Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thomas Jefferson’s Political Thought: Part II, the Radicalism of Jefferson’s Political Ideas

By Tony Williams, WJMI Program Director

In my previous essay on Thomas Jefferson’s political thought, I explored the continuity in his dedication to the rights of man from the beginning of the American Revolution to his death.  This essay examines the radicalism in Jefferson’s political thought and the causes that shaped it. 

Jefferson believed in the equality of all humans with respect to their rights.  Setting aside the thorny question of the contradiction for several groups such as women, slaves, and Indians who were not actually enjoying all of those rights in 1776, Jefferson worked assiduously to destroy the inequalities that he believed plagued Virginia, Europe, and most of the world.  Clearly, the Declaration of Independence is his clearest statement of this belief in equality of all people in the natural rights of mankind.

A key corollary to equality for Jefferson was that of human freedom.  Like many French Enlightenment philosophes, Jefferson believed that individual perfectibility and social progress could only be achieved by liberating mankind from the shackles of tyranny in monarchy, in feudalism and aristocracy, and in religious traditions which burdened mankind with inequalities and ignorance.  When these institutions were destroyed, a new age of liberty and the rights of mankind would dawn. 

Evidence for this strain in Jefferson’s thought was seen in the 1770s and 1780s when he served on the committee to revise the legal code of Virginia and sought to tear down the vestiges of artificial privilege in the commonwealth.  He fought against primogeniture and entail to promote equality of property and opportunity as opposed to artificial and inherited aristocracy.  During this struggle, he wrote that the old laws that determined how land would be distributed worked for the benefit of the gentry and corrupted equality and republican virtue: “The transmission of this property from generation to generation . . . raised up a distinct set of families, who, being privileged by law in the perpetuation of their wealth, were thus formed into a Patrician order, distinguished by the splendor and luxury of their establishments.”  By revising the laws, Jefferson worked to “annul this privilege, and instead of an aristocracy of wealth . . . to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions, was deemed essential to a well-ordered republic.” 

In his failed 1778 “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” Jefferson wanted to use a rudimentary universal education for all boys and girls to further his goals of a natural aristocracy of talent and virtue and equality in society opposed to inherited inequality.   He also thought that the purpose of education in a republic was to enlighten the minds and cultivate the virtue of the people, to guard their natural rights, and to promote equality.  “It becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition.” 

Jefferson saw his “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” which was ably pushed through the VA Assembly for his friend, James Madison, as a victory for a free mind and the natural right of religious opinion against the spiritual tyranny of an established church in Virginia.  “All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities,” the new law declared.

In the late 1780s and 1790s, amidst the swirling chaos of events in Revolutionary France and the tensions in the new American nation, Jefferson’s thought became distinctly more radical.  He witnessed the extreme inequalities and privileges of monarchical, aristocratic France and conversed with many of its most important philosophes about radical Enlightenment political ideas.  The resulting radicalism is evident in statements such as, “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” or, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.  It is its natural manure.” 

Perhaps most radical was a letter Jefferson wrote to his friend James Madison in the months after the storming of the Bastille and the outbreak of the French Revolution which focused on the ideas that the “earth belongs to the living.”  Jefferson first posed the question of whether one generation may legally bind a future generation, and proposed the idea that property rights, obligation of debts, and even laws and constitutions were not perpetual and were confined to a single generation.  These radical ideas left his poor friend aghast at the breakdown in the social and political order should his friend’s ideas come to fruition and caused Madison to write a stern rebuttal in defense of natural law property rights and contractual obligations. 

What accounts for the shocking radicalism of his sentiments?  His more reasonable early work in legal reform in Virginia advanced republican equality and liberty over inherited privilege of wealth and status.  But, the inequality he saw in France and the radical answers supplied by the French Enlightenment philosophers profoundly shaped Jefferson’s thinking while abroad as minister to France. 

As historian Merrill D. Peterson wrote in his definitive biography, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, the idea that property, debt, and laws did not survive more than a generation “could not have matured in America.  It grew out of the European situation, specifically the situation in France in 1789.  It expressed the speculative fervor of the French Revolution, the rage against the past, the assault on inequalities that amounted to a tyranny of the dead over the living.”[i]  And, Jefferson would bring these ideas back to America as he advocated for the French Revolution as Secretary of State and fought the specter of monarchism and ostensible privilege under the Hamiltonian system. 

Jefferson never shed his belief in human equality.  Shortly before his death in 1826, Jefferson penned a letter reflecting on the cause of liberty and the fate of mankind in which he asserts that: “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” 

After his death on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it would be left to “the living” to bring this vision to fruition and continue his work for human equality by struggling for the end of slavery, winning universal male suffrage, and gaining women’s suffrage among other fundamental reforms. 

Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute and the author of America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character and a collection of primary sources for the WJMI Thomas Jefferson roundtable discussion. 


[i] Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 383. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thomas Jefferson’s Political Thought: Part I, Natural Rights Republic

By: Tony Williams, WJMI Program Director 

Thomas Jefferson is often described as “sphinx-like” or “enigmatic” because of the difficulty in grappling with the man, his inner life, his ideas, his presidency, and his legacy.  The difficulties in assessing Jefferson are no less true in his political philosophy.  There seemed to be some central tenets to Jefferson’s political thought but also some changes that were at times startling. 

Perhaps a good starting point for this discussion is to note that Jefferson seemed to have a couple of core political beliefs.  I will discuss others in future essays, but let us start with Jefferson as a man of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  Jefferson believed in a Newtonian universe constructed in natural laws, both physical and moral, which were knowable by human reason.  He believed in a Creator and a natural order that endowed humans with rights built into the fabric of their natures which were inviolable by other individuals, civil society, or government. He was a student of the great British political philosophers, Locke and Sidney, as well as other political thinkers in Europe and ancient Greece and Rome. Consequently, one of the defining characteristics of Jefferson’s political philosophy was that he was a lifelong advocate of the universal rights of man. 

Jefferson’s advocacy for the rights of man was most evident in the 1770s as the Americans declared their rights and fought against British tyranny.  In 1774, Jefferson wrote a Summary of the Rights of British America, in which he stated, that rights and liberties were “derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.”  In other words, rights come from nature and nature’s God, not the government.  Therefore, they cannot be taken away by government.  He also averred that, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”  A government that destroyed those rights was tyrannical. 

In 1776, Jefferson, with some edits by Congress, wrote the quintessential statement of the rights of mankind that all have equally in their natures in the Declaration of Independence: “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.”  The purpose of republican government, which is rooted in the consent of the governed, is to protect those natural rights.  “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  And, the people can and must overthrow a government that is destructive of those ends after a long train of abuses. 

Jefferson continued to stand firm in the rights of man in the coming decades.  In 1787, he witnessed the creation of the new Constitution from afar in Paris.  In a brilliant correspondence with his friend, James Madison, about the Constitution and its ratification, one of Jefferson’s most important complaints about the Constitution was that it did not provide a written Bill of Rights.  “Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, & what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences,” he informed his equivocating friend who thought it unnecessary. 

When Jefferson later stated to Henry Lee that the natural law and natural right principles of the Declaration of Independence were based upon the “elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.,” he was appealing to those classical and modern thinkers who believed in natural law and self-government.  He might have added several Christian philosophers from St. Thomas Aquinas to reformers of the Protestant Reformation to the clergy of the American Revolution. 

As Jefferson stated in the same letter, he had not tried to “find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of,” but rather to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject.” 

He dedicated a lifetime of public service to those reasonable and enlightened, natural rights principles. 
Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute and the author of America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character and a collection of primary sources for the upcoming WJMI Thomas Jefferson roundtable discussion. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Defense of His Character

"I never had done a single act or been concerned in any transaction which I feared to have fully laid open, or which could do me any hurt if truly stated."--Thomas Jefferson, April 15, 1806.

Much has been written about the alleged affair between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Many historians now write about this as though it were fact, while it has not been proven as such. See:

Lance Banning stated the case well: "We are asked to believe this U.S. minister to France, a man with ready access to some of the most beautiful and accomplished women in Europe, initiated an affair with a 15 or 16-year-old slave girl, whom Abigail Adams had recently described as more in need of care than the 8-year-old she had attended. This girl was the personal servant (and likely something of a confidant) of Jefferson's two daughters—an individual, that is, whose discretion the accomplished politician and diplomat could not possibly have trusted. Although it may well be that Sally lived, during much of her time in Paris, in the cross-town convent where Patsy and Polly were being schooled, we are to assume that Thomas and Sally carried on their affair in the crowded two-bedroom townhouse where Jefferson lived—and did so without arousing suspicion of David Humphreys, who slept in one of the bedrooms, or of anyone else who was there. She became pregnant with Jefferson's child, the story continues, entered into an agreement with him, and (with Jefferson taking care that she would have a berth convenient to his daughters) sailed back to the U.S. in this condition with him, his two girls, and her brother James. The baby, if it existed, either died soon after birth, leaving no trace other than Madison Hemings's statement, or became the elusive, unrecorded 12-year-old slave named "Tom," mentioned in James Callender's infamous 1802 newspaper accusation, who, if he later took the name Tom Woodson, was not Thomas Jefferson's child. 

"According to this story, Jefferson would continue in a monogamous and fertile relationship with Sally for nearly 20 years, ultimately fathering five or six more children (the first of whom, however, was not born until 1795). During these twenty years, he was content, as was she, to confine the relationship to the times when he was at Monticello, although he took other slaves with him wherever he went and as many as a dozen to the White House. On these terms, he continued in the relationship until at least age 64, when Eston Hemings was conceived, five years after he had been publicly accused of a relationship with Sally and while he was contemplating his second presidential term. He carried it on, all this while, while constantly surrounded by visitors and by a large white family, none of whom—and least of all the daughters who would have known Sally best—ever had the least suspicion that he was involved with any of his slaves or ever saw the slightest indication that he was closer to Sally than to any other servant. [Note: As established by Elizabeth Langhorne in her family biography of Jefferson, "Monticello: A Family Story" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1987), after the death of his wife, Thomas Jefferson's "intimate companion" at Monticello was his daughter Martha, who accompanied him on his every stay and return to Monticello, in addition to the frequent presence of his eleven grandchildren.]

"Indeed, the grandchildren who grew up at Monticello and managed it during Jefferson's last years did not merely say that any such relationship was wholly unsuspected—never a touch or a word or a glance—they said it was simply impossible in this particular house. "His apartment," his granddaughter told her husband, "had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze." In fact, apart from Madison Hemings, no one who ever lived at Monticello and none of the uncounted visitors who stayed there overnight ever said that he was involved with Sally—not even Sally herself, though she lived in practical freedom in Charlottesville for ten years after his death. 

"It is possible, of course, that everyone except Madison Hemings was lying or covering up or engaged in psychological "denial." Jefferson's family had an interest in protecting his reputation, much as Madison Hemings had an interest in claiming descent from a famous man. I see no reason to think that any of these people were deliberately making things up. What of eye-witnesses who had no obvious interest in the matter either way? Former household slave Isaac Jefferson mentioned Sally Hemings in later years; but did not so much as hint that there was any special relationship between her and Jefferson. And in another interview, Edmund Bacon, who was overseer at Monticello when Eston was conceived and may have worked there for years before, raised the subject of the accusations against his employer. 

"He freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was ______'s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother's room many a mourning, when I went up to Monticello very early. 

"The girl was certainly Harriet Hemings, Sally's daughter. The father was named by Bacon but protected by the reporter, a preacher in Kentucky. 

"All of Sally Hemings's children who lived to adulthood did achieve their freedom, either de facto or de jure, and it is often said that they were the only nuclear family of Monticello who did. However, contrary to the terms of the "treaty" as Madison Hemings described it, Sally Hemings did not receive extraordinary privileges at Monticello. Jefferson fed, clothed, and treated Sally Hemings pretty much indistinguishably from his other household servants, recorded her life and childbirths in much the same way, and left her as part of the estate. By Madison Hemings's own account, moreover, Jefferson showed no particular affection for her children and reared them much as he did other household slaves." (Lance Banning, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Case Closed?" The Claremont Institute, August 30, 2001).

Douglass Adair adds this: "Like other men, Jefferson was sensitive to these false accusations. . . Publicly, however, he made no response to these unsrcupulous attacks. 'I should have fancied myself half guilty,' he said, 'had I condescended to put pen to paper in refutation of their falsehoods, or drawn them respect by any notice from myself.' [Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. George Logan, June 20, 1816]. Nor did he use the channels of civil authority to silence his accusers. True to the declarations he had made in his inaugural address and elsewhere, he defended his countrymen's right to a free press. . . [Regarding this issue], one of the recently discovered documents . . . [is] a letter written by nineteenth century biographer Henry Randall (who published a three volume biography,Life of Jefferson (1858)), recounting a conversation at Monticello between himself and Jefferson's oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. In this conversation Randolph confirmed . . . that 'there was not the shadow of suspicion that Mr. Jefferson in this or any other instance had commerce with female slaves.' [See also, "The Jefferson Scandals" (1960), Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays by Douglass Adair, ed. Trevor Colbourn (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974), pp 169.]"

Additionally, "Colonel Randolph said that he had spent a good share of his life closely about Mr. Jefferson, at home [Jefferson never locked his bedroom door by day and left it open at night, Colonel Randolph sleeping within the sound of his breathing at night] and on journeys, in all sorts of circumstances, and he fully believed him chaste and pure -- as "immaculate a man as God ever created." [Henry S. Randall to James Parton (June 1, 1868).]" 

This is only a brief account, and readers are encouraged to read and examine all of the evidence For example, “. . . Robert Turner's 'The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission' (Carolina Academic Press, 2011) . . . presents a substantial argument for the position that Hemings's paternity is still unknown.” — Alan Pell Crawford, Wall Street Journal, Sat., April 14, 2012, p. C8.   However, while for some doubts may persist, an honest review of the arguments leaves one to wonder why the claims are so often accepted as truth.

 By: J. David Gowdy, President & Founder, The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute

See also: "Thomas Jefferson vs. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation"

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Review of Jon Meacham, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"

By: Tony Williams

Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable statesman from early in the American Revolution through the American founding to the early decades of the new nation. His lifetime of public service included the Virginia Assembly, the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, the Confederation Congress, minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and finally President for two terms.  This incredible record places him among the highest ranks of founding fathers. 

For a long time, Jefferson has been seen as an idealistic visionary who had a wholly optimistic view of human nature and trusted ordinary Americans to govern themselves as yeoman farmers in his agricultural republic.  Moreover, he advocated consistently throughout his life for rights of mankind.  Never was Jefferson more idealistic than in his nearly uncritical support for the French Revolution that sought to bring radical French Enlightenment to life.  Of course, scholars recognized that the “sage of Monticello” played hard in the rough-and-tumble fierce partisan politics of the 1790s and early 1800s, but our vision of him was deeply rooted in loftier vocations and avocations. 

In his recent book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012), journalist and biographer, Jon Meacham, challenges this traditional view of Jefferson.  Meacham’s Jefferson is a statesman who was a pragmatist who knew how to wield political power behind the scenes and cut deals to get things done.  The author argues: “Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic.  To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised . . . . his creative flexibility made him a transformative leader.”  Meacham continues to delineate his thesis, stating that, “Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver.  Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously.  Such is the art of power.”  Jefferson is still the genius sitting atop his mountaintop, but he is also the consummate politician bringing his vision to life. 

With a smooth and inviting narrative, Meacham gets much about Jefferson correct.  The early chapters narrate the early life in the rising Virginia gentry, his classical education, and his study of the law under George Wythe and the practice of it.  Meacham then weaves together the personal life of his subject and the introduction to politics in the milieu of resistance to British tyranny as an eloquent writer proclaiming the rights of man but also witnessing the performance of the great orators who made persuasive speeches and the politicians won people over to their points of view in the taverns of Williamsburg or Philadelphia. 

Meacham buys into some fashionable interpretations of the American Revolution, calling it a “rich man’s revolution” and a “shrewd economic choice.”  Yet Meacham cannot avoid the fact that, for Jefferson, it was a revolution of ideas and natural rights as he penned some of the most eloquent statements of rights in the American Revolution beginning with the Summary View of the Rights of British America – which he states “moved [Jefferson] toward the front ranks of the cause” – the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms in the Second Continental Congress, and the penultimate statement of rights and self-government in the Declaration of Independence.  Whatever Meacham’s strained attempts to paint the latter as a practical document, the three great statements of rights and the purposes of government as well as his silence on the floor of the Continental Congress reveals Jefferson in the traditional way: a philosophical and eloquent writer and statesman rather than a political operator. 

The next stage of his life does perhaps even less to prove Meacham’s main contention.  Jefferson helped to revise the legal code of Virginia, served as a weak and ineffectual governor who controversially fled from the British, a congressman who achieved little, and then the minister to France who had few concrete achievements besides developing a profound loathing of monarchy and aristocracy as well as contributing to the French declaration of rights once their revolution began.  Even his famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was an articulation of a free mind and conscience.  Moreover, Jefferson was frustrated and settled for the idea of praying for Patrick Henry’s death while his friend and political ally, James Madison, was responsible for clever maneuvering to nullify Henry’s influence and securing passage of the bill in the assembly.  As for his time in France, Meacham labels Jefferson an enlightened “Man of the World,” which hardly supports the idea of a pragmatic politician.  Moreover, his letters are filled with idealistic, radical notions that debts, property, laws, and constitutions cannot be transferred to future generations, while infamously praising the spilling of blood in revolutions. 

Increasingly, during the 1790s, as Secretary of State in the Washington administration, Jefferson undoubtedly became fiercely partisan as he battled his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, and helped to create the first political parties despite the universal antipathy towards factions.  For Meacham, this period is Jefferson’s most pragmatic by teaching Americans that “in his defense of republicanism – then tactical flexibility can be a virtue.”  Here is where Meacham is most wrong on his subject.  Jefferson was hardly a pragmatic statesman who engaged in compromise and set aside partisanship as he worked for the common good of the country.  Jefferson constantly expressed an unalloyed fear that monarchism was springing up all over the land, complaining to President Washington on numerous occasions and leading to a presidential rebuke that there weren’t more than a handful of monarchists in republican America.  Additionally, at times Jefferson acted as little more than a party hack, establishing an anti-administration, partisan newspaper in his office and callously sought to discredit his political opponents personally and politically. 

Vice-President Thomas Jefferson was no better as a pragmatic politician as he assiduously worked behind the scenes to oppose President John Adams, most notably with the Kentucky Resolutions arguing for nullification of the Alien and Sedition Acts.  His presidency was moreover ideologically democratic but marked with a strong Hamiltonian strain of a powerful executive who acted according to a broad construction of the Constitution, whether in the Louisiana Purchase or the Embargo Act.  One might well argue that Jefferson was acting pragmatically but one might also chalk up Jefferson’s exercise of presidential power as an example of his earlier naïveté and idealism that he contradicted once he actually came to the nation’s highest office.    

Meacham has written an admirable biography on a grand, enigmatic subject not easily explained.  However, his thesis simply is not supported by the evidence.  As I read the book, I kept thinking of the incredible statesmanship of James Madison who was indeed the pragmatic, compromising politician of the deliberative Constitutional Convention, Ratification debate, and First Congress that Thomas Jefferson was decidedly not. 

Tony Williams is the Program Director for the WJMI and has written four books including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.  He also recently edited a collection of primary sources on Thomas Jefferson for an upcoming WJMI roundtable discussion for teachers. 

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).