Born in an age ruled by monarchs, Thomas Jefferson thought that power ought to belong to those who possessed “virtue and talent” rather than to aristocrats who had inherited it. He rejected the power of kings in favor of ordinary people, believing that all men are created equal and possess inherent natural rights. Jefferson became a powerful spokesman for a revolutionary generation of Americans who created a new nation based on these radical ideas. Thomas Jefferson remains today a pivotal figure in American history whose influence continues to be felt nearly two centuries after his death, both in the United States and around the world. This course will offer an introduction to Jefferson’s thought, focusing on several key ideas and themes that engaged Jefferson throughout his public career and private life. We will address the three achievements that Jefferson asked to be listed on his tombstone by discussing his roles in writing the Declaration of Independence, in advocating religious freedom, and in advancing the cause of education by founding the University of Virginia. We will also seek to understand what Jefferson meant when he proclaimed that “the earth belongs to the living.” And, crucially, we will explore Jefferson’s lifelong relationship with the institution of slavery.
To understand Jefferson’s ideas and why they continue to be relevant today, our approach in each lecture will be to situate Jefferson in the context of his own time and place. Jefferson lived for many years in different places—Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and Washington D.C., to name but a few—but there is little doubt that he considered his home, Monticello, and the nearby town of Charlottesville, in central Virginia, to be the center of his world. In this course, produced by the University of Virginia in close partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, we will explore how Jefferson’s identification with Monticello and the surrounding area influenced him as he formulated ideas that have made a global impact. After completing the course it should be clear not only why Jefferson's legacy is essential to understanding American history, but also why UNESCO has designated Jefferson’s Monticello and the University of Virginia as a World Heritage Site.