Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was born at Shadwell, his father's home in Albemarle county, Va., on April 13,
1743. His father, Peter Jefferson, a man of legendary strength, was a successful planter
and surveyor who gained minor title to fame as an explorer and mapmaker. His prominence in
his own locality is attested by the fact that he served as a burgess and as county
lieutenant. Jefferson later held the same offices. Through his mother, Jane Randolph, a
member of one of the most famous Virginia families, Thomas was related to many of the most
prominent people in Virginia.

Besides being well born, Thomas Jefferson was well educated. In small private schools,
notably that of James Maury, he was thoroughly grounded in the classics. He attended the
College of William and Mary--completing the course in 1762--where Dr. William Small taught
him mathematics and introduced him to science. He associated intimately with the
liberal-minded Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier, and read law (1762-1767) with George Wythe, the
greatest law teacher of his generation in Virginia.

Jefferson became unusually good at law. He was admitted to the bar in 1767 and practiced
until 1774, when the courts were closed by the American Revolution. He was a successful
lawyer, though professional income was only a supplement. He had inherited a considerable
landed estate from his father, and doubled it by a happy marriage on Jan. 1, 1772, to
Martha Wayles Skelton However, his father-in-law's estate imposed a burdensome debt on
Jefferson. He began building Monticello before his marriage, but his mansion was not
completed in its present form until a generation later.

Jefferson's lifelong emphasis on local government grew directly from his own experience.
He served as magistrate and as county lieutenant of Albemarle county. Elected to the House
of Burgesses when he was 25, he served there from 1769 to 1774, showing himself to be an
effective committeeman and skillful draftsman, though not an able speaker.

The Revolutionary Era

From the beginning of the struggle with the mother country, Jefferson stood with the more
advanced Patriots, grounding his position on a wide knowledge of English history and
political philosophy. His most notable early contribution to the cause of the Patriots was
his powerful pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America (made in 1774),
originally written for presentation to the Virginia convention of that year. In this he
emphasized natural rights, including that of emigration, and denied parliamentary
authority over the colonies, recognizing no tie with the mother country except the king.

As a member of the Continental Congress (1775-1776), Jefferson was chosen in 1776 to draft
the Declaration of Independence. He summarized current revolutionary philosophy in a brief
paragraph that has been regarded ever since as a charter of American and universal
liberties. He presented to the world the case of the Patriots in a series of burning
charges against the king. In the light of

modern scholarship some of the charges require modification. But there is a timeless
quality in the philosophical section of the Declaration, which proclaims that all men are
equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that government is the
servant, not the master, of human beings. The Declaration alone would entitle Jefferson to
enduring fame.

Desiring to be closer to his family and also hoping to translate his philosophy of human
rights into legal institutions in his own state, Jefferson left Congress in the autumn of
1776 and served in the Virginia legislature until his election as governor in 1779. This
was the most creative period of his revolutionary statesmanship. His earlier proposals for
broadening the electorate and making the system of representation more equitable had
failed, and the times permitted no action against slavery except that of shutting off the
foreign slave trade. But he succeeded in ridding the land system of feudal vestiges, such
as entail and primogeniture, and he was the moving spirit in the disestablishment of the
church. In 1779, with George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton, he drew a highly significant
report on the revising of the laws. His most famous single bill is the Bill for
Establishing Religious Freedom (adopted in 1786). His fundamental purposes were to destroy
artificial privilege of every sort, to promote social mobility, and to make way for the
natural aristocracy of talent and virtue, which should provide leadership for a free

As governor from 1779 to 1781, Jefferson had little power, and he suffered inevitable
discredit when the British invaders overran Virginia. An inquiry into his conduct during
his last year in office was voted by the legislature after his retirement in June 1781. He
was fully vindicated by the next legislature, but these charges were afterward exaggerated
by political enemies, and he was hounded by them to some extent throughout his national
career. The most important immediate effect of his troubles was to create in his own mind
a distaste for public life that persisted in acute form until the death of his wife on
Sept. 6, 1782, which reconciled him to a return to office. He also acquired an aversion to
controversy and censure from which he never wholly recovered. During this brief private
interval (1781-1783) he began to compile his Notes on the State of Virginia, which was
first published when he was in France (1785). This work was described at the time by
competent authority as "a most excellent natural history not merely of Virginia but of
North America." Undertaken in response to a series of queries by the secretary of the
French legation, it was ostensibly an account of the resources, productions, government,
and society of a single state. But it spanned a continent and contained reflections on
religion, slavery, and the Indians. It afterward appeared in many editions and was the
literary foundation of his deserved reputation as a scientist.

In the Continental Congress (1783-1784), Jefferson's most notable services were connected
with the adoption of the decimal system of coinage, which later as secretary of state he
tried vainly to extend to weights and measures, and with the Ordinance of 1784. Though not
adopted, the latter foreshadowed many features of the famous Ordinance of 1787, which
established the Northwest Territory. Jefferson went so far as to advocate the prohibition
of slavery in all the territories.

Minister to France

Jefferson's stay in France (1784-1789), where he was first a commissioner to negotiate
commercial treaties and then Benjamin Franklin's successor as minister, was in many ways
the richest period of his life. He gained genuine commercial concessions from the French,
negotiated an important consular convention in 1788, and served the interests of his own
weak government with diligence and skill. He was confirmed in his opinion that France was
a natural friend of the United States, and Britain at this stage a natural rival, and thus
his foreign policy assumed the orientation it was to maintain until the eve of the
Louisiana Purchase. The publication of his book on Virginia symbolized his unofficial
service of information to the French. His services to his own countrymen were exemplified
by the books, the seeds and plants, the statues and architectural models, and the
scientific information that he sent home. His stay in Europe contributed greatly to that
universality of spirit and diversity of achievement in which he was equaled by no other
American statesman, except possibly Franklin.

Toward the end of his mission he reported with scrupulous care the unfolding revolution in
France. His personal part in it was slight, and such advice as he gave was moderate.
Doubting the readiness of the people for self-government of the American type, he now
favored a limited monarchy for France, and he cautioned his liberal friends not to risk
the loss of their gains by going too fast. Though always aware of the importance of French
developments in the worldwide struggle for greater freedom and happiness, he tended to
stress this more after he returned home and perceived the dangers of political reaction in
his own country. Eventually he was repelled by the excesses of the French Revolution, and
he thoroughly disapproved of it when it passed into an openly imperialistic phase under
Napoleon. But insofar as it represented a revolt against despotism, he continued to
believe that its spirit could never die.

Because of his absence in Europe, Jefferson had no direct part in the framing or
ratification of the Constitution Of The United States, and at first the document aroused
his fears. His chief objections were that it did not expressly safeguard the rights of
individuals, and that the unlimited eligibility of the president for reelection would make
it possible for him to become a king. He became sufficiently satisfied after he learned
that a bill of rights would be provided and after he reflected that there would be no
danger of monarchy under George Washington.

Secretary of State

Although his fears of monarchical tendencies remained and colored his attitude in later
partisan struggles, it was as a friend of the new government that he accepted Washington's
invitation to become secretary of state.

During Jefferson's service in this post from 1790 to 1793, Alexander Hamilton, secretary
of the treasury, defeated the movement for commercial discrimination against Britain,
which Jefferson favored. Hamilton, also, connived with the British minister George Hammond
to nullify Jefferson's

efforts in 1792 to gain observance of the terms of peace from the British, and especially
to dislodge them from the northwest posts. Jefferson's policy was not pro-French, but it
seemed anti-British. Hamilton was distinctly pro-British, largely for financial reasons,
and he became more so when general war broke out in Europe and ideology was clearly
involved. In 1793, Jefferson wanted the French Revolution to succeed against its external
foes, but he also recognized that the interests of his own country demanded a policy of
neutrality. Such a policy was adopted, to the dissatisfaction of many strong friends of
democracy in America, and was executed so fairly as to win the reluctant praise of the

Jefferson was greatly embarrassed by the indiscretions of the fiery French minister,
Edmond Charles Genet, who arrived in Washington in the spring of 1793, but he skillfully
brought about Genet's recall and avoided a breach with the revolutionary government of his
country. Jefferson helped Hamilton gain congressional consent to the assumption of state
debts, for which the location of the federal capital on the Potomac was the political
return. His growing objections to the Hamiltonian financial system were partly owing to
his belief that the treasury was catering to commercial and financial groups, not
agricultural, but he also believed that Hamilton was building up his own political power
by creating ties of financial interest and was corrupting Congress. The issue between the
two secretaries was sharply joined by 1791, when the Bank of the United States was
established. They gave to the president their rival interpretations of the Constitution in
this connection. The victory at the time and in the long run was with Hamilton's doctrine
of liberal construction, or interpretation, of the Constitution and his assertion of broad
national power. But Jefferson's general distrust of power and his reliance on basic law as
a safeguard have enduring value.

By late 1792 or 1793 the opponents of Hamiltonianism constituted a fairly definite
national party, calling itself Republican. Jefferson's recognized leadership of this group
can be more easily attributed to his official standing and his political philosophy than
to his partisan activities. In the summer and autumn of 1792, by means of anonymous
newspaper articles, Hamilton sought to drive Jefferson from the government. The alleged
justification was the campaign being waged against Hamilton by the editor of the National
Gazette, Philip Freneau. Jefferson had given Freneau minor employment as a translator for
the State Department, but he claimed that he never brought influence to bear on him, and
there is no evidence that he himself wrote anything for the paper. But he had told
Washington precisely what he thought of his colleague's policies, and had already said
that he himself wanted to get out of the government.

Early in 1793 the Virginians in Congress vainly sought to drive Hamilton from office or at
least to rebuke him sharply for alleged financial mismanagement. Jefferson undoubtedly
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