Thomas Jefferson

American philosopher and statesman Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the third president of the United States. A man of broad interests and activity, he exerted an immense influence on the political and intellectual life of the new nation.

Thomas Jefferson was born at Shadwell, Va., on April 13, 1743. His father had been among the earliest settlers in this wilderness country, and his position of leadership descended to his eldest son, together with 5,000 acres of land.

Jefferson became one of the best-educated Americans of his time. At the age of 17 he entered the College of William and Mary, where he got exciting first glimpses of "the expansion of science, and of the system of things in which we are placed." Nature destined him to be a scientist, he often said; but there was no opportunity for a scientific career in Virginia, and he took the path of the law, studying it under the tutelage of George With as a branch of the history of mankind. He read widely in the law, in the sciences, and in both ancient and modern history, philosophy, and literature. Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767; his successful practice led to a wide circle of influence and to cultivated intellectual habits that would prove remarkably creative in statesmanship. When the onrush of the American Revolution forced him to abandon practice in 1774, he turned these legal skills to the rebel cause.

Jefferson's public career began in 1769, when he served as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses. About this time, too, he began building Monticello, the lovely home perched on a densely wooded summit that became a lifelong obsession. He learned architecture from books, above all from the Renaissance Italian Andrea Palladio. Yet Monticello, like the many other buildings Jefferson designed over the years, was a uniquely personal creation. Dissatisfied with the first version, completed in 12 years, Jefferson later rebuilt it. Monticello assumed its ultimate form about the time he retired from the presidency.

His Philosophy

Jefferson rose to fame in the councils of the American Revolution. Insofar as the Revolution was a philosophical event, he was its most articulate spokesman, having absorbed the thought of the 18th-century Enlightenment. He believed in a beneficent natural order in the moral as in the physical world, freedom of inquiry in all things, and man's inherent capacity for justice and happiness, and he had faith in reason, improvement, and progress.

Jefferson's political thought would become the quintessence of Enlightenment liberalism, though it had roots in English law and government. The tradition of the English constitution gave concreteness to American patriot claims, even a color of legality to revolution itself, that no other modern revolutionaries have possessed. Jefferson used the libertarian elements of the English legal tradition for ideological combat with the mother country. He also separated the principles of English liberty from their corrupted forms in the empire of George III and identified these principles with nascent American ideals. In challenging the oppressions of the empire, Americans like Jefferson came to recognize their claims to an independent nationality.

Jefferson's most important contribution to the revolutionary debate was A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774). He argued that Americans, as sons of expatriate Englishmen, possessed the same natural rights to govern themselves as their Saxon ancestors had exercised when they migrated to England from Germany. Only with the reign of George III had the violations of American rights proved to be "a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery." Though the logic of his argument pointed to independence, Jefferson instead set forth the theory of an empire of equal self-governing states under a common king and appealed to George III to rule accordingly.

Declaration of Independence

The Revolution had begun when Jefferson took his seat in the Second Continental Congress, at Philadelphia, in June 1775. He brought to the Congress, as John Adams recalled, "a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent for composition." It was chiefly as a legislative draftsman that he would make his mark. His great work was the Declaration of Independence. In June 1776 he was surprised to find himself at the head of the committee to prepare this paper. He submitted a rough draft to Adams and Benjamin Franklin, two of the committee, who suggested only minor changes, revised it to Jefferson's satisfaction, and sent it to Congress. Congress debated it line by line for 2 1/2 days. Though many changes were made, the Declaration that emerged on July 4 bore the unmistakable stamp of Jefferson. It possessed that "peculiar felicity of expression" for which he was noted.

The Declaration of Independence crisply set forth the bill of particular grievances against the reigning sovereign and compressed a whole cosmology, a political philosophy, and a national creed in one paragraph. The truths declared to be "self-evident" were not new; as Jefferson later said, his purpose was "not to find out new principles, or new arguments …, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject." But here, for the first time in history, these truths were laid at the foundation of a nation. Natural equality, the inalienable rights of man, the sovereignty of the people, the right of revolution—these principles endowed the American Revolution with high purpose united to a theory of government.

In Virginia

Jefferson returned to Virginia and to his seat in the reconstituted legislature. A constitution had been adopted for the commonwealth, but it was distressingly less democratic than the one Jefferson had drafted and dispatched to Williamsburg. He sought now to achieve liberal reforms by ordinary legislation. Most of these were contained in his comprehensive Revision of the Laws. Although the code was never enacted in entirety, the legislature went over the bills one by one. Of first importance was the Statute for Religious Freedom. Enacted in 1786, the statute climaxed the long campaign for separation of church and state in Virginia. Though Jefferson was responsible for the abolition of property laws that were merely relics of feudalism, his bill for the reform of Virginia's barbarous criminal code failed, and for the sake of expediency he withheld his plan for gradual emancipation of the slaves. Jefferson was sickened by the defeat of his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. A landmark in the history of education, it proposed a complete system of public education, with elementary schools available to all, the gifted to be educated according to their ability.

Jefferson became Virginia's governor in June 1779. The Revolutionary War had entered a new phase. The British decision to "unravel the thread of rebellion from the southward" would, if successful, have made Virginia the crucial battleground. Jefferson struggled against enormous odds to aid the southern army. He was also handicapped by the weakness of his office under the constitution and by his personal aversion to anything bordering on dictatorial rule.

Early in 1781 the British invaded Virginia from the coast, slashed through to Richmond, and put the government to flight. Jefferson acted with more vigor than before, still to no avail. In May, Gen. Charles Cornwallis marched his army into Virginia. The government moved to safer quarters at Charlottesville. The Redcoats followed, and 2 days after his term of office expired but before a successor could be chosen, Jefferson was chased from Monticello. The General Assembly resolved to inquire into Jefferson's conduct, and months after the British surrender at Yorktown, he attended the legislature on this business. But no inquiry was held, the Assembly instead voting him resolution of thanks for his services.

Nevertheless, wounded by the criticism, Jefferson resolved to quit public service. A series of personal misfortunes, culminating in his wife's death in September 1782, plunged him into gloom. Yet her death finally returned him to his destiny. The idealized life he had sought in his family, farms, and books was suddenly out of reach. That November he eagerly accepted congressional appointment to the peace commission in Paris. He never sailed, however, and wound up in Congress instead.

During his retirement Jefferson had written his only book, Note on the State of Virginia. The inquiry had begun simply, but it grew as Jefferson worked. He finally published the manuscript in a private edition in Paris (1785). Viewed in the light of 18th-century knowledge, the book is work of natural and civil history, uniquely interesting as a guide to Jefferson's mind and to his native country. He expressed opinions on a variety of subjects, from cascades and caverns to constitutions and slavery. An early expression of American nationalism, the book acted as a catalyst in several fields of intellectual activity. It also ensured Jefferson a scientific and literary reputation on two continents.

Service in Congress

In Congress from November 1783 to the following May, Jefferson laid the foundations of national policy in several areas. His proposed decimal system of coinage was adopted. He drafted the first ordinance of government for the western territory, wherein free and equal republican states would be created out of the wilderness; and his land ordinance, adopted with certain changes in 1785, projected the rectilinear survey system of the American West.

Jefferson also took a leading part in formulating foreign policy. The American economy rested on foreign commerce and navigation. Cut adrift from the British mercantile system, Congress had pursued free trade to open foreign markets, but only France had been receptive. The matter became urgent in 1783-1784. Jefferson helped reformulate a liberal commercial policy, and in 1784 he was appointed to a three-man commission (with Adams and Franklin) to negotiate treaties of commerce with the European powers.

Minister to France

In Paris, Jefferson's first business was the treaty commission; in 1785 he succeeded Franklin as minister to France. The commission soon expired, and Jefferson focused his commercial diplomacy on France. In his opinion, France offered imposing political support for the United States in Europe as well as an entering wedge for the free commercial system on which American wealth and power depended. Louis XVI's foreign minister seemed well disposed, and influential men in the French capital were ardent friends of the American Revolution. Jefferson won valuable concessions for American commerce; however, because France realized few benefits in return, Britain maintained its economic ascendancy.

His duties left Jefferson time to haunt bookstores, frequent fashionable salons, and indulge his appetite for art, music, and theater. He toured the south of France and Italy, England, and the Rhineland. He interpreted the New World to the Old. Some of this activity had profound effects. For instance, his collaboration with a French architect in the design of the classical Roman Capitol of Virginia inaugurated the classical revival in American architecture.

About Europe generally, Jefferson expressed ambivalent feelings. But on balance, the more he saw of Europe, the dearer his own country became. "My God!" he exclaimed. "How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy. I confess I had no idea of it myself…."

Secretary of State

On Jefferson's return to America in 1789, President Washington prevailed upon him to become secretary of state. For the next 3 years he was chiefly engaged in fruitless negotiations with the European powers. With Spain he sought to fix the southern United States boundary and secure free navigation of the Mississippi River through Spanish territory to the Gulf of Mexico. With Britain he sought removal of English troops from the Northwest and settlement of issues left over from the peace treaty. In this encounter he was frustrated by the secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, whose ascendancy in the government also checked Jefferson's and James Madison's efforts for commercial discrimination against Britain and freer trade with France. In Jefferson's opinion, Hamilton's fiscal system turned on British trade, credit, and power, while his own system turned on commercial liberation, friendship with France, and the success of the French Revolution. Hamilton's measures would enrich the few at the expense of the many, excite speculation and fraud, concentrate enormous power in the Treasury, and break down the restraints of the Constitution. To combat these tendencies, Jefferson associated himself with the incipient party opposition in Congress.

Developing Political Parties

As the party division deepened, Jefferson was denounced by the Federalists as the "generalissimo" of the Republican party, a role he neither possessed nor coveted but, finally, could not escape. When war erupted between France and Britain in 1793, the contrary dispositions of the parties toward these nations threatened American peace. Jefferson attempted to use American neutrality to force concessions from Britain and to improve cooperation between the embattled republics of the Atlantic world. In this he was embarrassed by Edmond Genet, the French minister to the United States, and finally had to abandon him altogether. The deterioration of Franco-American relations did irreparable damage to Jefferson's political system.

Jefferson resigned his post at the end of 1793, again determined to quit public life. But in 1796 the Republicans made him their presidential candidate against John Adams. Losing by three electoral votes, Jefferson became vice president. When the "XYZ affair" threatened to plunge the United States into war with France in 1798, Jefferson clung to the hope of peace and, in the developing war hysteria, rallied the Republicans around him. Enactment of the Alien and Sedition Laws convinced him that the Federalists aimed to annihilate the Republicans and that the Republicans' only salvation lay in political intervention by the state authorities. On this basis he drafted the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, in which he elaborated the theory of the Union as a compact among the several states, declared the Alien and Sedition Laws unconstitutional, and prescribed the remedy of state "nullification" for such assumptions of power by the central government. Kentucky did not endorse this specific doctrine, but the defense of civil liberties was now joined to the defense of state rights. Though the celebrated resolutions did not force a change of policy, by contributing to the rising public clamor against the administration they achieved their political purpose.

President of the United States

Republicans doubled their efforts to elect the "man of the people" in the unusually bitter campaign of 1800. Jefferson topped Adams in the electoral vote. But because his running mate, Aaron Burr, received an equal number of votes, the final decision went to the House of Representatives. Only after 36 ballots was Jefferson elected.

Jefferson became president on March 4, 1801, in the new national capital, Washington, D.C. His inaugural address—a political touchstone for a century or longer— brilliantly summed up the Republican creed and appealed for the restoration of harmony and affection. "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans: we are all federalists." Jefferson extended the hand of friendship to the Federalists and, although Federalists monopolized the Federal offices, he attempted to limit his removals of them. Even after party pressures forced him to revise this strategy, moderation characterized his course.

Reform was the order of the day. Working effectively with Congress, Jefferson restored freedom of the press; lowered the residency period of the law of naturalization to 5 years; scaled down the Army and Navy (despite a war against Barbary piracy); repealed the partisan Judiciary Act of 1801; abolished all internal taxes, together with a host of revenue offices; and began the planned retirement of the debt. The Jeffersonian reformation was bottomed on fiscal policy; by reducing the means and powers of government, it sought to further peace, equality, and individual freedom.

The President's greatest triumph—and his greatest defeat—came in foreign affairs. Spain's cession of Louisiana and the port of New Orleans to France in 1800 posed a serious threat to American security, especially to the aspirations of the West. Jefferson skillfully negotiated this crisis. With the Louisiana Purchase (1803), America gained an uncharted domain of some 800,000 square miles, doubling its size, for $11,250,000. Even before the treaty was signed, Jefferson planned an expedition to explore this country. The Lewis and Clark expedition, like the Louisiana Purchase, was a spectacular consummation of Jefferson's western vision.

Easily reelected in 1804, Jefferson soon encountered foreign and domestic troubles. His relations with Congress degenerated as Republicans quarreled among themselves. Especially damaging was the insurgency of John Randolph, formerly Republican leader in the House. And former vice president Aaron Burr mounted an insurgency in the West; but Jefferson crushed this and, with difficulty, maintained control of Congress. The turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars, with American ships and seamen ravaged in the neutral trade, proved too difficult. France was not blameless, but Britain was the chief aggressor.

Finally there appeared to be no escape from war except by withdrawing from the oceans. In December 1807 the President proposed, and Congress enacted, a total embargo on America's seagoing commerce. More than an alternative to war, the embargo was a test of the power of commercial coercion in international disputes. On the whole, it was effectively enforced, but it failed to bring Britain or France to justice, and the mounting costs at home led to its repeal by Congress in the waning hours of Jefferson's presidency.

Active Retirement

In retirement Jefferson became the "Sage of Monticello," the most revered—by some the most hated—among the remaining Revolutionary founders. He maintained a large correspondence and intellectual pursuits on a broad front. Unfinished business from the Revolution drew his attention, such as revision of the Virginia constitution and gradual emancipation of slaves. But the former would come only after his death, and the failure of the latter would justify his worst fears. He revived his general plan of public education. Again the legislature rejected it, approving, however, a major part, the state university. Jefferson was the master planner of the University of Virginia in all its parts, from the grounds and buildings to the curriculum, faculty, and rules of governance. He died at Monticello on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, July 4, 1826.

Further Reading on Thomas Jefferson

There are several editions of Jefferson's writings: The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Paul Leicester Ford (10 vols., 1892-1899); The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (20 vols. in 10; 1905); and Papers, edited by Julian P. Boyd and others (17 vols., 1950-1965). The Boyd work, though complete only to November 1790, is the best edition; a good companion piece is The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Edwin Morris Betts and James Adam Bear, Jr. (1966).

The major biography is Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time (4 vols., 1948-1970), complete to 1805 and still in process. Less comprehensive is Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (1970). Accounts of Jefferson's elections are given in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). Jefferson as president is brilliantly, if not quite fairly, portrayed in the first four volumes of Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (9 vols., 1889-1891).

Other studies of Jefferson's life and thought include Fiske Kimball, Thomas Jefferson: Architect (1916); Roy J. Honeywell, The Educational Work of Thomas Jefferson (1931); Adrienne Koch, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (1943); Karl Lehman, Thomas Jefferson: American Humanist (1947); Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (1948); Edwin T. Martin, Thomas Jefferson: Scientist (1952); Caleb Perry Patterson, The Constitutional Principles of Thomas Jefferson (1953); Phillips Russell, Jefferson: Champion of the Free Mind (1956); and Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960). Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: A Profile (1967), collects essays by historians of Jefferson's era as well as modern ones. Jonathan Daniels, Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr (1970), an account of the intertwining political careers of these three, is part biography and part history.