Volume VIII, Number 1, Spring 2012

"On the Visual Dimension of Sympathy in Thomas Jefferson’s Moral Philosophy" by Zoltán Vajda

Zoltán Vajda is Associate Professor of American Studies at the Institute of English and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Szeged, Hungary. His main areas of research and teaching are early American intellectual and cultural history, antebellum Southern history, Thomas Jefferson and his times, Cultural Studies and US popular culture. He serves on the editorial board of AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, and Aetas, a historical journal, both edited in Szeged. Email:

Research into Thomas Jefferson’s thought has uncovered the ways in which it was permeated with issues and concerns of contemporary moral philosophy, very much connected to the Scottish Enlightenment. Of primary importance of these links was the concept of the moral sense and its workings in relation to individuals in a social context. As well as empowering humans to make moral choices it was seen to relate them to one another within a particular cultural framework. An important component of the mechanism through which the moral sense functioned to establish links among individuals, providing a ground for organizing them into a coherent culture was sympathy. This central concept of sentimentalism denoted the power of the self to feel compassion, to share the feelings and emotions exhibited by the other. To a significant extent, sympathy related to the moral sense informed Jefferson’s thinking about individual, society and culture.

The literature discussing elements of Jefferson’s sentimentalism does that within the broader framework of his moral philosophy and typically in relation to his understanding of nationhood and race relations. These have discussed the ways, for instance, in which Jefferson’s moral philosophy connected with his republicanism and his racial science (Yarbrough 1998, 1997, 1991); his conception of nature (Miller); his understanding of races in the United States within a national conceptual framework (Onuf); civilization and cultural development (Helo and Onuf; Mennell); or the general influence of sentimental culture, including morality, on his thought (Wills; Burstein). These works, however, understand Jefferson’s conception of sympathy without paying attention to its visual dimension and its consequences for his thinking about issues of moral philosophy, whereas, I hope to show, the two are connected in several ways.

In this paper I set out to explore its visual dimension, a problem so far neglected in studies of his thought. I will argue that Jefferson’s understanding of sympathy exhibited visual features to a varying extent, depending on particular conditions. Also, I hope to show how visual perception becomes relevant in his sentimentalism, joining sympathy with morality. I will address these issues in connection with his more general conception of sympathy, the nation, and blacks against the background of contemporary models of sympathy and Jefferson’s own idea of the moral sense.

As historian Daniel Wickberg has pointed out, in Western culture, two versions of sympathy had evolved by the time of the Enlightenment. The older one, “organic” and “corporeal,” assumed fellow feeling between human beings based on “physiological” affinity (Wickberg 140). According to this model, persons or objects are attracted to one another by some ubiquitous “magnetic force” present in the universe, “independent of the intentions or motives of persons” or consciousness and the mind (141). Such a force of affinity was also regarded as one working between the parts of the body assuming a connection between them that the same action was thought to produce the same reaction in different bodily parts as a result of their physiological affinity (141-42).

By contrast, the modern version of sympathy, linked to “dematerialized personhood,” came to denote compassion as a result of visual sensation: its generation took observer and observed instead of a relationship based on physiological affinity. This “spectatorial” version of sympathy presupposed the production of the same feeling in the observer as a result of its perception in the observed (140). The consequence was that “[m]oral judgment and social feeling” came to develop primarily on the basis of visual perception (139). This modern version of sympathy connected it with consciousness and the mind holding that compassion is generated in the observer as a result of a particular feeling perceived or imagined in the observed (142). Thus “mental projection” becomes the ground for “emotional identification of the spectator with” the “other” (144). All this, of course, assumes that self and other are no longer seen as participating in the same affinity but rather as observer and observed and the person as originator of sympathy, which was thus “felt by one person toward the other” (ibid).

This perceptual aspect of sympathy, at the same time, poses questions about how emotions are communicated between observer and observed. As scholars have pointed out, one aspect of this problem was the association of sensibility with sincerity. One was supposed to produce one’s “inner feelings” without pre-meditation or concern about public display and responses to that. Spontaneity was the way in which this could be achieved: feelings were to derive from the heart, the general organ of sentiments (Brewer 120, 117). Furthermore, the success of fellow feeling in this modern period was seen, to a great extent, as conditional upon identifying with the other’s emotion, which, in an obvious way, concerned the problem of “the communication of passions and sentiments” (Mullan 2). For major proponents of sensibility, the ties that connected humans in part depended on the successful communication of “harmoniously organized feelings” (7). For instance, sympathy is the principle in the case of Hume that facilitates the “movement” of “passion” and “feeling” (24-25). Therefore sentimental culture accentuated the principle of sincerity, the communication of true private feelings in public (16-17). Sympathy either means the reproduction of the same sentiment as David Hume would postulate or, in the fashion proposed by Adam Smith, the “spectator” occupying the position of the other through imagination. This is why, for Smith, “sympathy is conditional on the spectator having the necessary information, and on ‘his’ subsequent reflections and efforts” (44), while for Hume sympathy is based on fellow feeling shared by self and others springing from natural disposition (45). As we shall see, the visual aspect of communicating sympathy was also a concern for Jefferson, and strongly related to the problem of the moral sense.

Sentimentalism also connected feeling with morality claiming that true virtue lay in the ability of the self to feel sympathy for the other (Brewer 114) – hence sensitivity being based on compassion and the impulse to be morally good. With Jefferson, this can happen through the moral sense, which is, in part, designed to establish fellow feeling among humans. It enables them to feel love for others. In his words, “…nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses…” (Jefferson to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814, in Jefferson 1337). By means of this feature, the moral sense is also connected to the individual’s happiness in so far as “benevolence,” doing good to others, results in pleasure and happiness (Yarbrough 1998, 20). Thus the moral sense of Jefferson’s individual also assumes the superiority of pleasures shared with others over the ones felt in solitude by the self (69).

Jefferson also underlines the ubiquitous presence of the moral sense: it is to be found in every human being. For him, the moral sense is, as historian Charles A. Miller puts it, “part of human nature” (92), and individual moral standards were to be measured against those of culture (Helo and Onuf 612): the individual moral sense was to be in harmony with that of the community. As Jean Yarbrough points out, for the individual to practice his or her moral sense he or she must “internalize …. the moral sentiments of the majority” by using “imagination” (1998, 42). The moral sense of the individual makes him or her abide by the norms of a culture determined by its majority (Miller 92). In addition, even though there can be cases when it seems imperfect, it can be ameliorated by external impulses, most typically by instruction. To quote Jefferson, again,

When it is wanting, we endeavor to supply the defect by education, by appeals to reason and calculation, by presenting to the being so unhappily conformed, other motives to do good and to eschew evil, such as the love, or the hatred, or rejection of those among whom he lives, and whose society is necessary to his happiness and even existence. (Jefferson to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814, in Jefferson 1338)

For Jefferson, then, personal development through faculties of the individual other than the moral senses can serve to make up for the deficiencies of the moral sense and the drive for feeling love and sympathy for others. Furthermore, as Yarbrough points out, with Jefferson, the development of the moral sense is a prerequisite to making sound moral judgments, hence its intimate connection with the individual’s maturation (Yarbrough 1998, 34, 44), and the moral capacity of the individual is something that needs constant practising (54).

Another crucial point to highlight about Jefferson’s concept of the moral sense is that for Jefferson, unlike with some other contemporary philosophers, the moral sense is independent of reason since it is alone capable of instructing the individual about right moral conduct (Hellenbrand 51), and that he designates the heart in the general sentimental fashion as the center of the power to feel for others on an epistemological basis. As he explains in his letter to Maria Cosway from 1786, the heart functions to feel the joy and sorrow of others and unite with them through the feeling of compassion:

Deeply practised in the school of affliction, the human heart knows no joy which I have not lost, no sorrow of which I have not drank! [sic] Fortune can present no grief of unknown form to me! Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?” (Jefferson to Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786, Jefferson 870-71)

This passage also shows that with Jefferson, sympathy can only be generated on the basis of previously known feeling. The moral sense (located in the heart) functions as a reservoir of emotions necessary to identify (with) the feelings of others. The heart knows how to respond to certain feelings because of its experience, and its previous knowledge of these.

Furthermore, this knowledge serves as a basis of benevolent acts and can be enhanced as a result of external stimuli. In Jefferson’s words, “When any signal act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with it’s [sic] beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and graceful acts also” (Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, August 3, 1771, in Jefferson 741). Such impulses coming from the outside, so characteristic of sentimental physiology, also become important when Jefferson talks about sympathy in action as will be seen in the following.

Issues related to the perceptual features of sympathy within an epistemological and moral context can be best explored in Jefferson’s aforementioned letter to Maria Cosway, where in the form of a dialogue the “heart” engages in a debate with the “head” over the nature of sympathy and pertaining benevolent action. Toward the end of the text, explicating the mechanism of sympathy, Jefferson presents three examples in an effort to contrast the moral functioning of the head and the heart: the first concerns a soldier, the second a woman, while the third the nation – all in need, soliciting sympathy and charity. In these situations, the head and the heart respond to each in a contrasting manner (Jefferson to Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786, in Jefferson 874-75).

The story of the soldier is offered to suggest sympathy as denied at the urge of the head. “The poor wearied souldier”;[sic] asks for a lift on a “cart” (874) ridden by the head and the heart, but for fear of more similar requests from other soldiers on the road they reject him, which the heart later regrets. Nonetheless, the heart knows better next time, when they meet a “poor woman,” and gives her “charity” (875). The woman, as it turns out later, uses the money to pay for her “child”’s schooling, not on liquor as previously suggested by the head. In the third example, sympathy also wins when it comes to the nation since the War of Independence, the heart argues retrospectively, was won by the “enthusiasm” and “sacrifice” of Americans with no concern for “wealth and numbers” (ibid).

The conclusion that the heart draws from these examples is that sympathy is indiscriminate regarding the personal interest of the self or the social standing of the sympathized other, be it a soldier, a woman or the nation. “Wealth, titles, office, are no recommendations to my friendship,” the heart says; instead, it also maintains, what matters to it are “great good qualities” as a precondition for sympathy and charity (ibid), that is, sympathy in action. Furthermore, the heart also claims to have the power of divining who possesses such “qualities,” and it is only such a person that deserves its “friendship” and sympathy. As the heart asserts: “I receive no one into my esteem till I know they are worthy of it” (ibid). This statement is made in connection with the woman, whom the head originally claimed to be a “drunkard” (ibid).

Jefferson’s argument about the moral sense and sympathy as presented through these examples by the heart offers intriguing claims concerning the role of visual perception in the mechanism of compassion. In the cases of the soldier and the woman, it is by sight, i.e.: visual perception that sympathy is established in the observer. Yet this spectatorial sympathy is immediately connected with the epistemological prerequisite for awareness of the observed person’s being worthy of the sympathy generated in the heart, that he or she is indeed in possession of those “great good qualities.” This, in turn, can happen only through the sentimental principle of sincerity or transparency by which the observed can communicate his or her “good qualities” toward the “observing” heart. In these two cases, then, spectatorial sympathy is fused with perceptual morality and epistemology: seeing becomes believing and the basis of moral judgment at the same time, hence providing a mechanism for sympathy.

As for sympathy at the national level, the situation seems more complicated. As scholarship has shown, Jefferson held that patriotism, or amor patriae, as he referred to it, the love of one’s country, was a sentiment being the end result of the moral development of the individual through education. The process beginning with attachment to natural parents developed through affection for mentors to culminate in love for one’s country, also indicating the individual’s sentimental movement from one to the other (Hellenbrand 84-85). In the case of the nation or “country,” as the heart puts it, the schema applied to the soldier and the woman is complicated by the fact that, in this case, no primacy of visual perception is articulated. Instead, here epistemology is based upon “Providence,” which, the heart says, suggested how Americans should behave: its “precept is to do always what is right” (Jefferson to Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786, in Jefferson 875). Such an understanding of the Revolution by the heart, then, links the Patriot cause, righteousness and epistemology in a sentimental unity, in which visual perception plays no significant part. How can that be possible?

It is possible to have moral epistemology without visuality in the case of the nation because, for Jefferson, it is already a community based on affection and sympathy. As historian Peter Coviello argues, in his own draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson solves the dilemma of defining Americans as a nation which, in fact, does not exist at the time of the War of Independence by seeing it as one based on “affective unity” (443; original emphasis). That is, with Jefferson, the “country” that is nonexistent as a political entity, is still already there as a sentimental community whose members are connected into coherence by bonds of sentimental affection. Hence no visual stimuli are required to trigger affection or sympathy for moral scrutiny among them since communal ties ensure its presence.

What the argument of the heart adds to this is the definition of the Patriot cause and hence the nation as one resting on morality thus being worthy of the appreciation and sympathy of the individuals willing to make a sacrifice for its liberty. This is the way in which one could attest to one’s ability to feel compassion and thereby become part of a community of such individuals all possessing “great good feelings” and hence being worthy of affection and moral support.

Finally, visuality gains special significance for Jefferson in his discussion of blacks and their expression of emotions also highlighting his treatment of the esthetic and moral. In exploring the role of nature in Jefferson’s thought Charles Miller argues that the relationship between the esthetic and the ethical is hard to grasp (103). Through exploring the visual aspect of sympathy in connection with blacks, however, one can have a better view not only of how the moral and the epistemological, but also how the moral and the esthetic are related in his conception of sympathy.

Discussing Jefferson’s conception of the moral sense in relation to slavery and slaveholding in Virginia, Ari Helo and Peter Onuf point out how, relying on Scottish moral philosopher Henry Home’s (Lord Kames) thought, Jefferson adopted a progressive view of morality tied to civilization, the specific level of moral development of diverse cultures, people or ethnic groups (including whites and blacks in Virginia). They have shown how the culturally specific conception of the moral sense on the part of Jefferson results in his setting an absolute standard of all-embracing sympathy by which to measure various cultures occupying different levels of civilization in terms of moral development (600). This level, at the same time, determines the nature of the “institutions” that a people can exist under as well as the solutions that they can legitimately seek to their problems (600, 604). The institution of slavery, for instance, yoked blacks in the South to a level of civilization and moral development that remained well below that of whites, according to Jefferson. They were not in the power to improve their moral conduct through education (609-10). In addition, their dependent position in bondage prevented them from becoming morally responsible persons and remained like children (611); their civilization, amelioration of the moral sense “would take generations” (614).

As a concomitant feature of their lower level of the moral sense, for Jefferson, blacks differ from whites in their capacity for sensibility. In the first place, their inferiority in imagination is to the detriment of feeling sympathy for those racially different from them, as I have explained elsewhere (Vajda 2009). Yet, more importantly for my present purpose, this difference also manifests itself in the problem of communicating sentiments between whites and blacks. “Are not the fine mixtures of red and white,” Jefferson asks in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, i. e. among whites, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?” (Jefferson 264-65). According to Jefferson, then, the facial color white can serve as an appropriate medium for showing emotions, since it can express emotions while the complexion black can show no such variety in terms of change in color.

Thus, for him, on account of their color, black people are incapable of communicating their emotions by sight to the observer. One consequence of this would be their exclusion from the sentimental community of whites. The inscrutability of black emotions or in his words, that “veil” which covers the inner self from the public prevents a black person from arousing the sympathy of spectators, who therefore cannot become sympathetic observers of their emotions. In this way, the aesthetic becomes fused with the moral in such an interracial spectatorial act of scrutiny.

We understand from other parts of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia that while he regarded blacks as inferior to whites with respect to rationality, and imaginative power, as far as the moral sense is concerned, he asserted its presence in the black person (Jefferson 266). At the same time, for various reasons he found the co-existence of the two races impossible. This pessimism was obviously augmented by his denial of blacks’ ability to arouse sympathy in the observer because of the color of their skin. The lack of the power of blacks to communicate emotions to white observers weakens Jefferson’s claim about blacks’ moral sense: even though they possess it, they cannot make proper use of it in their interaction with whites also impairing the possibility of moral judgment by white spectators.

In conclusion, we have seen how, in Jefferson’s conception of sympathy, the visual element gained varying emphasis concerning individual and race. It was not only part of a spectatorial model in connection with white individuals, but also a prerequisite to morality which became a condition for sympathetic compassion as the examples presented by the heart suggest. With blacks, visuality also gains significance for Jefferson, but only as an impossibility and hence as an indicator of the lack of the chance for them to appeal to a sympathetic observer. However, no such problem emerges for Jefferson in connection with the white patriots of the Revolution: in their case visuality becomes immaterial since being already part of a sentimental community of people also morally good, no visual mechanism is required for them to observe the morally right nation that they are themselves already part of.


Works Cited

  • Brewer, John. 2000. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Burstein, Andrew. 1995. The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia.
  • Coviello, Peter. 2002. “Agonizing Affection: Affect and Nation in Early America.” Early American Literature, 37.3, 439-468.
  • Hellenbrand, Harold. 1990. The Unfinished Revolution: Education and Politics in the Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press and London: Associated University Presses.
  • Helo, Ari and Peter Onuf. 2003. “Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, 60.3, 583-614.
  • Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Writings. Merrill D. Peterson ed. New York: The Library of America.
  • Mennell, Stephen. 2007. The American Civilizing Process. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press.
  • Miller, Charles A. 1988. Jefferson and Nature: An Interpretation. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Mullan, John. 1990; 1988. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Onuf, Peter S. 2000. Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia.
  • Vajda, Zoltán. 2009. “Limited Expectations: Thomas Jefferson on the Moral Sentiments of Blacks and Race Relations.” In Zoltán Vajda ed. Kultúrán innen és túl – Írások Rozsnyai Bálint tiszteletére/Within and Without Culture: Essays in Honor of Bálint Rozsnyai. Szeged: JATEPress, 277-286.
  • Wickberg, Daniel. 2007. “The Sympathetic Self in American Culture, 1750-1920.” In Wilfred M. McClay ed. Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past. Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 129-161.
  • Wills, Garry. 1979; 1978. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Yarbrough, Jean M. 1998. American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas.
  • ——. 1997. “The Moral Sense, Character Formation, and Virtue.” In Gary L. McDowell and Sharon L. Noble eds. Reason and Republicanism: Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy of Liberty. Lanham, Boulder, New York and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 271-303.
  • ——. 1991. “Race and the Moral Foundation of the American Republic: Another Look at the Declaration and the Notes on Virginia.” Journal of Politics, 53.1, 90-105.