Jefferson, Thomas

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Jefferson, Thomas (1743-1826): American Revolutionary, Third President of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia in 1743 and died on July 4, 1826, the same day as Adams, John, his life long associate and friend. Their relationship illustrates the dichotomy that was Thomas Jefferson. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence, a Secretary of State, an envoy to France, the third president of the United States, a founder of the Democratic-Republican party, the anti-federalists party.

During his early life, he was fortunate to have an excellent family library that contributed to his intellectual and political development. He referred to the “vestal flame” of the forum to support the Whigism espoused by Coke, whose works became fare for his legal education. Jefferson did not approved of Tory Mansfieldism professed by Blackstone, William, a distinction he applied to the later struggle of Federalist versus Anti-Federalist party conflict. Jefferson’s early penchant for Whigism led to his distrust of a strong central government and a political inclination for the rights of the individual.

Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de’s views on the separation of powers, and the protection for the rights of the citizenry influenced Jefferson. He believed in the virtues of “checks and balances” in the formation of the national government, its secured rights and protection for the people. While his views of humanity were more idealistic than those of Madison, James, they were in agreement for different reasons, for controlling a strong central government. Jefferson, however, opted more for states rights as a means of protection for America’s citizen, an attitude that exemplified his anti-Federalist views.

Because of his early interest in law and government, Jefferson attended William and Mary College where he studied law under the tutelage of George Wythe who transmitted his knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman legal philosophers to Jefferson. Since he had learned to read both Greek and Latin prior to his college experience, Jefferson came to Williamsburg well endowed to continue the development of his theories involving constitutional law. It was this ability that aided him prepare the legal atmosphere for the separation of the nascent republic and the British Empire. With his study of the law, and the purchase of a multitude of books, Jefferson acquired a surfeit of philosophy tomes including works authored by Hume, David, Milton, Sterne and Bacon. His belief in reason and knowledge, are evidenced by his donation of his library to the new University of Virginia, attempts to control the hiring of its staff and a belief in the integrity of man, at least, until the French Revolution became violent.

A mainstay in Jefferson’s support of the individual visa vie centralized government stems from his historic views of Anglo-Saxon England. His interpretation of that period emphasizes the individual freedom extant in England at the time. Conversely, he found Norman England and such institutions as Feudalism adverse to individual liberties that he believed were the right of all English colonials. His consistency for individual rights may be noted by his support of the French Revolution and how it contributed to the active hostility between him and Hamilton, Alexander. This concern was also reflected by his interpretation of the value and jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court as tendered by Chief Justice Marshall’s concept of judicial review and how the Court could become a national institution adversely affecting local and individual rights more to the liking of Hamilton and his supporters. However, Jefferson’s schizophrenia fearing nationalism did not prevent him from purchasing the Louisiana territory without the consent of the federal congress. Additionally, the president’s remarks about the local inhabitants, the American Indian, manifested concern with how the vast region could be opened to Americans if Native Americans remained in possession of the trans-Mississippi addition to the United States.

As a child of the Enlightenment, he had an appreciation of the force of religion in the western world throughout history and the resultant conflicts that occurred when one faith had virtual control over the body politic. He manifested his concern by pursuing legislation in the Virginia General Assembly for religious toleration. While traveling this course, and with Madison's aid, he obtained legislation for religious toleration. However, it did not mention respect for other religions nor include all faiths. It did, however, help in the dis-establishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia.

Further Reading:

Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx, 1996.

Arthur K. Steinberg