Alexander Campbell and Thomas Jefferson
A Comparative Study of Two Old Virginians
Jefferson's interests were vast. In his library at Monticello there were books on art, science, farming, poetry, architecture, history, music, religion and philosophy. He read avidly from the works of Homer, Cicero, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Locke, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu--and on and on the list could be extended, including of course the Bible. As in the case of Campbell, he was especially impressed by John Locke's writings.
In his study of Jefferson, Gilbert Chinard points out that America's third president complained in his old age that "the decays of age had enfeebled the useful energies of the mind," but that in fact Jefferson remained alert and retained his encyclopaedic curiosity and unusual capacity for work almost to the very end of life. Chinard observes that in 1820 alone Jefferson personally replied to 1,267 letters, many of which required painstaking research in his vast library. Some of his letters turned out to be essays that dealt with every possible subject under heaven.
His visitors at Monticello were from all walks of life, kings and peasants alike, and he entered into conversation with them on many subjects: political economy, education, woolen goods, nails, boats, warfare, farming--and like his young neighbor upstate, Alexander Campbell, he was very interested in merino sheep.
His interest in books was so great that after selling his library to Congress he undertook to collect another, a difficult task in his day. From France and Germany he ordered the best editions of Greek and Latin classics. Friends in Europe were asked to send copies of the latest publications. He was a man of ideas as well as action and his mind was as big as the universe itself.
Campbell's attitude toward the world of ideas and learning was strikingly similar to Jefferson's. One only needs to thumb through the many volumes of Millennial Harbinger or to peruse the remains of his personal library in the Campbell Room at Bethany College to appreciate the magnitude of his interests. And if one were to look for that vast Jeffersonian dimension in Campbell's thinking in but a single essay, I would suggest his "Philosophy of Memory" in the 1841 Harbinger. Indeed, it would take a mind like a Campbell or a Jefferson to create such a work of genius.
When I conjure up my fanciful dreams I sometimes envisage Jefferson and Campbell at "Table Talk" either at Monticello or the Bethany Mansion. Chinard's description of the Sage of Monticello in a dinner conversation can only be equaled by Selina Campbell's portrayal of the Sage of Bethany at table-talk. In Home life of Alexander Campbell she describes these table-talks as edifying and engaging, including such topics as the eye and eyelash, the hand and fingers, and--especially when the candles would flicker out--a dissertation on the value and nature of light. Selina was convinced that her husband's table-talks exceeded those of Coleridge himself.
Like Jefferson at Monticello, Campbell received both the rich and the poor, the elite and the commoners at his guest house at the Mansion, dubbed by a neighbor as "Stranger's Inn," a name that stuck. He could entertain guests for days and talk about the progress of reformation in the Western Reserve with Jeremy Vardeman, merino sheep and the wool industry with John Brown the abolitionist (and slavery too of course!), the Bible with Walter Scott (and everybody else), the military with Robert E. Lee and future president Garfield, politics and education with Henry Clay, and public welfare and morality with them all. He had the best flock of sheep in Virginia, helped build roads to Wheeling and Wellsburg, and served in the state legislature. He was a husbandman, woolgrower, educator, legislator, debater, lecturer, editor, publisher, preacher, college president, and even a phrenologist! Only the astronauts are in the class of Jefferson and Campbell!