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Born: 1743, Shadwell, Virginia

Died: 1826, Monticello, Virginia

Major Works: A Summary of the Rights of British America (1774), The Declaration of Independence (1776), Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1784)

Major Ideas

All human beings are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights.

Governments are established to protect the rights of citizens.

The right to work the land is a fundamental human right, consequently, a state that allows private ownership of land must provide employment to those who do not have such property.

Freedom of religion should be absolute, and citizens should not be taxed for the support of religious institutions.

Universal education is the most effective means of preserving democracy and good government.

The epitaph that Thomas Jefferson wrote for his tombstone is still visible in the burying ground at Monticello:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia

These words aptly sum up the chief contributions of an extraordinary man. Born in Virginia to an early settler who was largely self-educated, Jefferson studied at local schools and at the College of William and Mary. He left the college after two years to study for the bar. Two years after his admission to the practice of law, he entered the lower house of the colonial legislature at age twenty-six. In 1775, he was appointed by the Virginia legislature to serve as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He joined a radical group that was advocating separation from Britain. In 1776, fellow members of a committee on which he served, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, asked Jefferson to draft a statement of reasons for an irrevocable break with Great Britain--the document that became the Declaration of Independence.

His work in the Virginia legislature included efforts to reform the Constitution and laws of that state, including the creation of a system of free public education. As part of that program, he established the University of Virginia. In addition, he introduced legislation to disestablish the established church, to prohibit all public funding of religion, and to remove all religious disabilities from Virginia's citizens. "I have sworn upon the altar of God," Jefferson said, "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

After serving briefly as governor of Virginia, Jefferson retired to his home in Monticello. He subsequently served in the Continental Congress and in the diplomatic service. The Constitution was drafted while he was in France, but upon his return he was instrumental in having the Bill of Rights added to it. He served as secretary of state under George Washington, founded the party that ultimately became today's Democratic party, and was eventually elected president of the United States.

During his presidency, Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory, nearly doubling the land area of the United States. He was firmly opposed to the increasing power of the Supreme Court, enunciated in Marbury v. Madison, in which Chief Justice John Marshall declared that the Court had the right to decide upon the constitutionality of any legislation. Jefferson held that for unelected judges to have such power was inconsistent with the democratic rights of the people to determine their own destiny. That, he believed, should be left to the democratically elected branches of government.

When it came to foreign affairs, he was anything but indecisive. The United States had no navy worth speaking of when he entered office. Pirates in the Mediterranean were harassing American shipping, both commercial and naval. Following an attack upon an American vessel by Arab pirates, he declared that the United States would give not one more cent of ransom and went to Congress demanding funds for expansion of a naval force capable of dealing with the terrorists of his day.

Jefferson firmly believed in the necessity of every person's maintaining as much personal liberty as possible, and was thoroughly opposed to any kind of behavior that might compromise anyone's range of choices. Thus for example, he wrote that he was in a state of despair as a result of what he perceived to be the American penchant to buy--on credit--every gadget that was held out to them. Neither governments nor individuals should be permitted to buy on credit he said for it is the source of ruin. Love of luxury is a great enemy of liberty. He held that if Americans ran up their debts, they would have to tax such necessities as food and drink, and would end up like the English, laboring sixteen hours a day and giving up fifteen of them to pay for government In such circumstances, he said, we would "have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers."

His allegiance to the principles of liberty did not lead him to blind sentimentality or to anything like anarchism He firmly believed that every society had the right to lay down the principles upon which it would operate and to exclude from its midst anyone who acted contrary to them. He believed that agriculture was a noble and liberating occupation and that speculation, banking, and the property laws of England led to the oppression, poverty, and misery that he saw there. He saw little in Europe that he wanted Americans to emulate, except perhaps some aspects of social etiquette. The poorest farmer in America, he said, is two centuries ahead of most Europeans in the things that really count in life--virtue, freedom, happiness, and scientific knowledge, as opposed to what he called economic "profusion."

Jefferson's Ethics

Jefferson believed, with Locke, that all knowledge comes from experience, and that moral principles are based upon utility. His belief in the pursuit of happiness as the highest goal contributed to his conclusion that agriculture is the best calling a person can pursue. It may produce less economic wealth than manufacturing, but the American farmer enjoys far more freedom, more ease, and less misery than any of the laborers of Europe. In time, however, he came to recognize the vital necessity of creating manufacturing enterprises on this side of the Atlantic.

Jefferson believed that "the earth belongs to the living; the dead have neither powers nor rights over it." He therefore concluded that once a person dies, he should have no further power over his possessions, which should then revert to society. Thus, he would have opposed enabling landowners, through the power of wills statutes, to accumulate vast territories and convey them from generation to generation. Such laws would ultimately vest immense power in a few families and lead to the tyrannical forms of government that had dominated Europe for centuries. A frequent redistribution of property would lead to a better life for all, with greater emphasis on the virtues of friendship, community, and leisure and less on profitability.

This conviction led to his advocacy of the abolition of laws that had led, in Virginia and elsewhere, to the accumulation of vast estates and the development of a landed aristocracy. His success in getting such legislation through the Virginia legislature, he said, "laid the axe to the root of Pseudoaristocracy." In the old world, Jefferson claimed, people were crowded into small spaces or were overcharged for the land they occupied. But here, he wrote, "every one may have land to labor for himself if he chuses [sic]; or, preferring the exercise of any other industry, may exact for it such compensation as not only to afford a comfortable subsistence, but wherewith to provide for a cessation from labor in old age." He firmly believed that land ownership encouraged people to support law and order and a sense of responsibility that entitled them, if nothing else did, to a control over public affairs and a degree of freedom that was wholly unknown in Europe.

Jefferson believed that every human being possesses an innate moral sense, a conscience, which is as much a part of a person as his arm or his leg. Reason and emotion are both involved in determining a person's actions, and neither should be permitted to dominate exclusively. Right and wrong are determined by conscience and not by reason. Thus, Jefferson contends that there is no difference between the ability of a plowman and that of a professor to make moral decisions. Indeed, he argues that the plowman will often make better decisions than the professor, because "he has not been led astray by artificial rules."

Jefferson disagreed with Hobbes's view that justice was founded on contractual agreements. Like the moral sense with which it is so closely related, our sense of justice is innate, as it must be for a creature destined to live in society.

Jefferson and Slavery

Although Jefferson owned slaves, he was never comfortable with the institution of slavery. In his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, he included a paragraph condemning the British king for waging "a cruel war against human nature itself" and violating the "most sacred rights of life and liberty" by permitting and encouraging the "execrable commerce" in human beings. In order to keep the southern states in the struggle for independence, he acquiesced in this paragraph's deletion from the official version of the Declaration. He made similar compromises in his drafts of the Constitution of Virginia, realizing that the time was not ripe for determined opposition to slavery. He was, after all, a practical politician as well as a philosopher of politics and law.

Genuine liberty, he believed, could exist only where people could govern themselves. People could be self-governing only if they were able to make intelligent decisions. Therefore, he concluded, free citizens must have an education sufficient to enable them to gather necessary information and use it to make intelligent decisions. If we think the people are not enlightened enough to make wise decisions, he wrote, "the remedy is not to take [control] from them, but to inform their discretion by education." He concluded, therefore, that the state should offer general publicly funded education to all, and considered his contributions toward the founding of a public school system and the University of Virginia among his greatest achievements.

Jefferson was profoundly intolerant of monarchy. After visiting Europe, his abhorrence of kings increased dramatically. He wrote from there: "There is scarcely an evil known in these countries which may not be traced to their king as its source, nor a good which is not derived from the small fibres of republicanism among them.... There is not a crowned head in Europe whose talents or merit would entitle him to be elected vestryman by the people of any parish in America."

Like most natural-law theorists, he argued that the laws of nature applied to kings as well as to ordinary people. As early as 1774, he wrote: "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them." He declared, "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." And in the Declaration of Independence, he wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Separation of Church and State

As a member of the Legislative Assembly in Virginia, Jefferson argued for the complete separation of church and state. He argued for tolerance of unorthodoxy, saying that "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." He believed that there should be no established church, for that forced people to support ministers of other persuasions. Even forcing people to support ministers of their own persuasion was a deprivation of liberty, in his view. He wanted to rid his state of laws inherited from England that made heresy a capital offense and provided for imprisonment of anyone who denied the doctrine of the Trinity or the divine authority of the Scriptures. In his bill for Virginia, he provided:

[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, or shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

As justification for this radical innovation, he offered the opinion that "our civil rights have no dependance [sic] on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry." To subject people to religious coercion corrupts the very religion it wants to encourage "by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it."

He believed that "reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error." Give them free rein, he said and they would support the true religion, for they were "the natural enemies of error." Truth can stand by itself, he argued, but error needs the support of government if it is to survive. The only justification for subjecting opinion to coercion is. to produce uniformity, which succeeds only in making half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. The best way to rid the world of religious sects that would subvert morals is to subject it to reasonable scrutiny and then to "laugh it out of doors."

Freedom of the Press

After being subjected to defamatory accusations in the press, Jefferson defended freedom of the press in his second inaugural address. The offenders would suffer more from public outrage, he said, than from any governmental reprisals. No restraint on the press is needed, he said, as the experiment in allowing unrestrained press freedom has worked and the public has expressed its judgments through the ballot box. "The public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions, on a full hearing of all parties; and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness." He was outraged to learn that a book was brought before the court on the charge that it was inconsistent with accepted principles of religion. "It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not," he wrote, "and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason."

Jefferson was implacably opposed to unlimited government, both because it was inconsistent with his theory of human rights and because it was utterly inefficient. As he put it, "Were we directed from Washington when to sow, & when to reap, we should soon want bread." Consistently with this opinion, he strongly disapproved of what he considered to be the Supreme Court's usurpation of the power to interpret the Constitution. That power, he believed, belonged equally to each of the three branches of government. Consequently, none of them, including most especially the Supreme Court, had the right to determine for the others what their constitutional powers were.

One of Jefferson's most notable biographers, Dumas Malone, concluded his multivolume study of the sage of Monticello, as Jefferson came to be called, by observing that "he perceived eternal values and supported timeless causes. Thus he became one of the most notable champions of freedom and enlightenment in recorded history."

Further Reading

Conant, James Bryant. Thomas Jefferson and the Development of American Public Education. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. One of America's most outstanding educators assesses Jefferson's contributions to the nation's educational system.

Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. A well-written biography, emphasizing Jefferson's philosophical contributions.

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian, Jefferson and the Rights of Man, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty, Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805, Jefferson the President: Second Term, 1805-1809, Jefferson and His Time: The Sage of Monticello. Boston: Little,. Brown, 1948-81. This set of volumes comprises a thorough, highly readable study of every aspect of Jefferson's life and thought. The author has sought out all the sources, has organized them into a coherent whole, and provides the reader with a sympathetic but critical view of Jefferson's achievements and foibles. The index to each volume is immensely helpful to anyone interested in pursuing any particular topic related to Jefferson's activities.

Matthews, Richard K. The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1986. A relatively short, lively study of some of Jefferson's most important and controversial ideas. Well worth reading.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999

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