Jefferson, Race, and Democracy

Jefferson, Race, and Democracy

2,065th Stated Meeting

February 6, 2018


Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy. It is my pleasure to welcome you and to call to order the 2,065th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As you entered the Academy this evening, you may have walked past the Gilbert Stuart portrait of John Adams that is hanging in the lobby. Adams, along with James Bowdoin and other scholar-patriots, founded the American Academy in the midst of the Revolutionary War. Even with the great upheaval around them, they recognized the need, I quote, “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” They saw people as the greatest asset to a democratic republic. Adams would go on to become the Academy’s second president, as well as the second president of the United States – posts he held concurrently for a time.

You may also have walked past Thomas Jefferson’s letter in response to his election to the Academy in 1787. Written in 1791, he praised the work of the Academy while simultaneously keeping a distance, saying:

“however wedded by affection to the objects of [the Academy’s] pursuit, I am obliged to unremitting attentions to others less acceptable to my mind, and much less attracting. I read with pleasure whatever comes from the society, and am happy in the occasion given me of assuring them of my respect and attachment…”

After this, less attracting pursuits won out, and our archives hold no further communication from Jefferson.

His correspondence with John Adams would also suffer many years of silence. Their friendship fell victim to the election of 1800—an election that itself has often been referred to as a “revolution,” in which two patriots—Adams, the sitting president, and Jefferson, the vice-president—engaged in a political contest that is often described as the birth of active political campaigning. The election was bitterly fought. Adams’ Federalist comrades attacked Jefferson as “an atheist in religion, and a fanatic in politics,” while Jefferson’s Republicans assailed Adams as a would-be monarchist whose use of federal power to crush dissent was a return to all that the Revolution had been fought to change.

The complexities of the election are too numerous to recount here, but the electoral deadlock that confronted the nation was unprecedented, and aroused tensions to a fever pitch around the new nation. Eventually, as we have learned from the Broadway musical, Alexander Hamilton swung Federalist support behind Jefferson instead of Aaron Burr, electing Jefferson president and effectively ending Adams’ political career. They would eventually resume corresponding in 1812, at the urging of Academy fellow Benjamin Rush. The two former presidents wrote to one another regularly until their deaths, separated by only hours, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826.

Adams would, as he predicted, go on to occupy a place in the second tier of our national memory, while Jefferson survived as an inescapably intriguing character of the founding era, the cultured, contradictory genius who remains a controversial figure in American history. Politicians across the ideological spectrum invoke his name, and scholars debate his legacy. I expect that even in this room there is significant variation in how you think and feel about our nation’s third president.

Jefferson, perhaps more than our other founders, holds a mystery for us. He was a true republican who feared a powerful executive, yet he exerted the authority of the office beyond its legal scope; a homebody who served the new nation as its first Secretary of State. But it is the most notable, and most disappointing, contradiction in Jefferson’s character that is the focus of our program tonight.

A slave-owner who penned the defining document of our nation’s belief in the equality of man, Jefferson’s ideas on race and democracy are not easily reconciled. As we continue to watch our country grapple with the legacy of our original national sin – slavery – and its immense and persistent impact on the functioning of our society, it is helpful to return to our roots and discuss the ideas and influence of one of our most enduring founders.

Our speakers tonight are leading scholars of Jefferson. Their 2016 book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” will form the basis of their discussion this evening—and we expect that the program will be just that, a discussion. Their full bios are in the program but allow me to briefly introduce them.


Annette Gordon-Reed is the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and a Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Her books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” and “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.”

Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia and is currently the Mellon Distinguished Scholar at the American Antiquarian Society. His works include “The Mind of Thomas Jefferson” and “Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood.”


As we continue this American experiment, and the Academy’s work in “cultivating every art and science,” I hope that we can remember the lessons of tonight and of our history. In unstable times, our greatest asset is our history and the lessons that we draw from it.

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