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Autobiography of Thomas JeffersonSummary and Reviews of Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson
Notes on the State of Virginia: with Related DocumentsSummary and Reviews of Notes on the State of Virginia: with Related Documents
The Jefferson BibleSummary and Reviews of The Jefferson Bible
The Papers of Thomas JeffersonSummary and Reviews of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson
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Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson’s (1743-1826) current reputation falls somewhere between the almost unanimous admiration of Benjamin Franklin and the divided reputation of Thomas Paine.  From the time of his death until well into the twentieth century, Jefferson did enjoy the same acclaim that Franklin does still.  However, slave owner Jefferson’s reputation did not endure unscathed through the Civil Rights movement and, more suddenly damaging, the revelation that Jefferson may have fathered a child by one of those slaves, Sally Hemings.  On top of that, over time Jefferson’s Christian faith came increasingly into question.

As with Franklin, the best way to get a fair picture of Jefferson’s true beliefs on the religious and racial matters that so divide people today is to read what he wrote on the subjects.  Jefferson was born on what was then the western frontier of Virginia.  His father was a landowner, magistrate, surveyor, and mapmaker, all of which added up to his being a prominent citizen.  His mother was born into a prominent Virginian family.  Jefferson’s familial advantages allowed him to attend William and Mary College and study law under one of the leading legal scholars in the British colonies, George Wythe.  Jefferson’s legal training led him to realize that the British crown was exercising too much control over its colonies, which in turn led to his first popular pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

Jefferson wrote this pamphlet after he had passed the bar and begun a legal practice.  He also had begun to participate in the political process in Virginia, and by 1776, when the relationship between Britain and its colonies had deteriorated to outright hostility, the people of Virginia had elected him to the Continental Congress.  Because of his talent for writing, Congress appointed him to the committee established to draft the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson was the one most responsible for the wording of the Declaration, and that fact sealed his place in history.

During the last two years of the Revolution, Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia.  His time as executive of his state was marred by attacks on his competence and character, but during this time French legation secretary François Marbois sent Jefferson a list of questions about the state.  Jefferson’s reply became his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia.  This book was a scientific and cultural study of Virginia, and in it, Jefferson also defended America against pseudo-scientific charges that biological organisms, from humans to minerals, were smaller in American than they were in the Old World.  Jefferson viewed this idea as not only wrong but dangerous.  If Americans believed this, they would never build the kind of society and culture they needed.

Also, in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson expressed his views on the issues of slavery and education that would alternately raise and lower his reputation over time.  In Jefferson’s mind, the two issues were intertwined.  Jefferson was undoubtedly opposed to slavery, even including a condemnation of it in a rejected draft of the Declaration of Independence.  Many have tried to dispute this claim because he was himself a slave owner.  While this is a contradiction, Jefferson’s plan for emancipating slaves may provide an explanation.  Jefferson believed, and wrote in Notes that the government should abolish slavery only if it was possible to remove freed slaves from America and transplant them to an independent colony outside America.  This idea, called colonization, is repugnant by today’s standards, and Jefferson based this belief on the “suspicion” that black people were inferior to white people.   However, in those days, Jefferson was controversial for even suggesting emancipation.  

Another factor that modern students of history should understand contributed to Jefferson’s unwillingness to act against slavery was his reluctance to speak out publicly on any subject, especially one so unpopular as emancipation.  Jefferson believed that “dispassionate reasoning” not emotional oration convinced people of a course of action; so, Jefferson concentrated on educating future generations.  His lifelong project of establishing the University of Virginia was, together with the Declaration of Independence, his most cherished accomplishment.  He believed that if future generations of white slave-owning families had the opportunity of an enlightened education, they would eventually realize that slavery was an evil that they needed to put away.  Considering their wide use in diverse settings, in the end, his unequivocal and eloquent defenses of freedom and equality seem to have won out over his outdated, less inclusive opinions…oh, and by the way, Jefferson was the third President of the United States.

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