Born in Albemarle County, Virginia, on April 13, 1743, and educated by private tutors (Anglican clergymen) and at William and Mary College, American statesman and political philosopher Thomas Jefferson completed his studies by reading law under George Wythe. He served as a lawyer for only a few years before devoting his life to maintaining a large Virginia plantation and to public service. As a delegate to the first Continental Congress he drafted the Declaration of Independence (establishing separate nationhood for the North American colonies formerly under the British Empire) before serving a term as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War and as minister to France thereafter. On returning to the United States Jefferson served as secretary of state under President George Washington, vice president, and finally as the third president of the United States. Near the end of his life he founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and served as its first rector. In 1815 Jefferson sold his private six-thousand-volume library to form the new Library of Congress. Jefferson died at his home, Monticello, on July 4, 1826.
For his ideals of human equality, agrarianism, democracy of the common people, public education, civil religion based on the ethics of Jesus Christ, freedom of speech and press, economic opportunity, individualism, and an aristocracy of merit, Jefferson is considered an American icon who embodied and expressed the essential American ethos. Consequently his legacy has been claimed by all manner of persons, movements, and political parties of every ideological stripe. As Merrill Peterson notes in his book The Jeffersonian Image in the American Mind (1960), Jefferson and his ideals have been appropriated by almost every generation for a wide variety of causes, from Jacksonian populism to Theodore Roosevelt's continental expansionism to Franklin D. Roosevelt's liberal New Deal to Ronald Reagan's conservatism. Jefferson's exhaustive correspondence and public writing have provided quotations supporting everything from democratic socialism to laissez-faire capitalism, from radical revolution to traditional moral values. Many scholars attribute this to intellectual inconsistency or historical context, but one may nonetheless identify a core Jeffersonian philosophy stemming from the ideas of John Locke, Aristotle, Cicero, Scottish moral sense theory, and Christian ethics.
Jefferson's conception of humans as “free, equal, and independent” (derived from Locke's Second Treatise of Government) enjoins individual liberty and limited consensual government. This applies, for Jefferson, primarily to the national or central government, whose purpose is foreign relations. But for local and state government, he conceives of people as naturally social, requiring political participation for human fulfillment and maintenance of a just social order. Along the lines of the classical Republican Greek polis, as described by Aristotle, Jefferson wished to divide Virginia into ward districts of four to five square miles (10 to 13 sq km) and a few hundred citizens, which would be self-governing in many local concerns (police, welfare, roads, and so on). This “small republic,” as he called it, would allow every citizen to participate in some area of rule, encouraging public competence and confidence. From these smallest political communities would be elected representatives at the larger governmental levels (county, state, and nation). This Jeffersonian conception of American federalism with its faith in the common citizen and reasoned democracy contrasts with the more cautious Madisonian model based on checks and balances thwarting personal ambition and group tyranny. In this and other areas (notably religion), Jefferson's view provides the archetypical American “optimism,” which sees human beings as basically good (rather than essentially sinful and depraved, as traditional American Calvinism presented human nature) if educated, prosperous, and free to order their affairs as they please. Given public education, fair economic opportunity, unrestricted democratic involvement, freedom of religion teaching the ethical doctrines of Christianity, and free international trade, the United States could expect, according to Jefferson, a future of peace, progress, and harmony.
His plan for public education, which he proposed for Virginia in 1779, provided for free, compulsory elementary education for all children regardless of “wealth, birth, or other accidental condition.” His curriculum was decidedly secular for the time, emphasizing science, ancient and modern history and languages, classical literature, and economics. Educational advancement was to be determined by impartial examinations allowing intellectually gifted but poor children to advance through the university at public expense. This would provide equal economic opportunity and public service regardless of class background and forms the continuing American idea that public education breaks down economic class barriers, allowing anyone to succeed regardless of family, ethnic, or religious origin. The Democratic Party has advanced public aid to education largely through this conception of its service to economic opportunity (as shown in John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, 1971).
However, in economic matters Jefferson favored agrarianism or the belief that agriculture (and farmers) should form the basis of the American economic system, with industry and commerce being secondary. Jefferson loved the countryside, hated cities, and once called farmers “the chosen people of God” for their moral virtue, political honesty, and independence. The agrarian life was more healthy and democratic for Jefferson because it fostered freedom and economic self-sufficiency. A nation of farmers would preserve a prosperous, virtuous republic, in Jefferson's view. Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964) shows the continuing influence of Jefferson's agrarian ideal of American culture. Its ambiguity is shown both in Jefferson's own technological inventiveness and his acceptance later in life that an independent American economy must balance agriculture, manufacturing, and trade. Similarly, Jefferson's earlier policy of national isolationism (actually cutting off all international trade through the Embargo Act in his second presidential term) was modified as he saw the need for international commerce to ensure American prosperity. His advocacy of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 effectively doubled the size of the United States and extended Jefferson's hope for an “empire of liberty” across the Americas.
Jefferson was a strong advocate of intellectual liberty and therefore of freedom of speech, press, and religion. Human material, social, and moral progress requires an atmosphere of freedom and toleration. “Truth is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless … disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate.” According to Jefferson, press censorship leads to political tyranny while a free marketplace of ideas will eventually distill the truth. He personally experienced exaggeration and falsehood in the newspapers of his day but insisted that censorship would “suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty.” Academic freedom was equally important to Jefferson, declaring at his new University of Virginia that “here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
His advocacy of religious freedom, or liberty of conscience in matters of faith, was expressed in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which proposed ending the official Anglican (state) Church in Virginia and allowing complete freedom of individual conscience in religious matters. Jefferson wrote that “Almighty God hath created the mind free … all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens … tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion.” Jesus provided “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which ever has been offered to man,” exclaimed Jefferson. Raised in a Christian environment, he espoused Unitarian views after the early death of his wife and his sojourn in France; but his friend Benjamin Rush claimed that Jefferson returned to an orthodox Christian faith late in life. His conception of religious freedom was of competing denominations that would distill the simple ethical teachings of Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount), which would inculcate a general Christian culture in America (as, Alexis de Tocqueville reported in his Democracy in America, occurred by the mid-nineteenth century). Jefferson was an avid reader of the Bible, supported churches of every denomination, edited a version of the gospels (The Life and Morals of Jesus) for use by Native Americans, enjoyed sacred music, and filled his home with paintings of religious themes. He felt, however, that aligning religion with the government would corrupt the church: “ Millions of innocent men, women, and children … have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned” by state-sanctioned churches, defaming the truth and spirit of Jesus Christ. For his opposition to state support of religion he was criticized by those denominations (Episcopal and Presbyterian) that favored state support but praised by those churches (Baptist, Evangelical) that wanted religious freedom. Consequently many evangelical Christians became active in Jefferson's Democratic Party. Jefferson is considered the father of the American Democratic Party both for its democratic ideals and for the elaborate national and states' party organization he formed prior to his election to the presidency in 1801.
Jefferson is often criticized for not living up to his ideals of freedom and equality, especially in his relations to African Americans and women. He held explicitly racist views of blacks' inferiority to whites, yet he opposed slavery as a moral evil (while owning hundreds of black slaves himself). Expressing tremendous anxiety and guilt over slavery in America, Jefferson wrote that “ I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” and would punish America for the sin of slavery. Yet he did not know how to end the institution, claiming that “we have the wolf by the ears, and can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” He hoped for an eventual emancipation of black slaves and their resettlement in Africa. He foreshadowed continued racial tension in America. About women Jefferson held traditional eighteenth-century Virginia-gentry attitudes that they were suited by nature for domestic “attentions” and ought not to work outside the home, especially in politics.
Political leadership for Jefferson belongs properly to a “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents” bred through public education and political democracy, selected by an intelligent, moral citizenry. In the end, Thomas Jefferson is remembered as the embodiment of liberal American ideals who lived to see most of those ideals fall into question. He died bankrupt, causing his family to lose their home at Monticello. Still, Jefferson's ideas represent the hope, optimism, idealism, and decency of American culture.
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