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Thomas Jefferson, Revered and Reviled by Robert M. S. McDonald
On December 1, Robert M. S. McDonald delivered a Banner Lecture entitled “Thomas Jefferson, Revered and Reviled.”
Of all the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson stood out as the most controversial and confounding. Loved and hated, revered and reviled, during his lifetime he served as a lightning rod for dispute. Few major figures in American history provoked such a polarization of public opinion. While Jefferson’s supporters organized festivals in his honor where they praised him in speeches and songs, his detractors portrayed him as a dilettante and demagogue, double-faced and dangerously radical, an atheist hostile to Christianity. Characterizing his beliefs as un-American, they tarred him with the extremism of the French Revolution. Yet his allies cheered his contributions to the American Revolution, unmasking him as the now formerly anonymous author of the words that had helped to define America in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s bifurcated image took shape both as a product of his own creation and in response to factors beyond his control. In the first fifty years of independence, Americans’ views of Jefferson revealed much about their conflicting views of the purpose and promise of America.
Robert M. S. McDonald is a professor of history at the United States Military Academy. He is the author and editor of several books on Jefferson, including Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy: Founding West Point (2004), Light and Liberty: Thomas Jefferson and the Power of Knowledge (2012), and Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson's Image in His Own Time (2016).