Thomas Jefferson

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Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, circa 1800
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I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.
—Thomas Jefferson on authoritarianism.[1]
And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms... The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
—Jefferson in 1787.[2]

Thomas Jefferson was an important Founding Father of the United States of America. He was a legislator, architect, inventor, and the third President of the United States. As an author of the Declaration of Independence, he was one of the first Enlightenment thinkers to try and put some of the radical new ideas regarding government into practice. Although prevailing social attitudes kept the document's ideas from becoming government policy and social standards for several generations, it was nevertheless a revolutionary move.

He had a long political career, beginning in his home state of Virginia. He attempted to introduce some radical reforms in the state like limiting capital punishment and drafting a law to establish religious freedom. Nationally, he wrote the Declaration and tried to prohibit the expansion of slavery to the American Midwest. He then served as America's diplomat to France and then the very first Secretary of State under George Washington. Jefferson's rivalry with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton created the United States' two first political parties, and he defeated John Adams in the 1800 US presidential election.

As president, Jefferson proved to be an expansionist at the expense of Native Americans, and he also bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte. On the plus side, he signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves and protected American shipping from piracy. Unlike his predecessor Washington, Jefferson explicitly chose not to seek a third term out of a desire to establish a political precedent. Washington had done it for personal reasons. After his presidency, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, another of his fondest achievements.

Jefferson had a love-hate relationship with slavery. On the one hand, he owned more than 100 slaves and worked them on his plantation, never even freeing them in his will like Washington had. On the other hand, he repeatedly tried to limit slavery and sneak in anti-slavery provisions into notable legislation. Most significantly, an early version of the Declaration also would have strongly condemned the institution of slavery in the Colonies that would soon form the United States[3][note 1]. Rumors, later supported by DNA analysis, stated that Jefferson fathered children through his slave concubine Sally Hemings.[4]

Jefferson has become a favorite source for quotes by libertarians and the like.[5] To the ire of Christian-nation pseudohistorians, he was, like your typical Founding Father, a deist. He valued many of the moral messages in the Bible, but he viewed the supernatural stuff as bunk. Famously, Jefferson even cut-and-pasted passages to create a version of the New Testament keeping most teachings of Jesus Christ but excluding any mentions of him being the Son of God or performing miracles.[6] What blasphemy!

Early career[edit]

Jefferson's manor at Monticello, which he designed himself.

Lawyer and representative[edit]

Jefferson was born to a fabulously wealthy Virginia plantation family, and he received among the finest educations available in the American colonies.[7] He made a name for himself as a lawyer, and in 1769 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. He used this position to push for reforms in line with his Enlightenment ideals, like greatly reducing capital crimes (for white men) and drafting a law to establish religious freedom in 1777.[8]

Jefferson also kept his legal practice open during this period. He notably took on two pro bono legal cases arguing on behalf of mixed-race slaves seeking their freedom on that basis, although he sadly lost both.[8] Jefferson even went so far as to give one of the clients some cash with the implicit knowledge that the slave would use the cash to fund an escape attempt.[9]

Like George Washington, Jefferson married a wealthy Virginia widower, in this case Martha Wayles Skelton.[7] After the two decided to settle down, Jefferson began personally outlining the plans for constructing the Monticello plantation, which was to be his home.[10]

American Revolution[edit]

See the main article on this topic: American Revolution
The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty's negative...
—Jefferson blames the British Crown for slavery, 1774.[11]

In the Virginia colonial legislature, Jefferson took an active role in fighting against the British attempts to increase their control over the colonies. In 1774, he wrote the pamphlet "A Summary View of the Rights of British America", in which he argued that the American colonies had the just right to rule themselves.[12] He also, as you can see from the above quote, notably blamed the British Crown for the introduction and preservation of slavery in America despite being himself a slave-owner. This little argument would repeat itself throughout Jefferson's activism for independence.

The 1774 pamphlet made Jefferson one of the most famous writers of the revolution, as it demonstrated that he was a skilled writer who could convincingly articulate the arguments of the American colonists.[7] He quickly became known as one of the most radical Americans as well, as he made it clear that he didn't consider British laws to be legitimate in the colonies at all.

National prominence[edit]

Jefferson with other independence committee members.

Declaration of Independence[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Declaration of Independence

In 1775, Jefferson became one of the youngest delegates to attend the hastily-convened Second Continental Congress; he was just 33 years old.[13] As the chief advocate for independence, Jefferson was a natural choice to join the committee tasked with writing a formal declaration. The other primary member of that committee was fellow independence advocate John Adams. Adams, though, refused to actually write the document since he believed (very mistakenly) that it would not be remembered.[14] Jefferson thus took the primary responsibility for writing it. His final draft included some things that rankled Adams and other Congressional representatives, especially when it listed "horrors of the human slave trade" under George III's alleged crimes.[14] Those who weren't slave-owners found it stupid that Jefferson, who was a slave-owner would write something like that. The anti-slavery passage was eventually voted out of the document, but the document itself passed.

Virginia delegate and governor[edit]

Jefferson's Rock in Harper's Ferry, which he stood on while writing Notes.
We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact10 that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened 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.
—Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.[15]

In 1776, Jefferson joined the Virginia House of Delegates, where he once more fought to create a more egalitarian state. He notably won a hard-fought political battle on abolishing the rights of eldest sons to inherit a family's entire wealth.[7] This was important because it greatly slowed the rate at which mega-plantations were able to take over the South's economy and political system.[16]

He also wrote the famous Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, although it didn't pass until much later.[17] He considered that legislation to be his proudest achievement, and it became a principal statement on why religious liberty is important.

One bill that sadly failed was the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which Jefferson hoped would establish public funding for primary and secondary education.[18] To his frustration, the Virginia legislature barely even considered it.

Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia for one-year terms in 1779 and 1780. He moved Virginia's capital to Richmond, and then had to flee the city soon after when a British army led by the traitor Benedict Arnold arrived to burn it.[19] During and after his time as governor, Jefferson wrote the Notes on the State of Virginia, which was both an informative work on the state's economy and natural resources as well as a series of arguments on what he thought society should look like.[20]

Notes is an important work because it gives light to Jefferson's white supremacist ideals. When writing about slavery, he claimed, for instance, that "The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life."[21] Alongside his belief that blacks were inferior to whites, he also tried to claim that American slavery was one of the less harmful varieties in history.

In Congress[edit]

After leaving the governor's office, Jefferson briefly served in Congress in the 1783–84 session. He wrote the Land Ordinance of 1784, in which most of the Ohio to Wisconsin region became the "Northwest Territory" awaiting the formation of new states. Jefferson notably tried to include a provision banning the expansion of slavery to these soon-to-be states, but the entire South plus his fellow representatives from Virginia voted against it.[22] The prohibition on slavery there was finally realized in 1787, which set the model for the "free state" vs. "slave state" balancing act which contributed to severe sectionalist tensions.

Ambassador to France[edit]

Caricature of Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.
—Quote from one of Jefferson's personal seals.[23]

In 1784, Jefferson was sent off to France to succeed Benjamin Franklin as the US' chief diplomat there. Jefferson highly respected Franklin, though, and made sure to stress that he was only succeeding Franklin rather than replacing him.[24] He was known to be friendly to the French, and Congress also hoped that sending him there would help distract him from the recent death of his wife.[25]

During his stay in Paris, Jefferson had a personal slave named James Hemings on his domestic staff, who he had trained in classical French cooking.[26] It apparently hadn't taken Jefferson very long to realize that French food was and is fucking great. He soon sent for another slave, James' sister Sally. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson soon entered into a sexual relationship, and she had multiple children by the Founding Father, the man who owned her as property.[27] Sally wanted to remain in France, as she would be free there, but Jefferson eventually enticed her into returning to Virginia on the promise of extraordinary privileges.

Jefferson became a real Francophile, going on wine-tasting tours, employing a bunch of French chefs, and buying French artworks.[28] He also took an active role in the opening phases of the French Revolution, being thrilled when it started in 1788. Jefferson took the revolution to mean that the American example was spreading, and he wrote that, "the nation has been awaked by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened, their lights are spreading."[29] His involvement escalated into direct assistance when he helped the Marquis de Lafayette draft the "Declaration of the Rights of Man".[30]

Despite his enthusiasm, Jefferson's visit to France was abruptly cut short when the newly-elected George Washington called him to return to America in 1789. What Jefferson thought would be a short visit turned into an appointment to be the first US Secretary of State.[29] He still remained an avid follower and cheerleader for the French Revolution, though, even when it started to turn ugly.

Secretary of State[edit]

Tricolour Cockade, a symbol of the French Revolution and of Jefferson's party.
The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.
—Jefferson on the increasing violence of the French Revolution, 1793.[31]

Jefferson's tenure as Secretary of State was almost immediately defined by domestic issues as he formed a rivalry with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson famously opposed Hamilton's plan to have the federal government assume state debts, but their relationship was based on a more personal animosity as well.[32] Jefferson thought Hamilton was a blowhard, and Hamilton thought Jefferson was a sneak. The deadlock seemed unbreakable until Jefferson agreed to have his political faction support the Hamilton plans in exchange for the national capital being placed right on the border of his home state of Virginia.[33]

The compromise resolved one outstanding issue, but it didn't make Hamilton and Jefferson like each other any more. Soon after that, the issue of the French Revolution got in the way, as the revolution became increasingly bloody and paranoid. Hamilton's faction was horrified by the bloodshed in France while Jefferson's faction generally thought it was great.[29] Even when Jefferson had to condemn the brutality of Robespierre, he still remained committed to supporting the French. This led to more infighting in the Washington cabinet, and Jefferson finally chose to resign at the end of 1783 rather than deal with more shit.

Partisan politics and vice presidency[edit]

Jefferson's resignation from the cabinet allowed him to start mobilizing his faction into a true political force, the Democratic-Republican Party. The ratification of the Jay Treaty that normalized relations with the UK further spurred the formation, as Jefferson and pals considered it a betrayal of the American Revolution.[34] Meanwhile, the Hamilton faction became the Federalist Party, which represented Northern and business interests.

The Federalist vs. Republican rivalry exploded into one of the most contentious elections in history. In 1796, Jefferson ran against John Adams for the presidency. The campaign featured mud-slinging attacks, like when Alexander Hamilton (correctly) accused Jefferson of fucking his slaves and when Jefferson's team claimed that Adams wanted to be a king and nicknamed him "His Rotundity".[35] The election also featured foreign interference from the French revolutionary regime, as minister Pierre-Auguste Adet acted on orders from his government to spread threats and dig up secrets in an attempt to get the pro-French Jefferson elected.[36]

In the end, Jefferson lost narrowly by 71–68 in the Electoral College. By the then-active terms of the US Constitution, he became the Vice President. Since he and Adams hated each other, Jefferson didn't really do much in the executive branch. He also considered it inappropriate to do much in the US Senate, meaning that his VP stint was very uneventful.

Instead, Jefferson collaborated with the French to help them get a political and diplomatic edge over the Adams administration. In 1797, he encouraged French diplomats to stall Adams' envoys and assured them that Adams would be a one-term president.[37] This contributed to the French taking a tough position towards the Adams administration on issues related to French attacks on American shipping. Jefferson then lobbied for the release of diplomatic records, which backfired when the American public read the papers and decided that the French were being stubborn and unreasonable.[38] Tensions finally resulted in the Quasi-War between the United States and France.[39]

Jefferson was further infuriated by the Adams administration enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts, which he saw as a partisan tool to silence the Democratic-Republicans. Jefferson and James Madison anonymously wrote the "Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions" calling for states to nullify the federal laws.[40] This inadvertently created the precedent for nullification as a legal strategy, which would be threatened by the South multiple times and eventually became a contributing factor to the American Civil War. George Washington was horrified by the resolutions.

When Washington died in 1799, Jefferson chose not to attend his funeral despite having personal respect for the man, since their political differences just ran too deep.[41]

Election of 1800[edit]

1800 Electoral College.

Jefferson ran once more against Adams in the 1800 campaign, so it's not too surprising that it also turned into a hideous affair. Jefferson benefited from deep public distaste for Adams' war against the French and his Alien and Sedition Acts, and Jefferson wasted no time in using that to attack Adams.[42] Adams' political support also crumbled thanks to Federalist infighting, especially against the Hamilton loyalists.

Jefferson's victory in the election was probably inevitable, and he won with 73 Electoral College votes. Unfortunately, that created a new crisis. His running mate, Aaron Burr, also got 73 Electoral votes, meaning that he could theoretically be president instead if he flipped anyone.[43] Since they were tied despite being from the same party, the election went to the House of Representatives, which was controlled by Federalists. The Federalists thus had an opportunity to pick which of their adversaries would be president, and they had ample reason to fuck over Jefferson. But after multiple rounds of balloting, the House finally bit the bullet and elected Jefferson. Aaron Burr was pissed, and surely nothing bad happened because of that.

The ordeal in the House seems to have convinced Jefferson of the value of working with his political opponents, as he quickly became a much more conciliatory president than he had indicated during the campaign. He reversed many Federalist policies, but he abandoned his strict interpretation of the Constitution and refrained from totally gutting the federal government.[42]

Presidency[edit]

President Jefferson at his desk.

Domestic reforms[edit]

Jefferson's first priority was to start slashing taxes, but his Treasury Secretary convinced him not to dismantle Hamilton's financial system or attack the national bank.[44] Instead, Jefferson decided to bring down the national debt by mothballing most of the US Navy on the basis that the hostilities with France had died down right after his election.[45] The Jefferson navy was instead focused on coastal defense. Despite this, Jefferson did recognize the need for American-trained officers, as most of the Revolutionary War training came from foreigners. In 1802, he signed the Military Peace Establishment Act, which founded the United States Military Academy at West Point.[46]

He then pardoned most of the people who had been convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts.[47]

Since Jefferson was a widower, he had no First Lady to run things in the White House. He instead hired the wife of his pal James Madison, and she was responsible for hosting meetings at the White House and overseeing its completion.[48] Dolly Madison was thus the effective First Lady for sixteen years.

Jeffersonian democracy[edit]

One of the things Jefferson definitely had right was his opposition to the Federalist principle of a society led by the rich elites.[49] He used his office to support expanding the vote franchise, which had long been limited to men who owned large tracts of land or were very wealthy.[50] Since small farmers were the vast majority of people in the US, Jefferson believed that all white farmers should be able to participate in American democracy.

Jefferson's plans not only supported expanding the vote to all white men. He also wanted to see agriculture itself expand through westward conquest, as he reasoned that obtaining new land would ensure that farmers could always grow their businesses at a reasonable price.[51] If ordinary people could obtain more land, he reasoned, then more ordinary people could vote regardless of the laws.[52] Jefferson's efforts at increasing landholding and loosening voting restrictions more than doubled voter participation over the course of his presidency.[53]

In a reflection of his own belief in egalitarianism, Jefferson broke with many of the precedents set by Adams and Washington. Jefferson accepted visitors without regard to social status, discontinued the practice of delivering speeches to Congress in person, and enforced a less formal protocol at White House events.[54] He also challenged the institution of indentured servitude.

Still, it is important to note that Jefferson's ideal of democracy explicitly excluded women and blacks, and Jefferson doubled down on the idea that these groups of people were too inferior to participate in governance.

Louisiana Purchase[edit]

Map of the new US territorial claim.

Jefferson also notably streeeeetched the US Constitution when he struck a $15 million deal to buy the French claim to the Louisiana Territory in 1803.[55] Although he was noted for his very strict and literal interpretation of the Constitution, Jefferson was determined to not let the opportunity for land expansion slip past him. After all, westward expansion was one of his primary goals and a key part of his perception of democracy and agrarianism.

He then ordered the "Corps of Discovery" led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark to chart and explore the new acquisition.[56]

Indian removal[edit]

If we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.
—Jefferson to his Secretary of War.[57]

The US ultimately had not purchased the Louisiana Territory. They had instead purchased the right to claim that land and then expel Native Americans from it; the French had only colonized a very tiny portion of Louisiana. In accordance with his understanding of the purchase agreement, Jefferson started using the threat of violence to coerce Indian nations into agreeing to sell huge tracts of land for tiny payments.[58] He was also the architect of an ominous strategy to drive natives into heavy debt to the US through trade and credit and then offering to relieve that debt with land payments.[59] Native resistance to Jefferson's expansionism contributed to the American Indian Wars.

In response to resistance, Jefferson began to explicitly offer them the choice between absorption into the US or total annihilation.[60] His policies and rhetoric helped set the stage for the full-scale ethnic cleansing carried out by Andrew Jackson and his successors.

Barbary War[edit]

USS Enterprise destroys the Tripoli.

Jefferson's mothballing of the navy was complicated by the fact that US shipping in Europe was subject to attacks by the Barbary pirates, who came from places like Algeria and what is now Libya. US shipping had previously been protected by the British during the colonial days, but that was no longer an option for obvious reasons. The pirates demanded tribute and ransom payments, but Jefferson was fiercely opposed to any concessions.

In 1801, the president dispatched an "observation" fleet to the region composed of the frigates President, Philadelphia, and Essex along with the sloop Enterprise.[61] (Not that Enterprise.) The pirate state of Tripoli interpreted this as an act of aggression and declared war against the United States. The US then declared war back, but Jefferson's naval commanders frustrated him by taking little initiative in the conflict and simply defending American shipping.[61] In 1804, the war entered its final phase when Commodore Edward Preble ordered the shelling and blockade of Tripoli itself. In the 1805 Battle of Derna, US Marines conducted a land operation alongside mercenaries in Tripoli, resulting in a decisive victory and finally ending the war.[62]

The war ultimately proved that the US Navy and Marines were capable of conducting operations far away from home, and it solidfied the US' reputation as a state capable of punching above its weight.

Twelfth Amendment[edit]

The 1796 and 1800 elections proved the inadequacy of the Electoral College right out of the gate. The original system had Electors vote for presidents and vice presidents, but without distinctions between them.[63] Whoever came in second would be the vice president. Since parties ran tickets for both offices, though, this created the infamous 1800 scenario in which Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College due to being on the same ticket and then competed against each other for the presidency in the House of Representatives.

That absolute clusterfuck of an election dispute led to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment through Congress, which ensured that Electors would cast separate votes for presidential and vice presidential candidates.[64] That way, candidates on the same ticket wouldn't ever again have to compete against each other after an inevitable tie due to being on the same party ticket.

This commonsense amendment was ratified pretty quickly by the states, and its primary source of interest today is in showing that the Electoral College and the whole US system was and is not infallible.

Election of 1804[edit]

1804 Electoral College.

The Twelfth Amendment thankfully was ratified in time for the 1804 election. Jefferson promptly dumped Aaron Burr from the ticket, still sore over the 1800 debacle, and Burr's political downfall set him on the path towards his fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton.[65]

On the eve of the election, Jefferson was basically unbeatable, since his low taxes and good economy and won wars made him extremely popular.[66] The demoralized Federalist Party relied on attempting to create a scandal around Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemings, but Jefferson did the smart thing and ignored the matter.[66]

In the end, Jefferson's unstoppable popularity resulted in an extraordinarily lopsided victory, with Jefferson carrying 162 Electoral Votes and leaving the Federalist guy with only 14.[67] Jefferson's 72.8% of the popular vote is also the highest percentage any candidate who wasn't George Washington has ever won with.

Slave policies[edit]

Slave auction in Richmond.

One tick in the "good Jefferson" category is that he enabled and eventually signed legislation that abolished the slave trade in the United States, even though slavery itself would have to wait another few decades for some unpleasantness to occur.[68]

This is suspect, though: by 1808, when the legislation prohibiting the Transatlantic Slave Trade that Jefferson so enabled passed, Virginia (Jefferson's home state) was a net exporter of slaves at a scale significant to their economic stability. This left the Virginian economy (and by extension many of Jefferson's business interests) in direct competition with the Transatlantic Slave Trade.[69] The end result of all this was that Jefferson's home state saw a huge economic boom in the banning of said trade for the next 53 years or so (roughly until that unpleasantness) as it became the chief supplier of slaves to the rest of the slave-holding states.[69] Coincidentally, of course. Virgina was one of the few states in the nation with a population of enslaved individuals that consistently grew each year independent of the rate of 'import' of enslaved foreigners it undertook.[69] This was achieved primarily through what slave-holders euphemistically called 'natural increase in stock' but which is more properly termed 'brutal and horrific systematic rape.' Essentially, contraception was broadly suppressed, and possession of it was persecuted horrifically; slave owners and plantation overseers were given impunity to rape a majority of those women enslaved on the property, and what enslaved men on the property could be incentivized to do so were allowed to rape as well.[69]

Jefferson himself actually came up with the economic formula that convinced many planters that "breeding" slaves would ensure a reliable profit, finding that slaves were actually the second-most valuable commodity in the country right after land.[70] The formula became the backbone of the entire economic system, as the Southern slave agriculture industry became the source of most wealth in the US.

British hostility[edit]

HMS Leopard fires at the USS Chesapeake.

Jefferson's enthusiastic support for France put him at odds with the British, and his administration followed a similar but opposite path of spiraling towards an undeclared war with Britain rather than France. Things came to a head in 1807 in the Chesapeake affair in which the British ship HMS Leopard attacked the Americans under the belief that the US ship was harboring deserters from the Royal Navy.[71] Jefferson retaliated for this and other acts of British hostility on American shipping by signing an act banning the import of various goods from the UK.[72]

This only intensified British aggression, So Jefferson tried again with the Embargo Act targeting all foreign nations.[73] The law was a disaster which only served to piss off both Britain and France as well as do much harm to American industry.[74] Even many of Jefferson's supporters admitted that he had pooched it. Instead of lifting the embargo, Jefferson spent the next year using harsher and harsher legislation to crack down on merchants who he thought were evading it.[75] Jefferson maintained until his dying day that the embargo only failed due to evasion.

Tensions with the British during the Jefferson presidency contributed to the outbreak of the War of 1812 during his successor's term.

Retirement[edit]

Like Washington, Jefferson got tired of the presidency towards the end of his second term. Unlike Washington, Jefferson primarily retired for political reasons, wanting to make sure that a two-term presidency would be the standard.[76] Despite his leaving office, Jefferson had a very active political life after the presidency.

Post-presidency[edit]

University of Virginia campus, designed by Jefferson.

Political involvement[edit]

James Madison was Jefferson's choice as successor, but Madison's support for the ill-fated embargo greatly hurt his standing within the party.[77] Jefferson had to fight very hard to get Madison on the ticket, although it paid off when Madison won the election of 1808.

Madison would frequently contact Jefferson for advice during his presidency. Other presidents consulted with Jefferson as well, and the "Monroe Doctrine" seems to have been largely inspired by Jefferson's words to James Monroe.[78] At home, though, Jefferson lived as a celebrity who hosted various guests from around the country at his Monticello manor.

University of Virginia[edit]

In 1814, Jefferson devoted himself to higher education. Specifically, secular higher education. He planned and oversaw the construction of the University of Virginia and had a major part in designing its curriculum and hiring its faculty.[79] He modeled it on Greek and Roman architecture, as he believed that these classical civilizations were most representative of the intellectual and republican nature of his project.

Jefferson wanted his university to be secular and focused on modern science, as he had long opposed the concept of religious schools in his youth.[80] He controversially demanded that the university have a library rather than a church at its center.[81] Jefferson considered the university to be one of his three finest achievements. He gifted most of his extensive personal library to the university's holdings.[82]

Jefferson and religion[edit]

Pasted passage in the Jefferson Bible.
Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
—Jefferson to his nephew Peter Carr.[83]

Like George Washington, Jefferson had an inconveniently complicated relationship with Christianity. He most certainly wasn't the faithful churchgoing choir boy that many Republicans like to imagine. Jefferson did, however, make it very clear that he believed in God. He even made it clear that he disliked Calvinism, writing that "I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Dæmonism. if ever man worshipped a false god, he did."[84]

Edited word in the Jefferson Bible.

Although he frequently referred to this God, though, Jefferson almost always couched these references in Enlightenment-era language like "our Creator", "overruling providence", and "benevolent governor."[85] He also wasn't shy about dismissing Bible stories as myth and seemed ambivalent about the worth of prayer.

Jefferson's copy of the Quran, now held by the Library of Congress.

Jefferson also valued and referred to Jesus Christ, but he had his reservations. Jefferson wrote about "abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers".[86] A nice compliment for Jesus but not a compliment towards the Bible. So while his admiration for Jesus could be considered devout, Jefferson's refusal to accept things like the resurrection or original sin (which he saw as a great injustice) means that none of his contemporaries would have felt it appropriate to label Jefferson a Christian.[85] In fact, the Federalist Party even used his unconventional religious beliefs to attack him as a "howling Atheist" during the presidential elections.[87] The allegation was false, but who gave a shit?

Amusingly, one of his pet projects in his later life involved using a penknife to painstakingly slice up a number of Bibles and glue together his own version of the scriptures in order to omit anything he considered "contrary to reason".[87] Stuff like Jesus returning from death or feeding multitudes with some magic fish and bread was right out. Stuff like "blessed are the peacemakers" stayed in. Like we said, Jefferson liked Jesus but he sure didn't like the Bible's supernatural elements very much. He called this new edition "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth", and since it only contains the worthwhile stuff you might not be surprised to hear that it is quite short.[88] Jefferson kept the project a secret from all but his closest confidants, but it (alongside the mutilated Bibles he cut up for passages) survived and are now displayed in the Smithsonian.

There are a few other things to note about Jefferson's relationship with religion. Jefferson purchased a copy of the Quran in an apparent attempt to understand his Muslim slaves.[89] Islam has a longer history in the US than you would think. Jefferson was also the very first president to celebrate Ramadan in the White House,[90] meaning that he did it long before that radical Mooselamb Barack Obama.[91]

Jefferson also recieved a giant wheel of cheese (really) from dissident Baptist clergyman John Leland to show support for Jefferson's commitment to republicanism and freedom of religion.[92] Leland had the cheese pressed with the motto, "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God".[93]

Jefferson's slaves[edit]

Mass grave for slaves at Monticello.

At Monticello[edit]

Sally [Heming]'s sister Betty had firewood brought to her house every week. She had all the food and clothing that she wanted. Her labors were apparently light. But one of her daughters was given away to Jefferson's daughter, who lived 100 miles away from Monticello. One of her nephews was beaten very severely, probably right next door to her house... And two of her sons were sold. So even in the most privileged enslaved family at Monticello, you have the same experience that was true across the South. We can't shy away from thinking about the harsh realities of slavery.
—Lucia Stanton, Senior Research Historian at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.[94]

Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 human beings throughout the course of his life, 400 of which labored at his Monticello plantation.[95] The immediate question this usually raises is whether Jefferson was a good or bad slaveholder. His treatment of slaves was sadly typical of the time, and regardless he used forced labor of other human beings to finance a lifestyle of luxury.

Like other slaveowners, Jefferson hired overseers and used the threat of violence and family separation to force slaves to obey and work.[95] The most gut-churning detail is probably the nail-factory Jefferson owned. Boys as young as 11 or 12 would be beaten viciously to compel them to manufacture nails.[70] This labor financed the manor's grocery bills. Tobacco cultivation (Jefferson's cash crop) also required child labor, as their small hands made plucking and killing tobacco worms much easier.[70] Jefferson was thrilled by the idea of child labor since it ensured that the children would not otherwise be idle and thus a waste of the plantation's resources.

Jefferson never had the guts to carry out punishments himself. He instead relied on his hired overseers, many of whom have become infamous in historical record for their cruelty, like Gabriel Lilly, William Page, and William McGeehee.[95] he had fewer compunctions about ordering them to beat the shit out of a slave. Gabriel Lilly was probably the worst. On one occasion, he had James Hemings, a 17 year-old, beaten three times in one day until the boy couldn't lift his head just for being too sick to work.[70]

At the White House[edit]

Jefferson also brought slaves with him to the White House, although he generally preferred to hire white staff. The reason was because Jefferson wanted to ensure that most of his slaves stayed as far away from government as possible lest they be influenced by the ideals of democracy and freedom.[96] Liberty for me, but not for thee. Most of the slaves Jefferson did bring were young girls, as he was a sexist and thus believed that they would be less troublesome. That also served a double purpose, as they effectively became hostages from the slave families back at Monticello, another way of ensuring that those slaves didn't attempt to escape or resist.[96]

The president was probably acutely aware of the hypocrisy in using slave labor in the people's house, and he did his best to keep them out of view of the public or other politicians. Even so, being the first president to bring his own slaves into the White House brought great political scrutiny on him, especially from allies of the anti-slavery John Adams.[97]

Sally Hemings[edit]

Satirical image that shows the exploitative and duplicitous nature of slaveholders like Jefferson.
I am appreciative of the work that my colleagues are doing at Monticello because this is an American story, an important story. For too long our history has been ignored. Some people still don’t want to admit that the Civil War was fought over slavery. We need to face history head-on and face the blemish of slavery and that’s what we’re doing at Monticello.
—Gayle Jessup White, Monticello Community Engagement Officer and descendant of Sally Hemings.[98]

Jefferson famously took one of his slaves, the young teenager Sally Hemings, as effectively a concubine and fathered six children on her.[99] Despite his attempts to keep the relationship secret, it became public knowledge thanks to the Federalist Party and their attempts to use the affair against him. Jefferson strategically ignored the allegations, and they were mostly forgotten until a 1998 DNA study confirmed the truth.[100]

Sadly, while Sally Hemings is one of the most famous African-American women in history, very little is known about her thanks to Jefferson's efforts to keep her a secret. No written accounts by her survive, and only four known physical descriptions of her exist now.[99] It is known, however, that Thomas Jefferson never freed her, and she was instead let go after his death in 1826.

Sally Hemings did manage to leverage her relationship with Jefferson. She went to Paris with Jefferson, and she conditioned her return to America on "extraordinary" privileges" and emancipation for her children.[101] Jefferson mostly kept that promise, and he freed all of her children. So on the one hand, it's basically impossible to know whether or not Jefferson forcibly raped Sally Hemings. That some element of coercion was there is probably certain, however. On the other hand, the young Hemings used her position as leverage to negotiate with one of the most powerful men in American history. And that ought to be acknowledged as the brave and impressive feat it was.

Legacy[edit]

Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC.

Epitaph[edit]

Jefferson wrote his own epitaph before his death and demanded that it be put on his grave without anything added. It listed what he considered his three most significant achievements:

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

The reason why his presidency is excluded? He wanted his grave to list his gifts to his country and not his country's gift to him.[102]

Conservative backlash[edit]

In light of Jefferson's blasphemy and heresy, some conservatives have decided that he is no longer to be considered a good role model in his historically accurate form. Consequently, the Texas Board of Education decided to remove Jefferson from its list of world history philosophers and replace him with Christians like John Calvin and St. Thomas Aquinas.[103]

In 2012, Evangelical Christian author David Barton wrote the book The Jefferson Lies, in which he claimed to refute Jefferson's Deist beliefs. The book was canceled by its publisher, Thomas Nelson, after numerous complaints about historical inaccuracies.[104] Weeks later, right-wing talk show blowhard Glenn Beck announced he would publish the book under his publishing arm, Mercury Ink.[105]

Notes[edit]

  1. Included in Jefferson's laundry list of accusations directed at King George III: "he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce"

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