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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Thomas Jefferson

The fluctuations in Thomas Jefferson’s reputation since his death in 1826 have paralleled the most vigorously debated controversies over how people in the United States are to understand themselves as a nation and as individuals. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson has been praised as a champion of democracy, equality, and human rights, but he has also been criticized for supposed betrayals of his own ideals or outright failures of character. Most recently such criticism has tended to focus on the tension between his claim that all men have inalienable natural rights, with liberty chief among them, and his continuing ownership of slaves, an issue also raised in his own lifetime by those who wished to discredit his egalitarianism.

Born at Shadwell, a family farm near the present-day Monticello but at that time near the western frontier of Virginia, Jefferson was the son of Jane Randolph and Peter Jefferson, the former a member of one of Virginia’s most prominent and influential families and the latter a land-owner, magistrate, surveyor, and mapmaker. After his father’s death, Jefferson attended William and Mary College and subsequently studied law with George Wythe, one of the best legal scholars of colonial America. After admission to the bar, he practiced law, played a part in Virginia colonial politics, and became increasingly critical of England’s attempts to exert authority in the American colonies. His 1774 pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, caught the attention of readers outside of Virginia with its bold argument that Americans had effectually freed themselves from royal and parliamentary authority by exercising “a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice has placed them,” and in all likelihood it led to his appointment in 1776 to the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson’s Declaration has become, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a founding document of the United States; not law itself, it is a fundamental expression of the moral and political ideals of American society. As Abraham Lincoln put it in 1861, “It was [the Declaration] which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”

While serving as governor of Virginia, Jefferson received a questionnaire from François Marbois, secretary to the French legation in Philadelphia, asking for information on the state. His answers eventually appeared as his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), which was both a pioneering attempt at a scientific study of a community and an effort to direct the culture and political formation of the post-revolutionary state. As he gathered information for Notes, Jefferson realized he had an occasion to address the claims of the Abbé Reynal and the Count de Buffon, the most famous naturalist of the time, that animals and people in the New World were smaller, less vigorous, and generally degenerate when compared to similar organisms in the Old World. The argument was seemingly biological, but its implications were political and cultural. If people dwindled in physical vigor, what sort of society could they be expected to maintain? Jefferson’s refutation of Buffon’s theory vindicated Native American virtues in order to defend American character. In Query XIX, “Manufactures,” Jefferson offered a more implicit defense of the American environment that was also a classic statement of his agrarian ideal: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. . . . Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished the example.”

Jefferson used the occasion of Notes to pursue his republican political agenda, but here his comments became more problematic. He used chapters on “Laws” and “Manners,” among others, to criticize the failings of Virginia’s legal system, particularly its failure to remedy the evil of slavery. Queries XIV and XVIII strongly condemned the institution of slavery, but in the former chapter he argued that emancipation should be linked to removal of blacks to a separate colony where they could be “a free and independent people.” In explaining the necessity of colonization, he revealed a strain of racialist thinking that was all too common both in his time and later—even though some of his friends who read Notes singled out these passages for criticism—but extremely disturbing in ours. Despite the examples of black achievement presented to him, such as the almanac of Benjamin Banneker, and, indeed, his long intimate relationship with the slave Sally Hemmings, about whom he clearly cared, he never retreated from his belief in the desirability of the eventual separation of the races.

Like many later white abolitionists, Jefferson was able to simultaneously maintain an opposition to slavery with what we would regard as a basically racist attitude. Critics have charged that his racist feelings explain his apparent reluctance to do more to oppose slavery, but the problem is more complex. The rejection in 1776 of his clause in the Declaration about slavery and the subsequent unwillingness of the Virginia legislature to take up emancipation—when he was one of the committee revising its laws—would have made him realize the enormous difficulties in changing the opinions of his Virginian contemporaries. In addition, Jefferson was unwilling to ostracize himself from his neighbors when he thought that there was more he could do in Virginia to secure a free society.

Jefferson served two terms as president of the United States (1801–1809). As president, he brought his commitment to education and agrarianism to bear upon Indian policy. The U.S. Constitution reserves to the federal government alone the right to treat Indians as sovereign nations. As Handsome Lake’s narrative, printed earlier in this volume, indicates, Indian tribes were being devastated by the most corrupting aspects of Anglo-American culture. Jefferson’s letter to Handsome Lake indicates Jefferson’s sympathy with Handsome Lake’s revival and his own very European conception of property. Jefferson’s “civilizing” policy, described in his letter to Benjamin Hawkins, aimed to gradually incorporate Indians into the fabric of the United States, first, by moderating the expansion of Anglo-Americans into Indian lands, and second, by simultaneously sending agents of civilization—missionaries, teachers, craftsmen, agricultural instructors, and federal agents to regulate trade and intercept contraband alcohol—to Indian tribes in order to prepare them to abandon hunting, and the large land areas their semi-nomadic lifestyle required, in favor of sedentary, village agricultural life. Jefferson believed that Indians thus assimilated, could “be absorbed to their infinite advantage, within the American population” who were settling on their lands. Throughout his two terms in office, however, factions on both sides resisted the Jeffersonian solution.

In the last quarter of his life, faced with what he felt was the impossibility of arguing Virginians into abolition,  Jefferson concentrated on the coming generation. Slavery would have to be abolished, he told Edward Coles in 1814, by “the young...who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation.” As Jefferson makes clear in his letters to Peter Carr and Nathaniel Burwell, the principal resource of future generations of men and women would be a solid education that trained the reason and the moral sense for “the real businesses of life.” His own contribution, he thought, would be to found the University of Virginia as a means to encourage progress toward a republican future.

Jefferson wanted to be remembered on his grave marker as the author of the Declaration and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and as the father of the University of Virginia. His primary commitment was to intellectual freedom; he believed that liberated reason would ultimately purge the world of tyranny and oppression, but his optimism also seemed to many to ignore the real suffering of the world.

Frank Shuffelton
University of Rochester

Andrew Wiget
New Mexico State University

In the Heath Anthology
Letter to Nathaniel Burwell [Female's Education] (1718)  [n.b., March 14]
from Letter to James Madison, Oct. 28, 1785 (1785)
from Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)
from Query VI: "Production, Mineral , Vegetable, and Animal, Buffon and the Theory of Degeneracy" (1785)
from Query XI: "Aborigines, Original Condition and Origin" (1785)
from Query XIV: "Laws" (1785)
from Query XVII: "Religion" (1785)
from Query XVIII: "Manners...Effect of Slavery" (1785)
from Letter to James Madison, Dec. 20, 1787 (1787)  [n.b., Published in 1829]
Letter to Peter Carr [Young man's education] (1787)  [n.b., August 10]
Letter to Benjamin Banneker, Aug. 30, 1791 (1791)  [n.b., Published in 1829]
Letter to the Marquis de Condorcet, Aug. 30, 1791 (1791)  [n.b., Published in 1986]
from Indian Addresses: To Brother Handsome Lake (1802)  [n.b., Address delivered on November 3, 1802]
To the Wolf and People of the Mandan Nation (1806)  [n.b., Address delivered on December 30]
Letter to Edward Coles, Aug. 25, 1814 (1814)  [n.b., Published in 1899]
Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson
      "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled" (1776)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image/Text fileImage/Text fileJefferson and the Era of Exploration
Text fileBenjamin Banneker's 1792 Almanac

Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

Enlightenment Philosophy and the American Revolution (Lois Leveen, May 18, 2001)

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Declaration of Independence
  A text of this important primary document with a brief introduction explaining the Declaration's historical background.

The Thomas Jefferson Papers
  Primary sources provided by the American Memory site.

Thomas Jefferson (1734-1826)
  Several primary texts (addresses, mostly) and a biography.

Thomas Jefferson Online Resources at the University of Virginia
  An index offering links to Jefferson's writings and quotations.

Secondary Sources

Noble E. Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson, 1978

Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson and His Times, 6 vols., 1951-1981

John Chester Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, 1977

Peter Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian Legacies, 1993

Frank Shuffelton, Thomas Jefferson, 1981-1990: An Annotated Bibliography, 1992