Thomas Jefferson was one of America's most ideologically driven presidents. Even when acting "pragmatically"–for example, in setting aside his constitutional scruples to acquire the Louisiana Territory – a compelling ideological factor was driving his decision. Therefore, in teaching this unit you might want to accompany an analysis of Jefferson's presidential record with a close look at his philosophy. To assist in this effort, we have included two activities that focus on Jefferson's thought. One of these asks your students to examine the views on human nature that underlay Jefferson's democratic confidences. A second examines Jefferson's educational plans and the political purposes they served.
For all of Jefferson's philosophical "purity," however, his views on race and his behavior as a slave owner are troubling to even his most ardent admirers. Therefore, we encourage you to spend some time with your students looking at these views. One of the first things you should help your students realize is that neither Jefferson's views nor his behavior were all that typical – they can't simply be dismissed as products of the time. Therefore, it is worth exploring what he shared as well as what he did not share with his Virginia slave-owning peers.