Jefferson died long ago, but may of his ideas still of great interest to us.
Lessons from Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, may be less famous than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but most people remember at last one fact about him: he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Although Jefferson lived more than 200 years ago, there is much that we learn from him today. Many of his ideas are especially interesting to modern youth. Here are some of the things he said and wrote:
Go and see. Jefferson believed that a free man obtains knowledge from many sources besides books and that personal investigation is important. When still a young man, he was appointed to a committee to find out whether the South Branch of the James River was deep enough to be used by large boats. While the other members of the committee sat in the state capitol and studied papers on the subject, Jefferson got into a canoe and made on-the-spot-observations.
You can learn from everyone. By birth and by education Jefferson belonged to the highest social class. Yet, in a day when few noble persons ever spoke to those of humble origins except to give an order, Jefferson went out of his way to talk with gardeners, servants, and waiters. Jefferson once said to the French nobleman, Lafayette, "You must go into the people's homes as I have done, look into their cooking pots and eat their bread. If you will only do this, you may find out why people are dissatisfied and understand the revolution that is threatening France."
Judge for yourself. Jefferson refused to accept other people's opinions without careful thought. "Neither believe nor reject anything," he wrote to his nephew, "because any other person has rejected or believed it. Heaved has given you a mind for judging truth and error. Use it."
Jefferson felt that the people "may safely be trusted to hear everything true and false, and to form a correct judgment. Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Do what you believe is right. In a free country there will always be conflicting ideas, and this is a source of strength. It is conflict and not unquestioning agreement that keeps freedom alive. Though Jefferson was for many years the object of strong criticism, he never answered his critics. He expressed his philosophy in letters to a friend, "There are two sides to every question. If you take one side with decision and on it with effect, those who take the other side will of course resent your actions."
Trust the future; trust the young. Jefferson felt that the present should never be chained to customs which have lost their usefulness. "No society," he said, "can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs to the living generation." He did not fear new ideas, nor did he fear the future. "How much pain," he remarked, "has been caused by evils which have never happened! I expect the best, not the worst. I steer my ship with hope, leaving fear behind."
Jefferson's courage and idealism were based on knowledge. He probably knew more than any other man of his age. He was an expert in agriculture, archeology, and medicine. He practiced crop rotation and soil conservation a century before these became standard practice, and he invented a plow superior to any other in existence. He influenced architecture throughout America, and he was constantly producing devices for making the tasks of ordinary life easier to perform.
Of all Jefferson's many talents, one is central. He was above all a good and tireless writer. His complete works, now being published for the first time, will fill more than fifty volumes. His talent as an author was soon discovered, and when the time came to write the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia in 1776, the task of writing it was his. Millions have thrilled to his words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…"
When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence, he left his countrymen a rich legacy of ideas and examples. American education owes a great debt to Thomas Jefferson, Who believed that only a nation of educated people could remain free.
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