Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Thomas Jefferson and the Pursuit of Liberty

Thomas Jefferson and the Pursuit of Liberty

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[quote]I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

—Opening remarks of a speech by President Kennedy to a gathering of Nobel laureates[/quote]

He was the voice of a revolution. He was many other things, too: lawyer, naturalist, musician, geographer, inventor, agriculturalist, philologist, scientist, architect, polyglot, surveyor, farmer, congressman, governor, diplomat, cabinet secretary, and president. Most importantly, however, Thomas Jefferson’s pen announced the separation of thirteen allied American colonies from their masters in England. It was perhaps the most important revolution in world history, and the leaders of it chose a polymath from Virginia to explain to the world, and to history itself, why it was happening.

They chose wisely.

Born in 1743 on a large estate in Shadwell, Virginia, to wealthy parents, young Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the good life. He attended The College of William & Mary, studied law, read thousands of books on a variety of topics, and married a woman who conveyed 135 slaves and 11,000 acres into his possession. It’s remarkable to think that such a fortunate man would want to upend his life, yet he was the primary author of the document that declared his colony’s independence.

It’s worth noting that Jefferson wasn’t the only American colonial living well. Indeed, for most of British American history, it can be argued that in no place was life so grand than in Britain’s American colonies. They had as much freedom as anyone in the world, a high standard of living, slaves to work the land, sprouting schools and churches, a democratic process for local elections, and what felt like endless land. Their excellent relationship with mother England had colonists throughout America pledging themselves to the British king, empire, and Anglican Church. Life was good.

The turning point of this theretofore strong relationship was the French and Indian War, waged from 1754 to 1763. In it, the British Empire’s American colonists saw their growing western frontier abut land claimed by the French, with skirmishes breaking out between the two sides.{{1}} The British sent professional red coats to help colonial militia protect its borders. The French allied with some Native American tribes; thus, the French and the “Indians” proceeded to fight the British Empire for nine years.{{2}} The British Empire eventually won and acquired all French land east of the Mississippi.{{3}}

But land wasn’t all that Britain acquired. Due to the expensive overseas war, it also accrued a sizeable debt. Consequently, Parliament raised taxes on its American colonists. The justification was that the empire amassed the debt by helping the colonists, so the colonists should shoulder much of the burden. The colonists increasingly resisted, and their resistance was met with other acts that clamped down on some liberties previously afforded to all British citizens.{{4}} Tensions increased into the 1770s, as did talk of revolution. With these events as a backdrop, Thomas Jefferson rose in prominence.{{5}}

In the mid-1770s, British-colonial relations approached an impasse. In the major colonial city of Philadelphia, a meeting of colonial representatives met in 1774, and then another in 1775, to discuss how to handle the deteriorating relationship with the Crown. Virginia chose Jefferson as a delegate to the second of these “continental congresses.”{{6}} There, he met John Adams of Massachusetts and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.

[pullquote_right]Adams insisted that Jefferson write a draft of the declaration of independence because he could write “ten times better.”[/pullquote_right]

The Second Continental Congress was under a lot of pressure to commit to some sort of plan.{{7}} With war imminent, if not yet official, Congress had two options: A) apologize, ask for forgiveness, and comply with British demands; or B) declare independence from the Crown, complete with a sovereign government, standing army, and diplomatic team.

One year and over a dozen battles later, momentum gathered for a full separation. In June of 1776, Congress asked a “committee of five”—Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston of New York—to draft a declaration of independence from the British Empire.{{8}} Congress resolved to take up the discussion of independence again in three weeks, at which point they wanted the bones of a document ready to amend and ratify.

Franklin, the de facto leader of the committee, felt that Adams, who, like his colony of Massachusetts, was the most radical of the lot, should draft the document before the other four edited it. Adams insisted, however, that Jefferson write it on account that it should be a Virginian—Virginia being by far the most populous colony and one with more reluctant revolutionaries than Massachusetts—and that Jefferson could write “ten times better.” Jefferson accepted and, in about two weeks, wrote the framework for what would later be called the “Declaration of Independence.” The Committee of Five then made their fair share of edits, presented it to the Second Continental Congress, which edited it some more and, on July 4, approved it. America was independent.

Or so they hoped. The treasonous document intensified Britain’s efforts, and the American War of Independence raged until 1781, with official peace and British recognition not secured until the Treaty of Paris (1783).

Jefferson stayed busy. After serving as Governor of Virginia during the war, the new united states of America asked him to serve as ambassador to their most important ally, France, which was crucial during the war for independence.{{9}} He crossed the Atlantic in 1784.{{10}} From then until 1789, Jefferson lived in France and interacted with members of the French court and aristocracy. He also communicated with proto-revolutionaries. As a harbinger of liberty, he was the American Voltaire or Rousseau and was something of a celebrity.

While in France, Jefferson’s influence was felt back home in America. Nearly a decade earlier, he had written the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” which guaranteed freedom of religion to all faiths. The document languished in the Virginia legislature until it was adopted in 1786 while its author sat in the salons of France.

Jefferson made sure to stay in touch with his comrades as they drew up their Constitution. He was particularly close to fellow Virginian James Madison, who was its primary author. Fearing that the Constitution would grant too much authority to the federal government, Jefferson stressed to Madison and others the importance of a bill of rights to protect the liberties of citizens. Many agreed with him and would not ratify the Constitution without such protection.

[pullquote_left]While in France, Jefferson stressed to Madison and others the importance of a bill of rights to protect the liberties of citizens.[/pullquote_left]

After his tenure as ambassador, he returned home just as George Washington settled in as America’s first post-Constitution president. Washington welcomed Jefferson home with a job offer: Secretary of State. Washington’s executive branch became a sort of dream team of revolutionaries. Adams, that tireless champion of revolution, earned the vice-presidency by finishing second to Washington in the Election of 1789. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the smartest men of the Western Hemisphere, guided state matters. Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s trusted adviser and probably Jefferson’s rival as smartest man in America, was brought in to be the first Secretary of the Treasury.{{11}}

Hamilton was a decade younger than Jefferson, a disconcerting juxtaposition for the new State Secretary, as he was used to being the youngest brilliant person of any room into which he entered. Throughout Washington’s first term, Jefferson and Hamilton quarreled over the power of the central government; Hamilton wanted it strong, while Jefferson wanted it almost subordinate to the will of individual states. Hamilton had youth, vigor, and, most importantly, President Washington’s ear. Consequently, Washington and Jefferson’s ideologies drifted apart, as did the two men. A frustrated Jefferson finally resigned early in the President’s second term.

For the next three years, Jefferson worked to slow Washington and Hamilton’s federalism—a term given to their belief in a strong central government. He worked with newspapermen and pamphleteers to hurt the reputations of his former boss and colleague. A solid “antifederalist” ideology eventually rallied around him.

By 1796, when it became clear that President Washington would not stand for a third term, these Anti-Federalists presented Jefferson as his successor. Federalists, meanwhile, felt that Washington’s vice-president, John Adams, was the natural heir.{{12}} The country agreed, but barely.{{13}} Adams won the election by three electoral votes: 71 to 68. Jefferson, as runner up, served as Adams’s vice-president (a hilarious consequence later rectified by 1804’s Twelfth Amendment) from 1797 to 1801. Their acrimonious rematch in 1800 tilted in the other direction. Jefferson supplanted his friend turned rival turned boss and became the third president.

The Jefferson Administration sat at a crossroads of American history. Jefferson’s victory over Adams was, according to many, a referendum on, and condemnation of, federalism.{{14}} Many expected a Jefferson White House to decentralize the government. Once in power, however, Jefferson, like so many other “small government” candidates after him, managed a government larger than his platform implied. He even continued some federalist policies unpopular with his party, like a national bank and tariffs, and he allowed many federalists in the government to keep their jobs.

Jefferson’s most famous overreach of presidential power was the hallmark of his presidency: the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which roughly doubled the size of the U.S. Nowhere in the Constitution was it allowed for the president to negotiate the purchase of new land, especially so much of it. Originally, Jefferson sent two ambassadors—Robert Livingston (of Committee of Five fame) and future president James Monroe—to Napoleonic France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. They were prepared to pay up to 10 million dollars for the city, as its presence at the Mississippi’s mouth could be enormously helpful for the young country that bordered it. Much to Livingston and Monroe’s giddy surprise, Napoleon’s negotiator had a counteroffer: up the price to 15 million, but get the entire Louisiana territory, which stretched nearly halfway from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean.{{15}} It remains the largest peaceful land exchange in world history.{{16}}

After two terms, Jefferson retired from politics and returned home to Monticello. In 1819, capping a life-long push for public education, he founded the University of Virginia, which he considered one of his crowning achievements—a surprise considered his accomplished career.{{17}} Five years later, at the age of 81, he passed away.{{18}} The date was July 4, 1824—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

One could argue that Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential figure of the eighteenth century. In most interpretations of Western history, the 1700s are known for the Enlightenment and the revolutions spawned by it. No figure of the century can claim to be tied to each as much as Jefferson was.

Take the Enlightenment. Despite its French fulcrum—philosophes like Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot personify the movement—the Enlightenment was international in scope.{{19}} Great Britain had many Enlightenment thinkers, as did Prussia, Russia, and the Dutch Republic. The Enlightenment also spread to the American colonies. With no one is that more evident than with Jefferson. If one is familiar with the talents of earlier “Renaissance men” like Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci, then one can understand the wide range of abilities of our Virginian.{{20}} He was a master of a dozen fields, and like Voltaire and Rousseau, Jefferson was a cutting edge political philosopher.

But that alone wouldn’t make him the century’s standout figure. What separates him from his talented, philosophical peers across the Atlantic, many of whom were writing about revolutions before Jefferson could write about anything, is that Jefferson was actually part of a revolution that ultimately put the Enlightenment’s ideas into practice. French philosophes only mused about strangling kings with priests’ entrails, but Jefferson and his American brethren actually took up arms and waged a successful war for liberty. After the revolution’s success, the French followed in the footsteps of the Americans, but not before Jefferson served as ambassador to France and surely spread more revolutionary fever with him.

At this point, I feel compelled to address why Jefferson isn’t higher on the list. After all, if he was the hallmark figure of an important century, helped write one of world history’s essential documents, and doubled the size of America, shouldn’t he at least be in the top 20?

No. But it’s not because of the dubious reputation he has steadily acquired—that of a hypocritical, slave-owning, racist anarchist.{{21}} Rather, his ranking is limited because, to a much greater degree than the people above him on our list, his most important legacies were more the acts of collaboration than unique inspiration.

Take the Declaration of Independence, for example. First, it wasn’t his idea. It was fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee who first brought up the necessity for such a document. Furthermore, while Jefferson was ultimately chosen as its primary author, it was thoroughly edited and re-edited by the Committee of Five and Second Continental Congress.{{22}} Even his most famous phrase—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—was not part of his draft.{{23}} Only about half of Jefferson’s original draft survived the editing process.

[pullquote_right]We cannot ignore that while predecessors may have had his ideas before him, Jefferson finally puts them into practice.[/pullquote_right]

We should also remember that the Declaration may have just been a formality. The British and colonists were already at war for over a year, and it’s not as if the Declaration was a governing document; it was merely a statement of ideas and a justification of rebellion. But even the ideas weren’t fresh. John Locke, a late seventeenth century English philosopher, had already written about the rights of “life, liberty, and property” and that citizens, if denied those rights, should rebel in order to secure a new government. The Declaration owes its central themes not to Jefferson, but to Locke.

Other contributions are similarly derivative or fractional. Jefferson’s push for religious freedom was a staple of both Locke and Voltaire’s philosophy over the previous century. As president, his promotion of small government fell short, and as the federal government has gained power across American history, one might wonder if Jefferson has any lasting influence as the first small government candidate. Then, the Louisiana Purchase fell into his lap when Napoleon, fighting wars in Europe, offered it to Livingston and Monroe, who actually did all the negotiating. Therefore, despite his accomplishments, I must keep Jefferson out of the Top 20.

And yet, in many ways, his legacy is safe. It cannot be a coincidence that he had his hands in so many things. He was a brilliant man. Adams knew he had to write the draft. Washington knew he needed him as State Secretary. Antifederalists knew he had to be their candidate. Jefferson became the first to mobilize a political machine to win an election. Indeed, American partisanship stems back to he and Hamilton at each other’s throats. As president, he had the wherewithal to send ambassadors to France to see if Napoleon was willing to play ball. Plus, Jefferson stepping down after two terms should also not be overlooked. If only Washington had done it, we would still remember the father of our country who refused to be a king, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean every president would follow. It was Jefferson who first confirmed the two-term tradition, and every president not named Roosevelt followed the pattern.

Finally, we simply cannot ignore that while predecessors may have had his ideas before him, Jefferson finally puts them into practice. He was the driving force behind religious freedom in the U.S., reversing the trend of establishing state religions in the Western world. He made sure that no one forgot about a bill of rights to protect citizens from oppression. Above all, the Declaration of Independence shared with the world a lasting legacy—that this new country believes in the equality of all people. That might not have meant everyone yet, but it set off a chain reaction of liberty. Not only have numerous American leaders pointed to the document as inspiration and motivation to spread equality, but it was also a rallying point for the world, as nations ever since have been throwing off the yolk of oppressors and declaring their own right to popular sovereignty. Jefferson’s death on the 50th anniversary of July 4, 1776 ensures that he will always be tied to that document.

For Thomas Jefferson’s diverse talents, accomplishments, and inescapable presence in a significant era of world history, he is the 24th most influential figure in Western history.

[[1]]At about the time the English founded Jamestown in the early seventeenth century, the French were in Quebec and sailing down the Mississippi River. They named the colonized region to the west of the Mississippi “Louisiana,” after King Louis XIV, while the port town at the mouth of the Mississippi was named after the city that Joan of Arc liberated from England’s 1429 siege—New Orléans. The French expanded west and east of the river, while the English pushed inward from the east coast. The two empires were on a collision course and met just west of the Appalachian Mountains. Cue the cannons.[[1]]

[[2]]“Indians” is the misnomer of the millennium and will be discussed in a later entry. Much, much later. Like 2015 later. (Good lord, what have I signed up for?)[[2]]

[[3]]The Treaty of Paris (1763) ended the war. It did more than force France to give up lands east of the Mississippi to the British. The declining Spanish Empire had allied with their Catholic comrades in France in order to keep the powerful Protestants in check, so with Britain’s victory came demands on Spain as well. Britain acquired the colony of Florida, which the Spanish had first colonized at St. Augustine, the first European settlement in the modern day U.S., back in 1565. (England’s Roanoke debacle was two decades later, then Jamestown two decades later still.) From France, Spain wanted compensation for its losses and gained all French lands west of the Mississippi (Louisiana). Ultimately, France was left with just a few small, isolated regions in the Americas until Napoleon, nearly 40 years later, invaded Spain and took back the lost lands. Eighteenth century political geography in North America was fun.[[3]]

[[4]]Through the prism of the American Revolution, Britain clearly looks like an oppressive tyranny. It should be noted, however, that England was usually on the forefront of liberty. Between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries, England developed such liberal ideas as a jury system, the Magna Carta, a parliamentary branch, the Petition of Right, habeas corpus, and a bill of rights that predates that of the United States of America. Indeed, like a feeding infant, many of America’s ideas for government were directly siphoned from its mother.[[4]]

[[5]]A talented 26-year-old lawyer and writer, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769. Five years later, after Britain issued its notorious “Intolerable Acts,” he wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America, a stern rebuke of what he and many Americans considered a drastic overreach by the English parliament. Summary View was read all over the colonies, and the young Jefferson became a widely known colonial figure.[[5]]

[[6]]In a fascinating footnote of history, Jefferson was actually a late replacement for another Virginia delegate, Peyton Randolph. After the Second Continental Congress began, Randolph was called home to Virginia in order to serve as the head of the House of Burgesses. Only then was Jefferson tabbed as a delegate, and he arrived weeks after the others.[[6]]

[[7]]A month before the congress’s May 10th commencement, British soldiers, who were sent to quell radical Massachusetts, a hotbed of rebellious activity, engaged American minutemen, who had assembled to defend their homes and supplies. These skirmishes became known as the battles of Lexington and Concord.[[7]]

[[8]]These are the five men seen presenting the document to John Hancock in John Trumbull’s famous, if misleading, painting.[[8]]

[[9]]Importantly, united states was not capitalized,. Also, before the Constitution, it was much more appropriate to refer to the newly independent colonies as the united states plural, as in, “The united states are working on diplomatic relations with France.” Each state—which most of the world considers a synonym for country—clung to its sovereignty, not wanting to trade one faraway government in London for another in Philadelphia. It’s only with the Constitution in 1789 that we can really call them the United States singular, as in, “The United States is keeping track of all your phone calls and emails.”[[9]]

[[10]]To pass the time on the 17-day voyage, Jefferson learned to read and write Spanish. I took Spanish for seven years and can’t even remember the swear words.[[10]]

[[11]]Hamilton was the driving force behind the Federalist Papers, a crucial series of publications that rallied support for the Constitution in the late 1780s.[[11]]

[[12]]Adams, too, felt this way. He was upset that he never had received the unanimous clamor for his leadership like Washington. After all, he was an early, learned, and consistently outspoken revolutionary, while Washington, a military man, quietly served when called upon. In retrospect, of course, these differences are precisely why Adams was a divisive figure and Washington a unifying one. Still, the fact that half the country wanted to elect Jefferson—who was younger and a member of a slave-owning gentry class—rankled Adams to no end.[[12]]

[[13]]For those who are interested in early presidential politics, last summer I dedicated entire columns to the important elections of 1796 and 1800.[[13]]

[[14]]Not only did Jefferson win the executive branch, but the antifederalists, who preferred the title Democratic-Republicans, also swept away a Federalist majority from Congress. The turnover in both branches became known as the Revolution of 1800.[[14]]

[[15]]I always like picturing Livingston and Monroe hearing this proposal and trying to contain their excited disbelief. They quickly inhale and their eyes widen, but then they play it cool, like they weren’t just offered the deal of the millennium. “Hm, not bad not bad. We have to think about that. Will you excuse us?” Then they leave the room, close the door behind them, and start yelling “YES! YES!” before spiraling into whispering “Shut up shut up” and then taking deep breaths and calmly walking back in. “Yeah, whatever, we guess we can do that if you really want to. No, no, we don’t need to check with the boss.”[[15]]

[[16]]Shortly after the purchase, Jefferson sent Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark on an expedition to learn about the newly acquired land.[[16]]

[[17]]He had his gravestone read: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson//Author of the Declaration of American Independence//of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom//and father of the University of Virginia.”[[17]]

[[18]]Hours after that, John Adams, who was with him at the Second Continental Congress and Committee of Five, who asked him to write the Declaration of Independence, who served with him in President Washington’s executive branch, who defeated him in the Election of 1796 and became his boss for the next four years, and who was defeated by him in the Election of 1800, proved their fates were intertwined when he, too, died.[[18]]

[[19]]Only one of those men will make our list. But which one?[[19]]

[[20]]As you know, Aristotle made the list. Unfortunately, da Vinci did not. He’s probably somewhere in the next 30, but his wide body of accomplishments did not influence the development of the West nearly as much as those in our top 30. I do put da Vinci on my Mount Rushmore of all-time geniuses (with Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein), but his influence does not rival his almost peerless intelligence.[[20]]

[[21]]I sound like his political opponents! Still, the charges might have merit. He was an aristocrat who wrote about equality. He was a voice of the people despite only rubbing shoulders with American elites and French nobility. Many wonder how someone who wrote that “All men are created equal” could keep over a hundred slaves, including ones he may have fathered. As for the anarchist charge, Jefferson’s ideology, however triumphant in 1800, supported the French Revolution, which seemed to mark a referendum on a decentralized state. When the movement descended into bloody turmoil, it made Jefferson and other Antifederalists look pretty bad. More hypocrisy follows Jefferson when, as president, this ostensibly “small government” candidate continued Federalist policies and superseded Congress when negotiating for Louisiana.[[21]]

[[22]]This website shows and then types the many edits. Fascinating stuff.[[22]]

[[23]]Nor was “all men are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights.” Originally, he had written, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent; that from equal creation they derive in rights inherent & inalienable, among which are life & liberty & the pursuit of happiness.” The most famous line was as much Adams and Franklin as it was Jefferson.[[23]]