Although it is universally admitted that Jefferson had a broad, original, and powerful intellect, that he stamped his mind on the institutions of his country, that to no one except Washington is the country more indebted, yet I fail to see that he was transcendently great in anything. He was a good lawyer, a wise legislator, an able diplomatist, a clear writer, and an excellent president; but in none of the spheres he occupied did he reach the most exalted height. As a lawyer he was surpassed by Adams, Burr, and Marshall; as an orator he was nothing at all; as a writer he was not equal to Hamilton and Madison in profundity and power; as a diplomatist he was far below Franklin and even Jay in tact, in patience, and in skill; as a governor he was timid and vacillating; while as a president he is not to be compared with Washington for dignity, for wisdom, for consistency, or executive ability. Yet, on the whole, he has left a great name for giving shape to the institutions of his country, and for intense patriotism. Pre-eminent in no single direction, he was in the main the greatest political genius that has been elevated to the presidential chair; but perhaps greater as a politician than as a statesman in the sense that Pitt, Canning, and Peel were statesmen. He was not made for active life; he was rather a philosopher, wielding power by his pen, casting his searching glance into everything, and leading men by his amiability, his sympathetic nature, his force of character, and his enlightened mind. The question might arise whether Jefferson’s greatness was owing to force of circumstances, or to an original, creative intellect, like that of Franklin or Alexander Hamilton. But for the Revolution he might never have been heard of outside his native State. This, however, might be said of most of the men who have figured in American history,—possibly of Washington himself. The great rulers of the world seem to be raised up by Almighty Power, through peculiar training, to a peculiar fitness for the accomplishment of certain ends which they themselves did not foresee,—men like Abraham Lincoln, who was not that sort of man whom Henry Clay or Daniel Webster would probably have selected for the guidance of this mighty nation in the greatest crisis of its history.
The Life of Jefferson by Parton is the most interesting that I have read and the fullest, but not artistic. He introduces much superfluous matter that had better be left out. As for the other Lives of Jefferson, that by Morse is the best; that of Schouler is of especial interest as to Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery and popular education. Randall has written an interesting sketch. For the rest, I would recommend the same authorities as on John Adams in the previous chapter.