Alexander Campbell and Thomas Jefferson
A Comparative Study of Two Old Virginians


    Few men have been canonized with the world's greatest minds as have Jefferson and Campbell. It is noteworthy when responsible men become so extravagant in their claims to greatness for the honored dead as we find in the following eulogies.

    If all the dust and bones of every Philip, Ferdinand and Charles of Spain and Portugal, of every Louis, Henry and Charles of France, and of all the Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts and Hanovers of England, were concentrated in one mighty urn, a single relic from Jefferson's remains, as they lie moldering on the slopes of the Blue Ridge in Virginia, would be more precious than them all in the sight of a just God, and the eyes of every lover of the human race. (D. W. Voorhees, in Forty Years of American Oratory, chapter on Jefferson)
    If Apelles alone could paint Alexander of Macedon, who can paint Alexander Campbell? . . . In dignity and solid judgment he was both Moses and Solomon. For forty years he was Moses keeping flocks among these mountains, and communing with God. Overlapping this period, he was Solomon for forty years discoursing the wisdom of God. Incompatible as Moses and Solomon may seem to be with John the Immerser, he was John the reformer and harbinger of the New Covenant to thousands . . . Both Newton and Campbell seemed to have truth imbred in their minds. (D. S. Burnet in Mill. Harb. 37, p. 315)

    What made Jefferson great? James Parton, America's first professional biographer, attributes his greatness to his love for life. While in some respects he has been equalled and sometimes even surpassed, "where has there been a lover so tender, so warm, so constant, as he? Love was his life. Few men have had so many sources of pleasure, so many agreeable tastes and pursuits." Parton enjoyed describing him as a gentleman-farmer who could "calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play a violin." Except for the violin a similar description could be given Campbell, and in its stead we could add "write a poem," for he had composed twenty of them in both rhyme and blank verse in his boyhood. Both men loved nature, homelife, books, ideas, and people.

    They were both at home on a horse or in the presence of kings. They loved wine and good company. They were excellent in their ability to communicate ideas, being among the very best conversationalists in history. A good case can be made for their attraction to women. In France Jefferson built lifelong friendships with women, and his biographers assure us that they could have been just as serious as he would want them: "She (Maria Cosway, a highly cultured Anglo-Italian artist) liked Jefferson with a continuity and devotion that might, it would seem from the distance, have grown, had he cared to foster it, into a more ardent feeling." (Russell, p. 116)

    Having the advantage of being single, his wife having died when he was in his prime, Jefferson had women "taking possession of him at their first meeting," and they wrote love letters to him even while he was in the White House. Having the disadvantage of being already attached, having married again after losing his first wife, and also in being a preacher, Campbell's attraction to women was apparently more one-sided, though possibly enjoyed with as much pride!

    D. S. Burnett inadvertently revealed Campbell's attraction to women when he wrote the following into his memorial sermon about Campbell: "An admiring Kentucky lady hearer being asked in 1825, when he wore a suit of Kentucky jeans, the fashion of that time and region, how he was dressed, replied: 'In a splendid suit of black, of course, but I did not notice.'" If Jefferson had them writing love letters to him from abroad, Campbell had them following him home from Europe! Elisa Davies tells the story of her lonely, tragic life in An Earnest Life, in which she tells of seeing Campbell for the first time. It was a case of falling in love—in all good Christian faith, of course, but love just the same. She desired to spend the rest of her life with him and his people. She followed him back to America and was a visitor in his home for over a year. Campbell's magnanimity overwhelmed her. To her he was the paragon of manhood. She testifies that having stayed in his home for a year, during which time she helped nurse his sick and bury his dead, she was still unable to detect any flaw in his character.

    Professor Thornton of the University of Virginia in his Who Was Thomas Jefferson? (1909) assures us that "No vulgar amour, no vinous debauch, no fever of the card table ever smirched the fair fame of Thomas Jefferson." There were tales to the contrary, that he not only smoked and drank, but that he gambled, swore, and even slept with his slave girl, Sally, by whom he had five children who "looked remarkably like him." A New York physician once stated that he heard a southern gentleman say, "I saw for myself, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson sold in New Orleans, for one thousand dollars." Ebony, a magazine for Negroes, as recently at 1954 did a photographic study of several aged Negroes who trace their ancestry to the illustrious Jefferson. The more responsible Jeffersonian scholars assure us, however, that such reports are wholly unreliable, that his life was as it appeared to be, morally clean and intellectually honest.

    As much calumny as he suffered otherwise, Campbell was never accused of impropriety with the opposite sex. Both men suffered much from grief and adversity, turning to philosophy and religion for their answers to the problem of evil. Each lost his wife at a time when his love for her seemed to be the greatest. They also buried several of their beloved children amidst their tender years. The only time in his entire life that Jefferson is described as being "completely overcome by his feelings" was at his wife's death. His "violent grief" was not assuaged for three long weeks. He wrote of the experience in these words: "I found time and silence the only medicine, and these but assuage, they never can suppress, the deep drawn sigh which recollection forever brings up . . . " Again he said: "I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of grief could be intended . . . I wish the pathologists would tell us what is the use of grief . . . "

    Upon the death of little Wycliffe, his gifted twelve-year-old son who drowned while he was in Europe, Campbell wrote as follows: "How often do we see the sinner living to his threescore years and ten, while many a pure and excellent strippling is cut down as the green and tender herb in the very morning of his existence? . . . How then shall we explain the mystery?" He goes on to suggest that there are other provinces in God's immense universe where the departed ones may be employed more happily and more usefully than here. He concludes: "Hence the strong probability that multitudes of pure and noble spirits are being constantly drafted from earth to minister to the increasing wants, or to the accumulating pleasures, of a universe more rapidly increasing in its tenantry than we can form any idea of from all the ratios of increasing population registered in the annals of our own little world." (Mill. Harb. 18, p. 709)

    Obviously Campbell had more to reach for amidst his grief than did Jefferson.

    By way of comparing personalities it is apparent that Campbell was more aggressive, more of a reformer; Jefferson was quieter, even "aloof and shy," as his biographer describes him, "except among intimates." Campbell was a better business man, more successful as a farmer, dying the richest man in West Virginia; Jefferson was sometimes a poor manager, often going broke and having to sell his books to pay his debts. Campbell was a better speaker and debater, though not much better, and he would do well to hold his own with Jefferson as a thinker and scholar. As educational leaders and philosophers they were much alike, strong in both theory and practice, though Campbell would labor for the cause more directly and Jefferson more through others. Jefferson was probably a wiser manager of men, could work behind the scenes better; he knew how to make use of the talents of others; he was far more patient than Campbell. Campbell too had an uncanny knowledge of human nature, one of his critics (President Humphreys of Amherst College in 1850) attributing "his great knowledge of human nature" as a reason for his success.

    Both men were certainly amiable and charming; both were domestic, loving their families; both were good fathers and husbands. Both were eager to get back home almost as soon as they left; and both were incidentally among the more-travelled men of their age. Jefferson's heart was always at Monticello, his biographers tell us; Campbell spoke often of his longing to be at Bethany. Both were gentlemen-farmers; both were great entertainers, wining and dining the elite of Virginia and foreign visitors as well. As letter writers they were much alike, first of all in that both of them did so much of it, and also because it was a kind of catharsis, serving as an outlet for grief and loneliness as well as an arena for the confrontation of ideas. It is my suspicion that both men wrote letters and essays in single draft, sending their stuff out "as is" without revisions. While Jefferson wrote many books and essays, he was not as prolific as Campbell. But I think he was as good a writer as Campbell, not as verbose and perhaps clearer.

    Jefferson and Campbell were both proud men; proud of their success. their colleges, their beloved Virginia. Both were tough competitors. Jefferson may have had more foresight, for he planned years and years ahead, and he was quite willing to wait. Campbell was more impromptu, though not reckless. Jefferson was a better organizer, got more mileage out of those around him. Both were calculating, coldly logical, more Lockean than Platonic. They were less emotional and imaginative than most men of influence; facts remained facts and never became allegories. Jefferson depended more upon his pen than his tongue; Campbell was equally effective with both. Jefferson was clear, precise, and meticulous in presentation of facts; he disliked long sentences. Campbell was precise in temperament, but his long sentences got in his way. Both were interested in nearly everything, but Jefferson became more involved in more things.

    Both men were especially eager for quietness in which to think and write. In France Jefferson stole away to a monastery where he roomed with monks who had a rule against talking! Campbell built his study out in his yard 150 feet away from the house, and then stood to read and think!

    The men had enough physical resemblances to be kin to each other. Neither had the disadvantage of being handsome, except that they were strong physical specimens with fine masculine features. They both had high cheek-bones and a projecting chin; both were moderately tall and had sandy hair that blossomed into white early in life; both were graceful, striking, dignified. Jefferson stood as straight as a gun-barrel, while Campbell was slightly stooped; but Jefferson's right shoulder was higher than the other, and one account describes him as walking with a stoop just as Campbell did. Their eyes were gray (or hopelessly nondescript) and impressive. Both men are described as having a countenance that gave assurance of a gentle heart and a sympathetic, inquisitive mind. Both were innovators and individualists.

    In one important respect they move away from each other in different directions, for Jefferson was primarily a statesman and Campbell a religious reformer, educator, and journalist. And yet each also moved in the direction of the other's primary interest. Jefferson too was interested in religious reform, and, as strange as it may seem, such a one as William Jennings Bryan, who virtually worshipped Jefferson, saw him primarily as a religious figure! As Bryan put it, "The people loved Jefferson because, like the Christian Savior, he first loved them. Greater than his intellect was his love for all mankind." (Peterson, p. 259)

    And Campbell made a few political overtures, even after saying that nothing is more inimical to the gospel than politics. He wrote and spoke often on political questions, and in 1829 he served in the Virginia Constitutional Convention where he worked with at least two men who had been bosom friends of Jefferson in earlier life, James Madison and James Monroe, both former presidents. He also rubbed shoulders with Jefferson's arch political enemy, former Chief Justice John Marshall. He also spoke from time to time for state legislatures, visited with at least one president (Buckanan) in the White House, and on one occasion he addressed both houses of Congress.

    It was former President James Madison that pinpointed the greatness of Alexander Campbell. Upon being asked what he thought of him just after being associated with him in the constitutional convention, Madison spoke of his high opinion of his ability in the convention, and then said: "But it is as a theologian that Mr. Campbell must be known. It was my pleasure to hear him very often as a preacher of the gospel, and I regard him as the ablest and most original expounder of the Scriptures I have ever heard."


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