Jefferson’s Platonic Republicanism

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought
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That Jefferson execrated Plato in an 1814 letter to friend John Adams. In it, he expresses an unsympathetic, hostile view of Plato’s Republic, and the reasons are several. Nonetheless, Plato’s views on what makes government fundamentally sound are, at base, remarkably similar to Jefferson’s both in substance and sentiment, so much so that it is inconceivable to think that Plato’s Republic had little effect on Jefferson’s political thinking. That makes his execration of Plato difficult to understand.

This paper is an attempt to show that Jefferson, despite the tenor of his letter to Adams, had much more than a dilettante’s grasp of the political content of Plato’s major work. Jefferson was very likely quite familiar with the work, since his own political philosophy assimilates key substratal Platonic political principles of good, stable governing. His disavowal of the work and execration of Plato, then, is due to a constellation of other factors: Adams’s feelings toward Plato, Jefferson’s views on the corruptions of Jesus’s teachings, his deep-dyed detestation of metempiricism, his view that Plato was an unoriginal thinker, and strong disagreement with Plato’s means to instantiate substratal political principles.




See also TJ to William Short, 31 Oct. 1819, and TJ to William Short, 4 Aug. 1820. I have adopted the convention here, as in other publications, of labeling Jefferson’s epistolary writings by reference only to his correspondent and to the date of the letter, thereby giving readers the opportunity to refer to the edition of Jefferson’s writings that is most readily available to them. There are several major compilations of Jefferson’s writings, the most widely used are the following: The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being his Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private: Published by the Order of the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library, from the Original Manuscripts, Deposited in the Department of State, 9 Vols., ed. Henry Augustine Washington (Washington: Taylor & Maury, 1853-4); The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, 12 Vols. (New York: Putnam, 1902); The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Definitive Edition, 20 Vols., ed. Andrew Adgate Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907); and The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 42 Vols. (to date), ed. Julian Boyd et al. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-). There are also several one-volume compilations of Jefferson’s writings – the best of which is Merrill D. Peterson’s Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984). Moreover, many of Jefferson’s writing are readily available online – e.g., Hathi Trust Digital Library, The Online Library of Liberty, and Founders Online.


TJ to Samuel Kercheval, 12 July 1816. See also TJ to Taylor, 28 May 1816.


John Smith, ‘Philosophical Ideas Behind the “Declaration of Independence” ’, Revue Internationale de Philosophia, 31 (1977), pp. 374-5.


E.g., TJ to Samuel Kercheval, 12 July 1816.


Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), and Michael Hardt, ‘Jefferson and Democracy’, American Quarterly, 59 (2007), pp. 41-78.


See M. Andrew Holowchak, ‘Individual Liberty and Political Unity in an Expanding Nation: The Axiological Primacy of Wards in Jefferson’s Republican Schema’, Thomas Jefferson and Philosophy: Essays on the Philosophical Cast of Jefferson’s Writings, ed. M. Andrew Holowchak (Lanham, md: Lexington Books, 2013).


TJ to John Adams, 28 Oct. 1813.


TJ to Peter Carr, 10 Aug. 1787.


TJ to Joseph Priestley, 9 Apr. 1803, and TJ to William Short, 4 Aug. 1820.


TJ to John Adams, 12 Oct. 1813.


Meyer Reinhold, ‘The Classical World’, Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986), 148.


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