Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826)
Author:
Dye, Renée
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The third president of the United States (1800–1808), Thomas Jefferson epitomized the Enlightenment man in America. A graceful writer, an adept politician, a formidable intellectual, and a talented architect, Jefferson bequeathed to the new nation a weighty legacy of achievements. He drafted the Declaration of Independence (1776), he founded the University of Virginia, and his library—over ten thousand volumes—formed the original collection of the Library of Congress. During the vitriolic debates over the National Bank, Jefferson emerged as the champion of strong state and individual rights at the expense of a powerful federal government. His vision of America featured a hardy and self-sufficient yeomanry, whom he proclaimed "the chosen people of the earth," secure in their rural enclaves from the corruption of cities and governments.

Whitman considered Jefferson the most authentic democratic statesman the young country had yet produced. In conversation with Horace Traubel in 1888, Whitman described Elias Hicks as "the only real democrat among all religious teachers: the democrat in religion as Jefferson was the democrat in politics" (With Walt Whitman 2:36). On another occasion Whitman agreed that Jefferson was "greatest of the great: that names him: it belongs to him: he is entitled to it" (With Walt Whitman 3:229). Jefferson was "entitled" to the epithet for his unwavering devotion to the premier principle of democracy: the entitlement of all persons to their "inalienable rights." In "Song of Myself," Whitman's tender cataloguing of all the inhabitants of the United States—slave and free, immigrant and native, young and old, rich and poor—embodies poetically the abstract creed of natural equality penned by Jefferson and preached by Hicks, the poet's two representative democrats.

Bibliography

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Time. 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948–1981.

Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: Holt, 1993.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.


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