Clay opened the program by addressing the current issue impacting the historical view of Thomas Jefferson—how to view Jefferson during the current national reckoning on race because he was a slaveowner. Clay admitted that he was not sure Jefferson would survive, that his slave-owning past was catching up to him and might eclipse his legacy. Much of the remainder of the program addressed this issue, while highlighting what we will lose if we abandon Jefferson.
Another parallel between our time and the time of Jefferson was the Yellow Fever pandemic that killed one in ten in Philadelphia in 1793. As a result of the outbreak, Jefferson believed that American cities should be spacious—a harbinger of social distancing.
Jefferson was an exemplar of the Enlightenment. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence has been repurposed by virtually every revolutionary that has come since.
There was much that was said regarding slavery and Clay speculated that had Jefferson been born in Boston or Philadelphia he would have likely been an ardent abolitionist. But, as it was Jefferson was a son of Virginia and not able to extricate himself from the institution.
When Tom asked how a southerner could write the Declaration of Independence, Clay pointed to Jefferson’s mentor at William and Mary, William Small. Small was a major influence on Jefferson’s intellectual development. He inculcated in Jefferson a life-long appreciation of science, math, and the Enlightenment thinkers. Outside of the classroom, he helped introduce young Jefferson to Governor Francis Fauquier and local lawyer George Wythe.
When Tom asked about how Jefferson would view the functioning of the democracy Clay addressed Jefferson’s more radical side. Jefferson thought too much luxury would erode the ideals of self-governing. He thought people taking to the streets in protest was the sign of a healthy democracy.
Tom got to the heart of the matter when he asked about Jefferson’s major contributions to America, beyond what he is best known for. Clay ticked off a few including: Jefferson was one of the earliest and most persuasive proponents of a decimal currency which he convinced Congress to approve in 1784, he was the force behind the monumental architecture of Washington D.C., The “grid”—that latticework that divvies America’s fields, forests, and towns into perfect square-mile sections—was Thomas Jefferson’s brainchild for apportioning Western territories acquired after the Revolutionary War, the Library of Congress classification system and so much more.
As Clay remarked, “Jefferson is everywhere.” But perhaps Jefferson’s most enduring legacy was his firm belief that our future as a nation would be greater than our past.