Smith explores Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the value of history, and his plan for public universities.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In 1778, as I explained in the first part of this series, Thomas Jefferson submitted to the Virginia Assembly “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” Why did Jefferson defend three years of free elementary education, to be financed “at the common expence of all”? In the preamble to his bill, Jefferson wrote:

Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes….

Two things are especially noteworthy about his passage.

First, unlike most other republican advocates of state schooling, who emphasized the need to teach children the virtue of obedience to the American government, Jefferson stressed the need for vigilant citizens who would constantly be on guard against the ambition of rulers. America, like all other countries throughout history, would always be in danger of degenerating into tyranny, and only an educated citizenry would be able to recognize the telltale signs and thereby stop dangerous politicians in their tracks, before tyranny could become firmly established.

Second, Jefferson focused on knowledge of history as essential to the above task. Indeed, he believed that children should be taught to read primarily through the medium of history books. History is the most important field of knowledge for a free people. Although a liberal education in various fields is desirable, a general knowledge of history is indispensable. Jefferson, in a letter to his nephew Peter Carr (August 19, 1785), suggested that Peter devote most of his study time to history, while dividing the remaining time, “which should be shorter,” between philosophy and poetry.

In Jefferson’s day, history was frequently called “the lamp of experience.” History is philosophy teaching by examples. The experience needed for an adequate understanding of freedom – its conditions and causes and the reasons for its decline — cannot possibly be acquired during the brief span of a single life. History provides the requisite knowledge by enabling us to draw upon the accumulated experiences of many generations. As Edward Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

A being of the nature of man, endowed with the same faculties, but with a longer measure of existence, would cast down a smile of pity and contempt on the crimes and follies of human ambition…. It is thus that the experience of history exalts and enlarges the horizon of our intellectual view.

If we wish to appreciate how seriously Jefferson took history, we need only read his repeated and vitriolic attacks on David Hume’s six‐​volume History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688, published between 1754 and 1762. Today we think of David Hume as a philosopher, but to many of his contemporaries he was better known as a historian, owing to the great commercial success of his History of England.

Hume published his massive work out of sequence, beginning with what would later become volume five – a history of England during the reigns of first two Stuarts, James I and Charles I, culminating in an account of the English Civil Wars (also known as the Puritan Revolution) and the execution of Charles I in 1649.

This is the principal volume that incurred Jefferson’s wrath. Although he liked the book when he first read it during his student days, Jefferson came to loathe it as he read more widely. Although Hume claimed to have written an impartial history, in an effort to correct the partisan accounts of earlier historians, Jefferson regarded the volume as little more than Tory propaganda.

Hume, in Jefferson’s eyes, was the great apologist for the absolutism of the Stuarts. Hume “spared nothing…to wash them white, and to palliate their misgovernment. For this purpose he suppressed truths, advanced falsehoods, forged authorities, and falsified records.” Hume’s style was so bewitching that “all England became Tories by the magic of his art. His pen revolutionized the public sentiment of that country more completely than the standing armies could ever have done.…” In a letter to the publisher William Duane (August 12, 1810), Jefferson recalled how he had read Hume’s History as a student, and how much time, research, and reflection it took “to eradicate the poison it had instilled into my mind.”

Space does not permit an explanation of this complicated historical controversy. Suffice it to say that much more than history was involved. Hume was clear about the political implications of his scathing account of the Puritan Revolution. The doctrine of popular sovereignty, according to which the consent of the governed is the only legitimate foundation of political authority, may appear noble, but it “is belied by all history and experience.” Except in extreme cases, Hume argued, people are better off enduring the established government, however much it may abuse power, rather than taking up arms against it.

Of course, the revolutionary Thomas Jefferson would have none of this.

In A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), a young Jefferson wrote: “History has informed us that bodies of men as well as individuals are susceptible to tyranny.” This important lesson cannot be fully appreciated without a knowledge of history. It is through history that we learn the constant and recurring features of human nature and society. And it is through history that we learn to distrust everyone who wields power.

Jefferson was remarkably frank on this point, having included himself among those who should not be trusted with power. As he wrote to Edward Carrington (Jan. 16, 1787), European rulers, “under pretence of governing…have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep.” Jefferson feared the same thing might happen in America.

If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions….

A person ignorant of history will not understand the tremendous damage caused by the insatiable lust for power and the natural tendency of power to expand beyond its legitimate boundaries. Nor will this person appreciate how the encroachment of power can occur gradually, over time, in a manner that may appear innocent, if not viewed from a broad historical perspective. Instead, ignorant citizens, taking rulers at their word, will be duped time and again. Rulers will be viewed as great men who are exempt from the vices attending power, and thus will their crimes be excused.

Jefferson would have agreed wholeheartedly with these remarks by the Scot Thomas Gordon, in Cato’s Letters:

The common people generally think that great men have great minds and scorn base actions; which judgment is so false, that the basest and worst of all actions have been done by great men. Perhaps they have not picked private pockets, but they have done worse; they have often disturbed, deceived, and pillaged the world. And he who is capable of the highest mischief, is capable of the meanest. He who plunders a country of a million of money, would in suitable circumstances steal a silver spoon; and a conqueror who steals and pillages a kingdom, would, in a humbler fortune, rob an orchard.

During his second presidential term, Jefferson called for federal aid to establish universities. A strict constructionist, Jefferson maintained that such aid should first be authorized by a constitutional amendment. And he made it clear that federal aid should go only to universities, not to other branches of learning.

Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal; but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.

Jefferson called for public universities partly because he disapproved of sending American youths to Europe for their higher education, where they would be exposed to moral corruption. In England, for example, a student would learn “drinking, horse‐​racing and boxing.” A student in Europe “acquires a fondness for European luxury and dissipation and a contempt for the simplicity of his own country. [H]e contracts a partiality for aristocracy or monarchy.” Moreover, this student would be easy prey for feminine wiles “destructive of his own health,” and he would learn to disregard his marriage vows. Jefferson felt strongly about this subject.

It appears to me then that an American coming to Europe for education loses in his knowledge, in his morals, in his health, in his habits, and in his happiness. [T]he consequences of foreign education are alarming to me as an American.

Although higher education was important to Jefferson, he insisted that liberty is more important. France and England were preeminent in science, but “the one is a den of robbers, and the other of pirates.” If science “produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine, and destitution of national morality, I would rather wish our country to be ignorant, honest, and estimable….”