Thomas Jefferson’s Vision of Independence

By Mifune
Conspiracy Central Blog
September 8, 2007

Thomas Jefferson’s Vision of Independence

Learning and thinking about the life of Thomas Jefferson, I have come into a greater appreciation of the influence of his philosophy upon America as well as the world. While I understand that Jefferson is by no means a perfect man, I still take him as a role model.

The year was 1826. Thomas Jefferson, designing his final will, wrote the following words for his Epitaph:

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.”

It is important to note that while overlooking his eight years as President of the United States, Jefferson saw as his greatest achievement the most complete expression of John Locke’s concept of natural rights as any nation or people had yet undertaken: independence, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, religious freedom, and the value of education, allowing people the freedom and opportunity to author their own souls. The United States of America that exists today would not have existed but for the vision and guidance of Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was a very learned man; a scholar by all accounts. As a student, he would spend fifteen hours a day studying. Introduced early on to the writings and concepts of the British Empiricists John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Sir Isaac Newton, he regarded them as the “three greatest men the world had ever produced.”(Peterson, p. 1236) Jefferson often attended dinner parties at the mansion of the royal governor Francis Fauquier. Here Jefferson learned about the philosophy of the leading thinkers of the day; the Enlightenment philosophy of Rousseau and Voltaire. It was this exposure to the most learned minds of his day that led Jefferson to develop his own vision regarding independence.

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote the Declaration of Independence, stating:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable 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 to 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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” (Wikipedia.com, 2007)

Jefferson’s Republican vision for America was not always a certainty. While Jefferson was a prominent voice in favor of independence as early as 1774, when he wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America, and in 1776 when he penned the Declaration of Independence, his vision of a limited government clashed with that of the Federalists such as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. Serving as the Secretary of State during George Washington’s first term, Jefferson fought with the Federalists over whether the United States should have a strong central government, or a government that reserves most of its power to the states. The Federalists eventually won Washington’s favor, moving Jefferson to resign and return to his estate at Monticello.

When John Adams won the Presidential Election of 1796, he immediately moved to levy new taxes, start a navy, build up the army, and enact the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 in response to an undeclared naval war with France. Adams used this act in large part to stifle dissent and criticism against his own policies.

Jefferson’s presidency, by contrast, was marked by his belief in agrarianism, states’ rights, and limited government. After winning the Presidential Election of 1800, Jefferson moved to repeal the new taxes, pardoned all political criminals, disbanded most of the Navy, decreased the size of the army, and shrunk the size of the government. These policies led to some problems, however. When British and French ships began impressing American sailors, Jefferson’s only response was to order an embargo, stopping all shipping from American ports. This policy led to terrible inflation, and was highly unpopular. Jefferson never admitted any error on his part. In 1803, Jefferson made a deal with France to buy French Louisiana for $15 million, doubling the size of the fledgling nation, despite controversy over whether the deal he had made was Constitutional. He sent an expedition led by Meriwether Louis and William Clark to explore and chart the new territory.

On political violence, Jefferson wrote, “What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”2

Religiously, Jefferson was a deist, as was common among many of the leading intellectuals of the time. According to Avery Cardinal Dulles, a leading Roman Catholic theologian,

“In summary, then, Jefferson was a deist because he believed in one God, in divine providence, in the divine moral law, and in rewards and punishments after death; but did not believe in supernatural revelation. He was a Christian deist because he saw Christianity as the highest expression of natural religion and Jesus as an incomparably great moral teacher. He was not an orthodox Christian because he rejected, among other things, the doctrines that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the incarnate Son of God. Jefferson’s religion is fairly typical of the American form of deism in his day.” (Dulles, 2005)

While publicly, Jefferson’s ideas had given the Americans moral justification to throw off their former government, his private life left a more mixed legacy. The man who had written so much about independence had owned many slaves, and had never freed them upon his death. According to Wikipedia.com,

“Jefferson owned many slaves over his lifetime. Some find it baffling that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves yet was outspoken in saying that slavery was immoral and it should be abolished. Biographers point out that Jefferson was deep in debt and had encumbered his slaves by notes and mortgages; he chose not to free them until he finally was debt-free, which he never was. Jefferson seems to have suffered pangs and trials of conscience as a result.”

In addition, at one time Jefferson had expressed views that blacks by nature were inferior to whites. He later recanted this view, in 1809.

“Sir,–I have received the favor of your letter of August 17th, and with it the volume you were so kind to send me on the “Literature of Negroes”. Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunity for the development of their genius were not favorable and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making toward their re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you therefore to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief; and to be assured of the sentiments of high and just esteem and consideration which I tender to yourself with all sincerity.”

While to many, Jefferson’s legacy may send mixed signals to those who value freedom and equality, upon closer examination, many of his faults were simply based on a lack of understanding, not any malicious desire to gain from the toil and suffering of others. Above all, Jefferson’s based his philosophy upon Enlightenment principles of independence and the power of the mind. Jefferson valued exploration and discovery above all else, which allows one to use to use the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to an end that serves one’s own intellectual and spiritual growth, while spreading education and knowledge among society at large.

Works Cited

1. Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. 1236.

2. “United States Declaration of Independence.” Wikipedia. 6 Sept. 2007. 6 Sept. 2007 <http://www.wikipedia.com&gt;.

3. “Thomas Jefferson.” Wikipedia. 6 Sept. 2007. 6 Sept. 2007 <http://www.wikipedia.com&gt;.

4. Jefferson, Thomas. “Letter to William Smith.” 13 Nov. 1787.

5. Dulles, Avery Cardinal. “The Deist Minimum.” First Things: a Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life 149 (2005): 25.

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