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Light and Liberty

Thomas Jefferson and the Power of Knowledge

edited by Robert M. S. McDonald

Publication Year: 2012

Although Thomas Jefferson’s status as a champion of education is widely known, the essays in Light and Liberty make clear that his efforts to enlighten fellow citizens reflected not only a love of learning but also a love of freedom. Using as a starting point Jefferson's conviction that knowledge is the basis of republican self-government, the contributors examine his educational projects not as disparate attempts to advance knowledge for its own sake but instead as a result of his unyielding, almost obsessive desire to bolster Americans’ republican virtues and values.

Whether by establishing schools or through broader, extra-institutional efforts to disseminate knowledge, Jefferson's endeavors embraced his vision for a dynamic and meritocratic America. He aimed not only to provide Americans with the ability to govern themselves and participate in the government of others but also to influence Americans to remake their society in accordance with his own principles.

Written in clear and accessible prose, Light and Liberty reveals the startling diversity of Jefferson’s attempts to rid citizens of the ignorance and vice that, in the view of Jefferson and many contemporaries, had corroded and corrupted once-great civilizations. Never wavering from his faith that "knowledge is power," Jefferson embraced an expansive understanding of education as the foundation for a republic of free and responsible individuals who understood their rights and stood ready to defend them.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Frontispiece

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

This volume contains revised and expanded versions of essays first delivered at a conference at the United States Military Academy at West Point on September 22 and 23, 2008, commemorating the opening of the academy’s new library building, Thomas Jefferson Hall. Completed after ten years of planning and construction costs of $65 million—the first new academic building...


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pp. xv-xviii


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pp. xix-xxii

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pp. 1-18

Thomas Jefferson believed that ‘‘light and liberty go together.’’ He affirmed that ‘‘no one more sincerely wishes the spread of information among mankind than I do’’ because no one had ‘‘greater confidence in its effect towards supporting free and good government.’’ He also warned that ‘‘if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization..

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‘‘The Yeomanry of the United States Are Not the Canaille of Paris’’: Thomas Jefferson, American Exceptionalism, and the ‘‘Spirit’’ of Democracy

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pp. 19-46

The source of much of our present ambivalence about Jefferson is rooted in the awkward tension between our sense that he was not inclusive enough to qualify as what most of us today would be willing to call a ‘‘democrat,’’ on the one hand, and, on the other, that he was, nevertheless, too naïve about the ability of ordinary white men to make wise decisions in...

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‘‘To Diffuse Knowledge More Generally through the Mass of the People’: ’Thomas Jefferson on Individual Freedom and the Distribution of Knowledge

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pp. 47-74

Thomas Jefferson is famous for stating in the Declaration of Independence that it was ‘‘self-evident . . . that all men are created equal . . . with certain unalienable Rights.’’ But rights were only Jefferson’s starting point. Jefferson believed that Americans would also need the tools necessary to take advantage of their newfound freedom. What use was it to be...

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Consistent in Creation: Thomas Jefferson, Natural Aristocracy, and the Problem of Knowledge

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pp. 75-95

In October 1813, Thomas Jefferson wrote John Adams a long letter on the subject of natural aristocracy. Jefferson reasoned that aristocrats were part of the order of nature, for ‘‘it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society.’’ That belief...

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The Jefferson Gospel: A Religious Education of Peace, Reason, and Morality

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pp. 96-115

Most of Jefferson’s contemporaries agreed in principle with his core belief about education, that it should reinforce democracy by teaching citizens and leaders about the world and their rights and responsibilities. But his notion that public education should emphasize scientific rather than scriptural revelation was more controversial. While the First...

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West from West Point: Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy and the ‘‘Empire of Liberty’’

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pp. 116-136

Thomas Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis to lead the Corps of Discovery because he was the least unqualified person for the job. In January 1803, when Jefferson asked Congress to fund an expedition up the Missouri to the Pacific, the army captain was twenty-eight. In his brief military career he had served west of the Appalachians, where he had gained...

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Thomas Jefferson, Colporteur of the Enlightenment

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pp. 137-157

When Thomas Jefferson’s boyhood home, Shadwell, burned on February 1, 1770, he most mourned the loss of his library. In a letter to his college friend, John Page, he calculated ‘‘the cost of the books burned to have been £200. sterling. Would to god it had been the money; then had it never cost me a sigh!"1 There were books that he had inherited from his...

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‘‘Presenting to Them Models for Their Imitation’’: Thomas Jefferson’s Reform of American Architecture

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pp. 158-186

From his earliest days in Williamsburg to his retirement at Monticello, Jeferson never rested in his attempts to reform American architecture. In his influential Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson lamented the architecture that surrounded him, stating that ‘‘the genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions over this land.’’ Jeferson was...

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Recording History: The Thomas Sully Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

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pp. 187-206

In early February 1821 Thomas Jefferson received a letter posted from the United States Military Academy at West Point. The letter, penned by mathematics professor Jared Mansfield, was written on behalf of the academy’s officers, cadets, and faculty and requested that Jefferson pose for a portrait that would be displayed in the academic library. His image would...

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Afterword: Light, Liberty, and Slavery

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pp. 207-216

Reading this cluster of fine essays made me aware that a new generation of Jefferson scholars has arrived. It has fascinated me to see how they are taking possession of this most interesting forebear of ours. People are always saying something is a great pleasure, but I want to begin by stressing that it really is a great pleasure to learn that there is a fresh group of...


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pp. 217-220


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pp. 221-232

Recent Books in the Jeffersonian America Series

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813932378
E-ISBN-10: 0813932378
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813932361
Print-ISBN-10: 081393236X

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 10 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 794004362
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Light and Liberty

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Subject Headings

  • Jefferson, Thomas, -- 1743-1826 -- Political and social views.
  • Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826 -- Knowledge and learning.
  • Jefferson, Thomas, -- 1743-1826 -- Influence.
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