Extract from Woodrow Wilson’s Jefferson Day Address to the Common Counsel Club

The immortality of Thomas Jefferson does not lie in any one of his achievements, or in the series of his achievements, but in his attitude towards mankind and the conception which he sought to realize in action of the service owed by America to the rest of the world ... one of the things which has immortalized the influence of Thomas Jefferson has been that his was the spirit of humanity exemplified upon the field of America. Thomas Jefferson was a great leader of men because he understood and interpreted the spirits of men ... It is not a circumstance without significance that Jefferson felt, perhaps more than any other American of his time, except Benjamin Franklin, his close kinship with like thinking spirits everywhere else in the civilized world. His comradeship was as intimate with the thinkers of France as with the frontiersmen of America, and this rather awkward, rather diffident man carried about with him a sort of type of what all men should wish to be who love liberty and seek to lead their fellow men along those difficult paths of achievement.

The only way we can honor Thomas Jefferson is by illumining his spirit and following his example. His example was an example of organization and concerted action for the rights of men, first in America and, then, by America’s example, everywhere in the world. And the thing that interested Jefferson is the only thing that ought to interest us ... God forbid that we should ever become directly or indirectly embroiled in quarrels not of our own choosing ... but if we should ever be drawn in, are you ready to go in only where the interests of America are coincident with the interests of mankind ... If you are ready, you have inherited the spirit of Jefferson, who recognized the men in France and the men in Germany who were doing the liberal thinking of their day as just as much citizens of the great world of liberty as he was himself, and who was ready in every conception he had to join hands across the water or across any other barrier with those who held those high conceptions of liberty which had brought the United States into existence.

MS (DLC: Wilson Papers); with many corrections from the complete text published in the Washington Post, 14 Apr. 1916. Published in Arthur S. Link, and others, eds., Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, New Jersey, 1977), 36:472–6.
Date Range
April 13, 1916