Thomas Jefferson (3462 words) Essay

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3d PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. As the author
of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious
Freedom, he is probably the most conspicuous champion of political and spiritual
freedom in his country’s history. He voiced the aspirations of the new nation in
matchless phrase, and one may doubt if any other American has been so often
quoted. As a public official–legislator, diplomat, and executive–he served the
province and commonwealth of Virginia and the young American republic almost 40
years. While his services as a Revolutionary patriot have beenhonored by his
countrymen with only slight dissent, his later and more controversial political
activities have been variously interpreted. Believing that the government was
not being conducted in the spirit of 1776, he turned against the administration
in WASHINGTON’s second term and remained in opposition during the presidency of
John ADAMS. Jefferson, who was president from 1801 to 1809, was the acknowledged
head of his political party, and his election to the highest office has been
interpreted as a vindication of the right of political opposition. His ELECTION
checked in the United States the tide of political reaction that was sweeping
the Western world, and it furthered the development of political democracy.

Throughout his life he sought to do that, though the term he generally used was
republicanism. Opinions differ about his conduct of foreign affairs as
president. He acquired the vast province of Louisiana and maintained neutrality
in a world of war, but his policies failed to safeguard neutral rights at sea
and imposed hardships at home. As a result, his administration reached its nadir
as it ended. Until his last year as president he exercised leadership over his
party that was to be matched by no other 19th century president, and he enjoyed
remarkable popularity. He was rightly hailed as the “Man of the
People,” because he sought to conduct the government in the popular
interest, rather than in the interest of any privileged group, and, insofar as
possible, in accordance with the people’s will. He was a tall and vigorous man,
not particularly impressive in person but amiable, once his original stiffness
wore off. He was habitually tactful and notably respectful of the opinions and
personalities of others, though he had slight tolerance of those he believed
unfaithful to republicanism. A devoted family man who set great store by
privacy, he built his house upon a mountain, but he did not look down on people.

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A distinguished architect and naturalist in his own right, a remarkable
linguist, a noted bibliophile, and the father of the University of Virginia, he
was the chief patron of learning and the arts in his country in his day. And,
with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin, he was the closest American
approximation of the universal man. Early Career Jefferson was born at Shadwell,
his father’s home in Albemarle county, Va., on April 13 (April 2, Old Style),
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. Peter’s son 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 the
province. 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 learned in the law. He
was admittedto the bar in 1767 and practiced until 1774, when the courts were
closed by the American Revolution. He was a successful lawyer, though his
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 (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 bills are the Bill for Establishing Religious
Freedom (adopted in 1786) and the Bill for the More General Diffusion of
Knowledge, which was never adopted as he drew it. 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 society. 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
British. 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 sympathized with this
attack and probably drafted the resolutions that were introduced by Rep. William
Branch Giles (Va.) and soundly defeated. A degree of unity was forced on the
president’s official family by the foreign crisis of 1793, which also caused
Jefferson to delay his retirement to the end of the year. Vice President During
a respite of three years from public duties, he began to remodel his house at
Monticello and interested himself greatly in agriculture, claiming that he had
wholly lost the “little spice of ambition” he had once had. He was
outraged by Washington’s attack on the Democratic societies, which were
identified with his party, and by what he regarded as the surrender to the
British in Jay’s Treaty, but at this stage he was playing little part in
politics. Nonetheless, he was supported by the Republicans for president in
1796, and, running second to John Adams by three ELECTORAL VOTES, he became VICE
PRESIDENT. His Manual of Parliamentary Practice (1801) was a result of his
experience as the presiding officer over the Senate. His papers on the extinct
megalonyx and on the moldboard of a plow invented by him attested to his
scientific interests and attainments. These papers were presented to the
American Philosophical Society, of which he became president in 1797. A private
letter of his to his friend Philip Mazzei, published that year, severely
criticized Federalist leaders and was interpreted as an attack on Washington.

Jefferson’s partisan activities increased during his vice presidency. He
deplored the FEDERALIST exploitation of a dangerous quarrel with France,
although Jefferson’s own sympathy with France had declined. The notorious Alien
and Sedition Acts were the principal cause of Jefferson’s disapproval of the
Adams administration. Jefferson’s grounds were both philosophical and partisan.

The historic Republican protest against laws that attempted to suppress freedom
of speech and destroy political opposition was made in the Kentucky and Virginia
resolutions (1798). Jefferson wrote the former, as James MADISON did the latter.

Jefferson’s authorship was not known at the time. In the Kentucky Resolutions he
carried his states’-rights doctrines to their most extreme point in his career.

In invoking the authority of the states against laws that he regarded as
unconstitutional, his resolutions were in the tradition that finally led to
nullification and secession. But they were also in the best tradition of civil
liberties and human rights. President: First Term Jefferson’s victory over John
Adams in the presidential election of 1800 can be partially explained by the
dissension among the Federalists, but the policies of the government were
unpopular, and as a party the Federalists were now much less representative of
the country than were the Republicans. Jefferson’s own title to the presidency
was not established for some weeks, because he was accidentally tied with his
running mate, Aaron BURR, under the workings of the original electoral system.

The election was thrown into the HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, where the Federalists
voted for Burr through many indecisive ballots. Finally, enough of them
abstained to permit the obvious will of the majority to be carried out.

Jefferson later said that the ousting of the Federalists and the accession of
his own party constituted a “revolution,” but that statement was
hyperbole. He was speaking of the principles of the government rather than of
its form, and his major concern was to restore the spirit of 1776. He regarded
himself as more loyal to the U. S. Constitution than his loose-constructionist
foes were, though in fact he was less a strict constructionist in practice than
in theory. Although he had objected to features of Hamilton’s financial system,
he had no intention of upsetting it now that it was firmly established. Instead,
the purpose he had in mind, and was to be highly successful in carrying out, was
to obviate some of the grave dangers he saw in the system by reducing the
national debt. Jefferson’s accession to the presidency is notable in American
history because it marked the first transfer of national authority from one
political group to another, and it is especially significant that, despite
Federalist obstructionism for a time, the transition was effected by peaceful
and strictly constitutional means. Jefferson himself emphasized this in his
conciliatory inaugural address. These events set a precedent of acquiescence in
the will of the majority. The new president described this as a “sacred
principle” that must prevail, but he added that, to be rightful, it must be
reasonable and that the rights of minorities must be protected. His accession
removed the threat of counterrevolution from his country. The government he
conducted, in its spirit of tolerance and humanity, was without parallel in his
world. His first term, most of it in a period of relative international calm,
was distinctly successful. He was the undisputed leader of a party that had
acquired cohesion during its years in opposition. In James Madison as secretary
of state and Albert Gallatin as secretary of the treasury, he had lieutenants of
high competence whom he treated as peers but whose loyalty to him bordered on
reverence. By virtually ruling himself out of the party, Vice President Aaron
Burr relieved Jefferson of a potential rival. Working through the Republican
leaders in Congress, whom he treated with the utmost respect, Jefferson
exercised influence on that body that was unexampled in previous presidential
history and was to be rarely matched in later administrations. Because of his
own commitment, and that of most of his countrymen, to the doctrine of division
of powers between the executive and legislative branches, his leadership, except
in foreign affairs, was indirect and generally unadmitted. He also shared with
most of his fellows a rather negative concept of the functions of the federal
government in the domestic sphere. The policy of economy and tax reduction that
the favorable world situation permitted him to follow served to reduce rather
than increase the burdens of his countrymen, and it contributed no little to his
popularity. Dispute with the Judiciary Jefferson restored the party balance in
the civil service, but he was relatively unsuccessful in his moves against the
judiciary, which had been reinforced by fresh Federalist appointees at the very
end of the Adams administration. In the eyes of Jefferson and the Republicans,
the federal judiciary constituted a branch of the opposing party and could be
expected to obstruct the administration in every possible way. He treated as
null and void late appointments by Adams that seemed of doubtful legality, and
the Republicans repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801 with his full approval. But
he was rebuked by Chief Justice John Marshall in the famous case of Marbury v.

Madison (1803) for withholding the commission of a late-hour appointee as
justice of the peace. The effort to remove partisan judges by impeachment was a
virtual failure, and the Federalists remained entrenched in the judiciary,
though they became less actively partisan. The Louisiana Purchase These partial
political failures were more than compensated by the purchase of Louisiana in
1803, the most notable achievement of Jefferson’s presidency.


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