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Jeffersonian America: A Second Revolution?

20b. Jeffersonian Ideology

Minerva, guardian of civilization
A marble mosaic of Greek goddess Minerva in the Library of Congress symbolizes the preservation of civilization as well as the promotion of the arts and sciences.

Jefferson's lasting significance in American history stems from his remarkably varied talents. He made major contributions as a politician, statesman, diplomat, intellectual, writer, scientist, and philosopher. No other figure among the Founding Fathers shared the depth and breadth of his wide-ranging intelligence.

His presidential vision impressively combined philosophic principles with pragmatic effectiveness as a politician. Jefferson's most fundamental political belief was an "absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority." Stemming from his deep optimism in human reason, Jefferson believed that the will of the people, expressed through elections, provided the most appropriate guidance for directing the republic's course.

Jefferson also felt that the central government should be "rigorously frugal and simple." As president he reduced the size and scope of the federal government by ending internal taxes, reducing the size of the army and navy, and paying off the government's debt. Limiting the federal government flowed from his strict interpretation of the Constitution.

Finally, Jefferson also committed his presidency to the protection of civil liberties and minority rights. As he explained in his inaugural address in 1801, "though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression." Jefferson's experience of Federalist repression in the late 1790s led him to more clearly define a central concept of American democracy.

Jefferson's stature as the most profound thinker in the American political tradition stems beyond his specific policies as president. His crucial sense of what mattered most in life grew from a deep appreciation of farming, in his mind the most virtuous and meaningful human activity. As he explained in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." Since farmers were an overwhelming majority in the American republic, one can see how his belief in the value of agriculture reinforced his commitment to democracy.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Completed in 1943, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial stands in Washington D.C. as a testament to one of the great American political philosophers.

Jefferson's thinking, however, was not merely celebratory, for he saw two dangerous threats to his ideal agrarian democracy. To him, financial speculation and the development of urban industry both threatened to rob men of the independence that they maintained as farmers. Debt, on the one hand, and factory work, on the other, could rob men of the economic autonomy essential for republican citizens.

Jefferson's vision was not anti-modern, for he had too brilliant a scientific mind to fear technological change. He supported international commerce to benefit farmers and wanted to see new technology widely incorporated into ordinary farms and households to make them more productive.

Sally Hemings
During his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson was accused of having an adulterous affair with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. In 1998, DNA tests revealed that Heming's son, Eston, was related to Jefferson's family.

Jefferson pinpointed a deeply troubling problem. How could republican liberty and democratic equality be reconciled with social changes that threatened to increase inequality? The awful working conditions in early industrial England loomed as a terrifying example. For Jefferson, western expansion provided an escape from the British model. As long as hard working farmers could acquire land at reasonable prices, then America could prosper as a republic of equal and independent citizens. Jefferson's ideas helped to inspire a mass political movement that achieved many key aspects of his plan.

In spite of the success and importance of Jeffersonian Democracy, dark flaws limited even Jefferson's grand vision. First, his hopes for the incorporation of technology at the household level failed to grasp how poverty often pushed women and children to the forefront of the new industrial labor. Second, an equal place for Native Americans could not be accommodated within his plans for an agrarian republic. Third, Jefferson's celebration of agriculture disturbingly ignored the fact that slaves worked the richest farm land in the United States. Slavery was obviously incompatible with true democratic values. Jefferson's explanation of slaves within the republic argued that African Americans' racial inferiority barred them from becoming full and equal citizens.

Our final assessment of Jeffersonian Democracy rests on a profound contradiction. Jefferson was the single most powerful individual leading the struggle to enhance the rights of ordinary people in the early republic. Furthermore, his Declaration of Independence had eloquently expressed America's statement of purpose "that all men are created equal." Still, he owned slaves all his life and, unlike Washington, never set them free.

For all his greatness, Jefferson did not transcend the pervasive racism of his day.

On the Web
Autobiography by Thomas Jefferson
This revealing collection includes text of Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Although the language can be difficult, the personal accounts offer insights into the thoughts and feelings behind Jefferson's actions.
Life of Thomas Jefferson
Author B.L. Rayner wrote Life of Thomas Jefferson, published only 8 years after his subject's death. Though broad in scope, the index enables easy access to 39 chapters covering the life, philosophy, and career of the third U.S. president.
Principles and Policies
Jefferson on freedom of the press and religion.
Monticello: The Home of Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson's retirement years at Monticello were busy ones. This site focuses on his private life after leaving the presidency in 1809 and offers insights into his personal philosophy. Includes links, timeline, and quotes.
Jefferson and Slavery
The contradictions between Jefferson's beliefs and actions.
Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government
The most sacred of the duties of a government is to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens. -Thomas Jefferson, 1816. This mammoth collection of over 2,700 Jefferson quotations from the University of Virginia is searchable and well-indexed. The majority of quotes focus on government, but the role of religion and the duties of the citizen are also included.
The Thomas Jefferson Papers
Massive, searchable collection of Jefferson documents at the Library of Congress. The majority of the documents are from Jefferson's presidency, 1801-09. Even though this site is only partially active, there is a wealth of information here.
Many of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, disavowed tenets of Christianity. Check out the religious orientation of many of the Founders, and how the Treaty of Tripoli served as an official indication of the secular status of our country.
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If he were alive today, where would Thomas Jefferson stand on issues like Microsoft's anti-trust lawsuit, gun control and violence on the tube?
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Thomas Jefferson was a Virginian, first and foremost. Remarkably, he didn't mention in his will that he served as President of the United States, while he did mention founding the University of Virginia.
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"I Rise with the Sun"
Spend a day with Thomas Jefferson in Monticello.
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