“Since Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone”…. JFK, Winston Churchill

“Since Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone”…. JFK, Winston Churchill

Q: Did Churchill praise Jefferson?

I lis­tened with appre­ci­a­tion to your rec­om­mend­ed pod­casts of “Uncan­celled His­to­ry” by Dou­glas Mur­ray. Par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing was his con­ver­sa­tion on Thomas Jef­fer­son with the his­to­ri­an Jean Yarbrough. Did Churchill have any­thing to say about this extra­or­di­nary, com­plex and learned Found­ing Father? —R.F., Connecticut

A: Yes, but first a digression…

Thomas Jef­fer­son, paint­ing by Rem­brandt Peale. (White House Art Col­lec­tion, pub­lic domain)

Your ques­tion reminds me of a din­ner for Nobel Prize Win­ners at the  White House, 29 April 1962. Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy declared them welcome:

I think this is the most extra­or­di­nary col­lec­tion of tal­ent, of human knowl­edge, that has ever been gath­ered togeth­er at the White House, with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of when Thomas Jef­fer­son dined alone.

Some­one once said that Thomas Jef­fer­son was a gen­tle­man of 32 who could cal­cu­late an eclipse, sur­vey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edi­fice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the min­uet. What­ev­er he may have lacked, if he could have had his for­mer col­league Mr. Franklin here, we all would have been impressed.

Not even Churchill, I believe, paid a greater com­pli­ment to Jef­fer­son than Pres­i­dent Kennedy. Like­wise, Uncan­celled His­to­ry is a font of Truth emerg­ing from the Body­guard Lies that sur­rounds her in the present age.

Andrew Roberts on Churchill vies with Allen Guel­zo on Wash­ing­ton as my favorite Uncan­celled His­to­ry episodes. And Jean Yarbrough’s Jef­fer­son emerges from the blue dis­tance of time as the tru­ly ster­ling char­ac­ter her was. (Inci­den­tal­ly, the Sal­ly Hem­mings sto­ry is explod­ed as the slan­der­ous myth it is. Watch it and decide for yourself.)

Hamilton and Jefferson

Churchill con­trasts Jef­fer­son and Alexan­der Hamil­ton in The Age of Rev­o­lu­tion, Vol­ume 3 of his His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples. We all learned about them in school—well, at least those of us “of a cer­tain age.” What Churchill offers is the view of a fel­low states­man, 150 years removed. And Churchill lived a life and expe­ri­ences few—but cer­tain­ly Jefferson—could claim.

Hamil­ton, writes Churchill,  “sym­bol­is­es one aspect of Amer­i­can devel­op­ment, the suc­cess­ful, self-reliant busi­ness world. He dis­trust­ed  “the col­lec­tive com­mon man…’the majesty of the mul­ti­tude.'” But Hamil­ton exhib­it­ed lit­tle of “the ide­al­ism which char­ac­teris­es and uplifts the Amer­i­can peo­ple.” Jef­fer­son was “the prod­uct of whol­ly dif­fer­ent con­di­tions and the prophet of a rival polit­i­cal idea.” Churchill continues:

The out­break of war between Eng­land and France was to bring to a head the fun­da­men­tal rival­ry and con­flict between Hamil­ton and Jef­fer­son and to sig­nalise the birth of the great Amer­i­can par­ties, Fed­er­al­ist and Repub­li­can. Both were to split and founder and change their names, but from them the Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties of today can trace their lineage.

Churchill on Jefferson:

He came from the Vir­gin­ian fron­tier, the home of dour indi­vid­u­al­ism and faith in com­mon human­i­ty, the nucle­us of resis­tance to the cen­tral­is­ing hier­ar­chy of British rule. Jef­fer­son had been the prin­ci­pal author of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence and leader of the agrar­i­an democ­rats in the Amer­i­can Revolution.

He was well read; he nour­ished many sci­en­tif­ic inter­ests, and he was a gift­ed ama­teur archi­tect. His grace­ful clas­si­cal house, Mon­ti­cel­lo, was built accord­ing to his own designs. He was in touch with fash­ion­able Left-Wing cir­cles of polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy in Eng­land and Europe, and, like the French school of econ­o­mists who went by the name of Phys­iocrats, he believed in a yeo­man-farmer society.

He feared an indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at as much as he dis­liked the prin­ci­ple of aris­toc­ra­cy. Indus­tri­al and cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment appalled him. He despised and dis­trust­ed the whole machin­ery of banks, tar­iffs, cred­it manip­u­la­tion, and all the agen­cies of cap­i­tal­ism which the New York­er Hamil­ton was skill­ful­ly intro­duc­ing into the Unit­ed States.

He per­ceived the dan­gers to indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty that might spring from the cen­tral­is­ing pow­ers of a Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment…. It was not giv­en to him to fore­see that the Unit­ed States would even­tu­al­ly become the great­est indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy in the world.

Churchill deeply respect­ed Jefferson’s deeds and thought. His fur­ther remarks are in The Age of Rev­o­lu­tion, Book 9, Chap­ter 17.

On education: Jefferson’s warning

Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s awe of Jef­fer­son, and Churchill’s gen­er­ous appre­ci­a­tion, led us to a mat­ter of cur­rent moment: edu­ca­tion. In revis­ing the laws of Vir­ginia in 1778, Jef­fer­son offered “A Bill for the More Gen­er­al Dif­fu­sion of Knowl­edge.” Its pre­am­ble speaks vol­umes on the need for a bet­ter edu­cat­ed electorate.

Jef­fer­son believed the Amer­i­can Con­sti­tu­tion pro­tect­ed the individual’s nat­ur­al rights. Nev­er­the­less, he observed, those “entrust­ed with pow­er have, in time, and by slow oper­a­tions, per­vert­ed it into tyran­ny.” That, he con­tin­ues, must be pre­vent­ed. The best pre­ven­tive is edu­ca­tion. Pos­sessed of “the expe­ri­ence of oth­er ages and coun­tries,” edu­cat­ed cit­i­zens will rec­og­nize “ambi­tion under all its shapes.” They will exert “their nat­ur­al pow­ers to defeat its purposes.”

A peo­ple will be hap­pi­est “whose laws are best, and are best admin­is­tered…. If those who “form and admin­is­ter” those laws are “wise and hon­est.” Edu­ca­tion pro­duces peo­ple “wor­thy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and lib­er­ties of their fel­low citizens…without regard to wealth, birth or oth­er acci­den­tal con­di­tion or cir­cum­stance.” It is there­fore more impor­tant that chil­dren “should be sought for and edu­cat­ed at the com­mon expense of all, than that the hap­pi­ness of all should be con­fid­ed to the weak or wicked.”

Jefferson today

For­mer Speak­er of the House Newt Gin­grich looks at Jef­fer­son in a very thought­ful pod­cast.  He shows, I think, how Jefferson’s thoughts remain evergreen—and ever more impor­tant today:

Now, if you go back and re-read that, you real­ize our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion: Schools that don’t teach. Teach­ers that don’t edu­cate. Avoid­ance of his­to­ry. Dumb­ing down of math­e­mat­ics. Giv­ing peo­ple pass­ing grades so they feel good even if they know noth­ing. You can sense that we have arrived at a counter-Jef­fer­son­ian moment, when every­thing Jef­fer­son feared, in terms of igno­rant peo­ple giv­ing up their free­doms, is far too close to becom­ing a real­i­ty. That’s why Jef­fer­son is always worth revis­it­ing, and think­ing about.

The Vir­ginia House of Del­e­gates reject­ed Jefferson’s Bill in 1778 and 1780. His friend  James Madi­son pre­sent­ed it repeat­ed­ly while Jef­fer­son was serv­ing in Paris as Min­is­ter to France. In 1796 a revised ver­sion final­ly passed as “Act to Estab­lish Pub­lic Schools.”

Further reading

“Reflec­tions on the Birth­day of George Wash­ing­ton,” 2023

One thought on ““Since Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone”…. JFK, Winston Churchill

  1. Langvorts, Bra­vo! You have man­aged to cov­er three of my heroes in a sin­gle essay–Churchill, Jef­fer­son and JFK. They are con­stant com­pan­ions in my read­ing and my think­ing. All the best from your old friend, Russells

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