Jefferson’s Legacy viewed from across the pond


It can’t be denied: Good ol’ TJ’s reputation has taken more than a few hits over the past decade. From the 1998 DNA test which indicated that Mr. Jefferson had almost certainly fathered a child with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, to the recent Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow that depicts America’s third president as a villainous ne’er-do-well (who all but cackles like a Disney witch upon hearing of Hamilton’s duel-induced demise), UVA’s founder has developed a bit of an image problem. Well, who’da thunk it? Just when you least expect it, here come the British to the rescue.
In an August 21 BBC News editorial titled “Restoring Jefferson’s reputation,” TJ acolyte David Cannadine eloquently employs the Queen’s English to defend his favorite American president from all who would dare defame him. “[Jefferson] was a scientist, an agriculturalist, a linguist, an architect,” Cannadine gushes. “Indeed, there was scarcely any intellectual pursuit to which he could not turn.” In addition, Cannadine calls UVA “one of the great intellectual powerhouses of the United States,” and crowns Mr. J its “presiding deity.”
Of course, Cannadine also acknowledges the, ehem, more unsavory activities of the old red-headed rapscallion, as well, and pointedly notes that Jefferson’s “noble vision was confined to white males, and it didn’t encompass white women or blacks.” But overall, Cannadine concludes, while “Jefferson may no longer be quite the unblemished hero he once was…we could certainly use some of his cool, sceptical rationalism just now.”
Perhaps even more impressive than Cannadine’s unabashed love letter, however, is the reaction it engendered among the BBC’s online readers. While the “reader comments” sections of most websites are filled with mud-slinging invective, these Web-surfing Brits couldn’t be more proper (and complimentary). “One word above all others sums up the genius Thomas Jefferson: Liberty,” writes Andrew Yale of Notting Hill (where, rumor has it, he’s currently shacked up with Julia Roberts). And Dave Johnstone of Bristol opines, “I’ve long been an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, and would love to see his like return to politics. We need to choose the men and women in our government based on their intellect, wisdom, knowledge and skills, not on their looks and personality.” Hmm… Brits actually vote for politicians without looks or personality? That must explain Tony Blair.—Dan Catalano