I admit, Thomas Jefferson is one of the most controversial American founders, for various reasons. His political views were frequently quite extreme while his life contradicted his political and ideological writings. But, as I said at the start of this series, I am not here to judge the moral character of these men but to look at the political contributions they gave to this country. For you will find that there is no country whose founding can be attributed to perfect or virtuous men.
Thomas Jefferson: The Boy
Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 on a plantation right outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. He was born to one of the most prominent families in Virginia, his mother claiming British and Scottish royalty for her heritage. Read this account detailing how Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s father, acquired the plantation only a few years prior to Jefferson’s birth.
Jefferson was the third oldest of 10 children and did what most children do. He played in the woods, played an instrument and worked on schooling. He studied many languages such as Latin and Greek and at age 17 went to the College of William and Mary.
Thomas Jefferson: The Lawyer
After a three years of schooling, Jefferson decided to pursue law as a career. He studied under the prestigious George Wythe. Because there were no law schools at the time in the colonies, individuals studied under the supervision of an established lawyer before taking the bar exam. They were said to “read law” prior to becoming a lawyer.
So, Jefferson “read law” under Wythe for a period five years and was already one of the most learned lawyers by the time he passed the bar (five years of study was about double the average time to “read law”).
From 1767-1774 Jefferson practiced law and successfully won many cases. It was during this time of his life that he met and married Martha Skelton with whom he had six children.
Thomas Jefferson: The Revolutionary
The political animosities of the day were starting to brew with the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1785. It was then that Jefferson began to become involved in the cause of the colonies. He held a strong belief that there should be no taxation without representation and that England was abusing the colonies.
Aside: Jefferson was apparently a tall and awkward redhead. He was not an elegant speaker and was known as the “silent one” in the Continental Congress. However, he became known for the power of his words in writing.
As the revolution brewed, Virginia appointed Jefferson to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. In 1776, Congress appointed five men, Jefferson (only 33 at the time), John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, to write the Declaration of Independence.
Reading about this in his biography, I couldn’t help but realize the gravity of such an appointment. These five men were tasked with writing the document that declared to England that the United States was no longer recognizing England as their government. America declared herself a free and independent state.
From biography.com: “Over the next 17 days, Jefferson drafted one of the most beautiful and powerful testaments to liberty and equality in world history.”
Jefferson beautifully and astutely, using Locke’s reasons for civil rebellion, laid out the ways in which the British government had violated the rights, natural rights, of the American citizens. He wrote of the gravity of the American’s decision to leave, noting that such a move should never be taken without serious thought and serious cause. Remember, he and the other founders were aware that most revolutions end in bloodshed and tyranny.
Thomas Jefferson: The State Politician and Ambassador
From 1776-1781, Jefferson served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and as Virginia’s second governor. He took a brief break during which his wife tragically died at age 34. Then in 1785, Jefferson was appointed as the U.S. Foreign Ambassador to France.
I’m not as studied on Jefferson as I am the other founders, but from what I have studied, Jefferson seemed to have picked up some political extremism while living in France and listening to their revolutionaries. He sympathized with the revolutionaries’ cause, perhaps not realizing the lack of reason and rationale behind their revolution when compared to the revolution in the colonies. He brought some of the extremism to the states, contributing to some of the animosity between he and fellow politician Alexander Hamilton.
Needless to say, he was still not a great fan of France and was incredibly happy to get back to the United States saying something to which more Americans should listen. He said in a letter to John Adams: “It will make you adore your own country, it’s soil, it’s climate, it’s equality, liberty, laws, people and manners. My god! How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy. I confess I had no idea of it myself.”
Indeed, friends, how little do our countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy.
Thomas Jefferson: The Secretary of State and President
In 1789, upon Jefferson’s return to the states, Washington appointed him to be the new Secretary of State. He and Hamilton, Washington’s Secretary of Treasury, disagreed intensely on how the government should be run. This intense political disagreement ignited the first major parties in the United States. Hamilton headed up the Federalists, who believed in a stronger centralized government, while Jefferson headed up the Democratic Republicans, who advocated for a smaller central government and more states’ rights (ironically, Jefferson is considered the founder of today’s modern democrats). Jefferson ended up stepping down from his role in 1794 because of all of the political conflict.
Please realize the intensity and sometimes brutality of this political division so that you better understand the magnitude of Jefferson’s election to president.
Jefferson next served as vice-president under Adams, but because the two were on opposite political parties, Jefferson did little to nothing.
Then, in the election of 1800, Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied, both receiving 73 electoral college votes. This brought the election decision to the House of Representatives where Hamilton’s tie-breaking vote gave the presidency to Jefferson.
I’ve referenced the importance of peaceful transitions of power before, but this election marks one of the most era defining moments in world history. This was the first peacetime transfer of power from one party to another in any modern republic.
Think of it. In almost all previous governments, anytime an opposition party took control, it was with force or violence. This election marked one of the first times in world history that a member of an opposition party replaced a sitting leader peacefully.
Jefferson uttered these now-classic lines upon his inauguration as president: “But every difference of opinion, is not a difference of principle. We have called, by different names, brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans, we are all federalists.”
Jefferson, made some notable contributions as president. According to biography.com, he “stripped the presidency of all the trappings of European royalty, reduced the size of the armed forces and government bureaucracy and lowered the national debt from $80 million to $57 million in his first two years in office.” and also conducted the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of America in one fell swoop.
While his inauguration was monumental and set the precedent for future peaceful transitions of power, his choice to leave office after eight years also sealed Washington’s precedent of two terms. Remember, the Constitution did not limit the number of terms a president could serve, but Washington stepped away after two terms. Adams didn’t get nominated for a second term but Jefferson could have run and won again. Instead, he chose to step down from one of the most powerful positions in the world, saying that he would respect Washington’s precedent and hoped to avoid a hereditary monarchy.
While Jefferson’s personal and moral character was flawed, his contributions to and role in establishing the country we love can’t be overstated. He penned one of the most monumental and important documents in world history, declaring our country to be a free and independent state. He was part of the first peaceful transition of power in a Republic where the incoming leader shared the opposite party of the outgoing leader. And finally, he helped to seal Washington’s two term precedent.
I’ll leave you with some of his words of advise.
- “I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”
- “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”
- “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” Made me chuckle.
- “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” So true.
- And lastly and perhaps most profoundly: “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.”
Perhaps we should call it “the lost art”?
The Liberty Belle