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Summer 2023 articles

Thomas Jefferson and Politics: “A game where principles are the stake”

Ari Helo

Abstract

Thomas Jefferson’s fame as an advocate of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, equal rights of men, religious freedom, and democracy has been frequently questioned. For many scholars, his racist statements, his scant concern for women’s rights, his apparently unrealistic anti-slavery policies, and his anti-Federalist politics suffice as proof of the very opposite of his reputation. This article argues that politics can be viewed as the centerpiece of Jefferson's worldview, according to which all purposes needed to be brought into compliance, to the effect that one ended up with different politics for advocating democratic institutions, for progressive science, for personal self-development, and for socioeconomic issues, including slavery. The never-ending process of creating policies for bettering American society also gave politics its own character as a moral concept.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 The author wishes to thank Helen Gibson, Peter Onuf, and the anonymous EJAS peer reviewers for thei (...)

1Thomas Jefferson’s well-established fame as an advocate of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, equal rights of men, religious freedom, and democracy has frequently been questioned. For many scholars his racist statements, his little concern for women’s rights, his apparently unrealistic anti-slavery policies, and his anti-Federalist politics suffice as proofs of the very opposite of the man. The purpose of this article is to show how the concept of politics figures at the center of Jefferson’s entire worldview. In addition to his understanding of politics itself, the concept also characterizes his social, scientific, and religious thought, as well as his lifelong dilemma as a slaveholder preaching the abolition of slavery.1

  • 2 See Leonard Levy’s famous attack on Jefferson for betraying all his libertarian principles in pract (...)

2What kind of politics did Jefferson embrace? Research literature teems with somewhat confusing claims about Jefferson’s “development” as a political thinker. Leonard Levy famously claimed that, in practice, Jefferson betrayed all of his fundamentally libertarian convictions, while there is scant evidence that Jefferson can be described as a libertarian to begin with. Other scholars hold that he gradually turned from his revolutionary thinking toward either liberal or simply classical republican political thought.2

  • 3 I by no means suggest that Jefferson was the only person in the country to understand religious fre (...)
  • 4 On manorialism in the North, see for example, Charles W. McCurdy, Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and (...)

3Most of these speculations prove useless once Jefferson’s politics is studied as a means to certain purposes only, for most of which the country was not yet ripe. At the turn of the nineteenth century, elite, white men holding all political power did not think of enslaved people, free black women, free black men, white women, or even poor white men as ready for the freedom of conscience or general suffrage.3 As to Jefferson’s wavering on the emancipation of slaves, it is worth keeping in mind that alongside slavery, there were also other unfree forms of labor and the system of indentured servants as well as manorialism still loomed large. In New York State tenant rebellions occurred as late as in the 1840s.4

  • 5 See Arthur Scherr, “Jefferson’s ‘Cannibals’ Revisited,” The Journal of Southern History, vol. LXXVI (...)

4A lot of erroneous claims have circulated in Jefferson studies. A good example is scholars’ once widely shared accusation of Jefferson calling Haitian black rebels “cannibals.” As Arthur Scherr has convincingly shown, Jefferson in fact mocked the French occupiers, not the Haitians, as “cannibals.” Once the erroneously interpreted quotation had begun circulating, scholars did not care to look for the original source on their own.5

  • 6 Carl Becker’s claim is quoted in Joseph. J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jeffers (...)

5Carl Becker’s ancient claim can be refuted out of hand. It held that for Jefferson, “the only thing to do with political power, since it is inherently dangerous, is to abate it.”6 Jefferson never abated political power, as can be proved by his outstanding political career as a Virginia representative to the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, Minister to France, Secretary of State and President of the United States—alongside his numerous legislative initiatives, such as the Northwest Ordinance and the Virginia bill for religious freedom.

  • 7 TJ to Thomas Seymour, Feb. 11, 1807 in Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball (eds.), The Political Writing (...)

6To grasp Jefferson’s understanding of politics as the very core of his intellectual landscape, one should first dismiss his, still surprisingly popular, fame as an advocate of small government. He embraced hugely expensive initiatives to build up an extensive elementary educational system and to emancipate American slaves and spoke favorably of “orderly government.”7 In other words, he was not skeptical about the significance of regular government action regarding American socioeconomic developments. The popular misunderstandings of his political vision evolve from a failure to distinguish between his views of the role on the federal government and that of state governments.

7This article aims to show that Jefferson viewed politics as a matter of putting into effect his convictions not only about the fundamental rights of religious freedom and free speech as well as about social issues, but also about the principles of scientific thought, and, to an extent, even about one’s search for individual happiness.

8In sum, politics can be viewed as the centerpiece of Jefferson’s entire worldview according to which all purposes needed to be brought into compliance, to the effect that one ended up with politics of democratic institutions, of science, and of all socioeconomic issues, including slavery. The never-ending process of creating policies for bettering American society gave politics its own character as a moral concept.

9Let us in the following first consider the term politics itself in its extrahistorical meanings and only then consider how such concepts as direct and representative democracy figured in Jefferson’s thought. Then will follow accounts of Jeffersonian politics for socioeconomic purposes, for scientific thought, for the slavery question, and finally for the issues of religious freedom and individual moral faith.

2. The Concept of Politics

10As Jefferson’s astonishing political career well proves, his several lamentations on the pains and dullness of politics, should be kept in context. If there ever was a human activity that he held necessary for human beings in general that was politics. And politics for him always remained the art of the possible. This explains his patience on even such key issues as promoting the emancipation of enslaved people, general male suffrage, elementary education, and the like.

11One may ask in what sense the American Founding in fact changed the concept of politics as an extrahistorical game of power on all levels of human life. The game of everyday politics was not brought to an end. Rather, it only became inscribed within the doctrine of equal natural rights of all human beings. What followed was the gradual extension of suffrage and the establishment of the idea that in political democracy the minority’s right to disagree with the majority’s opinion would remain in place even after elections.

12In sum, Jefferson’s most sacred value, the freedom of opinion, became fully established as the basis for a genuinely free government, even if it offered no guarantee against cunning, betrayal, and general deviousness in politics as a natural human practice. The first national political parties were born out of profound disagreements on how to interpret the purpose of the American Constitution.

  • 8 TJ to John Taylor, June 4, 1798, Thomas Jefferson’s Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, Library of A (...)

13Jefferson warned his acquaintance and much liked political theorist, John Taylor of Caroline, that even when the Northern financial elite appeared to suppress the Southern plantation economy and free farming, it was not advisable for Virginians to speak of secession from the Union. As Jefferson noted, “an association of men who will not quarrel with one another is a thing which never yet existed, from the greatest confederacy of nations down to a town meeting or a vestry.”8

  • 9 Ibid.
  • 10 Ibid.
  • 11 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, transl. by David Ross, J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson, (Oxford: Ox (...)

14This is why Jefferson urged what successfully doing politics, first and foremost calls for, namely “a little patience.” Patience was all that was needed even for the Federalist “reign of witches [to] pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore the government to it's [sic] true principles.”9 “If the game runs sometimes against us at home,” Jefferson counseled Taylor, “we must have patience till luck turns, & then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are the stake.”10 Indeed, even Aristotle had held that politics was not a proper subject to teach to the young because of their characteristic impatience.11

  • 12 TJ to John Taylor, June 4, 1798, TJW, 1048-1051.
  • 13 TJ to Charles Clay, Jan. 27, 1790 as quoted in Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federali (...)

15Nor was one expected to be too candid in such a “game.” Jefferson often told his correspondents not to let his private opinions or plans get “before the public.”12 A successful politician would not let one’s adversaries know in advance what the next round of bargaining would involve. Politics was about persuasion. And as Jefferson noted, it often “takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good.”13

16Let us briefly consider politics as it may appear in its extrahistorical meanings. What is mistaken in the old proverb of war being the continuation of politics by other means? It is mistaken because politics is but a means itself, innately peaceful, even if sometimes a mischievous game of negotiating with one’s opponents, as noted above. Transforming a means of often hostile, but essentially non-violent, intercourse into the means of war is by definition a failure of politics. Even wars tend not to end until the parties have returned to the negotiation table to settle the peace.

17The goals of politics have changed throughout human history. Genuinely historical understanding helps us to grasp that problems calling for a political solution have always evolved in certain historical circumstances and have thus been genuinely distinct in nature. Under the society of orders, all human rights were mere privileges, and politics on the governmental level was reserved for only men representing the court, the aristocracy, the gentry, or the clergy.

18This is not to say that common people did not do politics in the larger meaning of the term. To an extent, all tenants, throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern era, just like enslaved people in “the new world” later on, constantly resorted to different forms of protest and opposition to inappropriate treatment by their traditional social “superiors” or enslavers.

  • 14 The 1964 Civil Rights Act can be seen as the pivotal legal change regarding the conspicuously slow (...)

19What history teaches about the concept of politics is this: What has come to be viewed as a moral, social or economic problem calling for a solution (particularly on the part of the ruling elite) tends to change over time. Consider, for example, that slaves were emancipated only in 1865, that women got the right to vote only in 1919, that legal segregation was ended only in 1964, and that sexual minorities are only now rapidly being recognized as fully equal with all others.14

20By the same token our problems of climate change, worldwide pandemics, the constant threat of nuclear war, or the unequal treatment of gay and lesbian people were not in view for Jefferson at the turn of the nineteenth century. This is why his belief in general human progress could remain so unequivocally optimistic.

21Jefferson could well believe that Americans would become wealthier under an orderly government thanks to the technological innovations and extending economy. Similarly, he could believe in their becoming wiser thanks to progressive empirical science and even morally more sensitive about such issues as the enormity of slavery. To a large extent, Americans managed to achieve all this during the last two centuries after his death in 1826. That later generations’ achievements have gone well beyond even the hopes and visions of the founding era generation is equally obvious.

22In its deepest sense, however, politics can be viewed as sheer power play embracing all forms of human behavior—beginning with parents negotiating their power relations with their children and with each other on a daily basis. Similarly, our manifold social norms, etiquettes, practices, uses of language, and institutions involve power claims. While every American child is legally compelled to go to school, adults have genuine political disagreements on what to teach them about even such basic issues as gender, race, abortion, religion, and the like.

  • 15 While Michel Foucault held not only that power by definition “excludes” and “represses” but also th (...)

23But power must not be viewed as an evil itself, for when not directly tyrannical, it is always negotiable, and this ever-present, never-ending negotiation over power is the essence of politics.15 It excludes only violence, whether in the form of criminal action, riot, or a war. To be sure one is always negotiating with an opponent or an enemy, so to speak—after all, with whom else has one the need to negotiate?

24The American constitutional form of free government was established to provide the arena for this ongoing negotiation, while keeping faith in the individual’s capacity to negotiate one’s power relations with others in what is called the private sphere. Public concerns are concerns of national, state, and local politics. Notably, even the proper limits between the public and the private spheres are doomed to remain among the topics of politics, as with the recent developments in legalizing same-sex marriages and the use of marijuana.

25Finally, each and every issue of human life needs to be conceptualized as a political problem before it can become so, as is well proved by the recent major reforms regarding the rights of sexual minorities. For centuries, many people thought that sexual issues should have nothing to do with public policies. In sum, not everything is politics, but anything can be politicized.

26What politics in its manifold forms calls for is the vision of a future better than the present and grasping the nature of the game itself as a never-ending negotiation process. So it was with Jefferson. He remained true to his long-term goals, but moderate in his means, as one is often compelled to be in majoritarian democracy. Jefferson consistently refused to become a lonely crusader, sacrificing his political capital and risking removal from offices of genuine importance. As with all other long-term goals, this held true of his cautious advocacy of the emancipation of slaves.

  • 16 See Hendrik Hartog, The Trouble with Minna: A Case of Slavery & Emancipation in the Antebellum Nort (...)

27Keeping in mind that slavery was still legal in most states of the young nation, such slaveholding statesmen, as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, who all voiced opposition to slavery as a social institution, easily appeared moderates among contemporary lawmakers. Under the state’s gradual emancipation laws, for example, over 7,000 people were still enslaved in New Jersey in 1820—from where they were often (illegally) sold to the South.16 To what extent the leaders’ antislavery sentiments were shared in the South was a lesser issue for those Northerners who needed their connections and prestige in order to achieve anything on a national level.

  • 17 TJ to Jedidiah Morse, March 6, 1822, TJW, 1454-1457 (emphasis added).

28Nevertheless, one should not confuse Jefferson’s notion of representative government with today’s political world in which numerous NGOs, lobbyists, ad hoc coalitions, grassroot movements, and the like do politics alongside governmental office holders. In his retirement, Jefferson declined the call for a membership in Jedidiah Morse’s society for “the civilization and improvement of the Indian tribes.” His reasoning was that former presidents who had once held “their constitutional stations as guardians of the nation” would there act only “by those of a voluntary society,” which might even “obstruct the operation of the government.”17

  • 18 TJ to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, TJW, 1399 (emphasis added).

29Indeed, nothing in Jefferson’s worldview spoke against the blessings of the crucial eighteenth-century innovation of a regular, representative government. His main purpose was that of “making every citizen an active member of the government,” so as to “attach” every free man “by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and to its republican constitution.”18 Such government rested solely on majority rule with minority rights (most notable among them the individual right to disagree with the majority) and on regular elections of the office holders.

  • 19 TJ to Thomas Seymour, Feb. 11, 1807, in Appleby & Ball (eds.), 273 (emphasis added).
  • 20 TJ to James Madison Jan. 30, 1787, TJW, 882 (emphasis added).

30That Jefferson embraced this regular government is also evinced in his insistence that Americans were supposed to disprove the old prejudice “that freedom of the press is incompatible with orderly government.”19 Even his famous exclamation about rebellions being a blessing was expressed as their being “medicine of the sound health of government.”20 Governmental politics was simply about keeping all future socioeconomic developments in control.

3. Politics of the Government

  • 21 Jefferson stated, for example, that whether the Americans “remain in one confederacy, or form into (...)

31As for Jefferson’s views of minimal government, it was only the federal government that was to be kept minimal. He occasionally still called it a confederation—as a synonym for the then current constitutional federation.21 The federation was fundamentally a common defensive alliance only supplemented with particular constitutional tasks of moderating relations among states and territories.

32This is why Jefferson never advocated an extensive federal debt and the ensuing taxes to cover its interest payments. Those payments would, in his view, only end up in the pockets of Alexander Hamilton’s circle of a new money aristocracy. This new aristocracy appeared to aim only at enriching themselves as government creditors (alongside speculating with federal lands), and would hence corrupt the government from its very beginnings.

33The doctrine of minimal federal government led Jefferson to take stands that become understandable only within the context of constitutional arrangements prior to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of revolutionary significance regarding American federalism. In the 1791 bill of rights the famous freedoms of opinion, of speech, of religion, and the like were guaranteed only against the federal government.

  • 22 On the statute and on Jefferson’s thinking of religious freedom, see particularly Morton White, The (...)

34In the prevailing constitutional view of Jefferson’s time, the federal government was not entitled to push even its own principle of religious freedom as obligatory for every state. It was only Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that genuinely guaranteed that right for all Virginians.22 Decades later, John Adams still lamented that he had failed to get a similar law accepted in Massachusetts. And Jefferson never suggested that other states could be compelled to adopt laws of religious freedom. Like slavery, the lack of religious freedom remained an anomaly in American republicanism—well into the nineteenth century.

35By contrast, state governments’ role in Jeffersonian federalism was not anything close to minimal government ideals. To state governments belonged all questions of citizenship, voting rights, education, and the like. Jefferson also wished to assign all governmental functions to as low a level of society as possible. This is why he constantly advocated subdividing the counties into municipal, township-level political decision-making units. To local townships would belong all such issues as organizing a police force, constructing and maintaining local roads and river routes, organizing common poor relief, and building and maintaining an elementary school in every township.

36Nothing in this socioeconomic vision called for less politics rather than more. Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, always aiming at a better common control of all socioeconomic trends. This would be achieved by popular sovereignty alone, and most effectively by relying as much as possible on local politics.

  • 23 Ari Helo, Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics and the Politics of Human Progress (New York: Cambridge Univers (...)

37From the Revolution onward Jefferson argued that no traditional property or inherited status among free white men should affect local or state elections. Contrary to John Adams, who always insisted that in Massachusetts’s bicameral legislature the upper house should be reserved for wealthy people, Jefferson in Virginia openly (though in vain) advocated a single constituency of all white men in the elections of the Virginia House of Representatives, which would be divided into the traditional two chambers only afterwards by lottery or by a special election by the elected themselves.23

  • 24 TJ to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, TJW, 1399.
  • 25 See TJ, Report on Government for Western Territory, March 1, 1794, TJW, 376-378.

38Jefferson expected every white free man to become a political actor with the explicit purpose of making “every citizen an active member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him.”24 As in Virginia, so in the new western territories Jefferson advocated adopting universal male suffrage with minimal tax qualifications.25

39Given that politics itself was about maintaining peaceful social development, nothing in Jefferson’s vision entailed any particularly anti-government attitude. The federal government, the state governments, the counties, and the “ward-republics” or townships (sometimes also called hundreds) would all contribute to the common decision making for the common good, Jefferson believed, based on democratic rules.

  • 26 TJ to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, TJW, 1399. Notably, Jefferson’s plan for dividing the counti (...)
  • 27 TJ to John Adams, June 11, 1812 in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete (...)

40On the lowest level, they would be of “such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person.”26 Local self-government was, hence, only a part of the federal machinery for directing American citizens, in the name of general human progress, to “increase the comforts, enlarge the understanding, and improve the morality of mankind.”27

41What Jefferson urged his political allies to do was simply never cease discussing the desired reforms and to push them forward gradually. Jefferson, for example, urged Madison’s former secretary Edward Coles not to move from Virginia in order to free his slaves, but instead to stay in Virginia. Coles was needed to support any initiative for a gradual abolition law in the Virginia legislature.

  • 28 TJ to Edward Coles, Aug. 25, 1814, TJW, 1345.

42Coles would thus strengthen the position of both Jefferson and Madison on the issue by coming “forward in the public councils” and continuing to preach emancipation “softly but steadily” in order to gradually change public opinion.28 After all, within the new American system of majority rule (even if with severely restricted suffrage) those in the minority preserved their right to disagree with the majority, even while the system as a whole was called a representative government.

43It is not as simple as one might expect to define even the proper meaning of representative government as related to the idea of popular sovereignty. As is well known, the American revolutionaries had debated with the British about the meanings of virtual and actual representation of the colonists in the British Parliament. Yet, even the ancient Greek city-state democracies could be viewed as representative in the sense that every Athenian master of his own household (oikos), whenever voting on any topic in the general public council of all free men, also represented the other members of his household, namely his wife, children, and servants. Notably, Aristotle never deemed merchants worthy of free men’s political rights in Athens.

  • 29 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, transl. from Greek by R. Crawley (London: J.M Den (...)

44Moreover, democracy’s fundamental dilemma appeared to be its tendency to treat all free men as equals while everyone saw clearly that people were of highly different levels of intelligence, talents, and even moral worth. The trick was simply in holding them all capable, if not of devising new policy initiatives, of choosing the best course out of various suggested policies. The fundamental provision for this to work was grasping the view of the Athenians, as stated in Pericles’s Funeral Oration in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian Wars, that “instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.”29

45Following Hannah Arendt, one may argue that the true threat to genuine democratic discourse is not disagreement in general or a a heated debate in particular, but silence, given that politics as a term refers to conflict solving by the peaceful means of negotiation. The only thing forbidden is violence.

46This is how Jefferson took the trouble to explain the problem with so-called “pure democracy” to Samuel Kercheval, who was preparing plans for large-scale political reforms in Virginia in 1816:

  • 30 TJ to Samuel Kercheval, Sept. 5, 1816, at Founders Online, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/ (...)

Were our state a pure democracy, in which all inhabitants should meet together to transact all their business, there would yet be excluded from their deliberations, 1, infants until arrived at years of discretion. 2. Women, who to prevent depravation of morals and ambiguity of issue could not mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men. 3, Slaves, from whom the unfortunate state of things with us takes away the right of will and property. . . . So, slaves with us have no powers as citizens; yet in representation in the General Government, they count in the proportion of three to five; so also in taxation. Whether this is equal, is not here the question.30

47It was clear that in any democratic ordering of society imaginable by Jefferson those with political rights had the duty to represent also the interests of all those excluded from them. This is why, in Jefferson’s view, statesmen and regular voters continued owing not only justice but also benevolence to children, women, slaves, and a huge number of free, adult male Americans still excluded from political power.

  • 31 See on this well-known theme in Jefferson's thought, for example, Herbert Sloan, Principle and Inte (...)

48Even today, many groups of Americans are excluded from political rights, beginning with children, the mentally ill, most prisoners, and even many ex-convicts. Jefferson’s famous commitment to generational independence expressed his conviction that every American generation was historically bound to reconsider and, when needed, to revise the country’s laws and constitutions—including the federal one.31

  • 32 TJ, Autobiography (1821), TJW, 44.
  • 33 TJ, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, 1778, TJW, 365-373. Quote, TJ, Autobiograph (...)
  • 34 TJ to John Adams, Oct. 18, 1813, AJL, 390 (emphasis added).

49Even general education was to serve democratic political purposes. People had to learn “to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government.”32 As to elementary education, Jefferson also wished to “throw on wealth the education of the poor.”33 But the ultimate purpose was to seek out “worth and genius … from every condition of life,” and become “completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”34

  • 35 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 264.
  • 36 On Jefferson’s famous letter to Edward Bancroft, Jan. 26, 1789 in which he speculates about the pos (...)

50Hence, while genuine Jeffersonian democracy could consider every free man politically equal, there was no denying that individuals differed in their inborn intellectual capacities and natural inclinations. Even enslaved children, before their deportation advocated by Jefferson, were to be “brought up at the public expense, to tillage, arts or sciences,” and all this “according to their geniuses.”35 Nevertheless, there appears no evidence in the Jefferson archive that he ever suggested accepting freed slaves as citizens of the United States.36

  • 37 Educated in ancient philosophy and politics, it appears that Jefferson viewed slavery unnatural eve (...)
  • 38 TJ to Albert Gallatin, Jan. 13, 1807, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 12 vols., ed. Paul Leicester F (...)

51Yet another accusation can be made against Jefferson’s egalitarian inclinations, his lukewarm attitude to women’s rights. In comparison, he apparently considered Americans’ constant breaching of enslaved Americans’ rights to liberty much more glaringly at odds with natural law.37 Tellingly, in 1807 Jefferson’s cabinet faced a situation in which the minor federal office of a lighthouse keeper had been taken care of by a widow after her husband’s death, and someone suggested appointing the widow to the office. Jefferson calmly turned down the proposition on the basis that an “appointment of a woman to office is an innovation for which the public is not prepared, nor am I.”38

52Considering this statement in its possible repercussions, however, Jefferson did not claim that the American people might not one day consider the question of women’s political rights anew. He was only speaking of possible preparedness for such a reform. Given that women’s rights had been a subject of political considerations at least since the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s book on women’s rights in the early 1790s, future generations, he thought, might think differently on the matter.

  • 39 TJ to William Ludlow, Sept. 6, 1824, TJW, 1496-1497.

53Jefferson does not appear to ever have argued that women’s political rights would be against natural law (or the very principle of equal rights), nor that in the course of human progress women might never gain political rights. After all, when speaking of the “progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day,” he noted that where this “progress will stop no one can say.”39

4. Politics for Socioeconomic Changes

  • 40 TJ to Jean Baptiste Say, Feb. 1, 1804, TJW, 1144.

54Jefferson is well known for his advocacy of small, self-sufficient farmer communities as the future backbone of the new republican ordering of post-revolutionary Virginia and, hopefully, of the rest of America. One finds him constantly speaking of “moral and physical preference of the agricultural, over the manufacturing man.”40 This, of course, did not mean that equal political rights should not pertain to every manufacturing man as well.

  • 41 Alexander Hamilton to Theodore Sedgwick, July 10, 1804 in Joanne B. Freeman (ed.), Alexander Hamilt (...)
  • 42 Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 35, ibid., 214-215.

55Jefferson’s social vision was a vision opposed to the old society of political orders only, the kind of world which was still reflected in the minds of most of his political opponents. Alexander Hamilton famously held democracy “our real disease,”41 and thought it only natural for even every manufacturer to regard the merchant as his “natural patron” and “representative” in politics.42 Many thought that all workers and servants were naturally so dependent on their employers that it would be futile to offer them the right to vote.

56This is the fundamental basis for Jefferson’s long-held vision of America, which, at least in short-term policy, would best serve itself, he believed, by becoming an agricultural nation with independent and educated citizen farmers rather than a country resembling the European monarchies with all the social problems of their commercial metropolises teeming with beggars and prostitutes, and stained by general licentiousness (as Jefferson claimed).

  • 43 TJ to George Washington, Dec. 4, 1788, TJW, 930.

57This trend in Jefferson’s social thought had nothing to do with any intention to draw away from cultural and commercial relations with the rest of the “civilized” world, namely Europe—particularly given the Americans’ “natural right of trading with our neighbors.”43

  • 44 TJ to Benjamin Austin, Jan. 9, 1816, TJW, 1370-1371.

58When the Napoleonic wars eventually stopped transatlantic commerce entirely, Jefferson had no scruples over changing his view, which had always rested on a “progressive” vision of the entire transatlantic Euro-American civilization: “He, therefore, who is now against domestic manufacture, must be reducing us either to dependence” on one or the other of the fighting European powers “or to be clothed in skins,” he wrote.44

  • 45 Helvétius, De l'Esprit, as in J.B. Schneewind (ed.), Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant: An An (...)
  • 46 As Aristotle put it, one “must somehow be there already with a kinship to virtue” in order to learn (...)

59The Jeffersonian progressive worldview included a belief in universal moral enhancement over time. His conciliatory understanding of the apparently constant tension between individual self-interest and genuine, disinterested benevolence can be grasped by keeping in mind Helvétius’s ironic remark that one “who to be virtuous must always conquer his inclinations, must necessarily be a wicked man.”45 By the same token, even Aristotle had held that in order to learn anything from moral philosophy one must already to be inclined to a virtuous life.46

  • 47 TJ to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd et al. (eds.), Prin (...)

60Jefferson always thought that a reasonable human being would naturally be more inclined toward the good than the bad simply because people were social by nature: “Man was destined for society. His morality therefore was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this.”47

  • 48 TJ to Caesar A. Rodney, Feb. 10, 1810, TJW, 1217.

61Hence, there was a “connection which the laws of nature have established between” human “duties and interests.”48 Majoritarian democracy, Jefferson believed, was a means to that end. But democracy, being a political construction, was also a moral compromise, given that even a righteous man had to submit oneself to occasional wrongs the majority was willing to tolerate, such as slavery.

62What Jefferson thought of all this was simply that as long as the natural right of freedom of conscience and the right to leave one’s country (both partly dissenting from John Locke’s teachings) were in effect, one’s moral compromises were compromises necessary for human progress. Without democracy no permanent social reforms appeared possible at all.

63Jefferson went far in his compromises in remaining a law-abiding American, whose ideas of religious freedom and free elementary education for both boys and girls remained quite exotic in the United States of his time. As for his advocacy of democratic rights, in Virginia the political establishment refused to extend the right to vote to all white men as Jefferson had supported from the Revolution until his very death in 1826. Although an estimated half of all white males remained excluded from the ballot, it was left to Madison in the 1830 Virginia constitutional convention to argue for universal white male suffrage—still in vain.

64Genuine benevolence, as Jefferson saw it, demanded more than mere obedience to contemporary social ordering. This was why it was every citizen’s moral responsibility to think anew the natural-law basis of the contemporary legal order regarding such issues as slavery, women’s civil (if not political) rights, the right of conscience, the right to vote, and possibly even the right to education. On all these issues Jefferson was ready to compromise in the name of keeping American democracy open to further development.

65As for Jefferson’s readiness for compromises between his personal convictions and the political realities of the time, he remained an obedient citizen under the rule of the Virginia government all his life—a government that refused both to extend the electorate toward general male suffrage and to consider his plan for Virginia slave emancipation. He never questioned his personal loyalty to the government with which he disagreed on such elemental issues as these.

5. Politics of Scientific Thought

66A vast majority of contemporary and subsequent scholarly arguments on Jefferson contradicting himself can be dismissed once his commitment to scientific research instead of mere speculation is genuinely grasped. This is particularly conspicuous regarding his views of natural history and racial issues. Jefferson’s incorrect assumption that the mammoth still lived on earth was based on his belief in the eighteenth-century grand concept of the great chain of being.

  • 49 Extract from Thomas Jefferson’s Memoir on the Megalonyx” (Feb. 10, 1797) in (Thomas Jefferson Foun (...)
  • 50 Ibid.

67The concept of the great chain of being, as pertaining to all natural species, appeared to suggest, as Jefferson held that, since the “movements of nature are in a never ending circle,” so an “animal species which has once been put into a train of motion, is still probably moving in that train.”49 The fundamental presumption behind all this was that “if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another and another might be lost, till this whole system of things should evanish by piece-meal.”50 Yet, the crucial feature of this statement is not its factual character but the term “probably” included there.

68Jefferson’s fundamental assumption about the stability of nature did not rest on the belief that nature does not change. It rested on the belief that its changes must be so regulated that it would not fall apart as a whole, as it obviously did not. This is how he expressed his musing to John Adams not only about nature, but also about the ordering of the entire universe:

  • 51 TJ to John Adams, April 11, 1823, TJW, 1467.

Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.51

  • 52 Notes, Query VI, TJW, 170.

69In other words, Jefferson fully grasped the notion that individual plant and animal species could become endangered, and even extinct, given that entire stars might vanish from the universal order of things. It was this notion of constant change as regulated by some immutable principles of nature itself in which Jefferson believed. The problem was that humankind did not know the principles, which is why we find Jefferson proclaiming that nature “has hidden from us her modus agendi.”52 This modus agendi one could safely presume to be consistent with the entire system’s survival.

70This did not yet solve any issues of scientific approach to the world. The basic assumption of modern science, as Jefferson correctly viewed it, consisted in doing research about the unknown. This entailed only that one must acknowledge the boundaries of the yet unknown. Contrary to philosophical system-building, only turning the unknown into scientific hypotheses that could be tested would provide humankind the kind of knowledge Jefferson was interested in, namely, certain knowledge.

  • 53 TJ to John Adams, Aug. 15, 1820, TJW, 1444.

71“Jeffersonian progress” called for new knowledge, not for new philosophies. Building entire worldviews upon deistic, idealistic, or materialist philosophical positions did not amount to attaining new knowledge. “[O]nce we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind,” Jefferson confidently proclaimed referring to the difference between philosophy and empirical study.53

72Indeed, Jefferson’s opinions on the natural order of things, including the topic of race, abounds with conjectures. The reason is that all research hypotheses must be empirically tested. Instead of aiming to convince people of his own assumptions and prejudices, Jefferson’s (in)famous book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), as well as his domestic and international correspondence over the years are full of what he himself treated as speculations, not knowledge.

73Jefferson grasped that his suspicions about Africans having developed as as a distinct species until coming into contact with Europeans represented mere speculation about the very meaning of the terms of race and species. These terms were used synonymously among the scientists and intellectuals of the eighteenth century.

  • 54 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 270.

74We know, for example, that Jefferson read Buffon, but we do not know if he ever became familiar with Buffon’s quite late definition of a species as any group of animals with offspring capable of reproducing themselves (hence for example, the difference between a donkey and a mule). That would have clarified Jefferson’s use of terms in his speculations about whether black people were “originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances” or a “different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species.”54

  • 55 Ibid.
  • 56 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 270. For an odd example of viewing Jefferson as the founder of American raci (...)

75Any interracial reproduction he called, in fully racist terms, “staining the blood” of the whites.55 But he still insisted on its being a “suspicion only” that black people “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”56

  • 57 See, for example, Jefferson’s comparison of American achievements in warfare, physics, and astronom (...)

76The reason for early modern scientists’ often astonishing ideas about ethnic differences resulted from the simple fact that they were all European scholars, automatically considering their own Christian culture as the standard for the rest of humankind. Jefferson, for his part, was mainly worried about Americans proving themselves capable of attaining the same level of civilization with Europeans.57

  • 58 Notes, Query VI, TJW, 187 (emphasis added).

77Because of Jefferson’s harsh critique of Africans’ alleged backwardness, academics rarely put any emphasis on his suspicions about the innate characteristics of Native Americans. He was by no means certain that the American Indian would be capable of attaining true (Euro-American) civilization. Just as with African Americans’ probable inferiority to white Americans, so with Native Americans Jefferson used careful language: Noting that “more facts are wanting,” he stated only that “we shall probably find that they [the Indians] are formed in mind as well as in body on the same module with” the European homo sapiens.58

  • 59 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 266.
  • 60 TJ to John Adams, June 11, 1812, AJL, 307.

78Jefferson’s actual claim was that Native Americans were still far below the level of white man’s civilization, although there were proofs of “the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation.”59 Unfortunately, he thought, their “steady habits permit no innovations, not even those which the progress of science offers to increase the comforts, enlarge the understanding, and improve the morality of mankind.”60

  • 61 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 270.

79This is why he thought Indians should be amalgamated to white society. All in all, however, Jefferson’s central complaint about any genetic differences among different populations was that of insufficient research: “To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history.”61

  • 62 TJ to William Ludlow, Sept. 6, 1824, TJW, 1496.
  • 63 TJ to Joseph O. Cabell, Feb. 2, 1816, TJW, 1381.
  • 64 TJ to Martha Jefferson, May 21, 1787, TJW, 896.
  • 65 TJ to John Langdon, March 5, 1810, TJW, 1221-1222.

80Jefferson was equally judgmental about the quality of certain white Americans, calling the western pioneers “our semi-barbarous citizens,”62 and warning his young disciples not to mingle with “the drunken loungers”63 in town centers, and particularly counseling them against idleness—leading to ”ennui, the most dangerous poison of life.”64 Inactivity in developing one’s skills and talents was in itself harmful. Most European monarchs Jefferson characterized as “fools,” “idiots,” or “mere hogs,” who had been nourished “in all their passions” by their lackeys and who “in a few generations” had “become all body and no mind.”65

81In sum, alongside everyday politics there was also the politics of natural science. With that, as with politics in general, the “principles” were “the stake.” Without free inquiry that enabled empirical testing of each and every imaginable hypothesis no new knowledge would be possible, and that was exactly what the Jeffersonian “progress” in material welfare, in knowledge, and in morality called for.

  • 66 TJ to Doctor Walter Jones, Jan. 2, 1814, as in Ford (ed.), The Works, vol. 11, 375. To Wilson Jeffe (...)

82Let us next turn to Jeffersonian “life politics,” namely the idea that every human individual was born and lived for personal self-development. There is no question that in Jefferson’s mind, people were—regardless of their origins—born with varying levels of intelligence, varying talents, and even with varying moral sensitivity. What mattered were not one’s inborn capacities, he thought, but what one made of them. Hence, Jefferson hailed not George Washington’s intelligence, but his prudence in “never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed.”66

  • 67 TJ to Martha Jefferson, May 21, 1787, TJW, 896-897.
  • 68 TJ to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787, Papers, vol. 12, 16.
  • 69 TJ to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3, 1771, Papers, vol. 1, 76-77.

83Jefferson advised his daughter Martha to daily develop “those principles of virtue and goodness which will make you valuable to others and happy in yourself.”67 He similarly encouraged his nephew, Peter Carr, to look for “incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness” that would naturally follow from its very “exercise.”68 To his friend Robert Skipwith, Jefferson noted on moral education that “dispositions of the mind, like limbs of body, acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit; and in the instance of which we speak, the exercise being of the moral feelings, produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously.”69

84This commitment to bettering oneself was derived from ancient virtue ethics, and also called for the modern notion of free government in which everyone was left responsible for the development of both one’s intellectual and moral capacities. The doctrine of the inalienable rights of man was about this same existentialist goal: one was morally forbidden to “alienate” one’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of (personal) happiness from oneself as an autonomous moral actor.

85Nothing in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence directly implies that the equality of “all men” did not pertain to women’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone knew that equal political rights were far from guaranteed even to all free, white men at the time, not to mention the unresolved issue of slavery.

  • 70 Notes, Query VI, TJW, 156.

86All in all, for anyone who believed that scientific progress in both natural and moral sciences provided the only route toward the truth, Jefferson recommended a simple doctrine that “ignorance is preferable to error.”70 This is why he never attempted to develop a philosophy of his own. Jefferson left idle speculations about the ultimate character of the natural ordering of the universe to philosophers, whose ideas might or might not generate as hypotheses for the empirical scrutiny of things.

  • 71 TJ to John Adams, Aug. 15 1820, TJW, 1443-1444. Here Jefferson differed “from the material Atheist (...)

87Jefferson characterized his own philosophical position as that of a materialist deist. He believed that only matter can have rationality (although science could not yet explain how) and that the universe must have been organized by some higher rationality rather than by mere contingency.71 Moreover, what would happen to the notions of free will and moral obligation if one fully agreed with the few atheists who appeared to believe that the universal order was either entirely contingent or, as the famous French scientist Laplace thought, entirely predetermined?

  • 72 TJ to Jean Baptiste Say, Feb. 1, 1804, TJW, 1144. On another occasion Jefferson held that “the King (...)

88By contrast, the inherently rational ordering of the world would necessarily also render our true, long-term interests as social animals compatible with true morality. As Jefferson put it, “so invariably do the laws of nature create our duties and interests, that when they seem to be at variance, we ought to suspect some fallacy in our reasoning.”72 In essence, all religious studies dealt with morality. But Jefferson’s most conspicuous dilemma was of moral character as well. Regardless of his famous preaching against slavery he never managed to solve the problem on a personal, a national, or a state level.

6. Politics for Ending Slavery

  • 73 For details on Jefferson’s public statements and acts regarding the issue of slavery, see for examp (...)
  • 74 See, for example, Ari Helo & Peter Onuf, “Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery,” The Wil (...)
  • 75 Ibid.

89Jefferson opposed the institution of slavery for his entire political career.73 Even before the Revolution he insisted that the colonists would be willing to let go of slavery.74 His latest summary of how to achieve general emancipation in Virginia, and eventually in other Southern states as well, was written in 1825, a year before his death.75

  • 76 See on Monroe and slavery, for example, Matthew Costello, “The Enslaved Households of President Jam (...)

90Let us next consider Jefferson’s position as an “antislavery slaveholder” as he depicted it himself. For many scholars such an identity may seem a contradiction in terms. Among other national figures considering themselves as antislavery slaveholders one finds, for example, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln’s much admired Whig leader Henry Clay in the 1850s. None of them freed all their slaves. Even the Union General Ulysses S. Grant owned a slave in the 1850s, and his wife apparently owned slaves during the Civil War.76

91The failure to free his own slaves did not constitute a personal moral compromise for Jefferson. He never believed that the emancipation would succeed with only individual slaveholders giving up their slaves. The reform needed to be political to be effective at all. Without legal obligations there would always be slaveholders keen on holding on to their labor force, he thought.

  • 77 On Jefferson talking of free black Americans as “pests in society by their idleness, and the depred (...)

92Regardless of few scholars still adamantly opposing the view that Jefferson much more likely than not had a decades-long intimate, perhaps coerced relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, one might also expect this relationship to have somehow affected his opinions about racial issues. Yet, Jefferson never refuted his early condemnation of interracial relationships as expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). Nor does his later correspondence give any hint that his harsh opinions about African Americans ever softened.77

  • 78 Some scholars argue that Jefferson’s 1819 letter to Joel Yancey would disprove his abolitionist int (...)

93Regardless of his glaringly racist opinions, Jefferson remained absolutely convinced that slavery had to be abolished. More consistent with his racist suspicions was his additional condition for abolition that the entire African American population needed to be exported from the United States to form a nation of their own. Even so, Jefferson never thought slavery a morally acceptable institution for any human beings, no matter how allegedly culturally inferior to white, Euro-American civilization.78 On a personal level, the plan of abolition was, therefore, necessary to clear his own conscience, both as an individual and as a statesman.

  • 79 As earlier, see Helo, Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics 2014, 40-45.
  • 80 Notes, Query XVIII, TJW, 289.

94Jefferson’s plan of abolition remained the same for fifty years.79 Even his early draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 included a section condemning slavery. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, written shortly after the Revolution, he believed that slavery would be abolished soon, given that the “the spirit of the master” was already vanishing.80 In Notes, he also presented his plan that all enslaved children would be separated from their parents, schooled, and exported at public expense to whichever part of the world would be most appropriate to set them free and build a nation of their own—presumably under the protection of the United States.

  • 81 TJ to Jared Sparks, Feb. 4, 1824, TJW, 1484-1487.

95Jefferson never went into exact details on how young enslaved people would be educated and prepared for their forced deportation, most probably because any such plan would have only become a political flashpoint on its own. As late as 1825 he insisted that he had never changed his mind about his plan.81 Nor did he ever suggest that it could be put it into effect without a democratic majority in Virginia. It was a plan for his home state only, hopefully to be followed by the rest of the Southern slaveholders.

96Jefferson remained adamant that the federal government could not be given any say on the matter of the states’ rights to define citizenship. Doing so would have changed the entire current political structure of the federation. As noted earlier, in Jefferson’s mind, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was not supposed to become federal policy either. Jefferson eventually compromised on his earlier view that new states joining the federation should avoid adopting slavery. His reasons for doing so demand an explanation.

97What is often overlooked in Jefferson’s (just as in James Madison’s) position on abolition is that he never had a federal plan for putting it into effect. Initially, he thought that new states should not adopt slavery, as his 1784 plan for the eventual Northwest Ordinance (1787) made clear by banning slavery in those territories. Both Jefferson and Madison thought that the strategy of gradual abolition of slavery, as put forward legally in the Northern states, would also work in the South, even if with the additional provision of forced deportation. It did not.

98The situation with which Jefferson and Madison were confronted in 1820 was the reality that gradual emancipation programs in the Northern states had proved effective over the decades following the Revolution, whereas no positive developments had taken place in the South. Instead, the number of both enslaved and free black Americans had grown with astonishing speed from 1776 to 1820, even though the greatest boom of cotton slavery lay still ahead. It also lay beyond any of Jefferson’s expectations.

  • 82 Padraig Riley, Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America (Phila (...)
  • 83 One can always speculate whether the Virginia slaveholders, Jefferson included, thought of profitin (...)

99In 1820, there were still tens of thousands of slaves in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other Northern states awaiting emancipation under those states’ gradual emancipation laws. The figure in New York alone was 20,000 enslaved people.82 Imitating Northern states’ abolition policies appeared to require diminishing the number of slaves and hence the economic interest in the system itself in all Southern states. This was Jefferson’s reason for turning into an advocate of spreading slavery.83

  • 84 TJ to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, TJW, 1434.
  • 85 TJ to Albert Gallatin, Dec. 26, 1820, TJW, 1449. My interpretation runs directly counter to that of (...)

100In 1820 Jefferson condemned the Missouri debate for turning a matter of state sovereignty into a federal-level controversy. In his eyes, Congress appeared ready to sacrifice all the Revolutionary generation’s efforts “to acquire self-government and happiness to their country.”84 Spreading slavery to the West was not properly speaking a moral issue at all, Jefferson argued, “because the removal of slaves from one state to another, no more than their removal from one country to another, would never make a slave of one human being who would not be so without it.”85

101The same logic pertained to any personal effort of Jefferson’s to rid himself of the status of a slaveholder: his creditors would not have consented to his freeing his slaves, but would have insisted on selling them to slavery elsewhere. Jefferson lived well beyond his means throughout his life and never made a serious attempt to radically lower his own standard of living as a member of the slaveholding Virginia elite. This remained his sin.

  • 86 TJ to Jared Sparks, Feb. 4, 1824, TJW, 1485; For an extensive, classic account of Jefferson’s own r (...)

102Nevertheless, Jefferson’s solution called for a genuine political decision for ending slavery, not for every slaveholder attempting the emancipation on his own—possibly against the hopes of neighboring planters. Moreover, the political solution entailed surrendering slave children to be schooled prior to their deportation without any full compensation to masters. The plan would be hugely expensive, but the costs were supposed to be shared by the state and, to an extent, even by the federation in the form of selling public lands. As Jefferson explained to Jared Sparks in 1824, enslavers’ actual losses in their “property” (people) would still amount to a fifty percent increase in their contemporary direct taxes.86

7. Politics of Religion and Morality

103To truly grasp the meaning of religious freedom for Jefferson, one should first note that his religious politics never aimed to promote his personal convictions about the afterlife or its absence. Nor did he advocate some particular interpretation of Scripture as sacred and holy for all Americans. Jefferson was conspicuously radical in promoting the rights of atheists. He believed not only in the freedom of religion, but also in the freedom of conscience.

  • 87 For his statement that “my religion . . . is known to my god and myself alone,” see TJ to John Adam (...)
  • 88 Ibid.

104Jefferson was never a conventionally religious man, and consistently opposed the power of the priests, no matter of which Christian denomination. To be sure, he insisted he was a Christian himself. But his Christianity was known to himself alone, and had very little to do with what any religious authorities would dictate about such a religion.87 To assess his religion in moral terms, it thus followed that evidence of it “before the world is to be sought in my life. If that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”88

105Deep down, Jefferson was interested in natural religion, by which he meant a belief in an extra-human rationality presiding over the universe and in the Stoic-inspired notion of the laws of nature covered both physical and moral aspects of the world. Moreover, such natural lawyers as Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, and Emer de Vattel, had already distinguished divine reason from the human knowledge of it and instead focused on rational deductions from the hypothetical state of nature as a reliable way of reasoning out what decent human life called for in terms of our natural sociality.

106These thinkers, hence, had partially distinguished the field of moral philosophy, insofar as it concerned our genuine respect for other human beings, from any considerations of how the human soul would be guaranteed happiness in the afterlife. This is the basis for Jefferson’s numerous statements belittling any doctrinaire religious thinking.

  • 89 Notes, Query XVII, TJW, 285.
  • 90 TJ to John Adams, April 11, 1823, TJW, 1469.

107Jefferson referred to this crucial distinction between the dictates of moral, natural law and any religious doctrines by calmly noting that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.”89 By the same token, he ridiculed not only the traditional doctrine of trinity, but also the New Testament story of the birth of Jesus: “the day will come,” Jefferson wrote, “when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter [sic].”90

  • 91 TJ to William Short, April 13, 1820, Dickinson W. Adams & Ruth W. Lester (eds.), Jefferson’s Extrac (...)
  • 92 TJ to Alexander Smyth, Jan. 17, 1825, Extracts, 416.

108As for the historical Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson claimed he read his teachings just as he read “other antient and modern moralists, with a mixture of approbation and dissent.”91 On examining the Apocalypse he noted that what “has no meaning admits no explanation.”92 To be sure, Jesus’s love commandment was in Jefferson’s view the most striking step forward in human moral convictions in world history. Jefferson considered universal benevolence an absolutely necessary supplement to mere justice in genuine moral thought. This alone of what Christianity taught was, to Jefferson, unequivocally true.

  • 93 TJ to Miles King, Sept. 26, 1814, Extracts, 360.

109Religious thinking for Jefferson had to accord with the notion that a human being believing in scientific progress is always claiming to know less rather than more. Science in its modern, Jeffersonian, meaning referred to investigating things of which no authority other than empirical science could provide genuine knowledge. Insofar as this had to with moral aspects of human life, Jefferson also dismissed the contemporary theoretical disagreements on the actual source of human morality as either God-given, natural, emotional, rational, or wholly arbitrary (in the sense of arising from grasping our true self-interests as social animals). This is why, for Jefferson, any “religion” was “substantially good which produces an honest life.”93

  • 94 TJ to Miles King, Sept. 26, 1814, Extracts, 360 (emphasis added).

110Jefferson’s natural religion entailed freedom of conscience. This freedom did not concern some more or less vague definition of religion, but human morality itself. True morality, in Jefferson’s eyes, consisted in “acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own.”94 Moreover, to develop one’s moral sense, one first and foremost, needed to stay honest to oneself.

111That Jefferson believed in freedom of conscience beyond mere freedom of religion becomes clear by taking a look at his counsel on religious studies to his young nephew Peter Carr:

  • 95 TJ to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787, TJW, 903-904.

Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you will feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure for you. … Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven; and you are answerable, not for the rightness but for the uprightness of the decision.95

  • 96 TJ to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814, Extracts, 356.

112In other words, religious issues were supposed to remain personal because they demanded absolute consistency and honesty to oneself and to one’s own comprehension. This is why young Peter was not advised to find the truth about God, but to become answerable for the rightness of his decision, meaning that he should never compromise his most genuine beliefs, while respecting others who believed differently. After all, no absolute knowledge on such matters as divinity or the ultimate character of our moral obligations was available. As for non-religious thinkers, Jefferson was absolutely confident that such “virtuous atheists”96 as Condorcet, Helvétius, and de Tracy would be just as capable of moral feelings and reasoning as any other man.

  • 97 TJ, Autobiography (1821) as extracted from Monticello Website, “Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters (...)

113In sum, there is nothing too surprising in Jefferson’s note in his autobiography of 1821 that his draft for the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was to provide full freedom of conscience. Its protection pertained equally to “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”97

  • 98 See for these accusations against Jefferson’s sectional motives for establishing the University of (...)

114Religious issues played a part even in Jefferson’s retirement years fondest project of establishing the University of Virginia. Notably, even while the University of Virginia was largely built by enslaved people, there is scant evidence in the Jefferson archive for the widely held scholarly view that it was primarily devised to promote any particularly Southern values or the slaveholding elite’s political interests in slaveholding.98

  • 99 For an early historical characterization of the first set of university faculty, see Herbert Baxter (...)

115Instead, Jefferson maintained his quite scandalous conviction that religious studies did not belong to university level education at all. Universities were supposed to become temples of truth, not of religious debates. By the same token, most of the professors Jefferson wished, and partly managed, to acquire for the institution were European. Others were such Americans as George Tucker, who (like his famous cousin St. George Tucker) opposed slavery and eventually freed his slaves—persons who had spoken for abolition for decades in Virginia just like Jefferson and Madison.99

116In addition to the absolute freedom of conscience—needed for remaining true to oneself in order to remain honest with others—Jefferson’s moral faith, following the ancients, included two kinds of virtues: the virtues of both the head and the heart. The former included reasoning among all truth claims, thus also offering the basis for rational social justice. The latter, the virtues of the heart, represented compassionate human virtues beyond mere justice in terms of our genuinely moral feelings of mercy and benevolence.

  • 100 TJ to Martha Jefferson, Nov. 28, 1783, TJW, 782.
  • 101 TJ to Martha Jefferson, Dec. 11, 1783, TJW, 784.

117Jefferson hence counseled his daughter Martha to always embrace both “what is right or what is clever.”100 and referred to her “conscience” as the only “faithful internal Monitor” by which one would “always be prepared for the end of the world: or for a much more certain event which is death.”101

  • 102 TJ to John Adams, Sept. 12, 1821, Cappon (ed.), The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 575.
  • 103 TJ to John Adams, June 17, 1813, AJL, 335.

118Throughout his life Jefferson viewed himself as an advocate of the Enlightenment notion of general human progress in terms of economic, scientific, and moral advancement of the human race. This is why he was genuinely horrified with the 1815 Vienna Conference when Europeans reverted to the hierarchical ideals of the society of order, thus apparently leaving the United States alone “to preserve and restore the light and liberty” to humankind.102 Even so, the retired stateman could well subscribe to the Epicurean maxim of his personal happiness consisting of “ease of body and tranquillity of mind.”103

8. Conclusion

119As has been shown above, by situating the concept of politics as the centerpiece of Jefferson’s worldview we gain a good deal more coherent and consistent view of this famously complicated founding father. He has traditionally been accused of irreconcilable inconsistencies, not only in his own thinking, but in particular between what he preached and what he even attempted to attain.

120He believed in human morality in terms of every-one’s personal responsibility for his/her own happiness and he believed in a political system that would one day make all this genuinely possible for the poor as well as for the rich. This view was partially indebted to the latest achievements in political science, namely the Lockean concept of social contract and Montesquieu’s division of powers as well as to the ancient concept of politics as the effort to persuade others of one’s good intentions—but most of all, and for practical reasons alone, it derived from the general idea of human equality, which demanded deconstruction of the society of orders, often viewed as the “natural” order of society even among many Americans well into the early nineteenth century.

121Jefferson never claimed that slavery could be viewed as profitable for any enslaved people no matter their ethnic origins or, in the long run, even for their masters. Nor can Jefferson be held personally accountable for American racism. He did not claim to possess any scientific proof that people with African ancestors were inherently (or genetically) less capable of improvement than any other ethnic group, including whites, among whom he found a lot of people unwilling or incapable of any genuine self-betterment. Finally, Jefferson’s notion of an individual’s constant self-improvement in terms the “head and heart” resembles politics as a daily practice of negotiations with oneself and with others regarding our natural human interdependence on each other.

122In the light of all this, it should be apparent why Jefferson viewed establishing the new American democratic social order as his main goal in life. He believed in majority democracy to an exceptional extent. Nevertheless, the true challenge of successful politics lay in democracy itself. Even as an “antislavery slaveholder” Jefferson needed a democratic majority to vote for emancipation in Virginia. The state’s slaveholding elite remained reluctant about the idea, just as they remained reluctant even to extend the right to vote to poor white men, who might have provided Jefferson his needed democratic majority.

  • 104 Quotation, TJ to William A. Burwell, Jan 28, 1805, Ford (ed.), The Works, vol. 10, 126.

123Moreover, Jefferson was convinced that all involved were probably prejudiced: black people would aim to avenge their mistreatment by whites whenever possible, and the contemporary political elite already resisted any substantial political reforms. After all, in the name of moral benevolence the members of this elite itself were responsible for representing children, women, slaves, and the huge number of white, adult male Virginians whom they still denied political rights—against Jefferson’s demands. Among those privileged few, Jefferson noted, “There are many virtuous men who would make any sacrifices to affect it [emancipation of slaves], many equally virtuous who persuade themselves either that the thing is not wrong, or that it cannot be remedied.”104

124Politics, as noted, was often about persuading people to do what would be in their best interest even when they did not yet grasp that themselves. Even while definitely linked to the notion of the politically empowered owing benevolence to those not yet so (or ever to be), politics as a game of power had little to do with Jefferson’s belief in progressive history.

125Progress called for putting the past behind oneself. Even progressive history was therefore about the past that one cannot remedy, whereas politics was always future-oriented. Both Jefferson and Hamilton knew that. They were fighting about the future, as all politicians by definition are, and not about the uncorrectable past. If Jefferson was right in his insistence that “the earth belongs to the living,” then so does morality. Because the past is essentially beyond repair, our respect for previous generations’ mishaps, suffering, pain, and agony remains inevitably historical rather than properly moral in nature.

126Morality, which consists in our respect for others, concerns us all, but primarily here and now, as a commitment to be renewed every single day. Majoritarian democracy may, indeed, remain a mere compromise. It does, however, provide an individual the right to disagree with the majority even when left in the minority oneself. Only violence is to be excluded, as it is in democracy by definition; this is why Jefferson’s insistence on the right to free speech remains the key to it all. After all, the classic advice for a voter in the election booth has always been to select the best candidate promoting the common good, which, when compatible with the voter’s own long-term interests, would inevitably include the cause of the environment, the minors, the marginalized, the poor, the elderly, and the weak.

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Notes

1 The author wishes to thank Helen Gibson, Peter Onuf, and the anonymous EJAS peer reviewers for their helpful feedback in finishing this article.

2 See Leonard Levy’s famous attack on Jefferson for betraying all his libertarian principles in practice, Levy, “Civil Liberties,” in Merrill D. Peterson (ed.), Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986), 331-348; As to repeatedly made claims about Jefferson fundamentally changing his political thought over the years, consider for example Garrett Ward Sheldon’s claim that Jefferson turned from a Lockean thinker into a more or less “classical republican” in Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 50-52; For Michael Zuckert’s portrayal of Jefferson only gradually turning into a more or less modern democratic thinker, see Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), passim., 231.

3 I by no means suggest that Jefferson was the only person in the country to understand religious freedom in our terms of freedom of conscience or to view slavery as inevitably contradictory to his democratic ideals, but only that he remained in the minority among the national and Virginia elites that still held power and actively resisted extending political rights to other social groups, whether black or white.

4 On manorialism in the North, see for example, Charles W. McCurdy, Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865 (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 2001).

5 See Arthur Scherr, “Jefferson’s ‘Cannibals’ Revisited,” The Journal of Southern History, vol. LXXVII (2, 2011), 251-282.

6 Carl Becker’s claim is quoted in Joseph. J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 297.

7 TJ to Thomas Seymour, Feb. 11, 1807 in Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball (eds.), The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 273. Notably, it is impossible to offer any comprehensive list of the huge number of relevant books and articles on Thomas Jefferson. Let me just assure the reader that I have read quite a lot of that literature over the last thirty years, including the classics by Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, Richard Matthews, Peter Onuf, Annette Gordon-Reed, Joseph Ellis, Andrew Burstein, and dozens of less well-known books and articles by other authors.

8 TJ to John Taylor, June 4, 1798, Thomas Jefferson’s Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, Library of America (New York, I984), (hereafter cited as TJW), 1048-1051.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, transl. by David Ross, J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, World's Classics, 1980), (I.4), 4.

12 TJ to John Taylor, June 4, 1798, TJW, 1048-1051.

13 TJ to Charles Clay, Jan. 27, 1790 as quoted in Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 197.

14 The 1964 Civil Rights Act can be seen as the pivotal legal change regarding the conspicuously slow development of desegregation from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education to the 1967 Loving v. Virginia. Notably, even when the Supreme Court struck down the ban on interracial marriage in Virginia and in 15 other states in 1967, it did not appeal to the laws of Congress, but rather to the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th amendment. See “Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967)”: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/388/1/ (accessed April 12, 2023).

15 While Michel Foucault held not only that power by definition “excludes” and “represses” but also that “it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth,” I hold that it nevertheless always remains contestable. For the quotation, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison (transl. by Alan Sheridan, New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1995), 194.

16 See Hendrik Hartog, The Trouble with Minna: A Case of Slavery & Emancipation in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 2-4.

17 TJ to Jedidiah Morse, March 6, 1822, TJW, 1454-1457 (emphasis added).

18 TJ to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, TJW, 1399 (emphasis added).

19 TJ to Thomas Seymour, Feb. 11, 1807, in Appleby & Ball (eds.), 273 (emphasis added).

20 TJ to James Madison Jan. 30, 1787, TJW, 882 (emphasis added).

21 Jefferson stated, for example, that whether the Americans “remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part.” TJ to Joseph Priestley, Jan. 29, 1804, TJW, 1142; On other such uses of the term of confederacy, see for example, TJ to General Thaddeus Kosciusko, June 28, 1812, TJW, 1266.

22 On the statute and on Jefferson’s thinking of religious freedom, see particularly Morton White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 200-201.

23 Ari Helo, Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics and the Politics of Human Progress (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 159.

24 TJ to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, TJW, 1399.

25 See TJ, Report on Government for Western Territory, March 1, 1794, TJW, 376-378.

26 TJ to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, TJW, 1399. Notably, Jefferson’s plan for dividing the counties into township for the purposes of direct citizen democracy, although altered a bit over the years, was first suggested in 1778. TJ, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (1778), TJW, 365.

27 TJ to John Adams, June 11, 1812 in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959) [hereafter cited as AJL], 307.

28 TJ to Edward Coles, Aug. 25, 1814, TJW, 1345.

29 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, transl. from Greek by R. Crawley (London: J.M Dent & Sons, 1910, 1940), 123.

30 TJ to Samuel Kercheval, Sept. 5, 1816, at Founders Online, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-10-02-0255 (accessed May 26, 2020).

31 See on this well-known theme in Jefferson's thought, for example, Herbert Sloan, Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt (University of Virginia Press, 2001).

32 TJ, Autobiography (1821), TJW, 44.

33 TJ, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, 1778, TJW, 365-373. Quote, TJ, Autobiography 1821, ibid., 43.

34 TJ to John Adams, Oct. 18, 1813, AJL, 390 (emphasis added).

35 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 264.

36 On Jefferson’s famous letter to Edward Bancroft, Jan. 26, 1789 in which he speculates about the possibility of turning his slaves into tenants, see my Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics, 2014, 154, where I note that this was the only incidence of Jefferson seeming to have considered this option seriously and that most probably he not even here suggested anything like offering slaves an opportunity to stay in Virginia as free people. For Jefferson’s genuine admiration of German peasants whom he met in Europe in the 1780s, see Cara J. Rogers, These People Are to Be Free: Jefferson and the Fight Against Slavery (Forthcoming, Lawrence: Kansas University Press, 2024).

37 Educated in ancient philosophy and politics, it appears that Jefferson viewed slavery unnatural even in terms of the ancient household (oikos) democracy in which men were held natural political representatives not only of themselves but also of their families and servants. As a master of his household, every slave man should therefore have political freedom, even if outside the United States.

38 TJ to Albert Gallatin, Jan. 13, 1807, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 12 vols., ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York, I904-I905), vol. 10, 339.

39 TJ to William Ludlow, Sept. 6, 1824, TJW, 1496-1497.

40 TJ to Jean Baptiste Say, Feb. 1, 1804, TJW, 1144.

41 Alexander Hamilton to Theodore Sedgwick, July 10, 1804 in Joanne B. Freeman (ed.), Alexander Hamilton Writings (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 1022.

42 Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 35, ibid., 214-215.

43 TJ to George Washington, Dec. 4, 1788, TJW, 930.

44 TJ to Benjamin Austin, Jan. 9, 1816, TJW, 1370-1371.

45 Helvétius, De l'Esprit, as in J.B. Schneewind (ed.), Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant: An Anthology, 2 Vols. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 427.

46 As Aristotle put it, one “must somehow be there already with a kinship to virtue” in order to learn anything from theoretical studies of virtue. See Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, (X.9, I.4.), 271. As Aristotle viewed the fundamental problem with even good individuals, too many of them “take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do.” Ibid. (II, 5), 35.

47 TJ to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd et al. (eds.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950—; [hereafter cited as Papers], vol, 12, 14-15. See for Jefferson’s later statement that “social intercourse cannot be maintained without a sense of justice; then man must have been created with a sense of justice,” TJ to Francis W. Gilmer, June 7, 1816, in Ford (ed.), The Works, vol. 11, 535. On his view of the human being as “an animal destined to live in society,” see TJ to John Adams, Oct. 14, 1816, AJL, 492.

48 TJ to Caesar A. Rodney, Feb. 10, 1810, TJW, 1217.

49 Extract from Thomas Jefferson’s Memoir on the Megalonyx” (Feb. 10, 1797) in (Thomas Jefferson Foundation) Monticello Website, “Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters,” at http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1759 (accessed May 24, 2020).

50 Ibid.

51 TJ to John Adams, April 11, 1823, TJW, 1467.

52 Notes, Query VI, TJW, 170.

53 TJ to John Adams, Aug. 15, 1820, TJW, 1444.

54 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 270.

55 Ibid.

56 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 270. For an odd example of viewing Jefferson as the founder of American racism, see Robert Pierce Forbes “‘The Cause of This Blackness’: The Early American Republic and the Construction of Race,” American Nineteenth Century History, vol. 13 (1, 2012). Forbes's astonishing claim that Jefferson single-handedly invented American racism is absurd in considering the difficulties in getting slavery abolished in the South after its introduction there 150 years before the Revolution. Alongside his accusations about Jefferson's racist motives in everything he ever did, Forbes never brings up the most logical solution to the problem of slavery for such a racist: Jefferson could have sold his slaves to the West Indies. He instead suggested a compelled deportation of them to a country of their own as a free people.

57 See, for example, Jefferson’s comparison of American achievements in warfare, physics, and astronomy to those of Europeans in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Notes, Query VI, TJW, 191.

58 Notes, Query VI, TJW, 187 (emphasis added).

59 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 266.

60 TJ to John Adams, June 11, 1812, AJL, 307.

61 Notes, Query XIV, TJW, 270.

62 TJ to William Ludlow, Sept. 6, 1824, TJW, 1496.

63 TJ to Joseph O. Cabell, Feb. 2, 1816, TJW, 1381.

64 TJ to Martha Jefferson, May 21, 1787, TJW, 896.

65 TJ to John Langdon, March 5, 1810, TJW, 1221-1222.

66 TJ to Doctor Walter Jones, Jan. 2, 1814, as in Ford (ed.), The Works, vol. 11, 375. To Wilson Jefferson describes Washington not as a genius, but as a prudent person with an exceptional sense of justice and hence “in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.”

67 TJ to Martha Jefferson, May 21, 1787, TJW, 896-897.

68 TJ to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787, Papers, vol. 12, 16.

69 TJ to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3, 1771, Papers, vol. 1, 76-77.

70 Notes, Query VI, TJW, 156.

71 TJ to John Adams, Aug. 15 1820, TJW, 1443-1444. Here Jefferson differed “from the material Atheist only in their belief that ‘nothing made something,’ and from the material deist who believes that matter alone can operate on matter.”

72 TJ to Jean Baptiste Say, Feb. 1, 1804, TJW, 1144. On another occasion Jefferson held that “the King of kings” had “made it a law in the nature of man to pursue his own interest.” TJ to Doctor John Manners, June 12, 1817, Ford (ed.), The Works, vol. 13, 66.

73 For details on Jefferson’s public statements and acts regarding the issue of slavery, see for example, Helo, Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics, 2014, 40-45.

74 See, for example, Ari Helo & Peter Onuf, “Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery,” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 60 (3, 2003), 583-614, esp., 586-587 (on Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence).

75 Ibid.

76 See on Monroe and slavery, for example, Matthew Costello, “The Enslaved Households of President James Monroe,” The White House Historical Association: https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-enslaved-households-of-president-james-monroe (accessed April 12, 2023); on Clay and slavery, see Editors, “Henry Clay and Slavery,” The Henry Clay Estate Ashland, https://henryclay.org/henry-clay/henry-clay-and-slavery/ (accessed April 12, 2023); on the Grant family and slavery, see William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982), 62, 69.

77 On Jefferson talking of free black Americans as “pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them,” see, for example, TJ to Edward Coles, Aug. 25, 1814, TJW, 1344-1345; On his condemnation of Sierra Leone fugitives for their “idleness and turbulence,” see TJ to John Lynch, Jan. 21, 1811, ibid., 1240.

78 Some scholars argue that Jefferson’s 1819 letter to Joel Yancey would disprove his abolitionist intentions. The letter includes his now infamous remark about the enslaved people in Monticello and Poplar Forest “that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us [the planters]” as if Jefferson’s interest in his slaves’ wellbeing in order to increase their number would somehow disprove his larger plan for a full-scale emancipation of the entire slave population and for their compelled deportation. No one has denied Jefferson’s personal involvement in contemporary slave economy. For dozens of Jefferson’s documented statements on the need for abolition, see as earlier, Helo & Onuf, “Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery,” 2003 and Helo, Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics 2014, 40-45; For Jefferson’s statement on “their increase,” see TJ to Joel Yancey, Jan. 17, 1819, Monticello org., “Extract from Thomas Jefferson to Joel Yancey” at: https://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/2117 (accessed May 20, 2023).

79 As earlier, see Helo, Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics 2014, 40-45.

80 Notes, Query XVIII, TJW, 289.

81 TJ to Jared Sparks, Feb. 4, 1824, TJW, 1484-1487.

82 Padraig Riley, Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 52.

83 One can always speculate whether the Virginia slaveholders, Jefferson included, thought of profiting themselves by enlarging the market for slaves in the West, but neither Jefferson nor Madison ever claimed that abolition itself would not be their final goal. Moreover, my interpretation of Jefferson’s general stance on slavery contradicts that of Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf regarding their position that Jefferson had somehow lost the fervor for solving the problem after his Paris years. See Gordon-Reed & Onuf, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination (New York: Liveright, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).

84 TJ to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, TJW, 1434.

85 TJ to Albert Gallatin, Dec. 26, 1820, TJW, 1449. My interpretation runs directly counter to that of Padraig Riley, who speaks of the Missouri debate anachronistically as a crisis of “democracy” within “the American nation-state” forty years prior to the 14th amendment that for the first time limited states’ rights regarding the boundaries of citizenship for African Americans or for any other legally subordinated minority groups. See Padraig Riley, Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 199-241, quotation, 204.

86 TJ to Jared Sparks, Feb. 4, 1824, TJW, 1485; For an extensive, classic account of Jefferson’s own rationale regarding the the emancipation of enslaved people, see Helo & Onuf, “Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery,” 2003, 583-614.

87 For his statement that “my religion . . . is known to my god and myself alone,” see TJ to John Adams, Jan. 11, 1817, AJL, 506.

88 Ibid.

89 Notes, Query XVII, TJW, 285.

90 TJ to John Adams, April 11, 1823, TJW, 1469.

91 TJ to William Short, April 13, 1820, Dickinson W. Adams & Ruth W. Lester (eds.), Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) [hereafter cited as Extracts], 391-392.

92 TJ to Alexander Smyth, Jan. 17, 1825, Extracts, 416.

93 TJ to Miles King, Sept. 26, 1814, Extracts, 360.

94 TJ to Miles King, Sept. 26, 1814, Extracts, 360 (emphasis added).

95 TJ to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787, TJW, 903-904.

96 TJ to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814, Extracts, 356.

97 TJ, Autobiography (1821) as extracted from Monticello Website, “Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters,” at http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1399 (accessed May 5, 2020).

98 See for these accusations against Jefferson’s sectional motives for establishing the University of Virginia, e.g., Darren Staloff, “The politics of pedagogy: Thomas Jefferson and the education of a democratic citizenry” in Frank Shuffelton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 138-139 and Alan Taylor, “‘Damn the European Professors’: Higher Education and Xenophobia in Jefferson’s Virginia” in Ari Helo & Mikko Saikku (eds.), An Unfamiliar America: Essays in American Studies (New York: Routledge, 2021), 34-45; Only Cameron Addis has cared to offer proof for these charges in a letter in which Jefferson mentions young students “learning the lessons of anti-Missourianism” at Harvard and Princeton. See Cameron Addis “Jefferson and Education,” in Francis D. Cogliano (ed.), A Companion to Thomas Jefferson (Sussex, UK: Blackwell, 2012, 457-473), 467. What these scholars frequently fail to note is that Jefferson’s aim with the Missouri compromise was not that of advocating slavery.

99 For an early historical characterization of the first set of university faculty, see Herbert Baxter Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1888, 157-166.

100 TJ to Martha Jefferson, Nov. 28, 1783, TJW, 782.

101 TJ to Martha Jefferson, Dec. 11, 1783, TJW, 784.

102 TJ to John Adams, Sept. 12, 1821, Cappon (ed.), The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 575.

103 TJ to John Adams, June 17, 1813, AJL, 335.

104 Quotation, TJ to William A. Burwell, Jan 28, 1805, Ford (ed.), The Works, vol. 10, 126.

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References

Electronic reference

Ari Helo, Thomas Jefferson and Politics: “A game where principles are the stake”European journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 30 July 2023, connection on 13 April 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/20331; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.20331

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About the author

Ari Helo

Ari Helo (Ph.D) is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Helsinki. Before his current position he has taught Intellectual History (University of Oulu), Cultural Studies (University of Vaasa), and North American Studies (University of Helsinki). He has also worked as an ASLA–Fulbright Fellow and as an Academy of Finland Fellow at the University of Virginia for several years. Helo’s scholarly articles have been published in Britain, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, and the United States. His several books include Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics and the Politics of Human Progress (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and History, Politics, and the American Past: Essays on Methodology (Routledge, 2020).

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