In the early 1980s, Sydney N.(Chip) Stokes, Jr. left the urban intensity of Wall Street and New York’s recording industry and moved to a wilderness area in the Green Mountains of Vermont. He cleared a mountaintop, built a sustainable structure that was both simple and elegant, and began to read voraciously about Thomas Jefferson and the American Revolution. Through his admiration for Jefferson, Stokes found solace and inspiration. Indeed, contemplating the life and ideals of Jefferson in a quiet natural setting not only helped Chip transcend a learning difference, it also impassioned him to amass what noted historian Merrill D. Peterson characterized as perhaps the finest private library on our third President.
Within a decade Stokes was ready to take this vision to the public domain and he joined with an officer of nearby Middlebury College, C.W. (Bud) Leeds III to establish the Jefferson Legacy Foundation (JLF). Leeds had developed an extensive and effective acquaintance in philanthropic networks. Through collaboration, the JLF attracted notables from many areas to its early boards: eminent Jefferson scholar, Merrill D. Peterson; award-winning author, David McCullough; producer for Ken Burns Productions, Camilla Rockwell; developer and philanthropist, Batman Batmanghelidj; professor and author Frank Shuffleton; college president Thomas L. Benson; retired executive and officer of several trusts and foundations, Sydney N. Stokes, Sr.; and American Heritage publishing director, Richard M. Ketchum.
The Jefferson Legacy Foundation also shepherded several creative projects:
The JLF fostered institutional affiliations with the Council for America’s First Freedom, a non-profit agency promoting freedom of conscience based on Jefferson’s Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. The JLF instigated the Council’s efforts to recognize the work of numerous award recipients such as Professor Steven Rockefeller, theologian/historian Martin Marty, producer Judith Moyers, broadcast journalist Bill Moyers, and diplomat Richard Holbrook.
Stokes and Leeds established a significant friendship with Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson Foundation through their enduring admiration for the work of its President Daniel P. Jordan and Librarian Jack Robertson. The JLF partnered with Monticello and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center in presenting a series of Evening Conversations. With Monticello and UVA, the JLF also helped to create the first on-line catalogue of all known writings about Thomas Jefferson.
On a state and local level, several initiatives were launched within Vermont:
Since 2015, the Jefferson Legacy has begun to redirect itself. Commitment to the ideals of Jefferson’s tombstone legacy: author of the Declaration of American Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia: remains a touchstone. Reflection on the meaning of these ideals prompts discussions encompassing a wide spectrum of political opinions. Such conversations have stimulated lively exchanges within the foundation. These exchanges have been guided by respect for differences undergirded by commitment to fairness, impartiality, and civility. The debate goes on both within the JLF and in civil society-at-large. What is pivotal is a recurring recourse to Jeffersonian ideals. All this is part of the essential dynamic of Jeffersonianism.
The acknowledgement of the broad philosophical dynamic of the JLF has been accompanied by a geographical shift. In 2015, the mountain retreat in Ripton, Vermont sold, its library holdings of 7,000 items placed in storage. A Landscape Report surveyed various places for relocating the library and finding new home base for the foundation. Repeatedly, central Virginia and Charlottesville in particular top this survey with agencies and sites closely aligning with the mission of the Jefferson Legacy Foundation.
Presently efforts are underway to develop and deepen friendships with Jefferson sites such as his main residence at Monticello, and his retreat at Poplar Forest, as well as agencies such as the International Center for Jefferson Studies (the research campus for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation) along with the Presidential Precinct-- a consortium of Presidential homes--Jefferson’s Monticello, Madison’s Montpelier and Monroe’s Highland—and two institutions of higher learning-- the College of William and Mary (Jefferson’s alma mater) and the University of Virginia (founded by Jefferson as a culmination of his educational ideals). The Presidential Precinct fosters “the power of place and the power of ideas” for the development of national and global leaders. Such a constellation of agencies serves as a brilliant incubator for Jefferson studies. The Jefferson Legacy Foundation aims to be a good neighbor, a catalyst for contemplative history, and an enduring proponent of Jeffersonian ideals in this environment.