What makes Thomas Jefferson such a rich symbol is his elusiveness; you can't pin one label on him. A self-made educated man, he was happiest with his books and most uncomfortable in the glare of the public spotlight, particularly when called upon to speak. He deliberately maintained a distance, an inscrutability. He confounded contemporaries and historians alike with his contradictory identities: aristocrat and country farmer; Enlightenment philosopher and pragmatic politician; revolutionary radical and conservative agrarian; champion of the people's liberty and Virginian slaveholder.
The last contradiction resonates most strongly in the American memory today: What are we to make of our Father of Liberty, who, more than any other leading political figure of his time, championed the right of every man to a free life, and yet also owned slaves?
Many labels have been attached to Jefferson--Father of Liberty, of States' Rights, of our Country, of Democracy--by a variety of political parties and figures. That so many disparate groups have claimed Jefferson as their philosophical Father is a primary reason for Jefferson's inaccessbility to us now; the historical Jefferson has been diluted into so many watery selves over time that the modern man finds it difficult to wade through the identities and find the most accurate one. And, at the same time, that so many groups felt it vital to legitimize their party's goal by gaining the favor of his legacy is a testimony to the political force of the Jefferson image in the nineteenth century.
Signed right base, P.J. David D'Angers;
Sculpted, 1833; bronze, 7'6";
Gift of Uriah P. Levy, USN, 1833.
By resolution placed in Rotunda 1834 for about a year,
then moved to the north grounds of the White House;
returned to the Capitol in 1874 and formally
accepted by resolution of March 18, 1874.
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