You might be asking yourself why I’d choose to write about a letter from Mr. Jefferson to a historically obscure John Norvell. The answer is quite simply this: the subject of the letter is relevant now. In fact, it might be much more relevant than we care to believe despite being penned in 1807.

While having a vague understanding of the vicissitudes of time and space, most people operate as though what they’re experiencing in their time is something new, something not seen before. Their time is the time, previous history not even a thought. To be sure, most people are ignorant of history anyway, their knowledge of it relegated to anecdotes, or tall stories considered truth when many are simply myth.

George Washington never cut down the cherry tree, and I have to believe he told a lie at some point in his illustrious life. He was only human…I think.

Much of that misunderstanding is rooted in the education system, a system where a “fact” once ensconced inside a textbook, becomes immovable and unarguable. Some of it rooted in immovable belief.

“But, it’s in the book, Mr. D” was a response I’d heard more than once, and despite my proof to the contrary the student still cast a skeptical eye. The same can be said for newspapers, network and cable news shows, many leaving true news behind to foster their own narrative or bias, a bias not always concerning politics but anything: man-made climate change, the covid “vaccines,” the list goes on.

 Why accentuate the reality when fantasy, especially that which furthers a specific agenda and satiates an audience’s cravings will suffice? Truth be damned in such an instance, for the truth serves no purpose when it comes to fostering an agenda, or sales and ratings.

Case in point: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal did not rescue the United States from the Great Depression despite the textbooks that have canonized that bit of incorrect history. I can see the eye rolls now.

 There are many such instances, but the idea is clear…accepted history is different from actual history in many instances.

The sad fact is most people cannot see past the headline, cannot discern truth from fiction, especially when it comes to said “truth” confirming their political or personal position. Maybe more specifically, people tend to trust their news source, the one most aligned with their political philosophy. Said people would rather continue to believe the lie than embrace the truth for the opinion opposite their belief causes doubt, and doubt causes pain. Humans wish to avoid the latter as much as possible. This is why lies and untruths are believed, and the believers defend told lies with the fervor of religious zealots.

To acknowledge one has been lied to is to shake the foundation of one’s personal beliefs…and most are unwilling to do that, unwilling to modify what they think despite the real truth.

So, to save themselves they proffer excuses such as “my truth,” or “the truth as I see it,” neither of which is actual truth at all, both little more than a methodology of defending what one wishes rather than what is.

Consider the opinion of writer Ursula K. Guin:

“History is one way of telling stories, just like myth, fiction, or oral storytelling. But over the last hundred years, history has preempted other forms of storytelling because of its claim to absolute, objective truth. Trying to be scientists, historians stood outside of history and told the story of how it was. All that has changed radically over the last twenty years. Historians now laugh at the pretense of objective truth. They agree that every age has its own history, and if there is any objective truth, we can’t reach it with words. History is not a science, it’s an art.”

There are many such instances wherein the fact lies in contradiction to accepted truth, a fact Mr. Jefferson took pains to point out to Mr. Norvell, even though the letter was written in 1807. Mr. Jefferson was speaking to John Norvell about Norvell’s proffering Jefferson’s opinion on how newspapers should conduct their business, to which Mr. Jefferson replied, “by restraining it to tru facts and sound principles only.”[1] However, Jefferson, ever the pragmatist stated immediately after, “Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers.”[2]

Jefferson understood as many did in his time, the power of the press, and maybe more to the point, the gullibility of the populace. Further, he also understood the influence, undue as it might be, on the populace at large. “…the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.”[3]

One solution Jefferson presents is to divide a paper fourfold like this: Part 1 = Truths, Part 2 = Probabilities, Part II = Possibilities, and Part IV = Lies. Without going into detail, Jefferson said the first part will be the shortest, but the editor so sure of his sources and his information “as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth.”

A novel idea. Editors putting their entire reputations on the line to spew absolute truth. Essentially, consequences for what they purport to be the truth. Yes, journalism schools allegedly teach their students the equivalent of “do no harm” as they write and report, but anyone reading the papers or watching news shows knows that is far from the truth. The fact is both “sides” spin, spin and dance on the head of a pin reporting “their truth,” with partisans on both sides lapping up the spin as kittens lapping up fresh milk. They’re convinced “their side” is telling the truth, so to question it is to invite vitriol and worse…accusations of misinformation.

The only question is who is the determiner of said misinformation? The government? The faction putting forth the initial information in the first place? What better way to induce doubt than lob accusations of misinformation toward the opposite narrative. If the populace is paying attention, more and more information regarding the covid lockdowns, origin of the virus as well as the effectiveness of ivermectin are sprouting more and more, seemingly proving initial castigation of those unbelievers of the initial narrative not only wrong, but deliberately wrong, fed to the general public for their consumption and woe to those who did not consume. There were calls for those non-vaccinated to be placed in camps, away from everyone else…remember?

Media manipulation is nothing new. Even Mr. Jefferson himself was not immune to such manipulation, creating a newspaper to refute and smear Alexander Hamilton who did the same to Mr. Jefferson regarding their almost lifelong feud. Win the hearts and minds of the public, and do it via news…dare I say, “fake news?”

Investor’s Business Daily discovered that for every conservative journalist, there were 13 liberal ones…hardly an unbiased media. Further, even among financial reporters, 17.63% described themselves as very liberal, with 40.84% describing themselves as “somewhat liberal.”[4] I wonder what Mr. Jefferson would say about that?

Probably something like, “Defamation is becoming a necessary of life; inasmuch that a dish of tea in the morning or evening cannot be digested without this stimulant. Even those who believe these abominations, still read them with complaisance to their authors, and instead of the abhorrence & indignation which should fill a virtuous mind, betray a secret pleasure in the possibility that some may believe them, tho they do not themselves.”[5]

Ensconce yourself in one narrative long enough, unwilling to hear or consider another alternative and one becomes little more than the proverbial lemming gleefully jumping off the cliff because the others did.

Don’t be a lemming. Rather, heed the words of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant:

“Sapere aude!” (Dare to know). “Have the courage to use your own understanding.”[6]

[1] Jefferson, Thomas Letters: To John Norvell, 1807.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.


[5] Jefferson, Thomas Letters: To John Norvell 1807.

[6] Kant, Immanuel What is Enlightenment”.