Thomas Jefferson

Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1791

OTHER IMAGES

QUICK FACTS
BORN:
13 April 1743 at Shadwell, in Albermarle County, Virginia
  DIED:
4 July 1826 at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia
Buried at Monticello

AUTHOR OF
PLACES TO VISIT
LINKS

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and the most conspicuous apostle of democracy in America, was born on 13 April 1743 at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson (1707—57), of early Virginian yeoman stock, was a civil engineer and a man of remarkable energy, who became a justice of the peace, a county surveyor, burgess, served the Crown in inter-colonial boundary surveys, and married into one of the most prominent colonial families, the Randolphs. Albemarle County was then in the frontier wilderness of the Blue Ridge, and was very different, socially, from the lowland counties where a few broad-acred families dominated an open-handed, somewhat luxurious, and assertive aristocracy. Unlike his Randolph connections, Peter Jefferson was a Whig and a thorough democrat. From him, and probably from the Albemarle environment, his son came naturally to his democratic inclinations.

Education and Early Years

By the age of 20, Jefferson carried with him — from the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg — a good knowledge of Latin, Greek, and French (to which he soon added Spanish, Italian and Anglo-Saxon). He also had a familiarity with higher mathematics and natural sciences — possessed, at his age, by men who have a rare natural taste and ability for those studies. He remained an ardent student throughout life, able to give and take in association with the many scholars, American and foreign, whom he numbered among his friends and correspondents.

With a liberal Scotsman, Dr. William Small (1734—1775) — then of the faculty of William and Mary and later a friend of Erasmus Darwin — and George Wythe (1726—1806) — a very accomplished scholar and leader of the Virginia bar — Jefferson was a habitual member, while still in college, of apartie carrée at the table of Francis Fauquier (c. 1720—68), the accomplished Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia.

Jefferson was an expert violinist, a good singer and dancer, proficient in outdoor sports, and an excellent horseman. Thoroughbred horses always remained to him a necessary luxury. When it is added that Fauquier was a passionate gambler, and that the gentry who gathered every winter at Williamsburg, the seat of government of the province, were ruinously addicted to the same weakness, and that Jefferson had a taste for racing, it does credit to his early strength of character that of his social opportunities he took only the better. He never used tobacco, never played cards, never gambled, and was never party to a duel.

Soon after leaving college, he entered Wythe’s law office, and in 1767, after five years of close study, was admitted to the bar. His thorough preparation enabled him to compete from the first with the leading lawyers of the colony, and his success shows that the bar had no rewards that were not fairly within his reach. As an advocate, however, he did not shine. A certain weakness of voice made continuous speaking impossible, and he had neither the ability nor the temperament for oratory.

To his legal scholarship and collecting zeal Virginia owed the preservation of a large part of her early statutes. He seems to have lacked interest in litigation, which was extraordinarily developed in colonial Virginia; and he wanted to reform the law’s abuses. Therefore it is probable that he turned the more willingly to politics. At any rate, soon after entering public life he abandoned the practice of the law (1774).

Marriage, Family, Slaves

The death of his father had left Jefferson an estate of 1,900 acres, the income from which (about £400) gave him the position of an independent country gentleman. While engaged in the law he had added to his farms after the ambitious Virginia fashion, until, when he married at 30, there were 5,000 acres all paid for; and almost as much more came to him in 1773 on the death of his father-in-law. On the 1 January 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton (1749—82), a childless widow of 23, very pretty, accomplished, and very fond of music. Their married life together at Monticello was exceedingly happy, and Jefferson never remarried after her early death. Of six children born from their union, two daughters alone survived infancy. Jefferson was emotional and very affectionate in his home, and his generous and devoted relations with his children and grandchildren are among the finest features of his character.

However, it must never be forgotten that Jefferson was a slaveowner and that Monticello was a slave plantation. He owned over 600 enslaved people during his lifetime — the most of any U.S. president. Jefferson brought slaves with him wherever he travelled — including Philadelphia when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. After his wife died, he used his position as master to start an affair in Paris with his house slave and Martha’s half-sister, Sally Hemings. Together they had at least six children. Compared to some he may have been a more benign slave master. But his slaves were whipped if necessary and tracked down if they ran away.

Beginning of Public Life

Jefferson began his public service as a Justice of the Peace and Parish Vestryman. He was chosen a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769 — and of every succeeding assembly and convention of the colony until he entered the Second Continental Congress in 1775.

His forceful, facile pen gave him great influence from the first; but though a foremost member of several great deliberative bodies, it can be fairly said that he never made a speech. He hated the morbid rage of debate, because he believed that men were never convinced by argument, but only by reflection, through reading or unprovocative conversation. This belief guided him throughout his life.

At approximately six feet in height, Jefferson was large-boned, slim, erect, and sinewy. He had angular features, a very ruddy complexion, sandy hair, and hazel-flecked grey eyes. Age lessened the unattractiveness of his exterior. In later years he was negligent in dress and loose in bearing. Yet there was grace in his manners; and his frank and earnest address, his quick sympathy (though he seemed cold to strangers), his vivacious, desultory, informing talk, gave him an engaging charm. Beneath a quiet surface he held intense convictions and a very emotional temperament. Yet he seems to have acted habitually — in great and little things — on system. His mind was trenchant and subtle; it was the most impressible and the most receptive mind of his time in America.

The range of his interests is remarkable. For many years he was president of the American Philosophical Society. Though it is a biographical tradition that he lacked wit, Molière, Don Quixote, and Tristram Shandy seem to have been his favorites in his early years. Though the utilitarian wholly crowds romanticism out of his writings, he had enough of that quality in youth to prepare to learn Gaelic in order to translate Ossian, and sent to James Macpherson — the reputed translator of Ossian — for the originals!

His interest in art was evidently intellectual. He was singularly sweet tempered and shrank from the impassioned political bitterness that raged about him; bore with relative equanimity a flood of coarse and malignant abuse of his motives, morals, religion, personal honesty, and decency; cherished very few personal animosities; and better than any of his great antagonists, cleared political opposition of ill-blooded personality. In short, his kindness of heart rose above all social, religious, or political differences, and nothing destroyed his confidence in men and his sanguine views of life.

Colonial Rebellion

For their action on colonial grievances and inter-colonial cooperation, the House of Burgesses was dissolved by the governor in 1769 (and its successors in 1773 and 1774). Jefferson was prominent in all. He was a signer of the Virginia Agreement of Non-Importation and Economy (1769) and was elected to the first Virginia Convention (1774) — called to consider the state of the colony and advance inter-colonial union.

Prevented by illness from attending, Jefferson sent to the Convention elaborate resolutions, which he proposed as instructions to the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress that was to meet at Philadelphia in September. In the direct language of reproach and advice, with no disingenuous loading of the Crown’s policy upon its agents, these resolutions attacked the errors of King George III and maintained that the relation between Great Britain and these colonies was exactly the same as that of England and Scotland after the accession of James and until the Union; and that our emigration to this country gave England no more rights over us than the emigration of the Danes and Saxons gave to the present authorities of their mother country over England.

This was cutting at the common root of allegiance, emigration, and colonization. But such radicalism was too thoroughgoing for the immediate end. However, the resolutions were published as a pamphlet entitled A Summary View of the Rights of America, which was widely circulated.

In England, after receiving such modifications (attributed to Edmund Burke) as adapted it to the purposes of the opposition, this pamphlet ran through many editions, and procured for its author, as he said, the honor of having his name inserted in a long list of proscriptions enrolled in a bill of attainder commenced in one of the two houses of parliament, but suppressed in embryo by the hasty course of events. It placed Jefferson among the foremost leaders of revolution, and procured for him the honor of later drafting the Declaration of Independence, whose historical portions were, in large part, only a revised transcript of A Summary View.

In June 1775, Jefferson took his seat in the Second Continental Congress, taking with him fresh credentials of radicalism in the shape of Virginia’s answer, which he had drafted, to Lord North’s conciliatory propositions. Jefferson soon drafted the reply of Congress to the same propositions. Reappointed to the next Congress, he more than justified his service by drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Activity in the Virginia Assembly

Again reappointed, he surrendered his seat, and after refusing a proffered election to serve as a commissioner with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane in France, he entered again, in October 1776, the Virginia Assembly (formerly the House of Burgesses), where he considered his services most needed.

The local work to which Jefferson attributed such importance was a revision of Virginia’s laws. Of the measures proposed to this end he said that I considered four, passed or reported, as forming a system by which every trace would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy, and a foundation laid for a government truly republican. This included the repeal of the laws of entail; the abolition of primogeniture and the unequal division of inheritances (Jefferson was himself an eldest son); the guarantee of freedom of conscience and relief of the people from supporting, by taxation, an established church; and a system of general education.

The first object was embodied in law in 1776, the second in 1785, the third in 1786 (supplemented 1799 and 1801). The last two were included in the body of codified laws prepared by Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, and, principally, Jefferson himself (1776—79).

Not so fortunate were Jefferson’s ambitious schemes for education, including district, grammar and classical schools, and a free state library and a state college. He was the first American statesman to make education by the state a fundamental article of democratic faith. His bill for elementary education he regarded as the most important part of the code, but Virginia had no strong middle class, and the planters would not assume the burden of educating the poor.

At this point in his life Jefferson championed the natural right of expatriation and the gradual emancipation of the slaves. His earliest legislative effort, in the five-day session of 1769, had been marked by an effort to secure to masters the freedom to manumit their slaves without removing them from the state. It was unsuccessful. The more radical measure he now favored was even more impossible of attainment; but a bill he introduced to prohibit the importation of slaves was passed in 1778 — the only important change effected in the slave system of the state during the Revolutionary War.

Finally, he endeavored, though unsuccessfully, to secure the introduction of juries into the courts of chancery, and aided in securing a humanitarian revision of the penal code — which, though it lost by one vote in 1785, was sustained by public sentiment and was adopted in 1796.

Of course, Jefferson is not entitled to the sole credit for all these services: Wythe, George Mason, and, in particular, James Madison, were his devoted lieutenants, and — after his departure for France — the principals in the struggle. In addition, an approving public opinion must receive large credit. Yet Jefferson was throughout the chief inspirer and foremost worker.

Governor of Virginia

In 1779, at almost the gloomiest stage of the war in the southern states, Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as Governor of Virginia — the second to hold that office after the organization of the state government. In his second term (1780—81), the state was overrun by British expeditions, and Jefferson was blamed for the ineffectual preparation and resistance. Though he cannot be said to have been eminently fitted for the task of war-time governor, much of the criticism of his administration was undoubtedly unjust.

With his conduct under question, he declined re-nomination. But he was unanimously returned by Albemarle voters as a delegate to the Virginia Assembly. On the day previously set for legislative inquiry (on a resolution offered by an impulsive critic), by unanimous vote of the house he received a declaration of thanks and confidence. He wished however to retire permanently from public life, a wish strengthened by the illness and death of his wife. During this time he composed his Notes on Virginia, a semi-statistical work of the Enlightenment, which also reinforced Jefferson’s bigotry against Blacks.

Congress twice offered Jefferson an appointment as one of the plenipotentiaries to negotiate peace with England, but, though he accepted the second offer, the business was so far advanced before he could sail that his appointment was recalled.

During the following winter (1783) he was again in Congress, and headed the committee appointed to consider the treaty of peace. In the succeeding session his service was marked by a report, from which resulted the present monetary system of the United States (the fundamental idea of its decimal basis being due, however, to Gouverneur Morris); and by the honor of reporting the first fully formulated plan for the government of the western territories, which was embodied in the Ordinance of 1784. He was already particularly associated with the great territory northwest of the Ohio; for Virginia had tendered to Congress in 1781, while Jefferson was governor, a cession of her claims to it. Now in 1784, it formally transferred the territory by act of Jefferson and his fellow delegates in Congress — a consummation for which he had labored from the beginning.

As a young man, Jefferson was fervently against slavery. But he came to recognize that slavery, though an unequivocal evil, was like having the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. Not only justice but patriotism as well pleaded with him the cause of the enslaved, for he foresaw the certainty that the race must someday, in some way, be freed, and the dire political dangers involved in the institution of slavery. Yet as Jefferson aged, he stopped actively working against slavery, and by 1820 fully supported the Missouri compromise, which provided a roadmap for extending slavery to newly admitted states.

Minister Plenipotentiary to France

From 1784 to 1789 Jefferson was in France, first under an appointment to assist Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in negotiating treaties of commerce with European states, and then as Franklin’s successor as Minister to France (1785—89). In these years he travelled widely in western Europe. Though the commercial principles of the United States were far too liberal for acceptance by powers holding colonies in America, Jefferson won some specific concessions to American trade. He was exceedingly popular as a minister. His theories had a deep and broad basis in English Whiggism; and though he may well have found at least confirmation of his own ideas in French writers — and notably in Condorcet — he did not read sympathetically the writers commonly named, Rousseau and Montesquieu. Besides, his democracy was seasoned and he was rather a teacher than a student of revolutionary politics when he went to Paris.

His Notes on Virginia were widely read in Paris, and undoubtedly had some influence in forwarding the dissolution of the doctrines of divine rights and passive obedience among the cultivated classes of France. Jefferson was deeply interested in all the events leading up to the French Revolution, and all his ideas were colored by his experience of the five years passed in Paris. On the 3 June 1789 he proposed to the leaders of the Third Estate a compromise between King Louis XVI and the nation. In July he received the extraordinary honor of being invited to assist in the deliberations of the committee appointed to draft the constitution by the National Assembly. This honor his official position compelled him to decline; for he sedulously observed official proprieties, and in no way gave offence to the government to which he was accredited.

Secretary of State

When Jefferson left France on 28 September 1789 (after the fall of the Bastille), it was with the intention of soon returning. However, President Washington wanted him as Secretary of State in the new federal government. Jefferson reluctantly accepted; Alexander Hamilton was appointed Secretary of the Treasury. These two men, antipodal in temperament and political belief, clashed in irreconcilable hostility and in the conflict of public sentiment — first on the financial measures of Hamilton and then on the questions regarding France and Great Britain. Jefferson’s sympathies were predominantly with the former, Hamilton’s with the latter, and they formed about themselves the two great parties of Democratic Republicans and Federalists.

The schools of thought for which they stood have since contended for mastery in American politics. Hamilton’s was gradually strengthened by the necessities of stronger administration, as time gave widening amplitude and increasing weight to the specific powers — and so to Hamilton’s great doctrine of the implied powers — of the general government of a growing country. Jefferson’s was rooted in the people and the countryside, buttressed by the hopes and convictions of democracy.

The most perplexing questions treated by Jefferson as Secretary of State arose out of the policy of neutrality adopted by the United States toward France, to whom she was bound by treaties and by a heavy debt of gratitude. Separation from European politics — the doctrine of America for Americans that was embodied later in the Monroe declaration — was a tenet cherished by Jefferson as by other leaders (though not Hamilton) and by none cherished more firmly. For by nature he was peculiarly opposed to war, and peace was a fundamental part of his politics. However deep his French sympathies, he drew the same safe line as did Washington between French politics and American politics. He expounded — as a very high authority has said — with remarkable clearness and power the nature and scope of neutral duty, and gave a classic statement of the doctrine of recognition.

But the French question had another side in its reaction on American parties. Jefferson did not read excesses in Paris as warnings against democracy, but as warnings against the abuses of monarchy. Nor did he regard Bonaparte’s coup d’état as revealing the weakness of republics, but rather as revealing the danger of standing armies. He did not look on the war of the coalitions against France as one of mere powers, but as one between forms of government. And though the immediate fruits of the Revolution belied his hopes, as they did those of ardent humanitarians the world over, he saw the broad trend of history, which vindicated his faith that a successful reformation of government in France would insure a general reformation through Europe, and the resurrection to a new life of their people.

Each of these statements could be reversed as regards Hamilton. It is key to an understanding of the times to remember that the Revolutionary War had disjointed society; and democracy — which Jefferson had proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and enthroned in Virginia — after strengthening its rights by the sword, had run to excesses (Shays’ Rebellion, for example) that produced a conservative reaction. To this reaction Hamilton explicitly appealed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787; and of this reaction various features of the Constitution, and Hamiltonian federalism generally, were direct fruits. Moreover, independently of special incentives to the alarmist and the man of property, the opinions of many Americans turned again, after the war, into a current of sympathy for England, as naturally as American commerce returned to English ports.

Far from America during these years and unexposed to reactionary influences, Jefferson returned with undiminished fervor for democracy. The talk he heard of praise for England, and fearful recoil before even the beginning of the revolution in France, disheartened him and filled him with suspicion. Hating as he did feudal class institutions and Tudor-Stuart traditions of arbitrary rule, one can imagine his attitude toward Hamilton’s oft-avowed partialities (and, Jefferson assumed, his intrigues) for British class-government with its eighteenth-century measure of corruption. In short, Hamilton took from recent years the lesson of the evils of lax government; whereas Jefferson clung to the other lesson, which crumbling colonial governments had illustrated — that governments derived their strength from the will of the governed.

Each built his system accordingly — the one based on order, the other on individualism — which led Jefferson to liberty alike in religion and in politics. The two men and the fate of the parties they led are understandable only by regarding one as the leader of reaction and the other as in line with current American tendencies. The educated classes characteristically furnished Federalism with a remarkable body of alarmist leaders. So it happened that Jefferson, because he had a thorough trust and confidence in the people, became the idol of American democracy.

As Hamilton was somewhat officious and very combative, and Jefferson, although uncontentious, very suspicious and quite independent — with both men holding inflexibly to their opinions — cabinet harmony became impossible when the two secretaries had formed parties about them and their differences were carried into the newspapers. Washington necessarily abandoned his idea that if parties did exist to reconcile them. Partly from discontent with a position in which he did not feel that he enjoyed the absolute confidence of the president, and partly because of the embarrassed condition of his private affairs, Jefferson repeatedly sought to resign.

Return to Monticello

Finally on the 31 December 1793, with Washington’s reluctant consent, he gave up his portfolio and retired to his home at Monticello. There he remained improving his estate (having refused a foreign mission) until elected Vice President in 1796.

Jefferson was never truly happy except in the country. He loved gardening, experimented enthusiastically in varieties and rotations of crops, and kept meteorological tables with diligence. For eight years he tabulated with assiduous accuracy the earliest and latest appearance of 37 vegetables in the Washington market. When abroad he sought out varieties of grasses, trees, rice, and olives for American experiment, and after his return from France received yearly for 23 years, from his old friend the superintendent of the Jardin des plantes, a box of seeds which he distributed to public and private gardens throughout the United States.

Jefferson seems to have been the first discoverer of an exact formula for the construction of mold boards of least resistance for ploughs. He managed to make practical use of his calculus about his farms and seems to have been remarkably apt in the practical application of mechanical principles.

Vice President

In the presidential election of 1796, John Adams, the Federalist candidate, received the largest number of electoral votes, and Jefferson, the Republican candidate, the next largest number. Under the law as it then existed the former became President and the latter Vice President. Jefferson re-entered public life with reluctance, though doubtless with keen-enough interest and resolution. He had rightly measured the strength of his followers and was waiting for the government to drift into unison with the republican sense of its constituents, predicting that President Adams would be overborne thereby. This prediction was speedily fulfilled.

At first, the reign of terror and the XYZ Affair strengthened the Federalists. But mistaking the popular resentment against France for a reaction against democracy, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. In answer to those odious measures, Jefferson and Madison prepared and procured the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These resolutions later acquired extraordinary and pernicious prominence in the historical elaboration of the states’ rights doctrine. It is, however, unquestionably true, that as a startling protest against measures to silence, in Jefferson’s words, by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of our agents, they served, in this respect, a useful purpose. As a counterblast against Hamiltonian principles of centralization they were probably, at that moment, very salutary.

The Federalist party had ruined itself; it lost the presidential election of 1800.

President

With the Republican candidates, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, receiving equal votes, it was up to the House of Representatives to make one of the two president — with the other becoming vice president. Unable to induce Burr to avow Federalist principles, influential Federalists, in defiance of the Constitution, contemplated the desperate alternative of preventing an election, and appointing an extra-constitutional (Federalist) president pro tempore. But better counsel prevailed. Hamilton used his influence in favor of Jefferson, and Jefferson became president, entering upon his duties on 4 March 1801.

Republicans who had affiliated with the Federalists at the time of the XYZ disclosures returned. Indeed, Jefferson placated many of the Federalists and drew them over. Believing, he wrote, that (excepting the ardent monarchists) all our citizens agreed in ancient Whig principles — or, as he elsewhere expressed it, in republican formsI thought it advisable to define and declare them, and let them see the ground on which we can rally. This he did in his inaugural, which, though somewhat rhetorical — We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists — is nonetheless a splendid and famous statement of democracy. His conciliatory policy produced a mild schism in his own party, but proved eminently wise. The state elections of 1801 fulfilled his prophecy of 1791 that the policy of the Federalists would leave them all head and no body.

In 1804, he was re-elected by 162 out of 176 votes.

Jefferson’s two terms were distinguished by the simplicity that marked his conduct in private life. He eschewed the pomp and ceremonies — natural inheritances from English origins that had been an innocent setting to the character of his two noble predecessors. His dress was of plain cloth on the day of his inauguration. Instead of driving to the Capitol in a coach and six, he walked without a guard or servant from his lodgings — or, as a rival tradition has it, he rode, and hitched his horse to a neighboring fence — attended by a crowd of citizens.

Instead of opening Congress with a speech to which a formal reply was expected, he sent in a written message by a private hand. He discontinued the practice of sending ministers abroad in public vessels. Between himself and the governors of states he recognized no difference in rank. He would not have his birthday celebrated by state balls. The weekly levée was practically abandoned. Even such titles as Excellency, Honorable, and Mr. were distasteful to him. It was formally agreed in cabinet meeting that when brought together in society, all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office.

Thus, diplomatic grades were ignored in social precedence and foreign relations were seriously compromised by dinner-table complications. One minister who appeared in gold lace and dress sword for his first, and regularly appointed, official call on the president, was received — as he insisted — by Jefferson in negligent undress and slippers down at the heel. All this was in part premeditated — part of Jefferson’s purpose to republicanize the government and public opinion, which was the distinguishing feature of his administration. But it was also the nature of the man. In the company he chose by preference; honesty and knowledge were his only tests. He knew no social distinctions in his willingness to perform services for the deserving. He held up to his daughter, as a model, the family of a poor but gifted mechanic as one wherein she would see the best examples of rational living. If it be possible, he said, to be certainly conscious of anything, I am conscious of feeling no difference between writing to the highest and lowest being on earth.

Jefferson’s first administration was marked by a reduction of the army, navy, diplomatic establishment and, to the uttermost, of governmental expenses — some reduction of the civil service, accompanied by a large shifting of offices to Republicans. Early in his term he carried out a policy that he had urged upon the government when minister to France and when vice president. He dispatched naval forces to coerce Tripoli into a decent respect for U.S. trade — the first in Christendom to gain honorable immunity from tribute or piracy in the Mediterranean. But above all the first term was marked by the Louisiana Purchase. Although it was the greatest inconsistency of his political career, it was also an illustration of his essential practicality, and one of the greatest proofs of his statesmanship. Along with the successful exploration by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark across the continent to the Pacific, it was the crowning achievement of his administration.

Among important but secondary measures of his second administration were the reorganization of the militia, fortification of the seaports, reduction of the public debt, and a simultaneous reduction of taxes. But his second term derives most of its historical interest from the unsuccessful efforts to convict Aaron Burr of treasonable acts in the southwest, and from the efforts made to maintain, without war, the rights of neutrals on the high seas. In his diplomacy with Napoleon and Great Britain, Jefferson betrayed a painful incorrigibility of optimism. A national policy of growling before fighting — later practiced successfully enough by the United States — was not then possible.

One writer has very justly said that what chiefly affects one in the whole matter is the pathos of it — a philosopher and a friend of peace struggling with a despot of superhuman genius, and a Tory cabinet of superhuman insolence and stolidity. It is possible to regard the embargo policy dispassionately as an interesting illustration of Jefferson’s love of peace. The idea — a very old one with Jefferson — was not entirely original. In essence it received other attempted applications in the Napoleonic period — especially in the continental blockade. Jefferson’s statesmanship had the limitations of an agrarian outlook. The extreme to which he carried his advocacy of diplomatic isolation, his opposition to the creation of an adequate navy, his estimate of cities as sores upon the body politic, his prejudice against manufactures, trust in farmers, and political distrust of the artisan class reflect this.

Retirement and Final Years

When Jefferson retired from the presidency on 4 March 1809, he had been almost continuously in public service for 40 years. He refused to be re-elected for a third time (though requested by the legislatures of five states to be a candidate) and thus, with Washington’s prior example, helped to establish a precedent deemed by him to be of great importance under a democratic government. His influence seemed scarcely lessened in his retirement. Madison and Monroe, his immediate successors — neighbors and devoted friends, whom he had advised in their early education and led in their maturer years — consulted him on all great questions, and there was no break of principles in the 24 years of the Jeffersonian system.

Jefferson was one of the greatest political managers his country has known. He had a quick eye for character, was genuinely amiable, uncontentious, tactful, masterful; and it may be assumed from his success that he was wary or shrewd to a degree. It is true, moreover, that, unless tested by a few unchanging principles, his acts were often strikingly inconsistent; and even when so tested, not infrequently remain so in appearance.

Full explanations do not remove from some important transactions in his political life an impression of indirectness. But reasonable judgment must find very unjust the stigma of duplicity put upon him by the Federalists. Measured by the records of other men equally successful as political leaders, there seems little of this nature to criticize severely. Jefferson had the full courage of his convictions. Extreme as were his principles, his pertinacity in adhering to them and his independence of expression were quite as extreme. There were philosophic and philanthropic elements in his political faith which will always lead some to class him as a visionary and fanatic. Although he certainly indulged at times in dreams at which one may still smile, he was not, properly speaking, a visionary; nor can he with justice be stigmatized as a fanatic.

He felt fervently, was not afraid to risk all on the conclusions to which his heart and his mind led him, declared himself with openness and energy; and he spoke and even wrote his conclusions, however bold or abstract, without troubling to detail his reasoning or clip his off-hand speculations. Certain it is that there is much in his utterances for a less robust democracy than his own to cavil at. Soar, however, as he might, he was essentially not doctrinaire, but an empiricist; his mind was objective. Though he remained, to the end, firm in his belief that there had been an active monarchist party, this obsession did not carry him out of touch with the realities of human nature and of his time. He built with surety on the colonial past and had a better reasoned view of the actual future than had any of his contemporaries.

Jefferson, in short, had unlimited faith in the honesty of the people; a large faith in their common sense; believed that all is to be won by appealing to the reason of voters; that by education their ignorance can be eliminated; that human nature is indefinitely perfectible; that majorities rule, therefore, not only by virtue of force (which was Locke’s ultimate justification of them), but of right. His importance as a maker of modern America can scarcely be overstated, for the ideas he advocated have become the very foundations of American republicanism. His administration ended the possibility, probability, or certainty (measure it as one will) of the development of Federalism in the direction of class government. And the party he formed, inspired by the creed he gave it, fixed the democratic future of the nation. By his own labors he had vindicated his faith in the experiment of self-government.

Jefferson’s last years were devoted to the establishment of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, near his home. He planned the buildings, gathered its faculty — mainly from abroad — and shaped its organization. Practically all the great ideas of aim, administration, and curriculum that dominated American universities at the end of the 19th century were anticipated by him. His educational plans had been maturing in his mind since 1776 and He hoped that the University might be a dominant influence in national culture.

His financial affairs in these last years gave him grave concern. His fine library of over 10,000 volumes was purchased at a low price by Congress in 1815. A public lottery was thought to bring in a substantial sum by selling off parts of Monticello. And it may have enabled him to die in peace — believing that it would raise enough money to keep his daughter, her family, and his slaves at Monticello. But the scheme failed to raise sufficient money. Indeed, Jefferson had been in debt for many years; the plantation was unprofitable and the expenses heavy. Six months after his death Jefferson’s executors were forced to sell the land, the house, and the household contents. In addition, 130 slaves were sold at auction in January 1827.

In an historical accident that seems pre-ordained, Jefferson died on 4 July 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — and on the same day as John Adams. He chose for his tomb an epitaph that does not even mention his presidency:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
and Father of the University of Virginia.

ADAPTED FROM:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

It is difficult to recapture the intensity of excitement felt by Americans in 1776 over the prospect of forming new republican governments. It is a work, said Thomas Jefferson, of the most interesting nature and such as every individual would wish to have his voice in. Even the business of the Continental Congress was stifled because so many delegates — including Jefferson — left for home to take part in the paramount activity of erecting the new state governments. Constitutions, remarked Francis Lightfoot Lee, employ every pen. ... Nothing — not the creation of [the] confederacy, not the Continental Congress, not the war, not the French alliance — in the years surrounding the Declaration of Independence engaged the interests of Americans more that the framing of these governments.

Gordon S. Wood
The Creation of the American Republic, 1776—1787 (1969)