Barker, as Jefferson: ‘Mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs’


Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Colonial Williamsburg character-interpreter Bill Barker portrays Founding Father and former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson during Monday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

Disheveled from the long carriage ride to Chautauqua, and wearing his most comfortable suit, President Thomas Jefferson was worried that he hadn’t dressed well enough for his lecture. But he was overcome by a wave of relief when he saw his audience in the Hall of Philosophy: Not a single head was covered — no waistcoats, no knee breeches, no stockings.

“Why should I apologize for the way I am dressed?” he thought to himself.

Alas, it wasn’t really the third president of the United States. Bill Barker portrays Jefferson as a professional character-interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. At Monday’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture, Barker presented Jefferson’s views, in character, on the pursuit of happiness, and then responded to questions from the audience and from the day’s morning lecturer, Hunter R. Rawlings III.

“Perhaps that is your particular fashion,” Jefferson said. “Your particular custom. Your particular style. My point, lest you think I’ve rambled into the subject of fashion and style … [is that] in matters of style, simply swim with the current. But in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Jefferson’s two main principles are liberty and “equal and exact justice.” And the only way for the two to be practiced together, he said, is by an educated citizen body.

“I hope that someday we might see every child in our nation, poor as well as wealthy, female as well as male, have an opportunity to attend school,” he said. “I am an advocate of education. And this is one reason I pursued my project in my autumn years, the University of Virginia.”

Aside from being the third president of the United States, Jefferson was also the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and founder of the University of Virginia. Those three gifts to his fellow man, as Jefferson called them, are what he hopes he’d be remembered for, not for the offices he held.

Jefferson said everything he wrote in the Declaration of Independence he learned from reading the philosophy of Aristotle, Cicero, John Locke and Adam Smith. His principal aim in writing the Declaration of Independence was to lay out what he thinks is the “common sense” of the American Revolution.

“It is being fought on behalf of the common man to provide the greatest good for the greatest number,” he said. “And to show the rest of the world … that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a few booted and spurred ready to ride. That is our message.”

Jefferson affirmed throughout his lecture that people are, by their nature, free. They are also good, born with a moral sense, which is really just good common sense, he argued.

“For when we endeavor to do good unto our fellow man, how does it make us feel?” he asked. “Yes, good. Is that not what we desire in our lives? Simply to be happy.”

Rawlings asked Jefferson, “Could you give us a sense of what was in your mind when you used that phrase that’s now become famous, ‘the pursuit of happiness?’ ”

“It was somewhat of an aberration, I cannot deny,” Jefferson said. “Many were rather startled by it.”

The Federalists, he claimed, thought he went too far in using that phrase: Having happiness as a goal in itself can only lead to anarchy, they argued.

“But where would they be more free upon this globe to purport that?” Jefferson said. “And at the same time, to be opposed by our fellow citizen?”

John Locke, Jefferson said, argued that all men have been created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of property. Jefferson agreed with Locke, but he felt something else should be added to the list — “the pursuit of happiness.”

“My point being not to disregard property — which is protected, is it not, by our system of law — but to supercede it … with the Aristotelian concept of virtue,” Jefferson said, “to engage that inalienable right in nature to speak out on behalf of your fellow man and to pursue an improvement of society.”

“[Liberty] calls upon us for responsibility; it calls upon us for civic duty. But then that is nothing new. For that has been purported by the ancients from time immemorial.”