As Thomas Jefferson neared the end of his long life ("with one foot in the grave and the other uplifted to follow it", as he put it), he had occasion to reflect on that extraordinary generation of which he so proudly had been a part. He was convinced that the "host of worthies" that comprised his "generation of 1776" had secured to all mankind in all future times the philosophical grounds for "the blessings and security of self-government", and thereby "the rights of man". Yet his pride in the accomplishments of his own generation was tempered by the nagging fear that the "unwise and unworthy passions of their sons" might yet, by their inept handling of the problem of slavery and the potential "scission" of the Union, lose all Jefferson and his fellow founders had achieved.

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Copyright © 2010 The Times Literary Supplement Limited. This article first appeared in Times Literary Supplement (London), December 10, 2010, 13.

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