Saturday, October 19, 2013

Thomas Jefferson as Neighbor and Friend

By: J. David Gowdy

Much has been written about Thomas Jefferson as a revolutionary leader, President, and statesman, etc., but what was he like at home – as a neighbor, and as a friend?  “Jefferson was remarkably persistent in his efforts to consolidate a ‘society of friends and neighbors’ near Monticello. As early as the 1760s, he tried to convince friends of the necessity of proximity for the enjoyment of ‘philosophical evenings.’ To render such evenings more palatable, Jefferson helped introduce Italian wines and vegetables to the neighborhood in 1773 by giving Phillip Mazzei 193 acres of land contiguous to Monticello and subscribing to his ‘Wine Company.’ Mazzei named his farm ‘Colle,’ and purchased about 700 more acres by 1778. Francis Alberti, Jefferson's violin teacher in Williamsburg, also moved to Albemarle County at Jefferson's urging and taught music as well as dancing to family members and local youth, including James Madison.” (“Monticello Neighborhood,” at

In 1786, while away from his beloved Monticello in Paris, Thomas Jefferson wrote his feelings about the duties and blessings of friendship to a dear new acquaintance and friend:

A friend dies or leaves us: we feel as if a limb was cut off. He is sick: we must watch over him, & participate of his pains. His fortune is shipwrecked; ours must be laid under contribution. He loses a child, a parent, or a partner: we must mourn the loss as if it were our own…

And what more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven hath smitten! To watch over the bed of sickness, & to beguile its tedious & its painful moments! To share our bread with one to whom misfortune has left none! This world abounds indeed with misery: to lighten its [burden] we must divide it with one another…

For assuredly nobody will care for him who cares for nobody. But friendship is precious, not only in the shade but in the sunshine of life; and thanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine. (Letter to Maria Cosway, 1786)

Later in life, he wrote about his daily routine that included time each evening for his neighbors and friends: “My mornings are devoted to correspondence, from breakfast to dinner I am in my shops, my garden, or on horseback among my farms. From dinner to dark I give to society and recreation with my neighbors and friends, and from candlelight to early bedtime, I read…I talk of ploughs and harrows, of seeding and harvesting, with my neighbors, and of politics, too, if they choose, with as little reserve as the rest of my fellow citizens, and feel, at length, the blessing of being free to say and do what I please, without being responsible for it to any mortal. A part of my occupation, and by no means the least pleasing, is the direction of the studies of such young men as ask it. They place themselves in the neighboring village, and have the use of my library and counsel, and make a part of my society.” (Letter to Thaddeus Kosciusko, Feb. 2, 1810).

Two of Thomas Jefferson’s closest friends were James Madison and John Adams. Jefferson and Madsion probably met in May 1776 while serving together in the Virginia House of Delegates. Becoming probably Jefferson’s closest friends, James and his wife Dolley, had their own guest room, the “Madsion room,” at Monticello to accommodate their regular visits.  Their home at Montpelier was only 28 miles away – a day’s journey in the 18th century.  Jefferson and Madsion’s common passion for human equality and liberty was shared and nurtured between them, to the benefit of our young nation, the rest of their lives. Their joint collaboration produced the landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as well as the establishment of the University of Virginia.

The close friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams began when they met at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia. “Although different in many ways down to their appearance, the two developed a strong respect and liking for one another. In 1776, they worked together on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, and in 1784, Jefferson joined Adams in France on diplomatic service. While Jefferson remained in Paris, Adams served primarily in London, from where, Jefferson wrote Abigail Adams, he considered her "as my neighbor." …Through their work and play, Jefferson and the Adamses became close friends. Jefferson revealed his affection to James Madison, writing that Adams "is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him." Mrs. Adams once called Jefferson "one of the choice ones of the earth," and Mr. Adams wrote Jefferson that "intimate Correspondence with you . . . is one of the most agreeable Events in my Life." (“John Adams,” at

Jefferson and Adams became alienated through the political strife of party politics and the Presidential election of Jefferson in 1801. However, ten years later in 1811 their friendship was renewed through the efforts of their mutual friend, Benjamin Rush.  This significant occasion evidences the capacity of Jefferson’s heart for forgiveness and his willingness to set aside the “baneful spirit of party.” Adams may have been alluded to by Jefferson in this letter to Benjamin Rush, “I find friendship to be like wine, raw when new, ripened with age, the true old man's milk and restorative cordial.” (Letter to Benjamin Rush, August 17, 1811).  Their letters constitute a great treasure of political thought and practical wisdom (see: After fifteen years of resumed friendship and correspondence, on July 4, 1826, Jefferson and Adams died within hours of each other. Unaware that his friend had died hours earlier, Adams' family later recalled that his last spoken words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives.” 

Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s eldest grandson, wrote this tribute to his grandfather’s character, including his loyalty as a friend: “His moral courage [was of] of the highest order – his will firm and inflexible --- it was remarked of him that he never abandoned a plan, a principle, or a friend.” (quoted in Sarah N. Randolph, “The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson” (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1872), p. 338).  In addition to his role as an American Founding Father, Jefferson’s legacy as a good neighbor and loyal friend provides an example worthy of reflection and emulation.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident"

By: Paul Aron

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, following the instructions of the Virginia Convention, introduced a resolution at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”  The Continental Congress adopted Lee’s resolution and then appointed a committee of five – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert Livingston – to turn the resolution into a declaration of independence.  Adams took charge and promptly assigned Jefferson to write a draft. 

Jefferson did not want to do it.  He watched Lee depart for home and longed to follow him.  He was convinced that what was going on in Williamsburg, where the Convention’s delegates were drafting a constitution for the newly independent commonwealth, mattered more than what was going on in Philadelphia.  Jefferson had even written a draft constitution that he hoped the Convention would adopt. 

Jefferson suggested Adams should draft the Declaration himself.  Adams declined, giving several reasons:

One.  That he was a Virginian and I a Massachusettensian.  Two.  That he was a southern man and I a northern one.  Three.  That I had been so obnoxious for my early and constant zeal in promoting the measure, that any draft of mine, would undergo a more severe scrutiny and criticism in Congress, than one of his composition.  Fourthly and lastly that would be reason enough if there were no other, I had a great opinion of the elegance of his pen and none at all of my own. 

Adams' arguments, Jefferson had to admit, made sense.  Jefferson went to work and, a day or two later, produced a draft of what would become the Declaration of Independence. 

How he managed to write, in a matter of a day or two, the words that more than any others made America has been the subject of much debate.  Part of the answer is he didn’t start from scratch.  He had with him in Philadelphia, and he clearly drew from, his own previous writings, including his 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America, his 1775 “Declaration . . . Setting forth the Causes and Necessity of their taking up Arms,” and his draft of a constitution for Virginia.  He also had others’ recent works at hand, most notably a draft of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which was written by George Mason and adopted with amendments in the Virginia Convention.  Mason’s declaration opened by stating: “That all men hare born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”  Jefferson’s most famous words were clearly derived from Mason’s.

Jefferson also drew from works that he did not have at his side in Philadelphia.  He was familiar with the writings of seventeenth-century English writers, including John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and above all, John Locke, who set forth a doctrine of natural rights in his Second Treatise of Government.  He may also have drawn from Scottish philosophers, especially Francis Hutcheson. 

Jefferson submitted his draft to Adams and Franklin, who made a few changes, among them that the rights Jefferson had declared to be “sacred and undeniable” were instead “self-evident.”  The committee then sent the document on to the Congress, which made a total of eighty-six changes.  Most involved cutting (about a quarter of Jefferson’s text was eliminated), but the Congress also played with Jefferson’s language, for example changing “inherent and inalienable rights” to “certain inalienable rights.”  “Inalienable” later became “unalienable,” probably when the Declaration was printed.  Thus, the words in their most familiar form: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

But – with so many sources and so many editors – was the Declaration truly Jefferson’s? 

Adams, who was admittedly jealous of Jefferson, later wrote that there was “not an idea in it, but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before.”  Jefferson denied he had copied any other writing: “I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it,” he insisted in an 1823 letter to James Madison.  Jefferson did not deny, however, that the words of others, past and present, were on his mind.  Indeed, it would hardly have been possible to secure Congress’s support for independence had Jefferson’s words not been, as he put it in an 1825 letter to Henry Lee, “an expression of the American mind.” His purpose, he explained to Lee, had been “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.”  The Declaration’s authority, Jefferson rightly added, “rests . . . on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” 

To later generations of Americans, the most important principle pledged in the Declaration was that of equality.  Most famously, in his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln looked back four score and seven years ago to 1776, the year “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

Paul Aron is senior editor and writer for Colonial Williamsburg.  This essay is excerpted from We Hold These Truths and Other Words that Made America published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., in association with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2008, and used with permission. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Hamiltonian Presidency of Thomas Jefferson

The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute is excited to be launching a symposium on Thomas Jefferson this month.  We have invited many different brilliant historians and scholars to participate by contributing an original brief essay on founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Please enjoy the essays as they are published and continue the civic conversation about the principles and documents of the American founding, in this case, related to Thomas Jefferson, by sharing and discussing with your friends.  The following inaugural essay of the series, "The Hamiltonian Presidency of Thomas Jefferson," was written by Stephen F. Knott.

Thomas Jefferson characterized his election to the presidency as the “revolution of 1800,” an event that was “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of [17]76.” Twelve years of Federalist (or in the case of John Adams, neo-Federalist) government had betrayed the American Revolution with policies designed to favor British interests abroad and apply British governing principles at home. Jefferson promised to restore the spirit of 1776, prompting fears among the Federalists that Jefferson would destroy the fragile national institutions created since the adoption of the Constitution.

One prominent Federalist leader dissented from this view and predicted that Jefferson’s administration would be characterized by moderation and restraint. “If there be a man in the world I ought to hate it is Jefferson,” Alexander Hamilton noted, but he went on to urge Federalist members of Congress to support Jefferson’s selection over Aaron Burr in the disputed election of 1800. Jefferson, Hamilton believed, was far more principled than Burr, and would not dismantle the institutions built by the Federalists. According to Hamilton, Jefferson would act in a restrained manner as chief executive. This restraint was rooted in a calculation – a cold, political calculation – that caution, not zealotry, would be the key to maintaining his popularity. In Hamilton’s view, Jefferson was not “zealot enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity or his interest.  He is as likely as any man I know to temporize, to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which, being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it.”

Hamilton’s assessment of Jefferson turned out to be accurate, for Jefferson left Hamilton’s financial system in place, including the hated national bank of the United States. Much to the distress of the Old Republicans including die-hards such as John Randolph of Roanoke, Jefferson did not attempt to overturn the Judiciary Act of 1789, nor did he disband the navy, a move supported by the Old Republicans since navies were seen as tools of imperialism.  Jefferson appointed relatively moderate jurists to the Supreme Court and did not push for constitutional amendments limiting the power of judicial review or restricting the ability of the federal government to invoke “implied” constitutional powers to expand their authority.

In one important sense, however, Hamilton underestimated Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson’s rhetoric suggested that he would defer to the people and to their elected representatives in Congress, President Jefferson was very much an “energetic executive” of the type Hamilton celebrated in The Federalist Papers. This was particularly true in the arena of foreign and defense policy. The newly elected president went out of his way to appear to be acceding to the demands of Congress, all the while manipulating the legislature through his “hidden hand presidency.” One can see this at work in his celebrated Louisiana Purchase, and in his war with the Barbary Pirates, where the Sage of Monticello aggressively pursued these “nests of banditti” in the Mediterranean, providing great leeway to his naval commanders to take the offensive while assuring Congress that the navy was operating in a restrained, defensive manner. Jefferson even authorized the first covert operation designed to overthrow a foreign head of state (the Pasha of Tripoli) again with limited and at times disingenuous information provided to Congress. Jefferson spent unappropriated funds during the war scare with Great Britain in 1807 after the confrontation between the HMS Leopard and the USS Chesapeake, and he responded to the foremost national security crisis of his second term, the embargo of 1807-1809, in a “more draconian [manner] than anything attempted by British authorities throughout the years leading up to the American Revolution.”  Jefferson wanted to “crush” those American citizens who dared violate his embargo by running contraband across the border with Canada.

Jefferson’s presidency, ironically, presents a classic example of an energetic executive who formulated and implemented American foreign policy with little congressional input and no judicial involvement. Jefferson even went so far as to endorse the controversial notion of executive prerogative power in a manner that would have made Alexander Hamilton blush. Jefferson argued that in times of emergency the president could act where the law was silent, or in extreme cases, act against the law in the name of necessity. Jefferson noted in 1807, “on great occasions every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of the law,” and he added that there were “extreme cases where the laws become inadequate to their own preservation, and where the universal recourse is a dictator, or martial law.” For Jefferson, “a strict observance” of the rule of law was “one of the high duties of a good citizen” but it was not the highest duty. “The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of a higher obligation.” And, he added, in a lesson lost in our increasing legalistic, process obsessed nation, “to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”

Thomas Jefferson was an assertive president; the very type prescribed by Hamilton in The Federalist Papers. Granted, this fact is concealed beneath layers of Jeffersonian rhetoric, and obscured by the mythological accounts of Jefferson’s presidency promoted by historians with an agenda. The fact remains that despite their deep disagreement on many issues of their day, Jefferson and Hamilton shared a firm belief in the importance of an energetic executive.  

Stephen F. Knott is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and the author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (2002).