Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) was the third President of the United States (1801–1809), the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and one of the most influential Founding Fathers for his promotion of the ideals of republicanism in the United States. Major events during his presidency include the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806).
As a political philosopher, Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment and knew many intellectual leaders in Britain and France. He idealized the independent yeoman farmer as exemplar of republican virtues, distrusted cities and financiers, and favored states' rights and a strictly limited federal government. Jefferson supported the separation of church and state and was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1779, 1786). He was the eponym of Jeffersonian democracy and the co-founder and leader of the Democratic-Republican Party, which dominated American politics for a quarter-century. Jefferson served as the wartime Governor of Virginia (1779–1781), first United States Secretary of State (1789–1793) and second Vice President (1797–1801).
A polymath, Jefferson achieved distinction as, among other things, a horticulturist, statesman, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, author, inventor, and founder of the University of Virginia. When President John F. Kennedy welcomed forty-nine Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
After his father's death, he was taught at the school of the learned minister James Maury from 1758 to 1760. The school was in Fredericksville Parish near Gordonsville, Virginia, twelve miles (19 km) from Shadwell, and Jefferson boarded with Maury's family. There he received a classical education and studied history and science.
In 1760 Jefferson entered The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg at the age of 16; he studied there for two years, graduating with highest honors in 1762. At William & Mary, he enrolled in the philosophy school and studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy under Professor William Small, who introduced the enthusiastic Jefferson to the writings of the British Empiricists, including John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton (Jefferson called them the "three greatest men the world had ever produced"). He also perfected his French, carried his Greek grammar book wherever he went, practiced the violin, and read Tacitus and Homer. A keen and diligent student, Jefferson displayed an avid curiosity in all fields and, according to the family tradition, frequently studied fifteen hours a day. His closest college friend, John Page of Rosewell, reported that Jefferson "could tear himself away from his dearest friends to fly to his studies."
While in college, Jefferson was a member of a secret organization called the Flat Hat Club, now the namesake of the William & Mary student newspaper. He lodged and boarded at the College in the building known today as the Sir Christopher Wren Building, attending communal meals in the Great Hall, and morning and evening prayers in the Wren Chapel. Jefferson often attended the lavish parties of royal governor Francis Fauquier, where he played his violin and developed an early love for wines. After graduating in 1762 with highest honors, he studied law with George Wythe and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767.
On October 1, 1765, Jefferson's oldest sister Jane died at the age of 25. Jefferson fell into a period of deep mourning as he was already exasperated by the absence of his sisters Mary, who had been married several years to Thomas Bolling; and Martha, who had wed earlier in July to Dabney Carr. Both had moved to their husbands' residences and left only Elizabeth, Lucy, and the two toddlers as his companions. Jefferson was not comforted by the presence of Elizabeth or Lucy because they did not provide him with the same intellectual stimulation as his older siblings had.
Jefferson would go on to handle many cases as a lawyer in colonial Virginia, managing more than a hundred cases each year between 1768 and 1773 in General Court alone, while acting as counsel in hundreds of cases. Jefferson's client list included members of the Virginia's elite families including members of his mother's family, the Randolphs.
In 1772, Jefferson married a 23-year-old widow named Martha Wayles Skelton. They had six children: Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772–1836), Jane Randolph (1774–1775), a stillborn or unnamed son (1777), Mary Wayles (1778–1804), Lucy Elizabeth (1780–1781), and Elizabeth (1782–1785). Martha died on September 6, 1782 and Jefferson never remarried. Jefferson may also have been the father of several children with his slave Sally Hemings, though the father may also have been one of his male relatives (see Jefferson DNA data).
Jefferson showed his draft to the committee, which made some final revisions, and then presented it to Congress on June 28, 1776. After voting in favor of the resolution of independence on July 2, Congress turned its attention to the declaration. Over several days of debate, Congress made a few changes in wording and deleted nearly a fourth of the text, most notably a passage critical of the slave trade, changes that Jefferson resented. On July 4, 1776, the wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved. The Declaration would eventually become Jefferson's major claim to fame, and his eloquent preamble became an enduring statement of human rights.
In September 1776, Jefferson returned to Virginia and was elected to the new Virginia House of Delegates. During his term in the House, Jefferson set out to reform and update Virginia's system of laws to reflect its new status as a democratic state. He drafted 126 bills in three years, including laws to abolish primogeniture, establish freedom of religion, and streamline the judicial system. In 1778, Jefferson's "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" led to several academic reforms at his alma mater, including an elective system of study—the first in an American university.
While in the state legislature Jefferson proposed a bill to eliminate all crimes punishable to death in Virginia except murder and treason. His effort to reform the death penalty law was defeated by just one vote, and Virginia retained such crimes as rape as punishable to death until the 1960s..
Virginia was invaded twice by the British during Jefferson's term as governor. He, along with Patrick Henry and other leaders of Virginia, were but ten minutes away from being captured by Banastre Tarleton, a British colonel leading a cavalry column that was raiding the area in June 1781. Public disapproval of his performance delayed his future political prospects, and he was never again elected to office in Virginia.
Because Jefferson served as minister to France from 1785 to 1789, he was not able to attend the Philadelphia Convention. He generally supported the new constitution despite the lack of a bill of rights and was kept informed by his correspondence with James Madison.
While in Paris, he lived in a residence on the Champs-Élysées. He spent much of his time exploring the architectural sites of the city, as well as enjoying the fine arts that Paris had to offer. He became a favorite in the salon culture and was a frequent dinner guest of many of the city's most prominent people.
Despite his numerous friendships with the social and noble elite, when the French Revolution began in 1789, Jefferson sided with the revolutionaries.
Jefferson strongly supported France against Britain when war broke out between those nations in 1793. Historian Lawrence S. Kaplan notes Jefferson's "visceral support for the French cause," while agreeing with Washington that the nation should not get involved in the fighting. The arrival in 1793 of an aggressive new French minister, Edmond-Charles Genêt, caused a crisis for the Secretary of State, as he watched Genêt try to violate American neutrality, manipulate public opinion, and even go over Washington's head in appealing to the people; projects that Jefferson helped to thwart. According to Schachner, Jefferson believed that political success at home depended on the success of the French army in Europe:
With the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war with France, underway, the Federalists under John Adams started a navy, built up the army, levied new taxes, readied for war, and enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Jefferson interpreted the Alien and Sedition Acts as an attack on his party more than on dangerous enemy aliens; they were used to attack his party, with the most notable attacks coming from Matthew Lyon, congressman of Vermont. He and Madison rallied support by anonymously writing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which declared that the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it by the states. The Resolutions meant that, should the federal government assume such powers, its acts under them could be voided by a state. The Resolutions presented the first statements of the states' rights theory, that later led to the concepts of nullification and interposition.
After lengthy debate within the Federalist-controlled House, Hamilton convinced his party that Jefferson would be a lesser political evil than Burr and that such scandal within the electoral process would undermine the still-young regime. The issue was resolved by the House, on February 17, 1801 after thirty-six ballots, when Jefferson was elected President and Burr Vice President. Burr's refusal to remove himself from consideration created ill will with Jefferson, who dropped Burr from the ticket in 1804 after Burr killed Hamilton in a duel.
After leaving the Presidency, Jefferson continued to be active in public affairs. He also became increasingly concerned with founding a new institution of higher learning, specifically one free of church influences where students could specialize in many new areas not offered at other universities. Jefferson believed educating people was a good way to establish an organized society, and also felt schools should be paid for by the general public, so less wealthy people could obtain student membership as well. A letter to Joseph Priestley, in January, 1800, indicated that he had been planning the University for decades before its establishment.
His dream was realized in 1819 with the founding of the University of Virginia. Upon its opening in 1825, it was then the first university to offer a full slate of elective courses to its students. One of the largest construction projects to that time in North America, it was notable for being centered about a library rather than a church. In fact, no campus chapel was included in his original plans. Until his death, Jefferson invited students and faculty of the school to his home; Edgar Allan Poe was among those students.
Jefferson is widely recognized for his architectural planning of the University of Virginia grounds, an innovative design that is a powerful representation of his aspirations for both state sponsored education and an agrarian democracy in the new Republic. His educational idea of creating specialized units of learning is physically expressed in the configuration of his campus plan, which he called the "Academical Village." Individual academic units are expressed visually as distinct structures, represented by Pavilions, facing a grassy quadrangle, with each Pavilion housing classroom, faculty office, and residences. Though unique, each is visually equal in importance, and they are linked together with a series of open air arcades that are the front facades of student accommodations. Gardens and vegetable plots are placed behind surrounded by serpentine walls, affirming the importance of the agrarian lifestyle.
His highly ordered site plan establishes an ensemble of buildings surrounding a central rectangular quadrangle, named The Lawn, which is lined on either side with the academic teaching units and their linking arcades. The quad is enclosed at one end with the library, the repository of knowledge, at the head of the table. The remaining side opposite the library remained open-ended for future growth. The lawn rises gradually as a series of stepped terraces, each a few feet higher than the last, rising up to the library set in the most prominent position at the top, while also suggesting that the Academical Village facilitates easier movement to the future.
Stylistically, Jefferson was a proponent of the Greek and Roman styles, which he believed to be most representative of American democracy by historical association. Each academic unit is designed with a two story temple front facing the quadrangle, while the library is modeled on the Roman Pantheon. The ensemble of buildings surrounding the quad is an unmistakable architectural statement of the importance of secular public education, while the exclusion of religious structures reinforces the principal of separation of church and state. The campus planning and architectural treatment remains today as a paradigm of the ordering of manmade structures to express intellectual ideas and aspirations. A survey of members of the American Institute of Architects identified Jefferson's campus as the most significant work of architecture in America.
The University was designed as the capstone of the educational system of Virginia. In his vision, any citizen of the commonwealth could attend school with the sole criterion being ability.
Jefferson died on the Fourth of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. He died a few hours before the death of John Adams, his compatriot in their quest for independence, then great political rival, and later friend and correspondent. Adams is often rumored to have referenced Jefferson in his last words, unaware of his passing.
Although he was born into one of the wealthiest families in the United States, Thomas Jefferson was deeply in debt when he died.
Jefferson's trouble began when his father-in-law died, and he and his brothers-in-law quickly divided the estate before its debts were settled. It made each of them liable for the whole amount due which turned out to be more than they expected.
Jefferson sold land before the American Revolution to pay off the debts, but by the time he received payment, the paper money was worthless amid the skyrocketing inflation of the war years. Cornwallis ravaged Jefferson's plantation during the war, and British creditors resumed their collection efforts when the conflict ended. Jefferson was burned again when he co-signed notes for a relative who reneged on debts in the financial panic of 1819. Only Jefferson's public stature prevented creditors from seizing Monticello and selling it out from under him during his lifetime.
After his death, his possessions were sold at auction. In 1831, Jefferson's 552 acres (223 hectares) were sold for $7,000 to James T. Barclay. Thomas Jefferson is buried on his Monticello estate, in Charlottesville, Virginia. In his will, he left Monticello to the United States to be used as a school for orphans of navy officers. His epitaph, written by him with an insistence that only his words and "not a word more" be inscribed, reads:
Below the epitaph on a separate panel is written:
"The Sage of Monticello" cultivated an image that earned him the other nickname, "Man of the People." He affected a popular air by greeting White House guests in homespun attire like a robe and slippers. Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison (Jefferson's secretary of state), and Jefferson's daughters relaxed White House protocol and turned formal state dinners into more casual and entertaining social events. Although a foremost defender of a free press, Jefferson at times sparred with partisan newspapers and appealed to the people.
Jefferson's writings were utilitarian and evidenced great intellect, and he had an affinity for languages. He learned Gaelic in order to translate Ossian, and sent to James Macpherson for the originals.
As President, he discontinued the practice of delivering the State of the Union Address in person, instead sending the address to Congress in writing (the practice was eventually revived by Woodrow Wilson); he gave only two public speeches during his Presidency. Jefferson had a lisp and preferred writing to public speaking partly because of this. He burned all of his letters between himself and his wife at her death, creating the portrait of a man who at times could be very private. Indeed, he preferred working in the privacy of his office than the public eye.
Jefferson's interests included archeology, a discipline then in its infancy. He has sometimes been called the "father of archeology" in recognition of his role in developing excavation techniques. When exploring an Indian burial mound on his Virginia estate in 1784, Jefferson avoided the common practice of simply digging downwards until something turned up. Instead, he cut a wedge out of the mound so that he could walk into it, look at the layers of occupation, and draw conclusions from them.
Thomas Jefferson enjoyed his fish pond at Monticello. It was around three feet (1 m) deep and mortar lined. He used the pond to keep fish that were recently caught as well as to keep eels fresh. This pond has been restored and can be seen from the west side of Monticello.
In 1780, he joined Benjamin Franklin's American Philosophical Society. He served as president of the society from 1797 to 1815.
Jefferson was an avid wine lover and noted gourmet. During his years in France (1784–1789) he took extensive trips through French and other European wine regions and sent the best back home. He is noted for the bold pronouncement: "We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good." While there were extensive vineyards planted at Monticello, a significant portion were of the European wine grape Vitis vinifera and did not survive the many vine diseases native to the Americas.
In 1801, he published A Manual of Parliamentary Practice that is still in use. In 1812 Jefferson published a second edition.
After the British burned Washington, D.C. and the Library of Congress in August 1814, Jefferson offered his own collection to the nation. In January 1815, Congress accepted his offer, appropriating $23,950 for his 6,487 books, and the foundation was laid for a great national library. Today, the Library of Congress' website for federal legislative information is named THOMAS, in honor of Jefferson. His two-volume 1764 edition of the Qur'an was used by Rep. Keith Ellison in 2007 for his swearing in to the House of Representatives.
Jefferson was a leader in developing republicanism in the United States. He insisted that the British aristocratic system was inherently corrupt and that Americans' devotion to civic virtue required independence. In the 1790s he repeatedly warned that Hamilton and Adams were trying to impose a British-like monarchical system that threatened republicanism. He supported the War of 1812, hoping it would drive away the British military and ideological threat from Canada. Jefferson's vision for American virtue was that of an agricultural nation of yeoman farmers minding their own affairs. It stood in contrast to the vision of Alexander Hamilton, who envisioned a nation of commerce and manufacturing, which Jefferson said offered too many temptations to corruption. Jefferson's deep belief in the uniqueness and the potential of America made him the father of American exceptionalism. In particular, he was confident that an under-populated America could avoid what he considered the horrors of class-divided, industrialized Europe.
Jefferson's republican political principles were heavily influenced by the Country Party of 18th century British opposition writers. He was influenced by John Locke (particularly relating to the principle of inalienable rights). Historians find few traces of any influence by his French contemporary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
His opposition to the Bank of the United States was fierce: "I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale. Nevertheless Madison and Congress, seeing the financial chaos caused by the lack of a national bank in the War of 1812, disregarded his advice and created the Second Bank of the United States in 1816.
Jefferson believed that each individual has "certain inalienable rights." That is, these rights exist with or without government; man cannot create, take, or give them away. It is the right of "liberty" on which Jefferson is most notable for expounding. He defines it by saying "rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual. Hence, for Jefferson, though government cannot create a right to liberty, it can indeed violate it. And the limit of an individual's rightful liberty is not what law says it is but is simply a matter of stopping short of prohibiting other individuals from having the same liberty. A proper government, for Jefferson, is one that not only prohibits individuals in society from infringing on the liberty of other individuals, but also restrains itself from diminishing individual liberty.
Jefferson's commitment to equality was expressed in his successful efforts to abolish primogeniture in Virginia, the rule by which the first born son inherited all the land.
Jefferson believed that individuals have an innate sense of morality that prescribes right from wrong when dealing with other individuals—that whether they choose to restrain themselves or not, they have an innate sense of the natural rights of others. He even believed that moral sense to be reliable enough that an anarchist society could function well, provided that it was reasonably small. On several occasions, he expressed admiration for tribal, communal way of living of Native Americans: In fact, Jefferson is sometimes seen as a philosophical anarchist.
He said in a letter to Colonel Carrington: "I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government, enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments." However, Jefferson believed anarchism to be "inconsistent with any great degree of population. Hence, he did advocate government for the American expanse provided that it exists by "consent of the governed."
In the Preamble to his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote:
We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles & organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness.
Jefferson's dedication to "consent of the governed" was so thorough that he believed that individuals could not be morally bound by the actions of preceding generations. This included debts as well as law. He said that "no society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation." He even calculated what he believed to be the proper cycle of legal revolution: "Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it is to be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right." He arrived at nineteen years through calculations with expectancy of life tables, taking into account what he believed to be the age of "maturity"—when an individual is able to reason for himself. He also advocated that the national debt should be eliminated. He did not believe that living individuals had a moral obligation to repay the debts of previous generations. He said that repaying such debts was "a question of generosity and not of right.
Jefferson's very strong defense of States' rights, especially in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, set the tone for hostility to expansion of federal powers. However, some of his foreign policies did in fact strengthen the government. Most important was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when he used the implied powers to annex a huge foreign territory and all its French and Indian inhabitants. His enforcement of the Embargo Act of 1807, while it failed in terms of foreign policy, demonstrated that the federal government could intervene with great force at the local level in controlling trade that might lead to war.
To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men and not more so. They have with others the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps. Their maxim is boni judicis est ampliare jurisdictionem [good justice is broad jurisdiction], and their power the more dangerous as they are in office for life and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control. The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. It has more wisely made all the departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves.
I never had an opinion in politics or religion which I was afraid to own. A costive reserve on these subjects might have procured me more esteem from some people, but less from myself.
Though his religious views diverged widely from the orthodox Christianity of his day, throughout his life Jefferson was intensely interested in theology, spirituality, and biblical study. His religious commitment is probably best summarized in his own words as he proclaimed that he belonged to a sect with just one member.
Jefferson was raised in the Church of England at a time when it was the established church in Virginia and only denomination funded by Virginia tax money. theologian Avery Dulles reports, "In his college years at William and Mary [Jefferson] came to admire Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke as three great paragons of wisdom. Under the influence of several professors he converted to the deist philosophy. Dulles concludes:
In summary, then, Jefferson was a deist because he believed in one God, in divine providence, in the divine moral law, and in rewards and punishments after death; but did not believe in supernatural revelation. He was a Christian deist because he saw Christianity as the highest expression of natural religion and Jesus as an incomparably great moral teacher. He was not an orthodox Christian because he rejected, among other things, the doctrines that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the incarnate Son of God. Jefferson's religion is fairly typical of the American form of deism in his day.
Some feel that this conclusion is inconsistent with Jefferson's 1825 letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse.
Before the Revolution, Jefferson was a vestryman in his local church, a lay position that was informally tied to political office at the time. He also had friends who were clergy, and he supported some churches financially.
At the start of the Revolution appears that Jefferson employed theist terminology in the United States Declaration of Independence where he wrote the words "Creator" and "Nature's God." Jefferson believed, furthermore, it was this Creator that endowed humanity with a number of inalienable rights, such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
In 1776 Jefferson also proposed a motto for the United States Seal. His proposal was, "Rebellion to tyrants is Obedience to God." He suggested that the seal should feature an image of the Biblical Hebrews being rescued by God via the Red Sea.
Following the Revolution, Jefferson played a leading role in establishing freedom of religion in Virginia. Previously the Anglican Church had tax support. As he wrote in his Notes on Virginia, a law was in effect in Virginia that "if a person brought up a Christian denies the being of a God, or the Trinity ...he is punishable on the first offense by incapacity to hold any office ...; on the second by a disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy ..., and by three year' imprisonment." Prospective officer-holders were required to swear that they did not believe in the central Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
From 1784 to 1786, Jefferson and James Madison worked together to oppose Patrick Henry's attempts to again assess taxes in Virginia to support churches. Instead, in 1786, the Virginia General Assembly passed Jefferson's Bill for Religious Freedom, which he had first submitted in 1779 and was one of only three accomplishments he put in his own epitaph. The law read:
No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that 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.
In his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson stated: "Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make half the world fools and half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the world..."
Jefferson sought what he called a "wall of separation between Church and State," which he believed was a principle expressed by the First Amendment. This phrase has been cited several times by the Supreme Court in its interpretation of the Establishment Clause. In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, he wrote:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
Regarding the choice of some governments to regulate religion and thought, Jefferson stated:
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Deriving from this statement, Jefferson believed that the Government's relationship with the Church should be indifferent, religion being neither persecuted nor give any special status.
If anything pass in a religious meeting seditiously and contrary to the public peace, let it be punished in the same manner and no otherwise as it had happened in a fair or market
Jefferson refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and thanksgiving during his Presidency, yet as Governor in Virginia he did issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and thanksgiving. His private letters indicate he was skeptical of too much interference by clergy in matters of civil government. His letters contain the following observations: "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government, and, "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. While opposed to the institutions of organized religion, Jefferson invoked the notion of divine justice in his opposition to slavery: "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can not sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!
While the debate over Jefferson's understanding over the separation of Church and state is far from being settled, as are his particular religious tenets, his dependence on divine Providence is not nearly as ambiguous. As he stated, in his second inaugural address:
I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.
During his presidency, Jefferson attended the weekly church services held in the House of Representatives. He also permitted church services in executive branch buildings throughout his administration, one author writes that this was because Jefferson "believed that religion was a prop for republican government".
From his careful study of the Bible, Jefferson concluded that Jesus never claimed to be God. He therefore regarded much of the New Testament as "so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture". He described the "roguery of others of His disciples",
and called them a "band of dupes and impostors", describing Paul as the "first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus", and wrote of "palpable interpolations and falsifications". He also described the Book of Revelation to be "merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams". While living in the White House, Jefferson began to piece together his own condensed version of the Gospels, omitting the virgin birth of Jesus, miracles attributed to Jesus, divinity and the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, primarily leaving only Jesus' moral philosophy, of which he approved. This compilation titled The LIFE AND MORALS OF JESUS OF NAZARETH Extracted Textually from the Gospels Greek, Latin, French, and English was published after his death and became known as the Jefferson Bible.
In 1803 Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, but he had high esteem for Jesus's moral teachings, which he viewed as the "principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform [prior Jewish] moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. Jefferson did not believe in miracles. Biographer Merrill D. Peterson summarizes Jefferson's theology:
First, that the Christianity of the churches was unreasonable, therefore unbelievable, but that stripped of priestly mystery, ritual, and dogma, reinterpreted in the light of historical evidence and human experience, and substituting the Newtonian cosmology for the discredited Biblical one, Christianity could be conformed to reason. Second, morality required no divine sanction or inspiration, no appeal beyond reason and nature, perhaps not even the hope of heaven or the fear of hell; and so the whole edifice of Christian revelation came tumbling to the ground.
His experience in France just before the French Revolution made him deeply suspicious of Catholic priests and bishops as a force for reaction and ignorance. Similarly, his experience in America with inter-denominational intolerance served to reinforce this skeptical view of religion. In an 1820 letter to William Short, Jefferson wrote: "the serious enemies are the priests of the different religious sects, to whose spells on the human mind its improvement is ominous."
Jefferson also expressed general agreement with his friend Joseph Priestley's Unitarian form of Christianity. In an 1822 letter to Benjamin Waterhouse he wrote, "I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its conscience to neither kings or priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.
In a 1825 letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Jefferson wrote:
I am anxious to see the doctrine of one god commenced in our state. But the population of my neighborhood is too slender, and is too much divided into other sects to maintain any one preacher well. I must therefore be contented to be an Unitarian by myself, although I know there are many around me who would become so, if once they could hear the questions fairly stated.
His last words were, "I resign myself to my God, and my child to my country.
| Jefferson portrayed|
on the U.S. Nickel
During his long career in public office, Jefferson attempted numerous times to abolish or limit the advance of slavery. He sponsored and encouraged Free-State advocates like James Lemen. According to a biographer, Jefferson "believed that it was the responsibility of the state and society to free all slaves. In 1769, as a member of the House of Burgesses, Jefferson proposed for that body to emancipate slaves in Virginia, but he was unsuccessful. In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson condemned the British crown for sponsoring the importation of slavery to the colonies, charging that the crown "has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere." However, this language was dropped from the Declaration at the request of delegates from South Carolina and Georgia.
In 1778, the legislature passed a bill he proposed to ban further importation of slaves into Virginia; although this did not bring complete emancipation, in his words, it "stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication." In 1784, Jefferson's draft of what became the Northwest Ordinance stipulated that "there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" in any of the new states admitted to the Union from the Northwest Territory. In 1807, he signed a bill abolishing the slave trade.
Jefferson attacked the institution of slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784):
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.
In this same work, Jefferson advanced his suspicion that black people were inferior to white people "in the endowments both of body and mind. However, Jefferson did also write in this same work that a black person could have the right to live free in any country where people judge them by their nature and not as just being good for labor as well. He also wrote, "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. [But] the two races...cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them." According to historian Stephen Ambrose: "Jefferson, like all slaveholders and many other white members of American society, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property. Jefferson, the genius of politics, could see no way for African Americans to live in society as free people. His solution seems to have been for slaves to be freed then deported peacefully, failing which the same result would be imposed by war and that, in Jefferson's words, "human nature must shudder at the prospect held up. We should in vain look for an example in the Spanish deportation or deletion of the Moors. This precedent would fall far short of our case.
On February 25, 1809, Jefferson repudiated his earlier view, writing in a letter to Abbé Grégoire:
Sir,—I have received the favor of your letter of August 17th, and with it the volume you were so kind to send me on the "Literature of Negroes." Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunity for the development of their genius were not favorable and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making toward their re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you therefore to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief; and to be assured of the sentiments of high and just esteem and consideration which I tender to yourself with all sincerity.
The downturn in land prices after 1819 pushed Jefferson further into debt. Jefferson finally emancipated his five most trusted slaves; the others were sold after his death to pay his debts.
Whether Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings is the subject of considerable controversy. Regarding marriage between blacks and whites, Jefferson wrote that "[t]he amalgamation of whites with blacks produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent. In addition, Hemings was likely the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (John Wayles had a reputation for relations with his slaves). The allegation that Jefferson fathered children with Hemings first gained widespread public attention in 1802, when controversial journalist James T. Callender, wrote in a Richmond newspaper, "...[Jefferson] keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally." Jefferson never responded publicly about this issue but is said to have denied it in his private correspondence.
A 1998 DNA study concluded that there was a DNA link between some of Hemings descendants and the Jefferson family, but it did not conclusively prove that Jefferson himself was their ancestor. (He belonged to the Haplogroup 'T' DNA group.) Three studies were released in the early 2000s, following the publication of the DNA evidence. In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello, appointed a multi-disciplinary, nine-member in-house research committee of Ph.D.s and an M.D. to study the matter of the paternity of Hemings's children. The committee concluded "it is very unlikely that any Jefferson other than Thomas Jefferson was the father of [Hemings's six] children.
In 2001, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society commissioned a study by an independent 13-member Scholars Commission. The commission concluded that the Jefferson paternity thesis was not persuasive. On April 12, 2001, they issued a report; at 565 pages, it was far longer than the Foundation report, though many of those pages were devoted to a review of the evidence that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation study examined. The conclusion of most of the Scholars Commission was that "the Jefferson-Hemings allegation is by no means proven"; those members' individual conclusions ranged from "serious skepticism about the charge" to "a conviction that it is almost certainly false." The majority suggested the most likely alternative is that Randolph Jefferson, Thomas's younger brother, was the father of Eston.
The National Genealogical Society Quarterly then published articles reviewing the evidence from a genealogical perspective and concluded that the link between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was credible.