Abraham Lincoln said "The principles of Thomas Jefferson are the axioms of a free society." That is very true, and the historic record regarding Thomas Jefferson's words, actions, principles and legacy are clear and reveal that he was one of the most influential and progressive Enlightenment thinkers, along with several other Founders of the United States of America.
However, it has become apparent that Americans are in need of a refresher course regarding Jeffersonian principles, as well as the general intent of the majority of America's Founders, because during the last several decades there has been a concerted effort by the forces of greed and self-interest to denigrate and discredit certain Founders of the American nation, and Thomas Jefferson is one of their biggest targets.
The right-wing forces of greed and self-interest have been trying to discredit and denigrate Jefferson ever since the U.S. Constitution was being developed and after it was established because they resent a central government with regulatory powers. They want to be left to their own devices and be given free rein, and they've always claimed that government power is the problem even as they try to gain or maintain government power for themselves.
That is why it is important to know and understand the truth about the real intent of the great majority of America's Founders, particularly Jefferson, who was one of the most influential in planting the seeds of Democracy, Liberty, freedom of religion, public education, equal rights and opportunity, and protection from the unfair and inequitable abuse of the power of money by large businesses, banks and corporations.
The fact is that Jefferson was one of the greatest Founders of America, and he noted: "I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."
Jefferson therefore believed in and advocated public education from first grade through university graduate school, because he knew that true Democracy cannot exist without an informed, educated citizenry. But alas, he was only able to establish public schools through high school, because there were many wealthy Americans who believed not in equal opportunities but in "Meritocracy" and insisted that higher education should be the privilege of the "worthy" wealthiest few.
Jefferson also believed and wrote that: "Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." For he understood that a good citizen must not only be educated regarding academic and historical subjects, they must also be made aware of past and current events by investigative journalists who will keep politicians honest. That is, after all, why the Framers of the Constitution insisted on freedom of the press in the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, today the press is under attack by rather fascist right-wing ideology, and Jeffersonian principles are largely ignored by those in power, which is why abuses of legislative and judicial power are rampant. That is because there are many Americans today who have been misled and deceived and are ignorant not only of the letter of constitutional law and scriptural teachings, they are especially ignorant of the spirit of the law and teachings. But in spite of their ignorance, and being unaware that they have been misled by demagogues and false shepherds, they "thump" the Constitution as they thump their Bible, and they proudly and loudly claim to know the truth. And, to make matters worse, they use aggressive theocratic political action to try to destroy equality and freedom of religions and public education, believing they are doing “the right thing.”
Such issues, including Jeffersonian Democracy, are discussed in this article and others. But first it should be understood they main reasons why there has been and is a lot of debate over Thomas Jefferson. Again, there have been a lot of erroneous and unfair claims made about him, and perhaps the most erroneous claims are regarding the issues of government powers and slavery.
Therefore, we should consider the historic record, and perhaps we should begin with slavery because that's the hottest issue debated.
This issue is important today because some people who dislike Jefferson's fair, liberating and populist principles have been trying to denigrate him and tarnish his image because Jefferson inherited slaves from his father, and he was a slave holder all his life.
But there's much more to the story that Jefferson’s critics don’t know, or don't want you to know.
For example, as a state legislator in Virginia he pursued reforms to slavery. He introduced legislation in 1769 allowing slave owners to take control over the emancipation of slaves, taking discretion away from the Governor and state court. In 1776 in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence he even condemned the institution of slavery. In 1778 he introduced a Virginia law prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784 he proposed a ban on slavery in the Northwest Territory and was one of the first influential Americans to try to stop the expansion of slavery Westward.
Such facts are not generally known today, which is why his critics these days try to label Jefferson as a hypocrite because he himself had inherited slaves and was a slave owner until he died. But when you know the whole story that becomes somewhat more understandable.
Perhaps the most important and consequential part of the story is about how and why Jefferson's condemnation of slavery in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence was censored and deleted.
You can read the original draft at this Library of Congress site, and you should because Jefferson's passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document. And later Jefferson blamed the removal of the passage on delegates from South Carolina and Georgia and also delegates from the North who represented merchants who were at the time actively involved in the slave trade.
You see, in 1776, Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote the first draft, but he was on a committee including four others that came up with first draft to be presented to the body of delegates from each colony who decided upon the final product.
However, Jefferson wrote the first draft, and in it he stated that the British King "has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people [Africans] who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere."
Obviously Jefferson was condemning slavery, and he was referring to the fact that the British King's London Company and the wealthy British aristocrats who did its bidding had introduced slavery to the Jamestown Virginia Colony in 1619. And the tragedy is that if Jefferson's words about that were not deleted from the Declaration of Independence the course of events in the new nation might have been very different.
The point, however, is that Jefferson was quite aware of the evils of slavery and had been speaking out against it for a long time. Unfortunately, most Americans now are totally unaware of that, which makes it easy for false or misguided right-wing "historians," pundits and ideologues to fool a lot of Americans about it.
That is why many Americans have been misled to think that Jefferson was simply a hypocrite because he himself owned slaves. But while there was indeed hypocrisy in the fact that he owned slaves even as he condemned slavery, that becomes more understandable when you consider some very important facts.
Jefferson was fourteen years old when he inherited his land and his slaves from his father, and he followed the ways of his father and father-in-law. But gradually as he grew older he became a reformer, which is why the historic record shows that he spoke out against slavery and developed a conscientious, democratic world view.
As has already been mentioned, the record shows that Jefferson said slavery was immoral and it should be abolished. And even though Jefferson was a man of his times and his actions admittedly contradicted his words in that he still owned slaves like most of his peers, he was unusually kind to his slaves and gave them relative freedom. He treated them more like employees than slaves, and he gave them days off to go to town and shop and take care of their own business. He even employed freed slaves on his plantation, after having used his skill as an attorney to help free them.
Clearly Jefferson knew and said slavery was wrong, and he consistently expressed that. He even invoked the notion of divine justice in his opposition to slavery when he wrote: "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?"
In addition, during Jefferson’s lengthy political career, he attempted many times to abolish or limit the advance of slavery. He sponsored and encouraged Free-State advocates like James Lemen. And he said he "believed that it was the responsibility of the state and society to free all slaves." (Read other quotes of Jefferson's thoughts about slavery from Monticello.org.)
Unfortunately, critics of Jefferson ignore such evidence and the full historic record in context. Instead they refer to his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-1783), because among other things Jefferson's "Notes" referred to "the real distinctions which nature has made" between whites and blacks. Critics claim that proves Jefferson was a racist. But, that was actually Jefferson's diplomatic effort to bridge the huge gap between die hard slave owner-traders and Abolitionists. He wanted to avoid fighting over the matter (which was one of the main reasons he and other Founders were very reluctant to use strong words of actions in favor of Abolition and blanket Emancipation).
Jefferson was worried that "Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained" could lead to terrible problems. That's why he suggested that deporting slaves to Africa might be a solution. However, it should be understood that such a suggestion was made because he felt that would at least free them from slavery in America, and he never took any political action to try to deport slaves to free them. Instead, he tried in diplomatic ways to abolish slavery in America.
In fact, in his "Notes" Jefferson also expressed his opposition to slavery, and that was one of the reasons why numerous northern states abolished slavery, and why the number of free blacks in Virginia rose to about 1,800 in 1782, and increased steadily.
But again, in spite of the facts, some ignorant critics condemn Jefferson for owning slaves, and some even make the false claim that Jefferson did not free any slaves even in his will.
The truth, however, is that In Jefferson’s last will and testament he gave his “faithful servant Burwell his freedom” and $300 to start his own business. He also gave his “good servants John Hemings and Joe Fosset their freedom at the end of one year after my death, and to each of them respectively all the tools of their respective shops or callings: and it is my will that a comfortable log house be built for each of the three servants so emancipated on some part of my lands convenient to them with respect to the residence of their wives, and to Charlottesville and the University, where they will be mostly employed, and reasonably convenient also to the interest of the proprietor of the lands; of which houses I give the use of one, with a curtilage of an acre to each, during his life or personal occupation thereof."
Jefferson also wrote: "I give also to John Hemings the services of his two apprentices, Madison and Eston Hemings, until their respective ages of twenty one years, at which period respectively, I give them their freedom. and I humbly and earnestly request of the legislature of Virginia a confirmation of the bequest of freedom to these servants, with permission to remain in this state where their families and connections are, as an additional instance of the favor, of which I have received so many other manifestations, in the course of my life, and for which I now give them my last, solemn, and dutiful thanks."
There is much more that Jefferson wrote and said regarding slavery, and when you consider all the evidence that is available to us it is very easy to see what Jefferson believed and how he felt about slavery.
However, it is appropriate to ask: Why did Jefferson not free his slaves during his political career to serve as a good example?
First, Jefferson maintained that the decision to emancipate slaves would have to be part of a democratic process, and that abolition would not work until slave owners consented to free their human property together in a large-scale act of emancipation. To Jefferson, it was anti-democratic and contrary to the principles of the American Revolution for the federal government to enact abolition or for only a few slave owners to free their slaves. He felt that all slaves should be emancipated at once.
However, though that was the main reason, there may have been other reasons as well. For example, some scholars have surmised that it was because of financial concerns, and that is a logical assumption because Jefferson did have debts and had financial difficulties. That certainly would have made freeing is slaves problematic.
It is also logical to suspect that since Jefferson was a highly educated intellectual and a deep thinker, it is possible that he was able to successfully rationalize that he was a relatively beneficent master and his slaves would probably be better off working for him rather than having to fend for themselves as things were. After all, he was generally kind to his slaves and gave them relative freedom. He treated them more like employees than slaves, and he gave them days off to go to town and shop and take care of their own business.
This point of view is presented here to counter accusations that Jefferson was simply a hypocrite and a racist who spoke empty words against slavery and did not practice what he preached. In fact, that is not true, and when you know the whole story you can better see the truth and admire Jeffersonian principles.
In 1760 at the age of 16 Jefferson entered college and studied philosophy, mathematics and metaphysics. He particularly the work of John Locke, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. After graduating with highest honors, he studied law and became a lawyer in 1767.
In 1774, Jefferson wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America, his first published work, in which he proposed the radical idea that the colonists had the natural right to govern themselves. He intended to influence the First Continental Congress, but his ideas were deemed too radical. But that work was actually what began to frame the idea for American independence, it led to Jefferson's being considered as a bright, patriotic spokesman.
That is why when Jefferson served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress it considered declaring a resolution of independence in June 1776, and Jefferson was appointed to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. When he presented it including the language regarding slavery quoted above, it was unfortunately edited and that language was removed by delegates from Southern states. But Jefferson's eloquent preamble became an enduring statement of human rights anyway.
Then, on top of being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he became the second Governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781; the United States Ambassador to France from 1785 to 1789; the first U.S. Secretary of State from 1789 to 1793; the second Vice President of the United States from 1797 to 1801; and the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809.
During Jefferson's career he was the principal founder of Jeffersonian Democracy and chief proponent of freedom of religion and complete public education. He had truly democratic ideals and principles. He deeply believed that America should be a country where all people have equal opportunities. He wanted to create a level playing field, as it were, on which any person willing and able could succeed, flourish and prosper, regardless of the wealth or religion of their family or circumstances of birth.
In 1825 Thomas Jefferson was concerned about Democracy being threatened by those who preferred rule by a rich Aristocracy. He wrote of "vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of '76 now look to a single and splendid government of an Aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and monied in corporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry."
Jefferson's comment was warning that undue influence by rich Aristocrats, banks and rich corporations would be the end of Democracy and the defeat of the American revolution. (And that turned out to be prophetic because the U.S. Government is controlled by the wealthy forces of greed and self-interest that own the banks, corporations, financial institutions and industries. Thus we do not have government of, by or for the people. We have government of, by and for the rich.)
Jefferson was very clearly against an aristocracy of the wealthy, and instead believed in giving all people the opportunity to rise to their full potential. That, in fact, is why he not only promoted public schools, but also wanted to establish free publicly funded higher education so that all good students could have the opportunity to fulfill their potential and be what they wanted to be.
“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” --Thomas Jefferson
“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson
And, as quoted above: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” – Thomas Jefferson
Extreme right wing Republicans, like those in the so-called "Tea Party," make such claims as if they are new. But they are very old. In fact, the John Birch Society, which in the 1950s began influencing right wing Republicans of that era (like Senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon), has been influencing people like the Randians and the Reaganites ever since with false, misleading propaganda -- such as claiming that America is not a Democracy and that the Founders did not intend for it to be one.
The truth, however, is that the Founders did indeed want American to be a Democratic Republic, and a Democracy. In fact, Thomas Paine, a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, became well known for writing pamphlets to encourage the colonists to rise up against the King of England in the first place. He wrote Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, all of which were influential. Paine and Jefferson were also known quite well in France and helped to further the cause for the French Revolution as well.
Paine was perhaps even more succinct than Jefferson when he finally wrote: "It is on this system that the American Government is founded. It is representation ingrafted upon Democracy." And he also wrote that: "What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude," knowing that in Athens Greece was the world's first democracy, and intending for America to be the greatest.
They claim the Founders wanted a Republic in which a “moral, virtuous, financially successful” wealthy elite aristocracy would naturally be entitled to rule. And they have not only distorted Jefferson’s views. They have actually fabricated false statements they attribute to Jefferson.
Another attempt to claim that Founders like Jefferson and Madison were against Democracy is based on misinterpretation of one sentence uttered by James Madison on June 26th, 1787 during the Constitutional Convention, and it is misinterpreted to claim that Madison was against Democracy.
You see, on that day during debate regarding the content of the Constitution, Madison did mention that the Senate should protect the “minority of the opulent” as a “balance and check” against any efforts that might be made by the House of Representatives, which was supposed to represent the majority, that would be unfair to the rich minority.
Today there are those on both the far right and the far left who interpret Madison’s words to mean that he was against Democracy and for a Republic in which the wealthiest few would rule by legal mandate, “protected” from majority rule. And those who arrive at that conclusion base it on a paragraph and especially on a sentence that would seem to indicate that government ought to be so constituted as to protect the rich minority against the majority by giving the rich more political and legal power.
However, that is not what Madison said or meant.
If you read the notes taken by one of the delegates on that day, you can see that Madison was merely speaking of the role of the Senate in relationship to the House of Representatives, and if you examine the discussion held at the Convention in context you can see how and why Madison’s agenda was to establish a Democratic Republic in which there were adequate checks and balances to ensure fairness to all the people.
Some people make the same mistake of misinterpretation regarding Federalist Paper No. 10, which is an essay written by James Madison, published on November 22, 1787, after the Constitution was written. The essay addressed the question of how to guard against "factions" or parties or groups of citizens whose special interests are contrary to the rights of others, or contrary to the interests of a whole community, state, or nation.
Madison’s No. 10 essay continues a theme that was begun by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 9, and thus Madison titled his essay "The Same Subject Continued: The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection."
In speaking of Democracy, Madison presented a hypothetical case. He wrote: “[I]t may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.”
Madison suggested that a “small” democracy cannot avoid the dangers of a majority faction because in a small state bad influences and passions can very easily spread to the majority -- a majority which can then enact its will through their democratic government. Thus, even though Madison makes it clear he is speaking of a “small” democracy as differentiated from a republic, some think he meant that a weakness of Democracy in general is in its inability to prevent or deal with factional disputes, or prevent the majority from taking advantage of a weaker party or faction.
Some people misinterpret that in the same way they misinterpret Madison’s speech during the Constitutional Convention on June 26th, 1787, because in Federalist No. 10, following the paragraph on a small democracy, Madison makes this statement: “A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.”
Madison was merely referring to representative government, and as historic documents written between July 1776 and 1800 tell us, James Madison was not “against Democracy.” In fact, he was in favor of a Democratic Republic, which is why he joined Thomas Jefferson in organizing The Democratic Republican Party in 1792 to counter The Federalist Party that Alexander Hamilton had organized earlier, which favored government that would unashamedly entitle wealthy aristocrats with all the political power.
These facts reveal the importance of understanding the differences between the two competing world views represented most by Jefferson and Hamilton, but they especially reveal the importance of understanding that Madison was far more closely allied with Jefferson than with Hamilton. For while the Federalist Papers were written by Hamilton, Madison and John Jay, Madison was not of like mind with Hamilton or Jay, but thought more like Jefferson.
For example, in Federalist No. 2, John Jay issued an opinion that America should be constituted of "one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, the same language, professing the same religion." However, Jay’s opinion was not consistent with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, or with the U.S. Constitution (especially Article 6 and the First Amendment), which spoke of “all men” being created equal, and required government to be neutral regarding religions. (See Quotes From America’s Founders Regarding Religion.)
Madison stood with Jefferson and the majority of America’s Founders and Framers of the Constitution, who believed and acted in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and in the spirit of Jeffersonian Democracy.
Furthermore, it is no coincidence that what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “these truths [are] self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights ...” was echoed by John Adams, who wrote: “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.”
That speaks of a Democratic Republic, and it advocates of the common good, protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of all the people.