Twenty years ago, when I was a student in law school, my hero was Thomas Jefferson. They say that to know a man’s view of the world, one should review the events of his life as he enters adulthood. In large measure, my “events” were the books and, when it came to Jefferson, the letters I read. I lost interest in Jefferson as I became more familiar with, and repelled by, his deism, which struck me as a halfway house to atheism. Which is why I was so cheered this morning to read the following letter to a young man named after him, Thomas Jefferson Smith, written shortly before he died, on 21 February 1825, in Bill Bennett’s The American Patriot’s Almanac:

This letter will, to you, be as one from the dead. The writer will be in the grave before you can weigh its counsels. Your affectionate and excellent father has requested that I would address to you something which might possibly have a favorable influence on the course of life you have to run, and I too, as a namesake, feel an interest in that course. Few words will be necessary, with good dispositions on your part. Adore God. Reverence and cherish your parents. Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself. Be just. Be true. Murmur not at the ways of Providence. So shall the life into which you have entered, be the portal to one of eternal and ineffable bliss. And if to the dead it is permitted to care for the things of this world, every action of your life will be under my regard. Farewell.

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