Who of the French Enlightenment thinkers inspired Thomas Jefferson?
Jefferson was very widely read in French Enlightenment thought, and like many Americans, he especially admired Voltaire. He kept a bust of Voltaire at Monticello, and had many of his works in his library. Perhaps the aspect of Voltaire's thought that most appealed to Jefferson (who also, it must be said, admired many other French philosophes) was the French thinker's support for religious tolerance. As Merrill Peterson, one of the most influential Jefferson scholars of the twentieth century, once wrote, Jefferson "sounded like a Virginia Voltaire" in his support for the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, which abolished the established church in Jefferson's home state. Like Jefferson, Voltaire's thinking about religion as well as the need for limited government was strongly influenced by English philosopher John Locke. Voltaire, who belonged to a somewhat older generation than Jefferson (the two never met), was somewhat more conservative than Jefferson, not rejecting, as Jefferson did, monarchy as a valid form of government. Indeed, Voltaire much admired the English government that Jefferson dismissed as hopelessly corrupt. But of the French philosophes, Voltaire was probably the most influential on Jefferson.