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The Last Person to Know It All

Every so often, I have occasion to voice my opinion that Thomas Jefferson was the "last person to know it all." By that, I mean he lived at the end of the period in human history when it was theoretically possible for one person to be fluent in most of the sciences and humanities, and he was the last person to be intelligent and motivated enough to do so. His accomplishments included:

  • Author of the Declaration of Independence
  • Author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
  • President of the American Philosophical Society
  • Founder of the University of Virginia
  • Governor of Virginia
  • Minister to France
  • Secretary of State under President George Washington
  • Vice-President under President John Adams
  • President of the United States (as which he conducted the Louisiana Purchase and supported the Lewis and Clark expedition)
His library formed the nucleus of the Library of Congress. He was an architect, historian, philosopher, planter, surveyor, inventor, map collector, landscape architect, archaeologist, patent examiner, mathematician, and much more.

I'd be willing to bet that, if asked to name the greatest US president, most Americans will name George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Either is a great choice. Washington was our first president and walked away from the presidency to avoid recreating a monarchy in America. Lincoln (my choice as the greatest President) saved the country from splitting apart and freed the slaves -- and many Americans have an emotional connection to him that we don't have with other presidents. The Lincoln Memorial is a very emotional place, and I tell people from other countries that they have to visit it if they want to begin to understand Americans.

With all that said, though, it's amazing to think of what Jefferson accomplished in life. As a president, he was one of the greatest (though not the greatest). But as a human being, he has to rank as one of the most impressive who has ever lived.

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