What President Obama Can Learn from Jefferson’s Legacy

Jefferson tried to solve the problems of the day and set a course for the future.

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Hisham Ibrahim / Getty Images

The statue of Thomas Jefferson stands at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC

In late 1803, the French charge-d’affaires in Washington, Louis-Andre Pichon, drafted a special letter about President Jefferson to send back to the foreign ministry in Paris. “It is difficult, Citizen Minister,” Pichon began, “to give a definitive judgment on the character of Mr. Jefferson, as well as on the effect that could be produced internally by his policy and his systems.” It is indeed. It is not, however, impossible.

I have just published a book — adapted in this week’s issue of TIME — that, I hope, neither lionizes nor indicts Jefferson, but instead restores him to his full and rich role as an American statesman who resists easy categorization, and whose life and presidency offers us some possible lessons about how to move forward.

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Cool and cerebral, Jefferson could not resist the heat of political combat, and he adapted his brilliantly expressed principles to the realities of elections and of governing with seeming effortlessness. Many Americans idolized him; others shared the views of an anonymous letter writer who told him, “Thomas Jefferson. You are the damdest fool that God put life into. God dam you.”

At his core, from year to year and age to age, Thomas Jefferson was a politician who sought office and, once in office, tried to solve the problems of his day and set a course for the future within the constraints of his time and place. That he often did so with skill and effectiveness is a tribute to his life and is, I think, the heart of his legacy. For without a compelling political figure making the case for the principles and practices in which he believed against the Federalist interest of the time — and Jefferson was surely a compelling political figure — American life and politics could have turned out differently.

The most remarkable politicians are those who do the best they can given time and chance, and whose faults are at once personal and universal. And the most accomplished presidents manage, however briefly, to transcend the inevitable constraints and overcome those faults. As Barack Obama begins his second term, let’s hope he can do just that, and leave us stronger than he found us.

MORE: From the Archives: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Thomas Jefferson