This lecture was presented by M Andrew Holowchak at the University of Virginia’s Jefferson Scholars Foundation in a forum titled “Thomas Jefferson: The Man of Many Myths.”
It is common today for scholars to note both Jefferson’s belief in a moral sense and the great regard that he, as a disciple of the Enlightenment, held for reason. Yet there is very little written on Jefferson’s view of the moral sense, and astonishingly, even less on his conception of rationality. What exists flippantly assumes that Jefferson was a keen and politically savvy rationalist and that his moral sense was a faculty subservient to reason.
In this essay, I show the opposite is the case. Jefferson consistently held that “an honest heart,” given to all, was a blessing much greater than “a knowing head,” given to few. I show also how his notion of a schema for republican governing is built upon the notion of moral superiority. Finally, I flesh out some other of the unexpected implications of reason’s subservience.