|"Reason is in the estimation of the
philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace determines the Christians action;
reason the philosophers.Other men are carried away by their passions, so that the
acts which they produce do not proceed from reflection (i.e., contemplation). These are
the men who move in darkness; while the philosopher, even in his passions, moves only
after reflection. He marches at night, but a torch goes on ahead. The philosopher forms
his principles (beliefs) upon an infinity of individual observations. [Other] people adopt
the principle without a thought of the observations which have produced it, believing that
the maxim (truth) exists, so to speak, of itself; but the philosopher takes the maxim at
its source, he examines its origin, he knows its real value, and only makes use of it, if
it seems to him satisfactory. "
--The Philosophe, Denis Diderot
Jefferson as Philosophe, Enlightenment Rationalist
Jefferson's Notes answers the queries of Mssr.
Marbou by mustering empirical data and observations--charts, measurements, maps, firsthand
descriptions, etc. He refutes Buffon's charge that the New World is weaker and less
developed by including information regarding a mastodon's skeleton, comparative species
charts of Old and New World, and a discussion of Indian life and culture, including the
oratory of Chief Logan. Jefferson also holds a high faith in reason (as opposed to
religious faith) as a method of assessing truth. He looks to the diversification and
disestablishment of religion as positive goods because they dilute zealots and bring more
focus to the rational as the test of what is actual--"the best way to silence
religious disputes is to take no notice of them."
According to Richard Hooker, the philosophes were defined by
three dominant ideals. :
- "Progress: Human history is largely a history of the
improvement of humanity in three respects: a) developing a knowledge of the natural world
and the ability to manipulate the world through technology; b) overcoming ignorance bred
of superstitions and religions; c) overcoming human cruelty and violence through social
improvements and government structures."
- "Deism: Deism is a term coined in the philosophe movement
and applies to two related ideas: a) religion should be reasonable and should result in
the highest moral behavior of its adherents; b) the knowledge of the natural world and the
human world has nothing to do whatsoever with religion and should be approached completely
free from religious ideas or convictions."
- "Tolerance: The greatest human crimes, as far as the philosophes
were concerned, have been perpetrated in the name of religion and the name of God. A
fair, just, and productive society absolutely depends on religious tolerance. This means
not merely tolerance of varying Christian sects, but tolerance of non-Christian religions
as well (for some philosophes )."
[Click here for a more complete
discussion of this.]
- How does Jefferson's approach to truth and reason compare with that
of Franklin and Paine? How does it compare with that of Edwards and the Puritans?
- Jefferson was willing to inspect an Indian burial mound to describe
its contents. How would a Native American view his actions? What might Jefferson say
in his defense?
Jefferson as Racial Idealist and Bigot
Jefferson has very different notions of Native
Americans and Africans. he praises the former as naturally virtuous, concerned with
moral matters, skilled in their environment, and rhetorically moving. Biological
differences from Europeans are slight and unimportant. While Jefferson disapproves
of slavery, his stance toward Africans is far more troubling. He sees them as less
beautiful, having less reason and memory, perhaps even inferior in their bodies. He
discounts Phillis Wheatley as a non-poet and Ignatius Sancho as wild and without style.
His answer to slavery is deportation as a protection against miscegenation.
Question: Why do you think Jefferson
comes to such two different perspectives on two different races? What does each view
reveal about Jefferson's concerns, prejudices, even ideals?
Jefferson as Agrarian Republican
"The republican is the only form of
government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind."
"On this view of the import of the term
republic, instead of saying, as has been said, "that it may mean anything or
nothing," we may say with truth and meaning, that governments are more or less
republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in
their composition; and believing, as I do, that the mass of the citizens is the safest
depository of their own rights, and especially, that the evils flowing from the duperies
of the people, are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a
friend to that composition of government which has in it the most of this
--To John Taylor Monticello May 28, 1816
Jefferson's query on manufacture stresses farming as
leading to virtue. He calls farmers "the chosen people of God." He wishes to see
workshops stay in Europe and stresses government by the people and depreciation of paper
money as concerns. His constitutional history of Virginia stresses the injustices of the
past such as James I's reworking of the state charter, Parliament's control over foreign
trade in the 1650's, but especially George III's wrongs and the righteousness of the 1776
Revolution as resistance to tyranny.