In the fall of 1786, after parting with the woman he loved, a disconsolate Thomas jefferson recorded a dialogue between his head and his heart. When this remarkable dialogue prompted one of my students recently to exclaim of Jefferson, “he was so weird!” I was thrilled. I recalled how Allan Bloom argues in the preface to the second edition of his translation of Plato’s Republic that when students say of philosophy “this is outrageous nonsense,” their passions really become involved with ideas. It is heartening that students could look at the Founder with whom most are somewhat familiar from popular American mythology, and declare him “weird.” I believe I am doing my job best as an intellectual historian and teacher if my students find complexities and problems in the most well-known, sanitized thinkers and texts from the American past, and if they identify with or find urgent relevance in the most obscured, seemingly distant thinkers and texts. Jefferson’ head-heart letter is an incredibly rich source for students, but historians, too, would do well to reexamine this letter and consider the challenges it poses to our traditional categories of reason and emotion, and our traditional understanding of Jefferson as “Enlightenment thinker.”
Jefferson’s adventures in Paris after the American Revolution include his becoming enamored with the twenty-six year old English painter, Maria Cosway. It was with a heavy heart and a broken wrist (in a failed romantic gesture, Jefferson had leapt over a small public fountain to greet Cosway, slipped, and injured himself) that Jefferson left his friend and her husband in Europe in 1786. Back in the United States, Jefferson aired his pain and longing to Cosway in a letter, the now-famous dialogue between his head and his heart. Any inspired conversation between intelligent parties tends to wander into several topics beyond the initial discussion, and it appears this also happened “when Jefferson dined alone.” The head-heart letter quickly becomes more than a discussion of the heart’s suffering in Maria Cosway’s absence as Jefferson’s organs debate moral philosophy and the relationship between America and Europe. Above all, Jefferson explores the proper role of reason and science and of emotion and sympathy in moral life, coming to surprising conclusions.
Jefferson’s heart claims dominion over all matters of emotion, justice, love, friendship, and morals. “To you [nature] allotted the field of science; to me, that of morals,” Jefferson’s heart tells his head.1 This association of love, justice, and morals with the heart suggests that Jefferson would also place religion in that category, and indeed, throughout the dialogue only Jefferson’s heart invokes God. Historians of religion in America, however, often present Jefferson as the embodiment of “head religion” as opposed to “heart religion.” In Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America, historian Gary Wills’ operative definitions of head religion and heart religion make head religion synonymous with reason and the Enlightenment and heart religion synonymous with emotion and evangelicalism. “The emphasis of Enlightened religion is on the head. The emphasis of Evangelicals is on the heart,” Wills states.2 As a Deist and an intellectual product of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson fits historians’ conventional “head religion” category. The dialogue between his head and his heart, however, complicates the issue by suggesting that Jefferson conceived of religion as a matter of the heart.
When Jefferson’s heart appears to hold out hope of seeing Cosway again, his head asks, “perhaps you flatter yourself they may come to America?” In response, Jefferson’s heart launches into a defense of the virtues of the United States. Reminding his head that Cosway is a landscape painter, Jefferson’s heart proclaims, “she wants only subjects worthy of immortality to render her pencil immortal. The Failing Spring, the Cascade of Niagara, the Passage of the Potomac through the Blue Mountains, the Natural Bridge. It is worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see these objects; much more to paint, and make them, and thereby ourselves, known to all ages.” Jefferson played the naturalist in his Notes on the State of Virginia, fist published in 1781, collecting data about nature and natural resources in the New World. As President, he sent Louis and Clark on a scientific expedition to gather intelligence on the Louisiana Purchase territory. In the head-heart letter, however, he suggests that is the job of an artist, not a scientist, to extol the virtues of the American wilderness. “Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we there ride above the storms!” cries Jefferson’s heart, “How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet! And the glorious sun when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains, and giving life to all nature?” Here Jefferson sounds like Henry David Thoreau— the naturalist as poet. “Nature,” Thoreau wrote, “will not speak through but along with [the poet]. His voice will not proceed from her midst, but, breathing on her, will make her the expression of his thought.”3 Jefferson’s commitment to science and his naturalist cataloging are often touted as examples of his Enlightenment mind. In the head-heart letter these pursuits are more poetic than scientific, and Jefferson counts them as projects of his heart, not his head.
After his heart offers rhapsodic musings about American landscapes, Jefferson’s head echoes a familiar European aspersion. “When you reflect that all Europe is made to believe we are a lawless banditti, in a state of absolute anarchy, cutting one another’s throats, and plundering without distinction, how can you expect that any reasonable creature would venture among us?” In a letter supposed to be about personal love-sickness, Jefferson cannot avoid writing about his love for America and addressing the most common European criticisms of the new nation. Perhaps his time in France and his love for a married English woman caused him to reflect on his country’s place in the world and in the eyes of Europe in particular. Or perhaps this problem of the image of America in the eyes of Europe was so important to Jefferson that he ways always writing about it. In the entire letter, the only point on which Jefferson’s head and heart can agree is the virtue of the United States. When his heart insists that “there is not a country on earth where there is greater tranquillity, where the laws are milder, or better obeyed: where every one is more attentive to his own business, or meddles less with that of others: where strangers are better received, more hospitably treated, and with a more sacred respect,” the head affirms simply: “True, you and I know this, but [Maria Cosway and her husband] do not know it.”
Jefferson’s heart is not finishing reflecting on the virtues of America. The heart notes that Americans are “opening rivers, digging navigable canals, making roads, building public schools, establishing academies, erecting busts and statues to our great men, protecting religious freedom, abolishing sanguinary punishments, reforming and improving our laws in general” and suggests, getting in a dig at British newspapers, that the Cosways will judge “for themselves whether these are not the occupations of a people at their ease, whether this is not better evidence of our true state than a London newspaper, hired to lie, and from which no truth can ever be extracted but by reversing everything it says.” Here projects of science, industry, and politics—the very substance of the Enlightenment project—are lovingly detailed by Jefferson’s heart, while his head appears somewhat bored. “I did not begin this lecture,” scolds the head, “with a view to learn from you what America is doing. Let us return then to our point.”
Returning to the point of Jefferson’s despair over his separation from Cosway, Jefferson’s head and heart end up debating moral philosophy, and offering a unique view of the American Revolution. When Jefferson’s head tells his heart that it places too much value on friendships, the heart has had enough. “Respect for myself now obliges me to recall you into the proper limits of your office,” the heart admonishes the head. “When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals. When the circle is to be squared, or the orbit of a comet to be traced . . . take up the problem; it is yours; nature has given me no cognizance of it,” Jefferson’s heart explains to its stubborn interlocutor. “In like manner,” continues the heart, “in denying to you the feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship, she has excluded you from their controul. To these she has adapted the mechanism of the heart. Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain [sic] combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.” With this beautiful passage Jefferson suggests that emotion, rather than reason, provides the foundation for moral judgement. Challenging one of the most basic Enlightenment assumptions, Jefferson’s heart further argues that not all men posses an equal capacity for reason; yet compassion resides in all, and is therefore the better moral guide.
These arguments echo French Enlightenment critic Jean Jacques Rousseau, and, indeed, Jefferson’s heart continues to preach about the limits of reason and the virtues of compassion in a manner reminiscent of Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses, his most scathing critiques of the Enlightenment. According to Rousseau, man reasons himself out of his natural compassion. The heart recounts how this depraved reasoning happened to poor Thomas Jefferson when a woman once asked him for charity in Philadelphia. “You whispered that she looked like a drunkard, and that half a dollar was enough to give her for the ale-house,” Jefferson’s heart accuses his head. “When I sought her out afterwards, and did what I should have done at first,” the heart declares, “you know that she employed the money immediately towards placing her child at school.” Compassion was truly a better guide!
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Jefferson praises his heart—that is emotion, not reason—for the success of the American Revolution. “If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts, where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman’s,” declares the heart.When the head, or rather the faculty of reason, “began to calculate and to compare wealth and numbers” in the contest against the British, the heart “supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers”; the heart “put our existence to the hazard when the hazard seemed against us”; the heart, declares Jefferson, “saved our country.”
In her masterful Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution, published in 2008, Nicole Eustace argues against traditional literature that the American Revolution emphasized emotion over reason and made sentiment the foundation for natural rights. Jefferson’s letter supports her thesis and further suggests that historians unsettle their categories of reason, emotion, and Enlightenment, and their notions of where Jefferson fits as an Enlightenment figure. In the head-heart letter he articulates an “autocritique of the Enlightenment,” as historian Mark Hulliung has written of Rousseau.4
“In short, my friend, as far as my recollection serves me, I do not know that I ever did a good thing on your suggestion, or a dirty one without it,” Jefferson’s heart gets the last word in the letter. “Fill papers as you please with triangles and squares . . . but leave me to decide when and where friendships are to be contracted,” the heart begs the head (it appears that Jefferson’s architecture was simply the result of his head’s pleasure in drawing triangles and squares).
Historians and teachers of U.S. intellectual history should assign the head-heart letter a central place in Jefferson’s thought. It provides a fascinating example of American anxiety over the image of the United States in Europe. It expresses the moral philosophy of a particular historical moment. Most it important, it should challenge historians to rethink the head-heart dichotomy in American history. Through this letter, historians can recognize the protean character of Enlightenment thought, and explore traces of Romantic thought in Thomas Jefferson.
1All quotations from Jefferson’s letter come from the online text. <http://www.pbs.org/jefferson/archives/documents/frame_ih195811.htm>
2Gary Wills, Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America (New York, 2007), 3.
3Henry David Thoreau, Journal Volume I, 74.
4Mark Hulliung, The Autocritique of the Enlightenment (Cambrdige, 1998).