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Beginning 2013 With 'Reflections On The Pursuit Of Happiness'

December 31, 2012 1:08 p.m.


Eric Petersen, author of "Light and Liberty, Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness - Thomas Jefferson."

Related Story: Beginning 2013 With 'Reflections On The Pursuit Of Happiness'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The New Year's resolutions we make tomorrow will have one common theme whether we choose to pursue health or wealth or love, travel, or just giving up too much coffee it is on common pursuit of a happier life. The man who gave us the phrase the pursuit of happiness also had some thoughts on how to go about achieving it. American patriot and Pres. Thomas Jefferson was a prolific writer. Many of his writings are now compiled in a book of essays called light and liberty, reflections on the pursuit of happiness. The books editor is my guest I'd like to welcome Eric Peterson welcome to the show. Thank you so much, Maureen. Now every word in this book comes from the pen of Thomas Jefferson, but not in exactly the order or the context that we read in this book. Tell us how you compile these essays.

ERIC PETERSEN: Well my publisher Random House called this slide and liberty book that Dr. Thomas Jefferson never wrote although every word is his and know what I did was read through his entire legacy of 20,000 letters. I selected the particularly inspirational material a sentence or two occasionally a paragraph and organize them together group them under 34 good qualities that we would seek to develop within ourselves and appreciate another's and I pieced them together as if they been written in a single setting creating an essay on aspiration truth seeking or piece or something like this to create the essence of Thomas Jefferson's philosophy and wisdom on a particular topic. He said if the wise be the happy man he must be virtuous also for that virtue happiness cannot be. So these are Thomas Jefferson's essay on 34 virtues and qualities.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How did you choose the virtues and the good qualities. How did you choose the topic matter?

ERIC PETERSEN: When you read through Thomas Jefferson's literacy read through hundreds of correspondence he had an 83 year life and he saved the letters he wrote so when you read through the letters you can see essentially part of Thomas Jefferson. Particularly in the private correspondence and you can see he was particularly interested in the gratitude Hope humility liberty patriotism and it kind of image from reading his writings and trying to put myself into the heart and soul and mind of Thomas Jefferson.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me take a step back if I may, Eric, because you have a day job as a rather busy attorney in New York. I wonder why are you so fascinated with Thomas Jefferson?

ERIC PETERSEN: I think it would have been great to meet and know Thomas Jefferson. He considered himself a friend and benefactor of mankind people who met Thomas Jefferson described him as frank, easy, kind. They said the experience of meeting Thomas Jefferson was like experiencing light from an inexhaustible solar fountain and it was said that he won every heart that approached him as certainly as he astonished every mind. He reflected those feelings toward humanity with a light filled person in my view and he expressed those and those correspondence as well. He wrote poetic prose and expressed ennobling and my goal with the light and liberty project is to try to bring the light of Thomas Jefferson back to the American sky.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You say Thomas Jefferson wrote about 20,000 letters in addition to other writings we would imagine so that must have taken a while. How long have you been fascinated with Thomas Jefferson and how long has it taken you to feel as comfortable as you needed to be in order to to to disorders cut and paste version of these essays that you planted about?

ERIC PETERSEN: I started working on the project in 1993. I wasn't inspired by the 250th birthday of Thomas Jefferson and I wanted to savor what he wanted, he made a particular effort of retaining and saving everything he wrote with remarkable ingenious copying devices and the more I got into his thought the more that I felt that in our busy lives today most people don't have the time to read through 20 flames of the collected writings of Thomas Jefferson. But I do feel that our country can use his wisdom again. I feel that in our culture and our politics and our society we are all searching for the authentic American vision and wisdom and nowhere is it more gracefully and delicately, clearly expressed then in the writings of the great and the good Thomas Jefferson.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now I used sort of an ill-advised phrase cut and paste because I know that one of your aims in this was to create essays that are smooth running expressions of his thought. I mean the idea that this could have been an essay that Thomas Jefferson sat down and wrote all in one piece

ERIC PETERSEN: All in a particular topic.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How would you go about linking up the various lines because you can't change anything and you didn't add anything. So how did you go about making the lines that you called from other sources running together smoothly in an essay?

ERIC PETERSEN: My publisher said that he had never seen anything like this before because it was not a conventional attempt to select short expressions of the wisdom and put them one by one one after another one after a good virtue or quality.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have seen books like that.

ERIC PETERSEN: I thought get published doing a book (inaudible) but I thought that publishers thought that was conventional I was on a flight at a time in and what group of material left on the subject of peace and it dawned on me maybe I can try something different with this selected the 10 or 12 hour flight I played with each expression in the subject relating to peace in the properties of national power and things like that to see if I could make a smooth flowing essay and I wasn't really sure but I did it with one and okay I was satisfied and I showed it to people and they said well when did Thomas Jefferson write the essay on peace so I knew I had something going.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give us a taste of one of your essays, can you read something to us and tell us which essay it is from?

ERIC PETERSEN: Sure this one is on the subject of the proper use of national power and it is in the section on self-discipline. If there be one principle or deeply rooted than other in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest. The energies of the nation as depends on me shall be reserved for the improvement of the condition of man, not wasted in his distraction. The lamentable recourse of war is not authorized for evils of the imagination. But, for those actual injuries only which would be more destructive of our well-being that war itself. I hope our wisdom will grow with our power. And she just that the less we use our power, the greater it will be. Now, this last phrase about the less we use our power the greater it will be is actually inscribed on the archway entrance into the two new Thomas Jefferson library at West Point. As you know he was the founder of West Point and believed in a strong national defense but he abdicated reason and restraint in the use of the National Guard because he thought it would gain us more in the friendship, respect and esteem and cooperation around the world if we overused the military and economic power.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to remind listeners in speaking with Eric Peterson is the editor of the book of life and liberty reflections on the pursuit of happiness taken from the pen of Thomas Jefferson. Now, Thomas Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, but you know, I mean he did live more than two centuries ago so how was it that he had anything to say about one of the topics that you have in the book is living in the present, or fitness. How is that, how is what he had to say that relevant to us now?

ERIC PETERSEN: We know that Thomas Jefferson in relative terms was Renaissance man he was an architect a student of the Enlightenment, held the largest library, collection of books at the time he was involved with politics is whole life, service activities. So he taught and wrote about everything in the spirit of the mind and his wise words to me as our compelling to me as when he wrote the 200 years ago because he was a thinker. Thomas Jefferson was a visionary. This year, dream of a better future for all mankind. And to me, his wise words have total relevance now. His vision was the vision of freedom of course, the rights of man, self-government, equality and the pursuit of happiness. It was also a vision of oneness, they did the average citizen, a belief in the common good and universal harmony and confidence in an ever brighter future. This is the essential vision of Thomas Jefferson and I believe it is something that Americans love about their country and people around the world appreciate and admire about America. It is the vision from the heart of Thomas Jefferson.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give us an idea of what he had to say about fitness?

ERIC PETERSEN: Yes he said without health there is no happiness. And attention to health and should take the place of every other object. He himself was lean, fit and trim enjoyed good health throughout most of his life. He was largely vegetarian. He said he used to meet Mimi as a condiment. He said if all exercises, walking is the best. He said I have known many great walkers and particular accounts of many more, but I never knew or heard of one who is not healthy and long-lived.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My that is very relevant today you are absolutely right. You know as much of a genius as Thomas Jefferson was he was also a man of his times and the fact that he kept slaves is greatly criticized as you are well aware of. How do we resolve the contradiction between his love of liberty and his integrity and the pursuit of freedom of expression and freedom of thought and the fact that he owned slaves.

ERIC PETERSEN: Well to me, Thomas Jefferson deserves our gratitude rather than our criticism on the subject of slavery. After all he was America's great visionary of emancipation in his immortal phrase in the Declaration of Independence all men are created equal. And it did plus in addition he was the greatest champion among the founding fathers for the emancipation of the slaves, much more so than any other of his contemporaries and he for a 15 year period during the heart of the revolution before during and after, he wrote for many laws for the eventual emancipation of slaves. He had a clear program of gradual compensated emancipation which would've avoided the Civil War if Thomas Jefferson had adhered to his philosophy and friend he did not free his slaves during his lifetime of course because he was a man of law through his service to the public he was essentially poor he had no money, he had landed things but no money and had run up a lot of that sin inherited a lot of debts and his slaves were actually collateral for the debts because of the loss of the time they were property. So he was not really in a position to free the slaves because he had this massive data from of his public service and that's why he did not pretend when he died he was not able to legally.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you sense and all of your study of his writings that, is there, hasn't come down to us that he was troubled by this contradiction?

ERIC PETERSEN: Definitely. He wrote marvelous, elegant passages about the moral wrongness of slavery as a broad institution. It had been kind of normal all throughout human history up to that point for thousands of years it was a normal thing to have slaves. It was his vision of all men are created equal that started the ball of emancipation and liberation going. He was very aware of the horrors of slavery. He said at one point that one hour of slavery is worse, many times worse than all of the oppression from Great Britain as to which the patriots used to call that slavery to Great Britain. He was well aware that yes that was slavery they fought for their independence, they needed it, that was their cause but he said one hour slavery is worse than that. He said his unremitting despotism on the part of the owner and degradating submission on the part of the slaves. He said nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate that these people are bound to be free and of all the causes that causes that the founders of the country struggled with a struggled with that one date federal system of government national system of Empire for liberty so-called, they found this was the one area that they could not handle and their successors were the ones who could handle it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sadly so. Can you read for us one of your favorite passages from the light and liberty essays that you have compiled?

ERIC PETERSEN: Yes let me offer this one on faith because as we know Thomas Jefferson was a great champion of building a wall of separation between church and state the people thought he was any yes. He was criticized as a fanatic in politics and atheist religion by Alexander Hamilton because he always felt kept his faith private heated where it honestly find politicians do today but he was indeed a man of faith and you can tell that from his private correspondence. I have ever thought religion and concerned really between our God and our consciences for which we were accountable to him and not to the priests. I never told my own religion nor scrutinize that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wish to change another's creed. I have never judged of the religion of others by their lives, for it is in our lives and not from our words that are religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And once again these are the ideas from competitive Thomas Jefferson that Eric Petersen has edited into a series of essays, smooth running assays involving snippets of his thoughts from other letters and other sources. One less question to you. You know, one essay I saw in their ends with the paragraph I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. That is a very American attitude, isn't it?

ERIC PETERSEN: Thomas Jefferson was a great American optimist. He says, I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past as you say he said the good sense of the people will direct the boat ultimately to its proper point. He said we too shall encounter follies but it's great they will be short, if long they will be light and the vigor of our people will get the better of them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to stop. I know that you can go on Eric thank you so much I've been speaking with Eric Petersen. He edited the essays in the book Light and liberty reflections on the pursuit of happiness Thomas Jefferson thank you very much.

ERIC PETERSEN: Thank you so very much, Maureen.