Thomas Jefferson was a truly important figure in our nation’s history. He was one of our Founding Fathers, an author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of United States, and a famous abolitionist. Although he was mostly known as an important leader of his country, he was also considered an active abolitionist.
During his presidency, his decisions had a profound impact on our nation’s political philosophy. Even though Thomas Jefferson was not a popular political leader during his time and was considered a radical figure, his opinion on slavery was widely accepted by many European countries. Thanks to Jefferson’s agreements with European countries, he was able to stop the importation of slaves to America.
Furthermore, Thomas Jefferson helped to establish Liberia in order to relocate African Americans to Africa. In this essay, I will use Notes on the State of Virginia to interpret and explore the political views and philosophy he used to create the republican form of government, as well as his radical opinion that slavery should be abolished in the United States. From the beginning of his presidency until his death in 1809, his leadership of America had a dramatic impact on our political and social structure.
Thomas Jefferson’s legacy began at the dawn of the Revolutionary War. He was already a well-known figure who vigorously attack the British rule in America.
In his main argument, Jefferson states “many of the laws which were in force during the monarchy being relative merely to that form of government, or inculcating principles inconsistent with republicanism.”(Jefferson 264) Instead, he supports the idea that people needed to have the power to control their own government, and opportunity to express their own opinion about their government.
Furthermore, he felt that England’s Parliament was the legislature of Great Britain only, and had no legislative authority in America. After the Revolutionary War, Jefferson continued to spread his ideology in the creation of our government. He thought that the people should not rely on their government because the government is the representative of the people.
In his mind, this was the way to create a true form of republican government, in which the people and their government are intertwined (Borden 103). When Jefferson became the third president of the United States during extremely partisan government and an unstable economy, this philosophy became widely popular and it was labeled Jeffersonian.
In 1801, Jefferson published his only full-length book: Notes on the State of Virginia (Onuf 65). This work describes Jefferson’s view on how to create a good government and a perfectly balanced society. He expresses the importance of the need for government reform. At the time of its publication, this work was significant for several reasons: first, the idea of reforming the government relied on the people, rather than the people relying on the government.
The second reason was the idea of creating a society where all races could be equal. The last reason was the idea of creating a national education system that could teach the people how to protect and defend their individual rights (Borden 79). These three issues were considered extremely radical at that time, and no other institutions or countries had ever promoted them.
Unlike the moral sense doctrine, Jefferson felt that the only way to secure a republic was to first secure individual rights. Although Jefferson had borrowed this idea from Locke, his idea was very different. The first difference was that Jefferson started with a more amiable view of human nature where one’s self-interest and moral duty are brought into closer alignment through the operation of an innate moral sense.
The second difference was that Jefferson rejected Locke’s hierarchy of the passions, which elevated one’s desire for comfortable self-preservation as the single source of individual rights. Jefferson concluded that pride and desire for self-government could also serve as a source for an individual’s right to be liberty.
The third difference was that Jefferson’s view on individual rights was not based on human selfishness, but the will to pursue happiness. (Braman 90) In other words to summarize these ideas is that one’s desire to do good unto others, therefore people are motivated to do good things. These changes had a dramatic impact on our present government, such that they created the government’s role in our society, which is to reinforce society’s moral sense.
In return, the people developed the pursuit of happiness and shouldered their moral obligation to run the government properly. (Braman 43) Therefore, it was vital for the government to educate its citizens and reinforce our moral senses to stabilize the society. The core of this philosophy and the changes it enacted created a Republican government that was a more positive form of government than classical liberalism.
As Jefferson tried to emphasize individual rights, he never forgot to address the importance of government to society. He argued that if a person chose to live in a society he or she must also agree to give up some of his or her rights. Without a civilization to enforce the equal rights of those who are physically weaker, natural societies tend to slide into barbarism. During the late 1790s, Jefferson’s administration took strong steps to shape our education system purpose the creation of public universities.
Since his main argument for the role of the government was to lead, he strongly believed in creating a national education system directed by the government because he felt that education was the key to resolving social injustices and creating an efficient way to balance the government and individual rights. Another main argument found in his writing was his promotion of an agrarian economy, which was unique at this time.
He based his continual insistence that a republic of farmers and agriculture was morally superior on the teachings of Aristotle, who had emphasized that a farmer’s purpose was just as important as an elite’s purpose, and that purpose for farmers is productivity which help to stable not just the economy but also the social structure.
In this book, Jefferson addressed this problem by suggesting that specialization of labor and increased economic flow come leads to problems such as social gap between the poor and the rich, which can cause social chaos. (Onuf 85) From this one is able to conclude that Jefferson advocated a non-commercial, self-sufficient agrarian economy populated with farmers.
Under his encouragement, the threshing machine was invented, new breeds of sheep were successfully introduced, and soil conservation through crop rotation was advocated.
Another main issue was slavery. In this book, he stated that the United States was trapped by a system inherited from the Old World and could do little to change. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he inserted a clause condemning the Atlantic slave trade and blaming George III for his support of it. For Jefferson, the very purpose of creating a Republican form of government was to ensure human equality, but slavery was clearly a violation of naturally equal human rights.
Throughout his political career, Jefferson never abandoned this belief and he think that the only resolution of the problem would involve educating both masters and slaves. (Cogliano 78) Jefferson frequently mentions that his idea to abolish slavery not only needed to be reinforced by the government through use of force, but also that it was equally important to find an alternative way for people to abandon their old beliefs by educating them.
When Jefferson became the third president of the United States, he immediately passed a law that outlawed the further importation of slaves to the United States, which was the first step towards abolishing slavery in US history. He further outlawed any slavery in the West and established freeman guarantees policy to those states. (Onuf 190)
According to Jefferson, although slavery was unjust, when emancipation came at some date in the future, slaves and their descendants should not remain in the United States. In Jefferson’s mind, emancipation must be accompanied by the removal of former slaves from the country, and which he provided the answer by creating the nation of Liberia as a destination for the former slaves. (Cogliano 80)
In his book, Jefferson did draw a clear visible line of race, where he felt that whites are somewhat superior to the blacks. He states “that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.
It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.” (Jefferson 270) This explains his belief that Blacks are inferior not because of their body chemistry or life experiences, they are inferior because nature created a difference that made them disadvantageous to Whites.
This can be seen as Jefferson’s belief that differences can cause inequality not because of nature but by Men. But we need to understand that his belief in creating a stable economy by promoting agriculture was deeply influence by this decision. It will be reasonable to think his first priority was to protect the interests and unity of our country and equality among races was second.
The significance of this letter is that it serves as an important piece of information that provides one with extended insight into the fundamental principle of Jeffersonian philosophy. It gives one valuable insight and illuminates the importance of the erudite political and social thought of America’s most influential and intellectual philosopher.
Although he was not an eloquent public speaker and an unpopular figure in his time, by establishing schools, championing social equality, and reshaping our government, his contributions to our society and government are very clear to us today.
Onuf, Peter S. .The mind of Thomas Jefferson Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Cogliano, Francis D.. Thomas Jefferson : reputation and legacy. Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2006.
Chuck Braman. “The Political Philosophy of John Locke and Its Influence on the Founding Fathers and the Political Documents They Created” Political Philosophy. 1996.
Morton Borden. “Thomas Jefferson” The American Revolution. 2004.
Martin Kelly. “Thomas Jefferson Biography – Third President of the United States” American History. 2003. http://americanhistory.about.com/od/thomasjefferson/p/pjefferson.htm
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 4. University of Virginia Library: 1784. 263-270. Print.