The New International Encyclopædia/Jefferson, Thomas

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The New International Encyclopædia
Jefferson, Thomas
Edition of 1905. Written by William Peterfield TrentSee also Thomas Jefferson on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

JEFFERSON, Thomas (1743-1826). Author of the Declaration of Independence, and third President of the United States, born in Albemarle County, Va., April 2, O. S. (April 13, N. S.), 1743. His father was Peter Jefferson, a man of some prominence in his community; his mother was Jane Randolph, a sister of William Randolph, of Tuckahoe. Thomas was educated first in a common school, in the ordinary studies for a boy of seven, and when nine years old the Rev. Mr. Douglas gave him instruction in French and in the classical languages. He prepared for college under the tuition of the Rev. Mr. Maury, and at the age of seventeen became a student in William and Mary's College. Jefferson did well in the classics, in French, Italian, and Spanish, and acquired an equipment in mathematics and science such as was rarely had save by special students. On leaving college he turned his attention to law, and studied for about five years under George Wythe, the head of his profession in Virginia. In 1767, at the age of twenty-four, he was admitted to the bar.

In 1769 Jefferson took his seat in the House of Burgesses, elected on the arrival of the new Governor, Lord Botetourt. A set of too independent resolutions brought about the dissolution of the assembly; but before returning home the Burgesses met at the Raleigh Tavern and adopted a non-importation agreement, of which Jefferson was one of the signers. The question of emancipating slaves was then being agitated in England, but little had been heard on the subject in the Colonies. Jefferson proposed an act which would give masters the right to free their slaves whenever they thought proper; but the bill failed to pass, and the principle was not established until seventeen years later.

His term over, he resumed law practice, removed to an unfinished house (subsequently famous as ‘Monticello’), and, on New Year's Day, 1772, married Martha Skelton, daughter of John Wayles, and widow of Bathurst Skelton.

In March, 1773, when the House of Burgesses came together again, Jefferson, Henry, and others of advanced opinions undertook to form a committee of correspondence for the spread of political intelligence in the Colonies. This scheme had scarcely been adopted and the committee selected when the Governor dissolved the House. In the spring of 1774, however, all of the old members reappeared in their seats, and while this session was in progress news came of the Boston Port Bill. Jefferson, with some of the other leaders, succeeded in having a resolution passed to observe a day of prayer and fasting, and again the Governor resorted to dissolution. The Burgesses in a secret meeting requested the Committee of Correspondence to consult with the other Colonies as to the expediency of a general congress, and then resolved in favor of a meeting of representatives from the counties of Virginia, to be held at Williamsburg on August 1st. Jefferson was chosen a representative, but was prevented by illness from attending. He forwarded, however, to Peyton Randolph, the president of the convention, a draft which he hoped to see adopted as instructions to the delegates to be selected for the Colonial Congress. When presented, copies of this document were ordered to be printed, and this first of Jefferson's political writings appeared in pamphlet form as A Summary View of the Rights of British America. This was sent to England, where, after receiving some interpolations from the pen of Edmund Burke, it was published and widely circulated — a circumstance which Jefferson regarded as the reason for including his name with others in a bill to punish sedition. In the session of the convention held in the spring of 1775, Jefferson was on the Committee to see to the defense of Virginia, and in the expectation that Peyton Randolph might be called home he was elected to the Continental Congress. This vacancy did occur soon; but before he left for Philadelphia he drew up for the Burgesses an answer to the ‘conciliatory propositions’ which the English Government had made to the Colonies. This reply, the earliest made by any of the Colonies, was anxiously expected in Congress, and when it was brought by the author it was vigorously indorsed. Jefferson was no debater, for, besides having a bad voice, he hated contest; but his courtesy, his intellectual keenness, his wide political knowledge, and his power of expression gained him hearty respect, and he soon became the recognized document writer to the assembly. The answer of Congress to Lord North's ‘conciliatory proposition’ was intrusted to Jefferson, who based his paper on the reply he had previously written for Virginia. In the winter of 1775-76 it became so plain that there was no possibility of a reconciliation that Virginia in the following spring instructed her delegates to urge on the final breach. On June 7th Richard Henry Lee presented resolutions to this effect, and before the month was out Jefferson, who was placed first on the drafting committee, presented his report. On July 2d Lee's resolution was passed, and on the same day Jefferson's draft was taken up. The author took no part in the warm discussion over the document, for which, with the exception of a few verbal changes by Franklin and Adams, he was solely responsible. Late in the day of July 4th the Declaration was adopted.

Jefferson did not take his seat at the next session of Congress, because he thought he could best serve his country by preparing the laws of his State for the changed conditions the new government would bring with it. In this task he was not working single-handed, but the initiative was almost entirely his own. In October, 1776, Jefferson took his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, where for two years he labored incessantly at revising the whole Virginia code, reforming old and proposing new laws. In spite of the opposition of the privileged classes, the old aristocratic framework of Virginia society was in a brief time replaced by a democratic one. In June, 1779, a time when the Revolution looked most hopeless for the Americans, Jefferson was elected Governor of the State where the struggle was to be ended. Virginia had supplied to the Revolution 10,000 men, besides all the horses and arms possible, and Jefferson's first duty was to keep up as well as he could this support. Soon, however, the British pushed the war in the South. In April Cornwallis sent Tarleton to capture the Virginia Legislature, then at Charlottesville, but he succeeded only in dispersing it. Jefferson himself narrowly missed capture at Monticello by a party sent after him. His conduct during this period has been the subject of much thoughtless censure. He was not, indeed, fitted to be a ‘war Governor,’ nor was he even of a very practical nature, but he seems to have done quite as well as the situation allowed. His course had Washington's substantial approval, for the commander-in-chief recognized that Virginia was without means of defense and that it was impossible for any one to defend it. To the mental suffering caused Jefferson's sensitive nature by the criticisms of his administration there was added at this time the sorrow occasioned by the death of his wife, to whom he had been singularly devoted. He retired to his home, where he remained until called by Congress to be one of the commissioners to arrange the treaty of peace. He left home, but found that matters had gone so far that he could be of no practical service, and he did not sail. In 1783 he took his seat in Congress, and did much to strengthen a body fallen into something like contempt for its incompetence. His most important service here was to devise the decimal system of coinage, and to draw up a plan for the government of the territory to the northwest of the Ohio River. In the latter plan there was the provision for the prohibition of slavery, which, though rejected at first, finally secured all of the vast domain to freedom.

In May, 1784, Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams were sent to Europe under a general power to make commercial treaties. In 1785 Jefferson succeeded Franklin as American representative to France. The diplomatic fruits of this stay are not specially remarkable — because Europe was much concerned with internal troubles and little interested in the affairs of the new nation across the Atlantic. By his personal charm, however, by his sympathy with French ideas, and by the influence of his Notes on Virginia, now published with his consent, Jefferson did much to set the United States in a favorable light in Europe. Having as his official duty to attend to the ignoble tribute by which the commercial nations of the time warded off the Algerian pirates, he protested vigorously that a war would be not only more honorable, but much cheaper. On a brief and unsatisfactory mission to England he got a first-hand confirmation of the insolence with which the Americans were there treated. He traveled in Italy and Germany, and in Paris became intimate with D'Alembert, Condorcet, and other extreme liberals, with whom his intellectual affinity was marked. In 1789 he returned to America, and under Washington he came first Secretary of State. The organization of the Government had defined political parties, and hardly was Jefferson in office before he was recognized as the leader of the Democratic Republicans (afterwards known first as the Republicans and then as the Democrats), while Alexander Hamilton was the leader of the Federalists. Hamilton favored a strong Federal government and distrusted the people; Jefferson insisted on State sovereignty, and regarded the people with the most optimistic faith; Washington held views more moderate than either. Most of Hamilton's definite propositions have been adopted by the Government, but Jefferson's spirit has given them life. The two new parties came into sharp contention over the question of neutrality when in 1793 France declared war against England. The followers of Jefferson held that the United States were bound by gratitude and treaty to aid the French Republic; those of Hamilton argued that the treaty was now in force, and that motives of self-preservation were stronger than the obligation owed for help during the Revolution. Washington finally issued a neutrality proclamation, but at the same time declared that he would receive the Minister of the Republic, Genet. ‘Citizen Genet,’ as he was called, acted with what was considered to be outrageous disregard for international etiquette, and was recalled, but the bitterness between Hamilton and Jefferson was never removed.

Jefferson's secretaryship had not been congenial to him, and at the call of some private business, he retired December 31, 1793. Washington's announcement in September, 1796, that he would not be a candidate for a third term, led to the nomination of Adams, then Vice-President, and Jefferson by the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, respectively. Adams, having received the highest vote, was chosen President, and Jefferson, having the next highest, was, under the law of the time, chosen Vice-President. As the duties which Jefferson had now to perform were chiefly secondary, he was able to spend most of his time at home, where, nevertheless, he continued to direct the party of which he was the head. The excesses of the French in the Reign of Terror caused a great reaction in America against Republican doctrines, and the Directory now in control in France seemed bent on having war with the United States. The American envoys were treated with insolence, and later the shameful incident of the ‘X. Y. Z.’ letters brought not only the quick-tempered Adams, but also all but the most devoted followers of Jefferson to a strong desire for war. This calamity was avoided because the French Minister, Talleyrand, seeing that he had overstepped himself in his knavery, now proclaimed the whole thing a mistake. The war feeling had, however, carried the President and his supporters so far that they felt justified in having the Alien and Sedition laws passed for the protection of the Government, the former making it possible to expel from the country any alien suspected of treason, and the latter making defamation of the Government a crime punishable by a heavy fine. Jefferson on this provocation drew up the Kentucky Resolutions, which seemed strongly to manifest his belief in the right of a State to secede, although this is not absolutely implied and at least does not seem to have remained his fixed opinion.

The election of 1800 resulted, after a campaign marked by great bitterness, in the election of the Republican candidates, Jefferson and Burr receiving the same number of votes. The decision fell to Congress, where Jefferson was chosen, chiefly through the influence of his opponent, Hamilton, who was too much of a patriot to desire the success of Burr. Although the Federalists, especially of New England, predicted a revolution, Jefferson made few removals on entering office, was painstaking in his selections for vacancies, and by his popularity drew from the Federalist Party much of its vital energy. The stately formalities that had marked the inauguration of the preceding Presidents were omitted. Jefferson rode horseback, without attendants, tied his horse to the fence, and walked unceremoniously into the Senate chamber. He also sent written messages to Congress. These changes in official etiquette were paralleled in manners and dress; knee-breeches gave way to trousers, and simplicity, for which the President set an unostentatious example, became the order of the day.

The most important event of Jefferson's quiet first term was the purchase of Louisiana from the French. This step was deemed unconstitutional by him, but the necessity of controlling the Mississippi and the obvious need of haste abundantly justified the action. A little war with Tripoli, the first opposition that the Algerine pirates had received, led to the extinction of the tribute-paying to which Jefferson had so objected. The exploration of the Far West was undertaken and settlements across the Mississippi were generously assisted. Four years of prosperity and the almost complete disintegration of the Federalist Party led to the easy reëlection of Jefferson in 1804. Burr's scheme to invade Mexico to set up an empire brought about his trial for treason, and the prosecution gave Jefferson's enemies the opportunity to accuse him of gross partisanship. Jefferson's second term is remarkable for his consistent and on the whole unsuccessful attempt to apply to foreign affairs principles of action so far in advance of his time that we have not yet arrived at them to-day. The long wars between France and England had made these two nations utterly careless of the rights of neutrals. The United States, as the principal carrier of neutral goods, suffered most, her ships being attacked by both nations and her crews being impressed into British service. This impressment by the British went on in spite of protest until a crisis was reached in June, 1807, when the British ship Leopard fired into the American frigate Chesapeake (q.v.). Redress was demanded, but the British Government refused to touch the fundamental cause of the trouble, impressment. The measures that Jefferson recommended in retaliation were those of commercial restriction such as had been not without effect in the eighteenth century. The Embargo of 1807 forbade American vessels to leave for foreign ports, and the Enforcement Act of 1808 put heavy penalties on the violation of the embargo. These acts proved without effect as far as changing the attitude of the British was concerned, and brought great distress on the tobacco industry of Virginia and on the commerce of New England and the Middle States. This policy was abandoned in 1809, shortly before Jefferson retired from office and took up the care of his plantation at Monticello. Here he ceased entirely from active political life, but by means of his facile pen still exerted an important influence on the Government, especially upon his successors and disciples, Madison and Monroe. His house was the Mecca to which all America seemed to turn, his open and generous hospitality finally bringing financial distress upon him — a distress that both the Government and private individuals helped to relieve. Jefferson's chief public service during this period was the founding of the University of Virginia — a claim on posterity so great that he desired to have it commemorated in his epitaph, along with his authorship of the Declaration. In June, 1826, his health failed rapidly and he died July 4th, the same day that his predecessor in office, John Adams, passed away.

In person Jefferson was tall (6 feet 2 inches), with a bony but strong frame, angular features, ruddy complexion, sandy or reddish hair, and light hazel eyes. In dress and bearing he was so far removed from the formal as to be almost slovenly. His manners were remarkably winning and his disposition very kindly, not only to his family and his friends, but to his slaves. While not precisely learned, he probably had the most receptive mind of his generation, and it is by no means certain that, although he was on the whole a far from strong Executive, he was not the most influential statesman of his day. In religion it is probable that he was not far from what was then known and execrated as a ‘free thinker’: as an idealist he did not underestimate the sublimity of Christ's character, but he had no belief in the orthodox theological ideas as to redemption. His views on slavery were far beyond those of his time, but all of his efforts to effect a reform in Virginia were unavailing. The influence that he has had through the Democratic Party has been but the most open expression of the deep influence he has had in the democratizing of all American ideas. The unfailing trust which the people of his day put in him was due largely to the deep and steady confidence he had in them.

Consult: Works, Congressional Edition (Washington, 1853-55); also the latest and best by P. L. Ford (10 vols., New York, 1892-99); Memoir and Correspondence, by T. J. Randolph, his grandson (4 vols., Charlottesville, Va., 1829). For his biography consult: Parton (Boston, 1874); Morse, in “American Statesmen Series” (Boston, 1883); Schouler, in “Makers of America” (New York, 1893); Randall (3 vols., New York, 1888); Adams, History of the United States (9 vols., New York, 1889-91). For an appreciation of his genius consult Trent, Southern Statesmen of the Old Régime (New York, 1897).