By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Though Thomas Jefferson did not particularly care for politics, he did respect the Enlightenment principles of thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. However, Jefferson betrayed these very principles in his life. Let us take a look at Jefferson’s political journey.
Enlightenment Politics and Thomas Jefferson
Enlightenment politics came easier for Americans than Englishmen because the history of the British North American colonies seemed to follow precisely the stages of social formation that Locke had described in the Two Treatises.
Jefferson was compelled to join the colonial resistance movement because the British government attempted from 1763 onward to govern the colonies as really they were just some kind of inferior segment of an imperial hierarchy. He also wrote one of the resounding statements of that resistance, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. He said that the people, and not the king, are the real sovereigns of America.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Declaration of Independence
The reputation Jefferson earned from the Summary View got him the ticket as one of Virginia’s delegates to the 2nd Continental Congress. It was there, in 1776, that he was chosen to draft the most important statement of American defiance, the Declaration of Independence, using a portable desk which now resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The Declaration was Jefferson’s finest statement of Enlightenment politics.
Jefferson’s Political Journey
The curious thing about Jefferson’s political eloquence is that he did not particularly care for politics or commerce once they had to be translated into everyday affairs. “Science is my passion,” he once said, “politics my duty.”
And it was not a duty he found very agreeable. He declined re-election to the Continental Congress, but agreed to serve in the new Virginia Assembly from 1776–1779, when he unenthusiastically allowed himself to be elected governor of Virginia.
Learn more about the Jeffersonian reaction.
Jefferson’s Approach to Religion
Jefferson was not always consistent, or even generous, in his embrace of the Enlightenment’s principles.
In 1777, he had been the prime advocate of a statute securing freedom of religion in Virginia and establishing that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs.
But it was not always clear whether Jefferson was advocating freedom of religion or from religion.
He considered himself an Epicurean, which he defined as a belief that the Universe was eternal and composed of Matter and Void alone, and that the highest good is to be not pained in body, nor troubled in mind.
He did not doubt that there was a Creator of sorts, but to talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. And he could be cruel to the point of mockery in describing other people’s religion.
Jefferson and Commerce
Jefferson was also not very enthusiastic about commerce. It was not merchants and trade, but cultivators of the earth who are the most valuable citizens, Jefferson insisted, writing to John Jay in 1785:
Cultivators are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. I consider merchants and bankers as the panders of vice and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned. Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work- bench, or twirling a distaff.
Jefferson: A Hierarch and a Despot
However, a far more sensational departure from the Enlightenment’s denunciation of hierarchy and despotism was the fact that Jefferson himself was a hierarch and a despot, which is to say that he was a slave owner, and a large-scale slave owner at that.
Jefferson inherited from his father both land and slaves, and after he married Martha Wayles in 1772, the death of his father-in-law brought him an additional 11,000 acres and raised his total ownership of slaves to 135.
He professed opposition to slavery. However, after the death of Martha Jefferson in 1782, he took a slave woman, Sally Hemings, as his lover. What was hardly forgivable was the fact that Thomas Jefferson refused to free Hemings from bondage and sired at least five unacknowledged slave children by her.
Learn more about the dissonance between liberty and slavery in the new United States.
Jefferson’s Views on American Politics
Jefferson could clearly see that the ramshackle structure of the Articles of Confederation was doing nobody in America any good. He half-expected some two states to commit hostilities on each other, and that would finally cause the hand of union to be lifted up and interposed.
In 1784, Jefferson agreed to become the American diplomatic minister to France, and he found there that “the non-payment of our debts, and the want of energy in our government” had seriously damaged the American reputation in Europe.
But from far away in Paris, the real problem would seem to Jefferson to be the lack of virtue governing American affairs, and when he returned, it would be an appeal to political qualities other than virtue which would arouse his lifelong ire.
Common Questions about Thomas Jefferson’s Political Life
Thomas Jefferson was chosen to draft the most important statement of American defiance, the Declaration of Independence.
In 1777, Thomas Jefferson was an advocate of a statute securing freedom of religion in Virginia and establishing that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs.
Thomas Jefferson was not very enthusiastic about commerce. According to him, it was not merchants and trade, but cultivators of the earth who were the most valuable citizens.