Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thomas Jefferson: Thinking about the American Revolution

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
— Thomas Jefferson, 1776 in the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was one of the most influential of the founding fathers. He was the third President, the first Secretary of State, and the second Vice President of this new republic under the United States Constitution. He was a brilliant diplomat, serving as minister to the court of King Louie XVI. He doubled the size of this new nation with the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and commissioned the exploration of this new territory with the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806). Furthermore, he was a political philosopher, a member of the Enlightenment, including a friendship with John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton.

“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.”
— President John F. Kennedy about Thomas Jefferson during a White House meeting with forty-nine Nobel Prize Laureates

During the Revolutionary War period, Jefferson was a member of the House of Burgesses and the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses. He wrote the Summary View of the Rights of British America in response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. While his ideas were too radical for the 2nd Continental Congress, they designated Jefferson to the five member committee to write a formal declaration that would reflect the congress’ deliberations; this Declaration of Independence was primarily the work of Jefferson. It was presented to the congress on June 28th, and approved on July 4th in 1776. Following this task, he returned to Virginia where he served as Governor from 1785 to 1781.

Following that milestone, Jefferson served as minister to the court of Louis XVI. He was in that assignment during the Constitutional Convention where the Constitution was written; even though he was directly involved in the writing process, he supported this new Constitution. Upon its ratification, he served the national government as Secretary of State, Vice President and became the 3rd President. During this formative period of our country, Jefferson formed the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party. This led to numerous confrontations between the two founding fathers over the interpretation of this new form of Government.

"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government."
— Thomas Jefferson

So, let’s take a closer look at Jefferson’s ideas and how they helped to shape our new nation…

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable Rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
— Thomas Jefferson, 1776 in the Declaration of Independence

Despite his birth into a well-bred, land-owning family, Jefferson was a believer in the common man. He believed in Locke’s philosophy that every man was born with certain rights at birth and that governments were formed by the people giving up some of these rights in order to form a civil society. And, as long as the government continued to serve the needs of the people, it should be allowed to continue; when the government became tyrannical, the people had the right, and even the obligation, to overthrow that government and re-form it to again serve their needs. This was a very democratic view and was opposed to the highly centralized views of other founding fathers like Hamilton. Jefferson went even farther than that: he believed that this power to govern should be limited to a single generation, after which the next generation should recreate the government to start out unencumbered with the debt of the previous generation. This notion was not adopted by the framers of the Constitution!

"Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But 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 right of an individual."
— Thomas Jefferson

He also was a believer in the equality of man, and was against slavery. His attempts to get antislavery legislation adopted failed, but he was philosophically committed to this ideal. While he himself was a slave owner, he treated his slaves with more humanely and provided a basic education for his household workers. After the death of his wife, he did not remarry, but did take one of his slaves, Sally Heming, became his companion; he fathered several more children by Sally. When each of these children reached twenty-one, they were given their freedom. He was a landowner by birth, but a public servant by choice. Most of his latter adult life was lived away from his beloved Monticello home.

“The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.”
— Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson excelled as a diplomat, but unlike Franklin, he was also a politician. He held many positions in state and federal legislatures, the Governor’s mansion, and in the capitol of our new country. He campaigned for a real democracy and believed in state’s rights; this was inherent in his narrow interpretation of the Constitution. As President, he expanded the territory of the United States and sought to create a balanced government of the people and by the people. He was a real believer in “We the People…” as stated in the preamble of the United States Constitution.

“For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
— Thomas Jefferson, 1776 in the Declaration of Independence

He was instrumental in getting the election of the President and Vice President transformed to become congruent with the two-party system that evolved after the ratification of the Constitution. Prior to the inclusion of the twelfth Amendment, the President and Vice President were given to the two highest vote getters by the electors in the House. This led to the election of men to the two top offices from opposing parties: The Federalist Party (of Hamilton) and the Democratic-Republican Party (of Jefferson and Madison). After finishing his second term, the President and Vice President were elected from the same party. This enabled the executive branch to function in a more harmonious manner, thanks to the efforts of Jefferson.

As we celebrate this 4th of July, we can thank Thomas Jefferson for helping to create our guiding document — the Declaration of Independence. So, we offer a big THANK YOU to you, Thomas Jefferson.

Next Time: We will continue this series with a look at the contribution of our first President, George Washington. Join us for that adventure…

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