Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Thomas Jefferson: A Colonial Renaissance Man

As an American Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson showed bravery and courage as a prominent figure in American history.  However, as the Founding Father who is credited with writing the Declaration of Independence as well as being the father of a form of architecture (Jeffersonian Architecture), some would argue he also displayed creative expertise in architecture as well as political philosophy.  In his book, “Creative Minds,” Howard Gardner explains that the three core elements needed to account for creative activity are the individual, the work, and other persons.  As a child coming from a large, wealthy family in Virginia, Jefferson’s childhood education allowed his teachers and tutors to play a vital role in him becoming a colonial Renaissance man. At around the age of 10, he began studying several languages including Latin, Greek, and French.   At age 16, Jefferson went to attend the College of William & Mary where he studied the works of prominent thinkers such as John Locke and Isaac Newton.  He also studied law there under George Wythe.  Along with this education, Jefferson also studied gained extensive knowledge in a variety of areas in his family’s library.  Although Jefferson did not receive any formal degree to practice law as a result of his education, it is obvious that he had access to gain expertise in a vast array of areas of studies.  However, his primary interests were in the fields of politics, law, and architecture.  Through his education, Jefferson began formulating his own beliefs on political ideals, and saw many issues with the way political systems ran during his early lifetime.

According to RW Weisberg in his article, “Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius,” the difference between ordinary problem solving and creative problem solving is “the high degree of motivation and expertise involved in the latter,” (Weisberg, p. 92) Jefferson’s education allowed him to gain the elite expertise in the fields of law and politics, and the American Revolution gave him the motivation he needed to display his creative expertise through applying his political ideals to this revolution.  Weisberg also states that those with creative expertise will find superior ways to solve a problem and reach the goal; one example is starting at the goal and working backward toward the initial problem.  This is exactly what Jefferson did to help the colonies during the American Revolution.

Jefferson had many political philosophies and beliefs that are prominent American political beliefs today, and are cornerstones of the American government.  First, Jefferson believed strongly in the inalienable rights of man as well as individual liberties.  You can see this through the first few lines of the Declaration of Independence, that Jefferson believed strongly in individual rights, and believe that any government should protect the rights of the individual from others within the society as well as the government. 
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form,”
Along with individual rights, Jefferson also believed in what he called separation between church and state, which became the understanding of the Free Exercise Clause of the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution.   Jefferson differed from other founding fathers in the amount of political power the federal government should possess as opposed to the state governments.  Jefferson believed strongly that the state governments should possess the majority of power, because he believed political systems worked best in small homogeneous groups as opposed to large diverse groups, where more conflict is to be expected.  Lastly, although he owned slaves and the abolition of slavery did not occur within his lifetime, he did speak in opposition to slavery throughout his life.  He even tried to pass several pieces of legislation that would have limited the oppression of slaves.  As you can see, many of Jefferson’s ideals are the ideals that are prominent within America today, which is the type of political system he wished to create (Weisberg would call it his goal).  It is evident that Jefferson used his creative expertise in politics and law in order to solve the problem of oppressive governments by working backward from his ideal political system, which was democracy.  However, the American Revolution was not the only example of this.  He also was a strong supporter of the French Revolution when he was the American Minister to France.  However, even in what many would consider the pinnacle example of Thomas Jefferson’s creative genius (The Declaration of Independence), there is evidence that his political ideals were not solely isolated ideals of his own, but had outside influence.  For example, John Locke wrote in his “Two Treatises of Government” about “life, liberty, and estate,” which sounds very similar to the inalienable rights described in the Declaration of Independence as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Throughout Jefferson’s life he fought to create democracy and preserve it in the United States, and the formation of this country as a result of the American Revolution allowed Jefferson’s creative genius to take action and help create the foundation for what some consider the best country in the world.  If his eloquent writing in the Declaration of Independence and his prominent role in creating the foundation for America are not enough to convince you of his creative genius, I encourage you to tour the University of Virginia, where Jefferson was the architect of several buildings on what Forbes Magazine rates as one of the most beautiful campuses in America.  Thomas Jefferson; a Colonial Renaissance man.


Gardner, Howard. Creative Minds. 2011.
Weisberg, RW. Creativity: Beyond the myth of genius. "Chapter 4." 1993.

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