The American Conservative’s scholar-in-residence, Bradley Birzer, explains that Thomas Jefferson’s favorite works, by Isaac Newton, John Locke and Francis Bacon, were highly intelligent, when grouped together they were also somewhat “radical and mischievous.” This is descriptive duo is apt for the reading material of a man who would help lead his country into one of the most audacious revolutions ever. Birzer writes (abridged):
In almost every way, when we think about Thomas Jefferson, we think about America.
Exactly what were Jefferson’s sources and influences? Was he merely a French radical living in the hinterlands of Western civilization? Certainly some have argued so. After all, when asked, he admitted in 1789 that he loved Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke above all others in the Western tradition as “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.” Taken at face value, this is an extraordinary claim by any standard, even one far less majestic than Jefferson’s. While each was an Englishman, each was also quite recent and modern in Jefferson’s day. And while Newton, Bacon, and Locke might each be highly intelligent in and of themselves, taken together they seem a bit radical and mischievous. Additionally, given Jefferson’s own life-long pursuit of the classics and liberal arts, one must ask, where is Greece and Rome in all of this, let alone medieval and Reformation England?
It isn’t hard to find the classical world that intrigued Jefferson’s mind. Probably no one has documented this as well as Carl Richard in his 1994 magnum opus, The Founders and the Classics. As late as 1810, Jefferson complained that any understanding of current events took precious time away from his reading of Tacitus and Homer. Roughly a decade later, he admitted, “I feel a much greater interest in knowing what has happened two or three thousand years ago than in what is now passing.” Though he loved Homer and Tacitus most, Virgil was not far behind. When Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in the late 1810s, he noted that all the science in the world meant little if a student failed to learn Greek and Latin. He wanted to exclude all professors and students who could not readily read the classics in their original language. Only this way could the nature of man, the temptations of power, and the attainment of the virtues truly be understood.
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