The Creative Genius of Thomas Jefferson

The 4th of July seems more resonant every year, as we celebrate the creative accomplishments of our founding fathers and mothers, to whom Americans owe so much. Never before had a small band of oppressed people broken the shackles of so vast an empire as Great Britain to give birth to their own, new country.

The creative process is fundamental to all innovation in every field of endeavor. We humans yearn for the quality of experience that hurls us into the unbounded world of imagination, beyond the constraints of time. The act of creating gives form to the inner life, brings spirit into matter. It shapes order from chaos. So intoxicating can its payoffs be that we tend to idealize it. We often forget that fear, resistance, anxiety and pure labor are equal parts of the creative endeavor. In “Last Night,” the poem by Spanish poet Antonio Machado, reassures us that spring will once again break out in the heart, and golden bees will make “sweet honey” from failures and loss.

Our founding circle hosted a rare confluence of learnedness, wisdom and courage that crossed long thresholds of discomfort in order to actualize what was calling to be created, and against long odds.  Thomas Jefferson’s life provides a particularly poignant example of the creative process, as both victory and struggle. During one vital decade of helping to found and lead the fragile new nation, tragic events befell Jefferson. He married the widowed Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772, and was deeply in love. Soon thereafter, he endured the early deaths of his beloved father-in-law, his closest childhood friend, and his mother, who died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-seven. The couple’s first daughter was born the same year, but Martha’s son from her first marriage was stricken by fatal illness. The Jefferson’s second daughter died when two-years-old. Later, death stole two more of their infants. The pregnancies and losses compromised Martha’s health, and after her last birth in 1882, she herself died. Two years after Martha’s demise, the youngest child passed away, leaving just two of their offspring remaining.

Jefferson emerged from his agonizing losses to deliver gifts of awesome magnitude.  As a member of the Continental Congress, Jefferson was invited to author The Declaration of Independence, after which he became governor of Virginia. He was appointed as minister to France, then to Secretary of State under George Washington, and Vice President under John Adams. He was later elected third President of The United States.

Jefferson was opposed to all forms of absolutism and was distrustful of power, lest it be seized for its own sake. He sought to use the instruments of government in the public interest over the interests of the privileged, earning him wide popular support as president. He was a devoted family man, and led a rich creative life as an architect, scientist, linguist, patron of the arts, and spiritual father of the University of Virginia.  During his term as governor, he drafted the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which led to our First Amendment and one of America’s greatest gifts to democracy: the separation of church and state.

Jefferson’s contribution was vital in creating a nation truly pluralistic in religious terms.  He battled to protect religious freedom from hostile political maneuvering. He fought intolerance–as well as legal ascendancy—of any religion or sect. In his view, government should be prevented from meddling in the affairs of religion, and vice versa. He considered those clergy who intruded in the machinery of government to be “a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” He believed that human conscience is held accountable to none other than its Creator.

Jefferson’s devotion to these principles earned him the wrath of Congregationalists in the areas of New England where the clergy and magistrates were well established. But Jefferson was intensely aware of the despotic abuses of theocracy that racked Europe for centuries, drenching it in blood and misery. The Congregationalists denounced Jefferson in their pulpits as atheist, though in private he was a man of deep spirituality.

In a letter to the physician and social reformer, Benjamin Rush, he wrote, “The clergy…believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President] will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.”

Jefferson’s profound gift to democracy in 1800 serves as a guiding light for today. It begs our alertness to forces of oppression motivated by power, fear, or even the best intentions, that aim–consciously or unconsciously–to violate the sacred separation of church and state. Fundamentalists in the world fear that separation, blaming it for the problems of immorality and injustice. Extremists see that separation as a threat to be eliminated. Jefferson argued otherwise: that religion had nothing to fear from “liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.” He trusted the tenets of religion to emerge and prevail from within a liberated human consciousness. Religious truths would stand trial, not in the courts of law, but in the unfettered courts of experience and reason. Morality’s true legislation he insisted, would take place only within hearts and minds.

Despite Jefferson’s many talents, he was under serious threat of indebtedness his whole life. He faced personal and political battles, some compromising his reputation painfully. During his Vice Presidency, he backed an unscrupulous journalist who defamed the character of then President Adams; a reaction motivated by Jefferson’s opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. As a result of this betrayal, Adams, once his friend, became his bitter enemy for a time. While recognizing the injustice of slavery, Jefferson owned slaves and remained tied to its system. The Kentucky resolution of 1798, authored by Jefferson, carried states-rights doctrines to such extreme that his name become associated with the South’s emerging secession movement. Despite many successes, his mistakes took their toll.

In retirement, Jefferson settled into his beloved Virginia home, Monticello, and devoted himself to his vast array of interests. His failures tended to recede and fade. Tensions thawed in his relationship with John Adams, and the two men began a letter writing campaign that lasted for fifteen years. Their correspondence touched on myriad topics, from recollections about their contributions to the young nation’s history, to views on current politics, to matters of the spirit, to issues of aging. Humor and affection infuse these writings, despite the two men’s differing political and philosophical views.

Thomas Jefferson died on July 4th, 1826, only hours before John Adams. Their day of death was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Before John Adams slipped away, he uttered the words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” And “survives,” he does. Surely the paths of hope would be far less illuminated had this great yet flawed human being given in to discouragement and despair.

Thomas Jefferson’s life is a testament to the best of the creative process and of America.  His legacy of creating reminds us to defend and further our cherished visions, to grow within the challenges, no matter how we feel at the moment. These choppy waters may unsettle our existing shore. But no matter how turbulent, one choice we will always govern: whether to calm the storms, or be crushed by them.  As the creative process demands we pass through thresholds of discomfort, it’s comforting to know that, far from untouched by the anxieties we average humans share, this beacon of light knew intimately the rough terrain of spring and the workings of golden bees.




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