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Thomas Jefferson was the penman of the American Revolution. The author of The Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States did more than any other single person to create the characteristic language of the new American experiment in representative democracy. He gave clear, definitive articulation to the concept of natural (as distinguished from civil) rights, to the ideas of both civil and religious liberty, to the concept of minimal government, and to the preference for a rural agricultural citizenry over urban industrialism. Perceiving the need for an educated citizenry if democracy were to work, he advocated an aristocracy of virtue and talent over the ”tinsel aristocracy” of inherited wealth and privilege. Jefferson was also an early advocate for the development of a specifically American English. He was a major spokesman in the eighteenth-century revival of the Greek and Roman ethical thought of the Stoic and Epicurean schools, making the ideas and language of those schools a part of subsequent American values and language. Important as an early writer against a state-established church, he was also a key figure in the revolt against Calvinism that took place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, replacing the dogmas of damnation and predestination with an enlightenment faith in human nature and progress through education and free will.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Education through Experience
Jefferson’s early years were spent at Tuckahoe on the James River, not far from Richmond, Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a self made man. Jefferson’s mother, Jane Randolph, came from an influential Virginia family. From the age of nine, Jefferson attended parish schools. His admiration for the classics, especially for the tradition of Greek and Roman ethical thought, dates from this early schooling. In March 1760, at the age of sixteen, he entered the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg. Upon his arrival, Jefferson studied under Dr. William Small, a professor of natural philosophy and rhetoric. It was Small, said Jefferson, who ”probably fixed the destinies of my life.” Small introduced Jefferson to Governor Francis Fauquier and George Wythe, a renowned instructor of law. In 1762, the nineteen-year-old Jefferson began the study of law with Wythe. His education was therefore entirely American and entirely local. He was twenty-three before he ever made a trip out of Virginia. At twenty-four, Jefferson was admitted to the bar; at twenty-five (in 1768) he was elected to the Virginia Assembly. In the same year he began work on what would be his lifelong home, Monticello.
Drafts the Declaration of Independence
Jefferson made his first substantial contribution to political literature in 1774 with A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jefferson wrote this twenty-three-page pamphlet in response to the English closure of the port of Boston in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party. Dumas Malone says Jefferson’s pamphlet ”gained wider currency than any other writing of his that was published during the Revolution except the Declaration.” It is a major articulation of the idea of natural rights, that is, that people have certain rights simply by virtue of being people, rights prior and superior to any rights created by civil law. This impassioned and forcefully written philosophical preliminary to the more celebrated Declaration of Independence also contains Jefferson’s legal argument for denying the authority of the English Parliament over the colonies.
Elected in 1775 to the Continental Congress, Jefferson, now thirty-two, arrived in Philadelphia with what John Adams called ”a reputation for literature, science and a happy talent of composition.” Returning to the second session in 1776, he was appointed to a five-man committee charged with drawing up a formal declaration of independence from Great Britain. Jefferson alone was asked to prepare the first draft. This version underwent heated debate; some changes were made, but the resulting document, passed by Congress July 4, 1776, was almost entirely the work of Jefferson. The ideas in it owe much to others, but Jefferson was not striving for originality. The Declaration of Independence was intended to give plain, emphatic, and above all persuasive expression to a group of generally held ideas about the natural rights belonging to all human beings, the revocable contract that underlies all government, and the right of the people to revolution whenever government becomes destructive of the ends for which it is instituted, namely the individual person’s right to ”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The cadences of this document—”We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”—became the fundamental expression of the ideals and values underlying the American democratic experiment. Jefferson’s lasting achievement in the Declaration of Independence was summed up by Abraham Lincoln, who described Jefferson as ”the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”
Elected Governor of Virginia
In 1779 Jefferson, then thirty-six, was elected governor of Virginia. As a war governor for the next three years, he was adequate if not brilliant. During his first year in that office, he ratified the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. Though intended originally only for Virginia and not passed there until 1786, Jefferson himself believed the act was one of the central achievements of his career, for it codified the novel American experiment in separating church and state. Based, like the declaration of 1776, on the assumption that people have natural rights, the religious freedom act appeals beyond all institutions, sacred and secular, to recognize the individual conscience as the last, highest court of appeal. In preferring individual conscience to civil or religious authority, Jefferson marks the turn away from the America of Jonathan Edwards (a theologian noted for his severity) toward that of Emerson, Thoreau, and William James.
Toward the close of his busy, war-beset term as governor, Jefferson assembled his Notes on the State of Virginia, his only original full-length book. With little formal unity, Notes on the State of Virginia has nevertheless a profound thematic center in Jefferson’s love for his native Virginia. The book is important for its scientific presentation and its expression of Enlightenment ideals. By far its least fortunate portion is Jefferson’s account of blacks as inferior to whites, even though he also argued for emancipation of slaves.
On September 6, 1782, when Jefferson was thirty-nine, his wife Martha died, leaving him with three daughters, including an infant who had been born the previous May and would die in September 1784. The loss affected Jefferson deeply and it was only made worse in that it coincided with the intensification of the war with England and the end of his troubled governorship.
In 1784 Jefferson drew up a ”Report of Government for the Western Territories,” outlining conditions for the creation of new states. Growing out of Virginia’s effort to find an acceptable way to cede its territory west of the Ohio, Jefferson’s anti-imperialist draft provided that all new states were to be politically equal to the original thirteen, that any person with a hereditary title must forfeit it before becoming a citizen, that any new state must remain part of the union ”forever,” and that there would be no slavery in any new state after 1800. Congress deleted the last two provisions of this farsighted report, which, had it been passed in its original form, might have prevented the Civil War.
In 1787, Jefferson was named one of the American Commissioners in Paris, appointed to look after American business interests in Europe. The next year, he was appointed to succeed Benjamin Franklin as American Minister to France. Jefferson spent four years in Paris. France was edging toward revolution; it was an immensely exciting time. Despite persistent shortages of funds, he loved Paris and reveled in its life.
Years in Office
In 1789, as the French Revolution was beginning and George Washington was elected first president of the United States, the forty-six-year-old Jefferson returned to America, where he was appointed Secretary of State, a post he would occupy till 1793. Now began the twenty-year period of Jefferson’s almost complete immersion in politics. After a short hiatus at Monticello, he was Vice President from 1797 to 1801, and from 1801 to 1809 he served two terms as President. His administration was noted for the Louisiana Purchase (1803), for the war against the Algerian pirates (1801-1805), American expansion westward, and the prohibition of the importation of slaves (1806). Despite the manifold responsibilities of office, Jefferson maintained his many intellectual and artistic interests. At some point between 1791 and 1802 he translated the first twenty chapters of Constantine Volney’s celebrated Ruins; or Meditations on the Revolution of Empires (1791). This minor masterpiece of romantic skepticism is a full-scale attack on institutionalized religion; it surveys the major ones, noting the claim of each to possess the only truth. Jefferson’s conclusion was that it was better to believe nothing than to believe what was not true.
Jefferson and Adams
In 1809, aged sixty-six, Jefferson reached the end of his second term as President and retired to Monticello. Here he soon resumed his friendship with John Adams, with whom he had differed on political issues, and their lengthy, wide-ranging correspondence is one of the great achievements of American letters. They discussed a vast array of subjects with verve, wit, and learning. In some ways the letter was Jefferson’s ideal literary form.
Religion and ethics continued to interest him, and Adams’s own eager and informed curiosity about such matters was a fresh encouragement. In 1813 Jefferson wrote to Adams, comparing the ethics of the Old Testament with those of the New, concluding that we need to remove from the New Testament everything except ”the very words only of Jesus,” leaving out all the miracles and interpretations. The demythologized result would be, he thought, ”the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Thus was conceived the celebrated ”Jefferson Bible” (usually known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, first published in 1904).
But it was education even more than religion that was, in James Bryant Conant’s words, ”Jefferson’s main pre-occupation in the last ten years of his life.” In 1817 one of Jefferson’s longest-cherished ideas became a reality with the founding of the University of Virginia. Jefferson himself wrote the report setting forth its aim and curricula the following year.
For all the clarity of his thought, Jefferson remains a paradoxical figure. He gave us the idea of the West, yet he never went west himself. He distrusted cities, but loved Paris, and he habitually linked agricultural life with virtue, but overlooked the fact that in the American South, slaves did the labor that made such a life possible. He is one of the great modern spokesmen for individual liberty, yet he held many slaves. He was an aristocrat, yet an egalitarian and a democrat. But in the end, Jefferson correctly estimated his own major contributions. The driving forces of his life had been his belief in freedom from political and religious tyranny and the absolute necessity of education for a people who wished to be free. On his grave marker, therefore, he wanted the following ”and not a word more” engraved: ”Here lies Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.” He died on July 4,1826, on the same day as John Adams—the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Works in Literary Context
From a literary standpoint, Jefferson’s style and themes are rooted in classical tradition. From about 1764 to about 1772, Jefferson compiled a notebook, published only in 1928 as The Literary Bible of Thomas Jefferson. Filled with his favorite quotations from Greek, Latin, and English writers, this notebook reveals the early Jefferson already absorbed by ideas, particularly ethical ideas, in literature. He clearly valued Homer, Cicero, and others for what they could teach him about how to live. From The Literary Bible it is clear that Jefferson was far more strongly impressed by Greek and Roman ethical thought than by Christianity.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that began in Europe and spread to America in time for the Revolutionary War. Enlightenment ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humankind were synthesized into a world view that gained wide assent and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which the individual understands the universe and improves the human condition. Thomas Jefferson embraced reason to challenge ignorance, as we see in many of his notes and reports that were disseminated to the public. The goals of the rational individual were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness. Such an ideology is the foundation of Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionary works, specifically the Declaration of Independence, which was crucial to the formation of the United States.
Works in Critical Context
Jefferson is best known as a revered statesman whose belief in natural rights, equality, individual liberties, and self-government found its fullest expression in the Declaration of Independence. As the Declaration demonstrates, Jefferson was also a skilled writer noted for his simple yet elegant prose. Through the clear and persuasive articulation of the revolutionary political philosophy of an emerging nation, Jefferson profoundly influenced the direction of American politics, inspiring generations of Americans.
The Declaration of Independence
Although debate continues to this day over the exact circumstances of its composition, most historians agree that Jefferson wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence during June 1776; that he then submitted it to two committee members, Adams and Benjamin Franklin; and that they suggested minor changes before sending it to Congress. The delegates debated its text line by line for two and a half days and adopted it on July 4, 1776. Despite changes made by members of Congress, Jefferson is generally credited with authorship of the Declaration.
In addition to its significance as a political manifesto, the Declaration is an important literary text, and Jefferson employed various structural and stylistic elements to enhance his political message. The Declaration consists of four parts: the opening paragraph, which introduces the purpose of the document; the second paragraph, the best-known segment, which outlines the political philosophy of the American Revolution; the third part, which lists twenty-eight grievances against King George III and enumerates the specific causes for rebellion; and the closing paragraph, which declares independence from Great Britain. The Declaration is said to possess a high degree of structural unity, for all of its parts contribute to a single idea: that the colonists were not rebelling against an established authority, but were instead maintaining their rights against a usurping king. Among other literary devices, Jefferson used sharply contrasting styles to further his purpose. The opening and closing paragraphs are marked by a cadenced, majestic style depicting the colonists as passively and submissively awaiting their fate, while the grievances are characterized by a crisp, incisive style describing the king as an aggressive force over the colonists. Many critics have recognized the influence of the Enlightenment writers on Jefferson’s prose, praising its clarity, subtlety, persuasiveness, eloquence, and above all, its distinctiveness. Thus, Jefferson is revered for creating the foremost literary work of the American Revolution and the single most important political document in American history.
- Bernstein, R.B. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Ellis, Joseph. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
- Ferris, Jeri. Thomas Jefferson: Father of Liberty. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1998.
- Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
- Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1997.
- Peterson, Merrill. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Vidal, Gore. Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004.
- Jewett, Thomas O. ”Thomas Jefferson: Father of Invention.” Early American Review (Winter 2000).
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