Peter S. Onuf, senior research fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, shared insights into the mind and soul of Jefferson during the first lecture sponsored by the James and Emily Douthat lectureship in the liberal arts and sciences. More than 120 people attended the lecture held on Nov. 10 in the Mary L. Welch Honors Hall on the Lycoming College campus.
Onuf began his lecture on “Thomas Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty” by reminding the audience that reflecting on history makes people realize who they are. He then took the audience back to March 1801, when Thomas Jefferson was first inaugurated as president. Jefferson looked westward to the vast territory open to Americans and envisioned a land of peace he called “an empire for liberty.” His vision of an “empire” based on a republic government and diplomacy with foreign countries was very different from the typical use of the term at the time.
According to Onuf, Jefferson realized that the new republic was more of an experiment than standard practice. Despite that, he had an optimistic conviction that America, with “land enough for the thousandth to the thousandth generation,” was a chosen country. The young America would be a country of peace based on free trade within the states that made every person equal by giving everyone the opportunity to be prosperous.
Onuf acknowledged that although Jefferson’s understanding of equality was biased by the acceptance of slavery, it was still more far-reaching than many leaders of his time.
Among other visions for his country, Jefferson also realized the need for a rule of law with courts and police, but felt that individual prosperity would minimize contention among individuals and states. He also believed that the right of citizen soldiers to rise up and fight for peace and prosperity made the U.S. government one of the strongest on earth. Citizens fighting for themselves, not for a king or as paid mercenaries, would be the most formidable.
Onuf concluded his presentation by discussing how Jefferson recognized that one of the greatest challenges for himself and other American leaders was to “bring the ragged constituents together” after the Revolutionary War. That was a task he took over from his predecessors and continued throughout his presidency to promote prosperity and equality.
Onuf has published several books on Thomas Jefferson, most recently “The Mind of Thomas Jefferson,” (2007, University of Virginia).
The Douthat lectureship in the Liberal Arts and Sciences honors James Douthat, former president of Lycoming College, and his wife Emily, for their years of service to the college. The annual lecture, which is not field specific, attracts top scholarly guest speakers to the college. Lycoming’s chapter of Phi Kappa Phi, a national honor society for all academic disciplines, organizes the lectureship.