian Gordon Wood notes, thought of himself as a kind of “American impresario” who would introduce his countrymen “to the finest and most enlightened aspects of European culture.”
Jefferson wrote incessantly, and the record of why our founders did what they did, what motivated them, and what inspired them is not a mystery; they created the most purposefully founded nation in the world, based on highly articulated and high-minded principles of government and philosophy. But today we seem to have lost our reverence for Jefferson and for the fundamental ideas that have long animated our history. As Wood notes, “Because our present-day culture has lost a great deal of its former respect for absolute values and timeless truths, we have a harder time believing that the eighteenth-century founders have anything important or transcendent to say to us in the twenty-first century.”
But the founders were practical philosophers of enduring importance, who even now can tell us what it means to be an American living under our Constitution. Jefferson and the other founding fathers reformulated the relationship between the state and the individual. Individuals were no longer subjects; they were citizens. The federal government existed for the protection of individual rights, rights not bestowed by the Crown or by the state, but by “nature” and “nature’s God.” The federal government was not only designed with checks and balances within and between its three branches, but with strict limitations on its power over the states and individual citizens, as per the 10th Amendment to the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Yes, on countless issues, Jefferson was wrong or hypocritical or overly idealistic. In theory, he believed in a weak executive who defers to Congress. In practice, he made robust use of executive authority, especially when confronting the Barbary pirates and finalizing the Louisiana Purchase without Senate approval. His belief in states’ rights laid the intellectual groundwork for both the nullification crisis of the 1830s and the Civil War. Jefferson has been roundly, and probably rightly, mocked for his belief in agrarianism and his vision of America’s future as a land of autodidactic physiocrats who farm by day and read Tacitus and Homer at night.
Still, for all that, Jefferson believed in the endless potential of the individual who was entrepreneurial in the marketplace, freethinking in society, and self-reliant in all spheres of life. This vision is why Jefferson is celebrated and venerated. Americans have been enlivened by Jeffersonian views, which are the very definition of American classical liberalism—once our reigning intellectual creed. They are the inspiration for our Bill of Rights. They radiate in our love of science and in our belief in progress. For a long time, they were the bedrock for our system of education.
The Wolf by the Ear
But in the last 20 years or so, the “Sage of Monticello” has come under withering criticism, with calls to remove his face from our money, take down his statues, cancel Jefferson–Jackson dinners, and scrub him from any sort of public honor, because the Jefferson who argued for freedom and enlightenment was also the Jefferson who eventually accepted slavery as an unfortunate necessity. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote:
[C]can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated [as with slavery] but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever . . . The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a context.
He hoped that, in due course, the moral principles found in natural law would:
force their way into every one’s mind. I think a change already is perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.
That was in 1785, and it was a common view among his class of Virginians and among the founders. Historian John Chester Miller notes that “[i]n 1784 [Jefferson] had tried to exclude slavery from all the territories of the United States and he had unqualifiedly endorsed the antislavery provision of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787” that governed America’s westward expansion.
Yet he was also a personal beneficiary of slavery; his political interests were tied up in it (as his supporters were mostly Southerners); and he eventually concluded that, when it came to slavery, “[W]e have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. [J]ustice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
In other words, Jefferson was a complex man, whose views on slavery—and other issues—were a mixture of idealism and hard politics. For many Americans today, especially the young, Thomas Jefferson is now “problematic.” In fact, to young people, nearly every American previously honored as a founder or hero is problematic, and they are prepared to walk away from them and, if necessary, replace them with heroes or heroines representing previously underrepresented groups.
In January 2021, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to replace the names of 44 different schools. The usual suspects—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln—were targeted, of course, in a seven-hour meeting that was nothing less than historic cannibalism. In addition to three of the greatest presidents in American history, the board created a long list of Americans who are also no longer considered worthy of celebration. They ranged from Dianne Feinstein and Daniel Webster to Paul Revere and Francis Scott Key. The board also decided to rename “Roosevelt Middle School,” even though there appeared to be some confusion in the meeting about which Roosevelt the school was actually named after. Teddy? Franklin? Square Deal? New Deal? It doesn’t matter, apparently. This seriocomedy took place in a city, it should be noted, where some of the most persistent educational racial achievement gaps continue to exist. The decision was heavily criticized, and in April 2021 the school board decided to reverse its vote, saving the schools from being renamed—for now.
Many middle-aged Americans find this wholesale rejection of historic American figures to be much more an exercise in smug, self righteous, hysterical posturing and preening—and ignorance—than it is an honest attempt to improve and understand the nation, much less improve our education system. But young people who want to chisel away Mount Rushmore and tear down statues are saying, “Look, we don’t want anything to do with the darker sides of a racist-sexist-elitist history. In fact, we want to do everything possible to move us beyond any form of oppression. If that means replacing some statues and school names and holidays, so be it!”
The Right Side of History
Often, I have found that these sentiments become more extreme in my students after they graduate from college. They become conceited enough to believe that they now exist on the highest moral mountain imaginable, enlightened as no other generation before them. Such conceit can be dangerous. As Princeton professor Robert P. George has noted, the combination of two such self-righteous beliefs can easily lead, even with the best of revolutionary motives, to “the guillotine and tyranny: 1) ‘All who came before us, and the institutions they built and principles they embraced, were evil.’ 2) ‘We, the first who are truly virtuous, must destroy their legacy and build a just world, operating entirely by our own light.’”
In their zeal to be on the right side of history, feigning outrage without end, young people often forget where their ideals about justice and righteousness originated. Thomas Jefferson plucked the ideas of natural law and inalienable rights from the realm of philosophy and lodged them into a practical, political document in the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, historian Joseph Ellis observed, Jefferson wrote “the most potent and consequential words in American history, perhaps in modern history. They became the political fountainhead for all liberal reforms that would seep out and over the nation, and eventually much of the world.”
Notre Dame law professor Steven D. Smith underlines the fact that the idea of rights founded in natural law was central to the founders’ thinking:
As described by historians like Henry May and Daniel Boorstin, the Enlightenment world in which the Founders worked understood nature not as a collection of particles in aimless motion, but rather as a kind of providential scheme or design in which human beings had a pre-assigned part. The Founders’ view of politics was tied directly to their understanding of nature. As May points out, ‘A benign God, a purposeful universe, and a universal moral sense are necessary at all points to Jefferson’s political system.’ More generally, for the founding generation an essential part of politics was to protect natural rights, and the very existence and meaning of rights was bound up in founding-era commitments to “nature and nature’s God.
In this view of things, the function of reason was to discern the shape of the providential design in which ethics and politics were grounded. And the claim of reason to a role in governance was much the same as it had been in Plato’s thinking: reason was the human faculty that allowed us to perceive truths and realities that transcend merely human constructions.
If young people don’t understand this, we can hardly blame them, especially when educated elite teaching at prestigious universities and writing on editorial pages not only doubt the idea of theistic natural law, but, in the words of American philosopher John Searle, “cannot in their deepest reflections take that possibility seriously.” As such, they believe that justice is nothing more than an arbitrary construct of power, which is another reason why our politics are so heated: whoever has power can determine “justice.”
Legendary Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa—whose scholarly life was largely devoted to defending the idea that there is such a thing as natural justice—tells the story of being taken to task by a professor in England for treating the Declaration as an ahistorical document, for assuming its truths were more than a narrow representation of 18th-century American culture. Jaffa replied to the professor by saying he was confident “that the one thing Jefferson never for a moment dreamed of himself as doing as he drafted the Declaration, was composing an eighteenth-century document.” To Jefferson, “nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”
Jeffersonian Without the Jefferson
Today’s young people crave Jeffersonian political truths, but without Thomas Jefferson himself and without understanding the ideas he tapped. Or, as Clay Jenkinson has written, “[W]e need the Jeffersonian even if we wish to distance ourselves from Jefferson.” It used to be a sign of sophistication, learning, and maturity—which the vast majority of adults had—to know that history, like all human life, is complicated and that the bad and the good are inevitably mixed together.
Thomas Jefferson, however, stands apart. Abandoning him and his ideals would be uniquely perilous because he is the greatest articulator of the American creed. Historians label America “an experiment” because it is a nation founded not on a common racial ancestry or a unifying religion or loyalty to a monarch. America was founded on what Lincoln called an “abstract truth,” or a “proposition” that is “applicable to all men and all times.”
As seeming proof of that, in 2012, in a speech at Georgetown University, the rock star Bono reiterated this concept for a new generation. “America,” he said, “is an idea. Ireland is a great country, but it’s not an idea. Great Britain is a great country, but it’s not an idea. That’s how we see you around the world, as one of the greatest ideas in human history.”
Being an American requires that we believe—passionately, fervently, purposely—in the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is the creed that should unite us, whatever our political party, whatever our other differences.
But what happens when this idea, this creed, is considered a fraud? What happens when America is deemed a “failed social experiment”? What national adhesive do we have to hold the nation together if not the ideals of the Declaration and the laws of the Constitution?
We wrongly flatter our students, we let them rest in ignorance, if we do not teach them that America’s ideals are worth defending and that history is always complex and, yes, often disappointing. In moments of utter exasperation, I want to say, “No, the men and women of 1776 or 1787 or 1865 or 1945 or even 2015 did not have the same gender-racial-sexual values as a college student from 2021. Grow up and stop expecting them to! Raging at statues and dead people is easy. Understanding is hard.”
These men whose statues are being removed and whose names are now synonymous with oppression contributed something worthy to our civilization, whether in their ideals, in their governance, in their achievements, or in their character. This doesn’t make them perfect. But it does make them worthy of study and reflection. If our culture and our schools do not teach the importance of the founders, if they do not teach kids to take a rightful pride in American history, then our future cannot possibly be bright. As Harvard historian, former advisor to President John F. Kennedy, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed, “What students are taught in schools affects the way they will thereafter see and treat other Americans, the way they will thereafter conceive the purposes of the republic.” Underlining that point, and the enduring power of the Declaration’s promises, historian and journalist Yoni Appelbaum noted: “So strong is the attraction of the American idea that it infects even our dissidents. The suffragists at Seneca Falls, Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Harvey Milk in front of San Francisco’s city hall all quoted the Declaration of Independence.”
Forsaking our past heroes, however flawed they may be, hollows out our understanding of the achievements of our civilization. We should remember that we live within the stream of history, not omnisciently above it. That should give us all a sense of humility. It should encourage us to think on what America has achieved. We take universal suffrage, public schools, equality before the law, the most dynamic economic system for escaping poverty and raising living standards in human history, and the freedoms of speech and religion completely for granted, conveniently forgetting how exceptional they really are.
And yes, the men and women who gave us this extraordinary inheritance were flawed, sometimes deeply so, but as David McCullough said in a speech to Hillsdale College in 2005: “The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted—and we should never take for granted—are all the work of others who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn’t just to be ignorant, it’s to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing.”
Fatalism in Fashion
Failing to understand our past and the Jeffersonian promise of America, failing to see the virtue and progress in our history, can lead to fatalism about our future—not just as a society, but as individual, sentient beings. I witness it every day.
After two decades of working in a normal American classroom, the treasures of being a teacher are relatively easy to describe: I observe the lives and contributions of my former students and humbly hope that I played at least a minor role in guiding a handful of them to the path on which they now find themselves.
By and large, the students I teach do not come from privileged backgrounds. They come from humble homes, often impoverished and lacking in educational support and guidance. Sometimes the stories they tell me are utterly gut-wrenching: tales of getting kicked out of their homes the day they turn 18, male students having to protect their mothers and younger sisters from live-in boyfriends, female students kept home for days on end because they are expected to take care of grandparents or sickly younger siblings, or the most common problem of all—students who are simply ignored by their parents or guardians and expected to make their way in the world with little to no adult guidance or mentorship.
In these circumstances, teachers and counselors try their best to fill in the voids, to act as buoys in a turbulent sea of dysfunction. We try mightily to alter the course and trajectory of lives that seem to be affected by so many negative undercurrents of despair—poverty, prejudice, a lack of noble role models, a generalized declension of society writ large. I have learned in my decades in the classroom that the absolute worst thing teachers and other adults can do in these situations is to suggest to young people that they have little or no control over their own lives, that the American dream is simply unavailable to them, that social injustices doom them to failure, that systemic, “structural” forces will deprive them of opportunity.
If a “structural” excuse is always utilized to explain why young people make destructive decisions, our students are robbed of the greatest gift that ever could be given to them: the gift of high expectations coupled with a belief in individual agency. Every human being who has ever walked the face of the planet falls somewhere on a spectrum between privilege and misfortune. But we need to remind students that both of those positions can be temporary. The rags-to-riches story and the riches-to-rags story are both true. Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed these stories almost two centuries ago. Millions of immigrants have lived these stories in America today.
Inequality is a reality in free and open societies. We might be born in this country with equal rights and equal claims to dignity, yes, but not everyone is born on the same base in the great baseball diamond of life, nor does everyone exercise his individual liberty in the same fashion. Anyone who fails to recognize this social reality is either willfully ignorant, dangerously naive, or has never encountered American children born far from home plate.
But the reality of inequality does not mean those born farthest from home plate cannot hit a double, a triple, or even a home run. It is the job of parents, teachers, and our culture to help them get there—and the first step in doing that is showing them that it is possible. If students believe the game is rigged against them, if they believe the American dream isn’t for them, if they believe most institutions have sinister intentions, then we should not be particularly surprised when young Americans believe they cannot succeed.
When one is resigned to seeing America as a myth more than a hope, then the dream of genuinely democratizing success is more fanciful than real. The old truths about the value of study and hard work, of deferred gratification and determination, of making the right moral choices in life, are no less true simply because they are old. Students need to be reminded that their current circumstances are not their inevitable fate.
The prototypical American is, in the words of the musical “Hamilton,” “young, scrappy, and hungry.” Hamilton was a new American, and so are many of the students I teach. One was a student of Mexican parentage whose family had immigrated here when he was six or seven years old. His father abandoned him in middle school, he became a foster youth at 14, and he sometimes slept in cars at night, but, as he wrote many years later in his Harvard Graduate School application, “High school became a safe haven from home life . . . this gave me hope.” Today, he runs a tutoring company to help students win acceptance to college. The best thing his teachers and coaches did for him was to regard him not as a victim but as an individual with potential.
Yet there is an entire cottage industry of very smart, creative, and influential people in our political and cultural life today who peddle vicious cynicism to our children, who poison them with the idea that they are now and always will be victims of an unjust society. Their voices are getting louder and more influential—and they are wrong. To be perfectly clear—beyond any doubt—there are countless influences in our society that prey on our children and harm them. As a public school teacher, I experience many of them almost on a daily basis. But no student, whatever burdens he bears or misfortunes she is forced to endure, ought to be defined by hurdles alone.
Despite the allure of fatalistic thinking—blaming others, wallowing in victimhood, taking the easy way out—and despite real and inevitable challenges, most Americans still believe they are in control of their own lives. Fifty-seven percent of Americans disagree with the idea that “[s]uccess in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” Additionally, 73 percent of Americans believe working hard is “very important.” These are the attitudes of classical American individualism and optimism that distinguish us from so many other countries. For instance, almost 3 in 4 Germans “believe success is determined by factors outside our control.” That’s not an American sentiment—and we should not let it become one. If we did, it would redefine who we are as a people—and not in a productive way.
And yet, American academics, journalists, and activists seem to have a visceral disdain for those who believe in the reality of the American dream. They are contemptuous of the idea that as individuals we are masters of our fate; that in America, with hard work, determination, and luck, anything is possible; that with grit and hope we can lead productive, happy lives. But we all know it is true. We have all seen it happen. I will freely admit: my own sunny outlook is largely the consequence of watching hundreds, if not thousands, of my former students do stunning, jaw-dropping things with their lives, despite the hurdles they faced. These were students from difficult or desperate backgrounds who have attended some of the finest colleges in the country and become engineers, entrepreneurs, accountants, doctors, teachers, financial consultants, and political advocates. They all had two things in common: they believed they could change their circumstances, and they used their challenges to embolden their resolve.
I vividly recall a student whose parents arrived from El Salvador with almost nothing. He had floated through high school doing little work, the bare minimum to get by. But like so many teenagers approaching adulthood, he suddenly realized he could do better—and needed to do better—to take advantage of the opportunities available to him in America. In his senior year, he started to focus. He spent hours hitting the books. His grades improved. He finally understood that education opened doors of opportunity, and he soared to near the top of his class. One day, I found myself frustrated that my students had done so little work to prepare for an upcoming A.P. exam. With no prodding from me, he called out the entire class.
“Look,” he said to his classmates, “this past weekend I sat down for a few hours and got all the material straight in my head. I actually studied. No one is stopping you from doing the same thing. Don’t blame Mr. Adams. Don’t blame the school. Don’t blame your parents. You have the power.”
“You have the power.” Or as he later explained, “I always had the power. I just didn’t know it.”
Many modern intellectuals, however, believe that “nobody truly has the power.” Sociologist and journalist Nicki Lisa Cole argues, for example, that while hard work and optimism “can foster positive outcomes,” ultimately they “function more as myths than they do as actual recipes for success . . . ” Myths?
So what exactly is a better recipe for a successful life?
Well, instead of thinking, acting, and functioning as individuals imbued with agency, free will, and individual autonomy, Cole argues that people should view themselves as “members of communities or parts of a greater whole.” Acting as individuals “prevents us from fully grasping the larger forces and patterns that organize society and shape our lives, which is to say, doing so discourages us from seeing and understanding systemic inequalities.” Hear that, kids? Don’t think of yourselves as people who can become whatever it is you want to be in accordance with your own hopes, dreams, and convictions. Instead, think of yourselves as victims of inimical power structures that have already decided your destiny.
I’m thankful that so many of my students have rejected this kind of defeatist determinism, or what Cambridge University professor David Runciman calls “modified fatalism,” which sees individuals as “the product of social and economic forces beyond their power to control.” I don’t hold a doctorate like Dr. Cole, nor do I work at Cambridge like Professor Runciman. I teach high school social studies. But something—common sense, real-world experience, intuition—tells me that if you teach young Americans that there is nothing they can do to improve themselves, then you have lied to them. The American dream is not a lie. I have seen it lived out over and over again. The big lie is that our students are hopeless, powerless victims. It is a lie that brings passivity and cynicism, that encourages finger pointing and hate, that is a harmful counsel of despair.
Towards the end of the last millennium, political scientist James W. Ceaser wrote a book titled Reconstructing America. He wrote it, he explained, in order to take America back “from the literary critics, philosophers, and self-styled postmodern thinkers who have made the very name America a symbol for that which is grotesque, obscene, monstrous, stultifying, stunted, leveling, deadening, deracinating, deforming, rootless, uncultured, and—always in quotations marks— ‘free.’” Towards the end of the book, he tries to make his readers feel better by observing: “Fortunately for America, however, the intellectuals manage to do little harm. Cloistered in their academic paradises, they leave the formation of culture to the real postmoderns working in cinema and advertising.”
As my students sometimes like to say about tweets, this sentence “hasn’t aged well.”
Professor Ceaser wrote these words in 1997, but by the 2010s and early 2020s, like a virus escaping a lab, all those horrible postmodern ideas have managed to infect the minds of young Americans. Everything—relationships, institutions, and especially political opinions—are refracted through a deterministic, postmodern lens. And as in a funhouse carnival mirror, everything now looks foul and distorted, hopeless and grotesque. I have seen and experienced firsthand the consequences when young people relish a smug takedown of the American dream as a fraud. It is a relatively recent development. The consequences are students who think to themselves, “This country hates me; it’s always hated people like me, and there’s no point in working hard or dreaming big because I’m fated by my birth to fail.”
Such fatalism sneers at hope and trust and truth. It leaves young people feeling “helpless and disenchanted.” They become broadly mistrustful of institutions, suspecting them of sinister motives and dishonorable aims. They believe that success is largely a product of swindles or asserting one’s privilege.
Cynicism guards from disappointment—and responsibility. Contempt is a shield against others who work hard and try and succeed, dismissing their efforts as either hopeless or conformist to a corrupt establishment. This is a powerful element of the hollowing out of our young. They are prodded to “take down,” our heroes, demystify our national creed and deconstruct their country because they have been taught that it offers them little hope.