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Sadly modern Americans seem to have done a better job preserving what Thomas Jefferson has left us in bricks and mortar than we have preserving his ideas Tourists visiting Charlottesville Virginia can witness firsthand the ongoing efforts to preserve Jeffersons home at Monticello as well as his splendid little Academical Village the Lawn which is still a vital center of student life at the University of Virginia Further down the road near Lynchburg Virginia preservationists have begun restoring Poplar Forest Jeffersons retreat home Scholars have been less successful in keeping alive his philosophy particularly his ideas about government -- despite the copious record he left in his writings Ken Burnss recent PBS documentary Thomas Jefferson is a case in point It features a parade of scholars who simultaneously declare their own inability to understand Jefferson and mislead others with interpretations of his life and thought that are as questionable as they are contradictory Burns informs the viewer for example that Jeffersons life was full of contradictions the man of the people with the tastes of an aristocrat the natural rights philosopher who owned slaves the lifelong champion of small government who more than doubled the size of the United States and so on Most of these alleged contradictions really arent as antithetical as they appear for they are based on faulty assumptions or misunderstandings of principles Joseph Ellis for example reasserts the bromide -- common among modern liberal academics -- that the ideals of equality and the pursuit of happiness as expressed in Jeffersons Declaration of Independence are unattainable or contradictory But theres nothing contradictory about equality of rights and each individuals pursuit of happiness if the concept of rights is properly understood Herbert Spencers law of equal freedom the radical Whigs concept of natural liberty and Jeffersons concept of natural society all accounted for how the two can work together The fact that many of todays intellectuals simply dont get
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