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In the last year of his life, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a young man at the request of the boy’s father. Here is what he said:

"This letter will, to you, be as one from the dead. The writer will be in the grave before you can weigh its counsels. Your affectionate and excellent father has requested that I would address to you something which might possibly have a favorable influence on the course of life you have to run; and I too, as a namesake, feel an interest in that course.

"Few words will be necessary, with good dispositions on your part. Adore God. Reverence and cherish your parents. Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself. Be just. Be true. Murmur not at the ways of Providence. So shall the life into which you have entered be the portal to one of eternal and ineffable bliss. And if to the dead it is permitted to care for the things of this world, every action of your life will be under my regard. Farewell."

Jefferson has been much maligned lately. It’s no surprise. The wormy moral and mental midgets who have proliferated in our time always hate their betters, because the life of a good man is always a reproof to the life of a bad one. The jerk in England who had claimed that DNA proved Jefferson had fathered children with one of his slaves was forced to admit later that it did no such thing. Jefferson had no male heirs, a necessity for the kind of DNA proof the person was claiming. The slave might have been intimate with a Jefferson relative, but I’ve never believed it was Thomas Jefferson, and there is no proof that it was.

Jefferson was a man who could say to Aaron Burr when Burr tried to blackmail him: Say what you will. If it’s true, I’m not ashamed of it; if it’s false, the people I care about will know it’s false. That slave story was first used by Jefferson’s political enemies. Had it been true, he would have admitted it, I believe. He said on one occasion, "There is not a truth existing which I fear, or would wish unknown to the whole world."

Some years ago, during a cold, gray February, I drove out of my way to visit Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia. It was, for me, an emotional experience to stand beside his grave alone in the blowing snow. He has always been one of my heroes.

Incidentally, the letter quoted above proves that Jefferson was no atheist. He clearly believed in God and in a life after death. He was not too fond of some priests and preachers, but that has nothing to do with religion. There are always fanatics, mountebanks, crooks and worse who wear the cloth. No vocation is immune to corruption.

All of this is to tell you about a new book that is a digest of many of Jefferson’s writings. Light and Liberty: Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness was edited by Eric S. Petersen. It is published by The Modern Library.

All of the words are Jefferson’s, but they are in the form of essays he never wrote. In other words, Petersen took Jefferson’s words from letters and documents and assembled them in the form of essays on different subjects. It makes for smooth reading but retains the authenticity of Jefferson’s thoughts and phrasing.

The value of a great man like Jefferson is that, after all of these years since his passing, we can still enjoy and benefit from the company of his thoughts. He was a prodigious writer of letters. He was one of only three geniuses to play a role in the political life of America, the other two being Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt.

This book would make an excellent gift for a young man or woman. Life is short and therefore precious, and we should all keep the company of the best people we can find, both in life and in books. There’s no better man than Thomas Jefferson. Much of what our country became is owed to him.

Charley Reese has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.

© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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