Thomas Jefferson wished to be remembered for three achievements in his public life. He had served as governor of Virginia, as U.S. minister to France, as secretary of state under George Washington, as vice-president in the administration of John Adams, and as president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. On his tombstone, however, which he designed and for which he wrote the inscription, there is no mention of these offices. Rather, it reads that Thomas Jefferson was "author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia" and, as he requested, "not a word more." Historians might want to add other accomplishments--for example, his distinction as an architect, naturalist, and linguist--but in the main they would concur with his own assessment.
Jefferson's reputation began to reach beyond Virginia in 1774, when he wrote a political pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Arguing on the basis of natural rights theory, Jefferson claimed that colonial allegiance to the king was voluntary. "The God who gave us life," he wrote, "gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them."
Based upon the same natural rights theory contained in A Summary View, to which it bears a strong resemblance, the Declaration of Independence made Jefferson internationally famous. Years later that fame evoked the jealousy of John Adams, who complained that the declaration's ideas were "hackneyed." Jefferson agreed; he wrote of the declaration, "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind."
Jefferson was also instrumental in devising a major revision of the criminal code, although it was not enacted until 1796. His bill to create a free system of tax-supported elementary education for all except slaves was defeated as were his bills to create a public library and to modernize the curriculum of the College of William and Mary.
In June 1779 the introduction of Jefferson's bill on religious liberty touched off a quarrel that caused turmoil in Virginia for 8 years. The bill was significant as no other state--indeed, no other nation--provided for complete religious liberty at that time. Jefferson's bill stated "that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions on matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." Many Virginians regarded the bill as an attack upon Christianity. It did not pass until 1786, and then mainly through the perseverance of James Madison. Jefferson, by then in France, congratulated Madison, adding that "it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions."
As chairman of the committee dealing with the government of western lands, Jefferson submitted proposals so liberal and farsighted as to constitute, when enacted, the most progressive colonial policy of any nation in modern history. The proposed ordinance of 1784 reflected Jefferson's belief that the western territories should be self-governing and, when they reached a certain stage of growth, should be admitted to the Union as full partners with the original 13 states. Jefferson also proposed that slavery should be excluded from all of the American western territories after 1800. Although he himself was a slaveowner, he believed that slavery was an evil that should not be permitted to spread. In 1784 the provision banning slavery was narrowly defeated. Had one representative (John Beatty of New Jersey), sick and confined to his lodging, been present, the vote would have been different. "Thus," Jefferson later reflected, "we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment." Although Congress approved the proposed ordinance of 1784, it was never put into effect; its main features were incorporated, however, in the Ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory. Moreover, slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory.
During these years Jefferson followed events in the United States with understandable interest. He advised against any harsh punishment of those responsible for Shay's Rebellion (1786-87) in Massachusetts. He worried particularly that the new Constitution of the United States lacked a bill of rights and failed to limit the number of terms for the presidency. In France he witnessed the beginning of the French Revolution, but he doubted whether the French people could duplicate the American example of republican government. His advice, more conservative than might be anticipated, was that France emulate the British system of constitutional monarchy.
Jefferson, however, distrusted both the proposals and the motives of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. He thought Hamilton's financial programs both unwise and unconstitutional, flowing "from principles adverse to liberty." On the issue of federal assumption of state debts, Jefferson struck a bargain with Hamilton permitting assumption to pass--a concession that he later regretted. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade Washington to veto the bill incorporating a Bank of the United States--recommended by Hamilton.
Jefferson suspected Hamilton and others in the emerging Federalist Party of a secret design to implant monarchist ideals and institutions in the government. The disagreements spilled over into foreign affairs. Hamilton was pro-British, and Jefferson was by inclination pro-French, although he directed the office of secretary of state with notable objectivity. The more Washington sided with Hamilton, the more Jefferson became dissatisfied with his minority position within the cabinet. Finally, after being twice dissuaded from resigning, Jefferson did so on Dec. 31, 1793.
Jefferson hoped that he could work with Adams, as of old, especially since both men shared an anti-Hamilton bias. But those hopes were soon dashed. Relations with France deteriorated. In 1798, in the wake of the XYZ AFFAIR, the so-called Quasi-War began. New taxes were imposed and the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) threatened the freedom of Americans. Jefferson, laboring to check the authoritarian drift of the national government, secretly authored the Kentucky Resolution. More important, he provided his party with principles and strategy, aiming to win the election of 1800.
Federalist leaders remained adamantly opposed to Jefferson, but the people approved his policies. Internal taxes were reduced; the military budget was cut; the Alien and Sedition Acts were permitted to lapse; and plans were made to extinguish the public debt. Simplicity and frugality became the hallmarks of Jefferson's administration. The Louisiana Purchase (1803) capped his achievements. Ironically, Jefferson had to overcome constitutional scruples in order to take over the vast new territory without authorization by constitutional amendment. In this instance it was his Federalist critics who became the constitutional purists. Nonetheless, the purchase was received with popular enthusiasm. In the election of 1804, Jefferson swept every state except two--Connecticut and Delaware. Jefferson's second administration began with a minor success--the favorable settlement concluding the TRIPOLITAN WAR (1801-05), in which the newly created U.S. Navy fought its first engagements. The following year the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which the president had dispatched to explore the Louisiana Territory, returned triumphantly after crossing the continent. The West was also a source of trouble, however. The disaffected Aaron Burr engaged in a conspiracy, the details of which are still obscure, either to establish an independent republic in the Louisiana Territory or to launch an invasion of Spanish-held Mexico. Jefferson acted swiftly to arrest Burr early in 1807 and bring him to trial for treason. Burr was acquitted, however.
Jefferson's main concern in his second administration was foreign affairs, in which he experienced a notable failure. In the course of the Napoleonic Wars Britain and France repeatedly violated American sovereignty in incidents such as the Chesapeake affair (1807). Jefferson attempted to avoid a policy of either appeasement or war by the use of economic pressure.
The Embargo Ace (Dec. 22, 1807), which prohibited virtually all exports and most imports and was supplemented by enforcing legislation, was designed to coerce British and French recognition of American rights. Although it failed, it did rouse many northerners, who suffered economically, to a state of defiance of national authority. The Federalist party experienced a rebirth of popularity. In 1809, shortly before he retired from the presidency, Jefferson signed the act repealing the embargo, which had been in effect for 15 months.
The university was the last of three contributions by which Jefferson wished to be remembered; they constituted a trilogy of interrelated causes: freedom from Britain, freedom of conscience, and freedom maintained through education. On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died at Monticello.
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