Thomas Jefferson, in this writer’s opinion, is by far the most interesting of all the founding fathers. His oxymoronic tendencies have perplexed, but also fascinated, both historians and average American for decades. For instance, Jefferson penned the phrase, “all men are created equal,” yet he owned hundreds of slaves. He was a steadfast defender of religious liberty and a lifelong admirer of Judeo-Christian values, yet he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. He has been both commended and chastised for his contributions to the forming of this great nation. What follows is an attempt to demonstrate Jefferson’s contributions to this country, yet it will not shy away from a discussion of his flaws and shortcomings.
Jefferson was born and raised in colonial Virginia, where he inherited approximately 5,000 acres of land from his father, Peter Jefferson. Educated at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson was an especially diligent student who directed his focus toward subjects such as philosophy, law, science, and the like. It was through his study that Jefferson discovered John Locke, the 17th-century physician and political philosopher from whom Jefferson would acquire many of his political principles. Jefferson’s education and voracious reading habits would serve him greatly in the future.
Indeed, being the diligent student and well-read individual that he was, Jefferson (at a mere 26 years of age) used his work ethic and knowledge to get elected to The Virginia House of Burgesses, the legislative body in colonial Virginia, where he proved to be a superb legislator.
Despite Jefferson’s reticence for and ineptitude in public speaking, through a combination of great conversation, persistence, and perfectly written legal language, he demonstrated a capability for converging coalitions of people with an array of ideologies.
As a legislator, Jefferson worked to end the slave trade in Virginia. He authored the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, one of his greatest accomplishments and one of the most influential documents on American beliefs and values. Being especially inspired by Locke’s teachings, Jefferson believed that a church is “a volunteer society of men,” and that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” It is important to recognize here that this statute extends to all religions and not just Christian sects. Although Jefferson was critical of Islam, he knew that ”religious freedom” must extend to all religions. Ideas within the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom — considered progressive at the time — were a good indication of the direction Jefferson, and thereby the young nascent country, would take in the near future.
Jefferson, once again being inspired by Locke, believed that legitimate government is formed through an agreement between the people and the State. Essentially, a legitimate government may only govern with the consent of the people. If those people feel that their natural rights are being infringed upon, then they have a right to literally rebel against the tyrant to whom they are subject. Here again, we see that the ideals to which Jefferson subscribed are the very ideals that our country is built upon.
The most famous of Jefferson’s contributions to our country was his writing the Declaration of Independence. At the age of 33, Jefferson sat in his parlor and authored a draft of the Declaration, despite his anxiety about his wife, Martha’s, health and his fear of the fate of his war-engulfed nation. Who came up with the definitive three-part structure of the document is still a subject of debate among historians, but it is certain that the committee in charge of drafting the document proposed the document’s entails to Jefferson.
Jefferson, being the most educated member of the committee in the subjects of political philosophy and legal history, began the document with a philosophy-based preamble that discusses the teachings and ideologies of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers. The next section consists of a general list of grievances against King George III, and it provides examples of how the King had violated the colonialists’ natural rights. The third and final section contains the actual “Declaration” of independence itself. In this section Jefferson declares that all political ties to England are “dissolved,” and America should be seen as its own independent nation.
The Declaration’s most famous line is almost beyond dispute: “All men are created equal.” This line also is a cause of much debate and controversy, however, because the man who wrote it also owned a large number of slaves.
Moreover, the freedom of African-American slaves was not mentioned in the Document and it is clear that the proposition of natural rights did not extend to them. This begs the following question: Where did Thomas Jefferson stand on slavery? Despite what you may think about him, Jefferson believed that “the abolition of domestic slavery [was] the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.” Jefferson knew that slavery was a horrid institution, but he also knew that if he pushed for the emancipation of slaves too heavily, he would be treated as a radical and rendered ineffective.
I am certainly not justifying Jefferson’s actions in regard to slavery; I am simply offering an explanation to an issue that has puzzled historians for decades. In fact, Jefferson actually had a private plan for a gradual emancipation of slaves and even worked to ban the international slave trade in Virginia and in the United States at large upon his becoming president.
With that being said, however, Jefferson still believed that black slaves were inferior to whites and that there was no possible way for the two to live together peacefully after emancipation. He believed in educating the children of slaves and sending them off to colonize a foreign land.
Jefferson’s negative view on the institution of slavery and his view on African-Americans in general once again demonstrates how Jefferson consistently contradicts himself. This, naturally, brings up the question: If Jefferson hated slavery so much then why did he not free his own slaves upon his death? The answer is, quite simply, his financial situation at the time of his death. The amount of debt Jefferson had acquired throughout his life was quite significant. Owing to this predicament, Jefferson was not economically in a position to free his slaves. Once again I am not justifying Jefferson’s actions here, I am simply offering an explanation.
Thomas Jefferson’s case was a typical one among the founders and demonstrates the obvious: While our founding fathers were brilliant thinkers and courageous individuals, they were not perfect. They lived in a time with different political and social norms as well as a completely different definition of equality.
The social norm of equality can be like fashion or art. It is constantly changing and evolving, making it difficult to define. The definition of equality did not extend to the LGBTQ community ten years ago, for example, and who knows to whom the definition will extend ten years from now. The question arises, should our founding fathers, despite their brilliant work, be ignored and dismissed as nothing more than racists? Absolutely not.
Statues of our founding fathers, for instance, should never be defaced or toppled for any reason. Instead, we should use these statues as an opportunity to educate ourselves on both the good and bad history of our country. Our founding fathers were beyond their years in intellect and truly brave individuals. They were obviously flawed, but I challenge you to find someone in history that is not.
The case of Thomas Jefferson shows that human flaws do not preclude a prolific life of brilliance. Jefferson would hold some of the most prestigious titles in the world, such as Secretary of State, Vice President, and eventually President.
He indirectly helped inspire the French Revolution through his revival of republicanism and Enlightenment thinking in America.
Virtually single-handedly, he nearly doubled the size of the United States in 1803 with his purchase of 530 million acres of land from the French. Rightly, this purchase–what would come to be termed the ‘Louisiana Purchase’–is seen by many as one of Jefferson’s greatest accomplishments.
In 1807, as president, he also ended the international slave trade and established the Library of Congress.
With regard to education, Jefferson was an early advocate for free public education in Virginia, and he founded the University of Virginia in 1819. He even made some of the greatest contributions to American architecture through his work on his home estate of Monticello and at the University of Virginia.
Jefferson was a true renaissance man and a powerful Libertarian who believed in the simplicity of government. He and the other founding fathers believed that the primary role of government was to provide security from foreign and domestic threats, as well as to protect its citizens’ natural rights given by God (not by government).
But the scope of government has expanded drastically since the days of Jefferson and Adams, some of it good, some of it bad. Regardless, it is clear that both the modern Republican and Democratic parties have strayed away from Jefferson’s idea of limited government. Needless to say, it is absolutely critical for us American citizens to thoroughly study the teachings and ideas of the founding fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson. And in doing so, it is quite possible that our entire political stance might change.
—Ian LaCroix is a sophomore studying political science. He is a regular contributor to The Arch Conservative.