Of all the founding fathers, he has fared the worst at the hands of revisionists. If Thomas Jefferson has managed to keep his place on Mount Rushmore, he has been vilified almost everywhere else in recent years as a slave-owning hypocrite and racist; a political extremist; an apologist for the vicious French Revolution; and, in general, somewhat less than the genius remembered in our folklore.
The onslaught is unfair. But even ardent Jeffersonians admit that the man was an insoluble puzzle. The contradictions in his character and his ideas could be breathtaking. That the author of the Declaration of Independence not only owned and worked slaves at Monticello but kept one of them, Sally Hemings, as a mistress — fathering children with her but never freeing her or them — was merely the most dramatic of his inconsistencies. Yet he was arguably the most accomplished man who ever occupied the White House: naturalist, lawyer, musician, architect, geographer, inventor, scientist, agriculturalist, philologist.
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A dozen powerful strands of the Enlightenment converged in him: a certain sky-blue clarity, an aggressive awareness of the world, a fascination with science, a mechanical vision of the universe and an obsession with mathematical precision. Many of the contradictions in his character arose from the discrepancies between such intellectual machinery and the passionate, organic disorders of life.
Jefferson helped shape America, serving in the Continental Congress, as a diplomat, as Secretary of State, as the President who made the Louisiana Purchase, as the founder of the University of Virginia. Yet his finest hour came when he was young, only 33. In the Declaration, he formulated the founding aspiration of America and what remains its best self: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal … “
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook