Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826)

Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia planter and legal scholar, was principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He served as representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses 1769–1775, member of the Virginia House of Delegates 1775–1779, wartime governor of Virginia 1779–1781, member of Congress 1783–1784, Minister to France 1784–1789, Secretary of State under George Washington 1789–1793, Vice- President under John Adams 1797–1801, and as Third President of the United States, 1801–1809, during which he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the land area of the nation.

On his tombstone near his Virginia home, Monticello, however, which he designed and for which he wrote the inscription, there is no mention of the offices he held. Rather, it reads that Thomas Jefferson was ‘‘author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.’’

He authored many important writings. In 1774, he wrote a political pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which brought him attention beyond Virginia. Arguing on the basis of the natural rights theory of John Locke, Jefferson claimed that colonial allegiance to the king was voluntary. ‘‘The God who gave us life,’’ he wrote, ‘‘gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.’’

Jefferson was elected to the Second Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia. He was appointed on June 11, 1776, to head a committee of five in preparing the Declaration of Independence, but the others left the drafting to him. His initial draft was amended, after consultation with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, and was further altered by Congress, which struck Jefferson’s reference to the voluntary allegiance of colonists to the crown and a clause that censured the monarchy for imposing slavery on America.

While a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Jefferson introduced a number of bills that were resisted fiercely by conservative planters. In 1776, he succeeded in obtaining the abolition of entail. He proposed to abolish primogeniture, which eventually became law in 1785. Jefferson proudly noted that ‘‘these laws, drawn by myself, laid the ax to the foot of pseudoaristocracy.’’

Jefferson devised a major revision of the criminal code, although it was not enacted until 1796. His bill to create a free system of tax-supported elementary education for all except slaves was defeated, as were his bills to create a public library and to modernize the curriculum of the College of William and Mary.

In June 1779, Jefferson introduced a bill on religious liberty, which caused intense controversy in Virginia until it was adopted. No other state or nation at that time provided for complete religious freedom. The bill stated ‘‘that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions onmatters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.’’ Many Virginians considered the bill as an attack on Christianity. It did not pass until 1786, mainly through the perseverance of James Madison. Jefferson, by then in France, congratulated Madison, adding that ‘‘it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.’’

Jefferson discussed the bill in his 1821 Autobiography:

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word ‘‘Jesus Christ,’’ so that it should read, ‘‘a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;’’ the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.

While a member of Congress in 1784, as chairman of the committee on the government of western lands, Jefferson proposed an ordinance that provided that the western territories should be self-governing and, when they reached a certain stage of growth, should be admitted to the Union as full partners with the original thirteen states. Jefferson also proposed that slavery should be excluded from all of the American Western territories, including those that would become the southern states west of Georgia, after 1800. Although he himself was a slave owner, he believed that slavery was an evil that should not be permitted to spread. In 1784, the provision banning slavery was narrowly defeated. Had one representative, John Beatty of New Jersey, not been too ill to be present, the vote would have been different. ‘‘Thus,’’ Jefferson later reflected, ‘‘we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment.’’ Although Congress approved the amended ordinance of 1784, it was never put into effect. Its main features were incorporated, however, in the Ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory, in which slavery was prohibited.

As Minister to France, Jefferson sought commercial treaties with European nations, but only succeeded in getting a pact, drafted by him, with Russia. He complained in a letter that ‘‘They seemed, in fact, to know little about us.. . .They were ignorant of our commerce, and of the exchange of articles it might offer advantageously to both parties.’’ That letter is evidence that the word ‘‘commerce’’ originally meant only trade in tangible commodities.

Jefferson witnessed the beginnings of the French Revolution and even contributed to it by helping the Marquis de Lafayette draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which inspired the French republican movement. However, Jefferson foresaw that the French were not prepared to emulate the American Revolution and advised them to make more modest reforms.

Jefferson followed the ratification debates on the Constitution from France, and in letters to James Madison, urged him to propose a Bill of Rights, which seem to have helped overcome Madison’s initial opposition to doing so.

One of the most important of Jefferson’s writings was the draft of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, secretly written while he was Vice-President, which was unanimously adopted with minor modifications. It was followed a year later by the Kentucky Resolutions of 1799. They were part of an effort, in which James Madison joined, to oppose the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Their main point was that states should refuse to cooperate in the enforcement of unconstitutional acts of Congress, a doctrine called nullification. Its force relied on the fact that the central government depended heavily on state cooperation to enforce its laws. But in the 1798 Resolutions he also made the critical point that the Constitution contained only four delegations of criminal powers: treason, counterfeiting, piracy and felonies on the high seas, and offenses against the laws of nations. (He overlooked discipline of military and militia personnel in federal service, which includes criminal penalties.) His argument was that there was no power delegated to make sedition a crime. Although some states rejected the arguments for nullification, no one disputed that the delegated criminal powers were limited to those few. This is the key to understanding the commerce and necessary and proper clauses and why they do not authorize criminal powers.

Jefferson called his election in 1800 ‘‘the second American Revolution,’’ because it established the ‘‘doctrine of 1798’’ of constitutional interpretation represented by the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799, the Virginia Resolution of 1798, and the Virginia Report of 1800, the latter two of which were authored by Madison. His two successors, James Madison and James Monroe, continued that doctrine, and the period 1800–1824 is often called the ‘‘Jeffersonian Era’’ by historians.

Jefferson wrote in 1811 the Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which became the basis for the rules of procedure of Congress, and eventually of Robert’s Rules of Order, which have served to enable deliberative assemblies to be successful ever since. His longest work was Notes on Virginia, and he wrote numerous letters to others, most notably to John Adams, a former rival, using a pantograph to make a duplicate of his letters so that they would be preserved.

It would be difficult to adequately characterize Jefferson’s philosophy. It comes closest to what was called ‘‘liberalism’’ in the nineteenth century, and ‘‘classical liberalism’’ after that term was appropriated by the progressive movement, or to what we call ‘‘libertarianism’’ today, but we should recall his own rejection of such labeling. In a letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789, he wrote,

I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.

However, there is a persistent theme throughout his work and writings that any form of government control, not only of religion, but of individual mercantilism, without strictly construed constitutional authority, was tyranny.

This theme was expressed in a 1787 letter to Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams:

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.

In a letter to William Smith, Nov. 13, 1787, in which Jefferson expressed approval of Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts,

. . .god forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. . .the tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is natural manure. . . .What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them.

Although it reflects his views, the quote often attributed to Jefferson, ‘‘that government is best which governs least’’ has not been found anywhere in Jefferson’s recorded writings or speeches. It first saw print in 1837, in the editor’s introduction to the first issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review, and Henry David Thoreau later used it, without attribution, in ‘‘On Civil Disobedience.’’ Another quote often attributed to Jefferson, ‘‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’’ has also not been found.

Jefferson made many important contributions to religious liberty. He believed in a Creator, but his concept of it seems to have resembled the god of deism. His use in the Declaration of Independence of the terms ‘‘the laws of nature and of nature’s God’’ reflects terms commonly used by deists of the time. However, he was skeptical or opposed to many of the influences and practices of organized religion and their efforts to impose their doctrines on people or on the operations of government. He is often quoted on the subject from several letters. In one to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800, he stated,

They [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion, . . .

In his 1802 letter, as President, to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, he stated,

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

It was written to answer a letter from them, asking why he would not proclaim national days of fasting and thanksgiving, as had been done by Washington and Adams before him. In the letter he took the position that the First Amendment forbade not only financial support for religious organizations but also any indication of official support or preference for any religious position. This was a stronger interpretation than had previously been understood by many for the establishment clause and laid the basis for later Supreme Court decisions, beginning with the Everson case.

In a letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, Jefferson wrote,

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore us to the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.

Jefferson’s political views were influenced by many political philosophers and writers, especially John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Charles Montesquieu, Spirit of Laws, and the Scottish Enlightenment writers like David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Samuel Rutherforth, and Andrew Fletcher. His legal thinking was based on the common law ideas expressed by Edward Coke and the decisions of Lord Camden (Charles Pratt), called ‘‘Whig’’ at that time and opposed to the ‘‘Tory’’ ideas of William Blackstone and Lord Mansfield (William Murray), who divided on several issues, especially the role of the jury in deciding the law as well as the facts in bringing a general verdict, after hearing all arguments on law being made in their presence, a practice that has been abandoned in modern times. He was apparently an admirer of the reform ideas of the English Society for Constitutional Information, the suppression of the leaders of which, through prosecutions for criminal libel, sedition, and treason, inspired several of the provisions of the Bill of Rights. He also admired the English writer James Burgh, who called for reforms in parliamentary representation and recommended everyone read his Political Disquisitions.

In his later years some of his followers called on him to publish more complete guidance to the interpretation of the Constitution, but Jefferson declined, passing that duty to others such as John Taylor of Caroline, ‘‘Col. Taylor and myself have rarely, if ever, differed in any political principle of importance,’’ and expressed his approval of Taylor’s Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated as ‘‘the most logical retraction of our governments to the original and true principles of the Constitution creating them, which has appeared since the adoption of the instrument.’’

Toward the end of his life, however, Jefferson became increasingly concerned that the principles of the Revolution were not being preserved. In a letter to Spencer Roane, Sep. 6, 1819, Jefferson wrote:

. . .the pieces signed Hampden [from the Enquirer] . . . contain the true principles of the revolution of 1800, for that was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.. . .if I understand rightly your quotation from the Federalist, of an opinion that ‘‘the judiciary is the last resort in relation to the other departments of the government, but not in relation to the rights of the parties to the compact under which the judiciary is derived.’’. . .The constitution, on this hypothesis, is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist, and shape into any form they please.. . .My construction of the constitution is very different from that you quote. It is that each department is truly independent of the others, and has an equal right to decide for itself what is the meaning of the constitution in the cases submitted to its action;. . .

In a letter to William Johnson, June 12, 1823, he wrote:

On every question of construction [of the Constitution] let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or intended against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.


References and Further Reading

  • Bergh, Albert Ellery, ed. Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 19 vols. (1905).
  • Original Rough Draught of the Declaration of Independence. 
  • Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, 1789. http://www.
  • Manual of Parliamentary Practice. http://www.constitution. org/tj/tj-mpp.htm
  • Robert’s Rules of Order Revised—Online version of 1915 edition.–00.htm
  • See the draft and final versions of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, and the Kentucky Resolutions of 1799, in The Virginia Report, Ed. J.W. Randolph. http://www.constitution. org/rf/vr.htm
  • Wall of separation letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802. sep_church_state.htm
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947). ‘‘Mansfieldism Reconsidered’’, by Jon Roland, 2005. http://
  • ‘‘Presumption of Nonauthority and Unenumerated Rights’’, by Jon Roland, 2005. http://www.constitution. org/9ll/schol/pnur.htm

See also Federalization of Criminal Law


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