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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, as you probably know, was the architect of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia, the third President of the United States, and one of the leading political theorists and statesman of his generation. To this day, Jefferson's articulation of democratic freedom in the declaration resonates in the American mind, and his decentralist views of government still loom large in our political landscape.

As a Founding Father, Jefferson embodies many of the contradictions inherent to the story of our republic. While espousing individual freedom and declaring slavery a moral blight that would bring divine rage against the United States, Jefferson nevertheless owned slaves and was a strong believer in white superiority (despite evidence to the contrary, he thought both Benjamin Banneker and Phyllis Wheatley were phonies.) Despite his dream of a virtuous agrarian republic of independent yeoman farmers, Jefferson began his own manufacturing plant, where he forced slave children to operate dangerous nail-making machinery. Although he was a strong advocate for a strict interpretation of the Constitution (a view in accordance with his belief in decentralized power), he later bent the federal rules to buy the Louisiana Purchase.

In sum, Jefferson, the "American Sphinx," is paradigmatic of our national condition. In the shortfall between his ideals and his actions, in his willingness to abandon ideology for pragmatism, and his strong belief in individual rights without a correlated advocacy of all individuals' rights, Jefferson illuminates both the most admirable virtues and the most grievous failings of the American spirit.

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