At a White House dinner honoring Nobel laureates, President John F. Kennedy said, “This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Jon Meacham’s biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, reminded me again of how remarkable Jefferson was. He had a profound appetite for philosophy, mathematics, astro­nomy, horticulture and theology. He appreciated fine French wine and believed that individual liberty was the basis of a good society and a just government. His greatest personal flaw and political failure was that he never extended his beliefs about liberty to slavery. He knew the institution was morally evil but declined to argue for abolition or to free his own slaves. Most historians agree that he maintained an intimate relationship with one of them, Sally Hemings, and that she bore several of his children.

He authored the Declaration of Independence, advocated for freedom of religion and embraced a radical notion: that using public funds to support an established church is “spiritual tyranny.” It did not speak well of the power of God, he thought, if God needed a human government to prop God up.