Reading and book signing on campus Feb. 28
Thomas Jefferson has long influenced Dr. Kevin Gutzman, a professor of History & Non-Western Cultures at Western Connecticut State University. In fact, Gutzman argues, Jefferson influences every American every day.
But Gutzman has spent more time thinking about Jefferson's mark on society than the rest of us. That is why he has written "Thomas Jefferson - Revolutionary: A Radical's Struggle to Remake America," about the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, served as president and founded the University of Virginia.
Historians have probably written more about Jefferson than any other president besides Lincoln and Washington. Gutzman said there is room for another book because so many of Jefferson's ideas were incorporated into the creation of the United States, and continue to affect our lives.
In many cases, said Gutzman, who is a constitutional scholar, biographer of James Madison and author of several other books, we now think of Jefferson's revolutionary ideas as commonplace.
"People don't realize he was such a radical," Gutzman said. "People think freedom of religion is normal. We shouldn't think that way. It sets us apart from the rest of the world and people outside the U.S. see us as a beacon."
Gutzman argues that freedom of religion was Jefferson's "most significant long-term cause." "Because of Jefferson, government doesn't tell us what our religion would be. In fact, it doesn't care. Jefferson called it freedom of conscience."
The book also covers Jefferson's positions favoring assimilation of Indians and education of blacks and young women, all groups usually not allowed access to the classroom or other rights.
Federalism - the allocation of powers between the state and federal levels - also consumed much of Jefferson's thought and political activity.
Jefferson believed the nation would be healthier if more government decisions were made in state capitols, rather than in Washington, D.C. He wanted power dispersed within states as well.
"If everything is decided in Washington, the average person can't participate," Gutzman explained. "Jefferson wanted people to have more input in lower-case 'd' democracy."
Many of Jefferson's concepts and motivations came together in his work on public education.
Gutzman said Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary as a young man and "he was underwhelmed." When in later years his proposals to bring change to his alma mater were defeated, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia.
"It was completely radical, totally unlike any other institution," Gutzman said. "He stopped the parroting of Greek and Latin, although he loved those languages. Jefferson instituted essay exams and allowed students to take courses they wanted to take. He offered the hard sciences, and the governance of the university was different, with no proctor and faculty members electing the president. The whole thing was totally unknown. Today, nearly every university in the U.S. is like the University of Virginia."
Jefferson, of course, designed the campus and buildings for the university as well. He chose the books for the library with James Madison, lobbied Virginia legislators to ensure it was chartered and wrote course curricula.
And although Jefferson's lifelong slaveholding and belief in the inferiority of blacks is well-known, Gutzman said Jefferson was the first president to hire a black man, a land surveyor, to work for the federal government, and he proposed taxes in Virginia to pay for the schooling of every girl and boy, including free blacks. His arguments eventually included schooling for slave children as well.
The University of Virginia, where Gutzman did some of his own graduate work, was the culmination of Jefferson's efforts to democratize America, where everyone - not only land-owning white men - could be heard and make a difference.
It's a view that, despite occasional political rifts across the nation, generally pervades modern U.S. society.
But even though Jefferson's ideas may have become mainstream, Gutzman said, the third president - one of America's greatest revolutionaries and statesmen - would urge today's citizens to remain jealous of our freedoms.
"The fact that we live with the legacy of Jefferson's successes doesn't mean they are self-sustaining or that they will endure" Gutzman said. "We have to insist on it."
Gutzman will give a public lecture on "Thomas Jefferson - Revolutionary" and sign copies of the book at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, in Warner Hall on WestConn's Midtown campus, 181 White St. in Danbury.
For more information, call the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.