Alexander Campbell and Thomas Jefferson
A Comparative Study of Two Old Virginians
It was an October day in 1839 when Alexander Campbell stood at the tomb of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. He had just driven the three miles from Charlottesville where he had visited the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson in 1819. He later recorded his impression of the University: "Its localities are well selected; and its architectural designs, execution, and general taste reflect great credit on the distinguished mind of its illustrious founder." He went so far as to say that the Grecian orders of architecture are "the best specimen of good style and taste that we have seen in the United States."
He was not so impressed as he stood at the grave of the Sage of Monticello. The man who had served as the third President of the United States had been dead only thirteen years, and yet his country estate was in such a state of disrepair that Campbell viewed it as having "the appearance of a splendid failure." The farm was sterile and exhausted, to use Campbell's description, while the mansion had "the patchwork appearance." Campbell suggested that the whole scene implied that its proprietor had been "a rather ideal and imaginative than practical sound in his views and undertakings." Then he added: "Of the wisdom of his other theories, it is to be hoped that time, the great interpreter of all human effort, will speak more favorably than of those that appear to have been cherished by the occupant and proprietor and improver of Monticello.
Campbell found the tomb and its surroundings in ruins. The fence was dilapidated, the frame of the gate was swinging in the air, the post and bars prostrate on the ground, the monument tottering, the tombstone broken and trodden by swine. To him it all seemed to say, "Here lies in this neglected spot, some Arnold guilty of his country's blood" rather than Here lies the Author of the American Declaration of Independence.
The visitor from the little village upstate called Bethany was shocked and incensed by what he saw. On previous celebrations of the Fourth of July he had delivered orations in tribute to Jefferson. Often had he said: "The praises of a Washington, a Franklin, and a Jefferson will long resound through the hills and vallies of this spacious country." (Mill. Harb. 1, p. 307) And yet here at Monticello, so loved by its illustrious sage, it was as if he were a forgotten man. "Ought not the nation, the state of Virginia, or the citizens of Albemarle, to pay some attention to this deserted piece of ground!!" He complained that the inscription on the monument had no nominative case, but only "Was born April 13th, O. S. 1743--died July 4th, 1827." He protested: "Did Mr. Jefferson or his heirs presume that all the world would forever find, by intuition, the subject of this verb! What eccentric folly!" (Mill. Harb. 10, p. 59)
The interesting thing about all this is that the attitude of Campbell at Jefferson's estate is much what we would expect Jefferson's own attitude to be should he have visited Monticello when Campbell did. He too was particular and meticulous; he too insisted that things should be done right. He would have registered the same complaints, I think, and much the same way Campbell did.
That there was an affinity of thought between these two old Virginians I have thought for sometime. Having lived in (West) Virginia for awhile, serving on the faculty of Bethany College with its rich traditions, I have basked somewhat in the historical splendour of both of these men. Since it has long been my conviction that the best study of historical values is through biography, I concluded that it might be well to look at Jefferson and Campbell in an essay together.
They should both be remembered first of all as dedicated citizens of the Old Dominion. They were Virginians first, then Americans; or at least it was this way in the early part of their lives, but they eventually gave themselves not only to America but to the entire world. It is evident that Campbell came to view Virginia, its University, and Thomas Jefferson as a kind of triumvirate. It was typical for him to say to the people of Tennessee in 1855: "We plain folks of Virginia, with the immortal Jefferson and his State University, dare not emulate the magnificence of this rich and enterprising maiden State." (Mill. Harb. 26, p. 218)
Campbell talked about Virginia much as one would speak of his mother: "Men of truth, whose feet have trod the mountains and plains of Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, concur in awarding to this delightful region the greatest amount of attractions, the most to please and admire, the most to raise, excite, and transport the mind of a scientific and cultivated beholder." (Mill. Harb. 16, p. 345) He was incidentally speaking of that particular part of Virginia made holy by "the grave of the far famed Jefferson." But he talked about the hills of Bethany the same way, "salubrious" being his over-worked adjective.
He had an affection for Monticello similar to that of its famed proprietor. Even though it was over 300 miles from Bethany in a day when travel was difficult, he made no less than three pilgrimages to the place, the last time being when he was nearly 70 years old ("We thought it expedient that Mrs. Campbell should make a visit to Monticello").
But these visits, as we have seen in part, appear now to have been disturbing to Campbell. Perhaps it did not make sense for him, a religious reformer, to have such admiration for an irreligious man, yea even a Deist. What he saw inside the edifice during his 1855 visit disturbed him as much as the dilapidation he witnessed outside the edifice during his 1839 visit. There were busts of Voltaire and Paine in the chambers! "Why should this Voltaire stand enshrined in the antechamber and Paine in the bedchamber of the sage of Monticello!"
If Campbell did not know why Jefferson would esteem these two, we now know why. Loving France almost as well as his native country, having lived there as Ambassador, hardly any event was viewed more seriously by him than the French Revolution, which began to brew while he yet lived there. It was Voltaire (partly because of the literary influence of John Locke) who helped to inspire that revolution, giving it what it most needed, philosophical and moral justification. But the most significant thing in Jefferson's life was the American Revolution, and it was Thomas Paine who helped to ignite it. So, to the Sage of Monticello these busts symbolized freedom, the biggest word of all in the lives of both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Campbell.
Campbell was hurt that Jefferson's life was not made perfect by Christianity: "He repudiated the Bible," Campbell complained while viewing those busts and thinking of Jefferson, "and he dreamed of making a free and a happy people without faith, a hope, or a desire for Christian immortality." His mixed feelings become even more apparent when he writes: "the painful associations, the unwelcome reminiscences of the godless life and the hopeless death of its gifted and politically honored proprietor." (Mill. Harb. 27, p. 89)
It is a point of interest around Bethany that Alexander Campbell's youngest daughter, Decima, married into a family that was once the proud owner of Monticello. James Turner Barclay purchased Monticello in 1832. His son, Judson, who became Campbell's son-in-law, was born there in 1843. In his account of the 1855 pilgrimage Campbell mentions the Barclay ownership, pointing out that he sold it "for a tythe of its intrinsic value." He adds: "It is a place too much visited to be a private residence for any christian man."
This essay proposes to show that Campbell had a hero who was much closer to his own views than he realized, for much of what Jefferson believed (especially about religion) was hidden away in private letters that have since become public. This study also aims to show that the two men had so much in common that if they could have known each other they might well have started a third revolution, a religious renaissance in America that might well have changed the course of history!
The two men almost certainly never met personally. Jefferson was 45 years older, representing the preceding generation. When Jefferson died at 84, Campbell was in his fourth year as editor of Christian Baptist, a man of 39, and he was already well-known throughout Virginia. Being mentally alert to the very last, Jefferson could well have known of the Sage of Bethany. In this essay we not only make mention of a reference by Jefferson to the Campbellites as one of the creedless groups in Christendom, but there are the remarkable statements about the restoration of primitive Christianity, which express hope that there will be younger men coming along who can accomplish this great work.
Campbell was unhappy to see busts of Voltaire and Paine within the sacred confines of Monticello. Let us say that in this essay we will show that it might be in order for a bust of Thomas Jefferson to be enshrined at Bethany College and for a bust of Alexander Campbell to grace the halls of the University of Virginia, or even at Monticello alongside Paine and Voltaire, as a testimonial to what might have been, the third Revolution, if these two old Virginians could have walked together in their prime.