Jefferson, however, is a victim of time. His image has become overly sterile or idealized the minds of most citizens. He shares this characteristic with many major historical figures, including the other American revolutionaries known as the founding fathers. The popular legend of Jefferson does not quite describe the complicated and conflicted nature of the man. In fact, his critics of the day reviled him as being everything from a radical to a heretic. In the process, tenuous nature of the early republic is all but forgotten.
The modern, sanitized image of Jefferson is not true to history, nor does it do justice to the flawed greatness of one of Americas most important founding fathers. Critics of Jeffersons failure to address the slavery issue have also taken too simplistic a view of a man who lived in extremely complex times.
Thomas Jefferson was born into a wealthy Virginia family in the spring of 1743. Jefferson was the third of eight children born to Peter Jefferson, a plantation owner. Young Thomas received a classical education, first specializing in languages, and later history and the sciences. When he was only 14 his father died, and Thomas received a large inheritance which included several dozen slaves.
Jefferson attended The College of William and Mary, where he was an outstanding student in areas as diverse as music and philosophy. In 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton. She provided Jefferson with six children before her death in 1782. Jeffersons career began as a lawyer and soon after he became a delegate to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson was a rising political star. He served with distinction in the newly established Virginia House of Delegates. He was the primary sponsor of over a hundred bills that helped establish Virginia as an independent, democratic state.
When the colonies decided to revolt, Jefferson was chosen to draft a statement explaining their actions. Jefferson agonized over every word, as did the Continental Congress which edited the Declaration heavily. What remained was a soaring document of freedom, a Declaration of Independence that set down the guiding principles for the Revolution. In 1779 he returned to Virginia to serve as Governor, which provided him a platform to promote education in the state.
In the postwar years, Jefferson accepted an important position as the Ambassador to France. Then in 1789, he returned from France to serve as Secretary of State under President George Washington. The new republic was still emerging. Jefferson feared that too much power would be usurped by the federal government. His battles with Alexander Hamilton over federal involvement in the economy were legendary and very necessary to determine a well thought out course for the nation.
Jeffersons commitment to education was clear. His conception of education is the forerunner of our higher education system today. Jefferson was personally a religious man. At the same time he saw the education in the arts, sciences and mathematics should be relatively free of religious control. During his time in the Virginia House, he introduced a number of bills to promote this viewpoint. He still felt that change was too slow in coming, prompting him to establish The University of Virginia. It was a comprehensive University, specifically separated from religious study or control.
In addition to several languages and mathematics, the University offered study in: natural philosophy, the principles of agriculture, chemistry, mineralogy¦botany, zoology; anatomy; medicine; civil government; political economy; the law of nature and nations; municipal law; history; ideology; general grammar; ethics; rhetoric and Belles letters¦ (Jefferson, 1818).
Thomas Jefferson ran for the Presidency in 1796, but lost to John Adams. He did gain enough votes, however, to become Adams Vice-President. Serving with a Federalist President proved difficult. Jefferson, at times, found himself working covertly against Adams policies.
In 1800, Jefferson himself was elected President. This was another irony in Jeffersons life. The man who had resisted federal power was now the head of the federal government. His qualifications for the job were not in question. None the less, his two terms as President would prove to be turbulent as the growing pains of the young nation continued. Before taking office Jefferson restated his anti-federalist position:
In the thick of a party conflict in 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a
Private letter: I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility
against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
(The White House, 2007)
Halfway through his first term Thomas Jefferson changed the shape of the nation, quite literally. At the turn of the 19th century, the Americans still had to contend with a heavy French influence in the Mississippi region. Jefferson deftly capitalized on world events to solve the issue peacefully. Although the idea of a large federal expenditure of money bothered Jefferson, the overall benefit to the country was clear: ¦Jefferson suppressed his qualms over constitutionality when he had the opportunity to acquire the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803 (The White House, 2007). The colonization of the vast western territory would begin soon after. Along the way great moral questions would arise that would not be fully answered during Jeffersons lifetime. How would the native peoples be treated? Would slavery exist in the new territories? A great deal of blood would be shed over these issues in the coming years.
Many times throughout his career, Jefferson used religious principles as a basis for his political opinions. This was true in his promotion of education, his opposition to slavery and the expansion of the American nation. In the same breath, he spoke at length about the dangers of theocracy, leading many political opponents to criticize his lack of faith. His views on the subject were heavily criticized in his day, but his views on the intersection of church and state have provided the nation the opportunity to grow and become richly diverse. His writings are still used as a bedrock principle in Supreme Court cases involving religion.
Jefferson and African-Americans
Politicians whose private lives do not match their publicly stated principles are often prone to particularly severe criticism from media, political opponents and historians. Thomas Jefferson pushed for some of the most liberal laws ensuring personal freedom that had ever been written into law. He promoted the bill of rights, an amendment to the United States Constitution that made specific human rights uniform among the states. His words in the Declaration of Independence; all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights (Jefferson, 1821), made no racial distinctions. Jefferson, in his personal correspondence, advocated an end to the practice of slavery.
At the same time, slavery was a centuries-old practice in Jeffersons home state of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson himself held slaves on his Monticello plantation. Furthermore, rumors that Jefferson had a sexual affair with one of his slaves plagued his political campaigns.
This episode would remain part of his legacy for hundreds of years. Centuries later it would be scientifically proven that an African-American woman was likely the descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Jefferson was a man of his own times, even if he was a revolutionary.
Undoubtedly similar situations appeared all over the slave holding south. Jefferson made many attempts to legislatively limit or regulate slavery, first in colonial Virginia and later in the United States. His words in the Declaration of Independence state a religious foundation for the freedom of the individual man. Yet, he could not be described as an abolitionist. He still held slaves of his own, no matter how well treated they may have been. Defenders point out that, legally speaking, Jefferson could not free his slaves until his estate was free of debt.
It is without doubt that the slavery issue created a crisis of conscience for Jefferson. At the same time there is some evidence that he saw blacks as intellectually inferior, including his statement from his Public Papers that ¦the two races cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them (Jefferson, 1984). Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote that Jefferson ¦regarded negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property (Ambrose, 2007).
Jefferson and Native- Americans
In public, Thomas Jefferson extolled the virtues of the American Indian. He praised their nobility and purity. While publicly proclaiming that they were victims of their fate, he none the less put into motion many of the events that would decimate their cultures and population.
Jefferson had contact with the Indians early in his life in Virginia. He went on to write carefully detailed studies of Indian culture and tribal divisions. Still, upon becoming President, Jefferson outlined plans for removal of all the Eastern Indian tribes. In theory, those tribes could collude with the British or French to undermine the young American nation. In his second Inaugural Address, Jefferson expanded the removal plan to the western territories. What followed was a lethal forced removal of Indians that would continue for nearly a hundred years. By the time Jefferson left office the process was well underway.
Thomas Jefferson died, amazingly, on July 4, 1826. It was not only the same day former President John Adams died; it was the 50th anniversary of Jeffersons Declaration of Independence. For two men so inextricably tied to the founding of the nation, it was eerily appropriate that they died on Independence Day.
Thomas Jefferson was imperfect, as was the new nation he helped create. Ultimately, his brilliance is shown in his efforts to create a nation that, over time, can address its problems and injustices without imploding upon itself. Jefferson was a complicated man in an even more complicated time. He should neither be seen as a perfect leader or as a perfect villain. That is the way he would have wanted it.
Jefferson was a child of privilege, yet he did tremendous things to promote the education and the freedom of the common man. He was a revolutionary thinker, yet he was still tied to practices of the past. He was an advocate of limited federal government, but he made the largest land purchase in the history of the nation with federal funds. The contradictions of Jeffersons life can be perplexing but, in the end, they do not tarnish his legacy. Instead they provide color and context to a man who was uniquely American.
Ambrose, Stephen E. (2002) Flawed Founders. Accessed 5/25/2007 from:
Jefferson, Thomas and Cabell, Joseph. (1818). An Act Establishing the University
(from the letters of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Cabell). Richmond, VA: J.W. Randolph.
Jefferson, Thomas. (1984). A Summary View of the Rights of British America (ed. by
Merrill D. Peterson). New York: Library of America.
Jefferson, Thomas. (1821). Autobiography (ed. by Merrill D. Peterson). New York:
Library of America.
Jefferson, Thomas. (1984). Public Papers (ed. by Merrill D. Peterson). New York:
Library of America.
Onuf, Peter. (1993). The Scholars Jefferson. William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd series,
L:4, (Oct. 1993), pp. 671-699.
The White House. (2007). Thomas Jefferson. Accessed 5/25/2007 from: