What Did Lincoln Really Think of Jefferson?

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tags: Lincoln, Jefferson



Allen C. Guelzo is a professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College and the author, most recently, of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”

“Lincoln hated Thomas Jefferson.” That is not exactly what we expect to hear about the president who spoke of “malice toward none,” referring to the president who wrote that “all men are created equal.”

Presidents have never been immune from criticism by other presidents. But Jefferson and Lincoln? These two stare down at us from Mount Rushmore as heroic, stainless and serene, and any suggestion of disharmony seems somehow a criticism of America itself. Still, Lincoln seems not to have gotten that message.

“Mr. Lincoln hated Thomas Jefferson as a man,” wrote William Henry Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner of 14 years — and “as a politician.” Especially after Lincoln read Theodore F. Dwight’s sensational, slash-all biography of Jefferson in 1839, Herndon believed “Mr. Lincoln never liked Jefferson’s moral character after that reading.”

True enough, Thomas Jefferson had not been easy to love, even in his own time. No one denied that Jefferson was a brilliant writer, a wide reader and a cultured talker. But his contemporaries also found him “a man of sublimated and paradoxical imagination” and “one of the most artful, intriguing, industrious and double-faced politicians in all America.”

Lincoln, who was born less than a month before Jefferson left the presidency in 1809, had his own reasons for loathing Jefferson “as a man.” Lincoln was well aware of Jefferson’s “repulsive” liaison with his slave, Sally Hemings, while “continually puling about liberty, equality and the degrading curse of slavery.” But he was just as disenchanted with Jefferson’s economic policies. ...




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