Notable Comments on Jefferson (20th Century)

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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1912 April 14. (Woodrow Wilson, Jefferson Dinner). "Monopoly, private control, the authority of privilege, the concealed mastery of a few men...He [Thomas Jefferson] would have moved against them, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, sometimes openly, sometimes subtly; but whether he merely mined about them, or struck directly at them, he would have set systematic war against them at the front of all his purpose. As regards the economic policy of the country it is perfectly plain that Mr. Jefferson would have insisted upon a tariff fitted to actual conditions, by which he would have meant not the interests of the few men who find access to the hearings of the ways and Means Committee of the House and the Finance Committee of the Senate, but the interests of the business men and manufacturers and farmers and workers and professional men of every kind and class...He would have known that the currency question is not only an economic question, but a political question, and that, above all else, control must be in the hands of those who represent the general interest...In the general field of business his thought would, of course, have gone about to establish freedom, to throw business opportunities open at every point to new men, to destroy the processes of monopoly, to exclude the poison of special favors, to see that, whether big or little, business was not dominated by anything but the law itself..."[1]

1916 April 13. (Woodrow Wilson, A Jefferson Day Address). "The immortality of Thomas Jefferson does not lie in any one of his achievements, or in the series of his achievements, but in his attitude towards mankind and the conception which he sought to realize in action of the service owed by America to the rest of the world...Thomas Jefferson was a great leader of men because he understood and interpreted the spirits of men...It is not a circumstance without significance that Jefferson felt, perhaps more than any other American of his time, except Benjamin Franklin, his close kinship with like thinking spirits everywhere else in the civilized world. His comradeship was as intimate with the thinkers of France as with the frontiersmen of America, and this rather awkward, rather different man carried about with him a sort of type of what all men should with to be who love liberty and seek to lead their fellow men along those difficult paths of achievement. The only way we can honor Thomas Jefferson is by illumining his spirit and following his example. His example was an example of organization and concerted action for the rights of men, first in America and then, by America's example, everywhere in the world. And the thing that interested Jefferson is the only thing that ought to interest us...If you are ready, you have inherited the spirit of Jefferson, who recognized the men in France and the men in Germany who were doing the liberal thinking of their day as just as much citizens of the great work of liberty as he was himself, and who was ready in every conception he had to join hands across the water or across any other barrier with those who held those high conceptions of liberty which had brought the United States into existence."[2]

1930. (Allen Tate, On the Father of Liberty). "Jefferson had many charms; was democratic; still--and yet What should one do? The family arms On coach and spoon he wisely set Against historical alarms: For quality not being loath, Nor quantity, nor the fame of both."[3]

ca. 1938. (Frank Lloyd Wright on the Jefferson Memorial). "Thomas Jefferson? Were that gentleman alive today he would be the first condemn the stupid erudition mistaken in his terms of the feudal art and thought that clung to him then, deliberately to make of him now, a fashionable effigy of reaction instead of a character appreciated by his own people as a noble spirit of progress and freedom."[4]

1940. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Address at the Jackson Day Dinner). "Thomas Jefferson is a hero to me despite the fact that the theories of the French Revolutionists at times overexcite his practical judgment. He is a hero because, in his many-sided genius, he too did the big job that hen had to be done-to establish the new republic as a real democracy and the inalienable rights of man, instead of a restricted suffrage in the hands of a small oligarchy. Jefferson realized that if the people were free to get and discourse all the facts, their composite judgment would be better than the judgment of a self-perpetuating few. That is why I think of Jefferson as belonging to the rank and file of both major political parties today."[5]

1940. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Address at the University of Pennsylvania). "With the gaining of our political freedom you will remember that there came a conflict between the point of view of Alexander Hamilton, sincerely believing in the superiority of Government by a small group of public-spirited and usually wealthy citizens, and, on the other hand, the point of view of Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of Government by representatives chosen by all the people, an advocate of the universal right of free thought, free personal living, free religion, free expression of opinion and above all, the right of free universal suffrage."[6]

1945 April 13. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Undelivered Address prepared for Jefferson Day). "In this historic year, more than ever before, we do well to consider the character of Thomas Jefferson as an American citizen of the world. As Minister to France, then as our first Secretary of State and as our third President, Jefferson was instrumental in the establishment of the United States as a vital fact in international affairs. It was he who first sent our Navy into far-distant waters to defend our rights. And the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine was the logical development of Jefferson's far-seeing foreign policy. Today this Nation which Jefferson helped so greatly to build is playing a tremendous part in the battle for the rights of man all over the world."[7]

1948. (Ezra Pound, Cantos LXXXI). "'You the one, I the few' said John Adams speaking of fears in the abstract to his volatile friend Mr. Jefferson."[8]

1962 April 29. (John F. Kennedy, Remarks at a Dinner honoring Nobel Prize Winners). "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."[9]

1963 April 16. (Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail). "But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love...And Thomas Jefferson: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal'...[10]

1989. (Jerzy Kosinki). "In every Pole there is Jefferson more than anyone else, a love of freedom, free expression-and having a house of one's own."[11]

1989. (Zdenek Janicek, after reading the Declaration of Independence to Polish workers). "Americans understood these rights more than 200 years ago...we are only now learning to believe that we are entitled to the same rights."[12]

1990 February 21. (Vaclav Havel). "When Thomas Jefferson wrote that governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, it was a simple and important act of the human spirit. What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that the author backed it up with his life. It was not just his words; it was his deed as well."[13]

1991. (Andrei Kozyrev, Russian Foreign Minister). "The Soviet Union was never a legitimate state...I don't know what Shakhnazarov reads; I read Jefferson on the inalienable rights of all men."[14]

1993 January 17. (Bill Clinton, ceremonies at Monticello). "Thomas Jefferson was one of our greatest presidents and perhaps our most brilliant president...He believed in the power of ideas which have made this country great...Jefferson believed in public service."[15]


  1. Arthur S. Link, ed. Papers of Woodrow Wilson. (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press), 24:331-332.
  2. Ibid, 36:472-473, 476.
  3. Sewanee Review. January 1930.
  4. Merill Peterson. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 426.
  5. Samuel Rosenman, ed. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (New York: Macmillan, 1938-), 5:613-614.
  6. Ibid, 436.
  7. Samuel Rosenman, ed. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. 1940: War-And Aid to Democracies. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), 30.
  8. Hypertext of Ezra Pound's Cantos LXXXI.
  9. Public papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy; containing the public messages, speeches, and statements of the President, 1961-1963.. (Washington D.C.: GPO, 1962-1964), 1:161.
  10. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can't Wait. (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 88.
  11. Quoted in Washington Post April 5,1989.
  12. Quoted in New York Times November 28, 1989.
  13. Quoted in New York Times. February 21, 1990.
  14. Quoted in Washington Post August 1, 1991.
  15. Quoted in Daily Progress. January 18, 1993.

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