Momentous Change in America: A Paper on Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson is a controversial figure in American history. He was instrumental in the formation of the American republic. Jefferson’s main contribution was the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the most important document in American history. He does what other people want of him, even if it does not follow his own beliefs. Thomas Jefferson was too liberal for his day and age, which resulted in only modest success for most of his ideas. Despite the lack of success Jefferson had implementing his ideas in American society, he had created a precedent and influenced many others to follow in his ideas on freedom and liberty. Thomas Jefferson was great—not for the changes he managed to implement during his lifetime, but for his social beliefs, which are present predominantly in his writing.
To understand what makes Jefferson the greatest man in American history, it must be examined how he is set apart from his contemporaries. Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743, to a prosperous family. Both parents were upstanding citizens in the colony. They lived on a large plantation of close to 7000 acres. Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary, a reputable and legitimate institution in Colonial America. Jefferson went beyond his formal education and expanded his study with additional private education from a noted professor, George Wythe. This led to Jefferson’s law practice. He was elected to the House of Burgesses and served there from 1769 to 1774. In one instance, Jefferson, as a lawyer, defended a Mulatto’s claim to freedom; “Under law of nature all men are born free…” Meanwhile, though Jefferson had won this case, and established the rights of slaves, the 200 slaves in his possession continued to maintain his plantation for him. At the time, it was illegal to release a slave in the state of Virginia. However, official records indicate that Jefferson freed at least five of those slaves.
In 1775 Jefferson became a member of the Continental Congress, and again in 1784. Jefferson’s stints in prominent government positions gave him increasing popularity amongst the people. After his service to the Continental Congress, he became a part of the Virginia legislature. Jefferson’s reputation continued to soar, and in 1779 was elected as the governor of Virginia. After this time serving in the government, Jefferson took time off to compile information on Virginia; his book later came to be known as Notes on Virginia. The purpose of this book was, essentially, to disprove the dominant belief at the time, that European plant and animal life, including humans, was larger than any in North America. This book was a step towards the American separation from Europe. Jefferson was a key proponent of the revolution, which is why he held a prominent position in the new government. He served as minister to France from 1784 to 1789. The time Jefferson spent in France he considered to be the “richest period during his life.”
The most important thing Jefferson did in his lifetime was the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was the sole writer of the document. John Adams, a future political rival, said: “First you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Second, I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular; you are very much otherwise.” In the writing of this document, Jefferson proclaimed equality for all men, and had disregarded religion in the writing of the draft. However, this equality for all men did not apply to his slaves. Observers have labelled these actions as hypocritical, or inconsistent. In Jefferson’s early draft of the constitution he wrote, “no person hereafter coming into the state would be held in slavery.” Unfortunately it was removed before the constitution was ratified. Religion and slavery were related. Jefferson tried to make substantial moves to break the power of both. In both endeavours, he initially failed, as neither was written into the constitution. Ultimately the power of both were weakened, but as Jefferson had discovered from these early encounters, was that they were essentially unchangeable.
Jefferson was not a racist. He did not believe that the white man had superiority over the black man. He believed that the difference between the two races was essentially based on economic advantages or disadvantages. If the black people were freed and given favourable conditions, they could compete equally with the whites. Nor did Jefferson believe that the white man was superior to the Aboriginal peoples. Instead, Jefferson admired their culture and language. Furthermore, he assisted the Cherokee by allowing them to use his house as a “way-station.” At no point though, did Jefferson grant any of these people voting rights enabling them to change their predicament. If Jefferson were to give political freedoms to groups that nearly every other American citizen despised, he would fall from favour soon after, and risk his presidency and possibly much more. Instead, Jefferson left the future generations of Americans his writings so that they could attempt to carry out the beliefs he had been unable to enact in his time.
Although Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was not in the United States at the time the Constitution was ratified. This resulted in many unfavourable outcomes. Jefferson declared that this new constitution “did not expressly safeguard the rights of individuals.” Soon afterwards, the Alien and Sedition laws were enacted under Adam’s administration. Jefferson, along with his counterpart, James Madison worked towards establishing the Virginia Resolution, and later the Kentucky Resolution. Jefferson believed the Alien and Sedition acts limited freedom and liberty. This went completely against Jefferson’s ideas of people who were different, because, according to him, everyone should receive the same freedom because many people were “labourers, not lawyers.”
Thomas Jefferson later defeated John Adams and became the Third President of the United States. In serving two terms as president between the years 1801 and 1809, Jefferson made many changes, which are still evident in the United States today. As previously mentioned, Jefferson had attempted to break the power of the church. Nonetheless, the separation of the church and the state was an idea that was most certainly championed by Jefferson. The most significant idea that Jefferson was to conceive was undoubtedly his idea of generational revolution. He believed that every 19 years there should be a revolution, so each generation could create a new government. It really just involved the constitution being looked at by each generation, so that they may change it to suit their interests. Jefferson supported the idea of revolution ardently, as he himself claimed his presidency to be a revolution in itself. His generational revolution idea was a ploy to further the elements of democracy, as it would help to eliminate old unwanted principles of the previous generation. Another reason Jefferson wanted this, was so that there was a better chance of furthering his own ideas after he was gone. “The good sense of our people will direct the boat ultimately to its proper point.”
Thomas Jefferson was never the American hero character that fit into the cult of the individual. The only task, which may be singularly attributed to Jefferson, is the writing of the Declaration of Independence. However this is myth, Jefferson merely wrote the first draft of the constitution. Nearly all of the founding fathers managed to implement at least one change of their own on the document before the final copy was produced. With the exception of battling Muslim pirates in Africa, and the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson’s presidency was relatively uneventful. Those two events worried Jefferson, as he was not sure of the constitutionality of them. By closely examining the Louisiana Purchase it was in the best interest of the people, as the majority of Americans were most certainly in favour of expansion. The removal of the Muslim pirate threats only strengthened the American trade industry, which would also have been a strong move in favour of the people.
Jefferson made one mistake in presidency. This mistake was a trade embargo against Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson was disinterested from engaging in the Napoleonic wars. However, no matter how neutral America was to be, Great Britain and France were both influencing America and Jefferson would have to choose a side. Instead of joining the war, Jefferson remained neutral, but was most certainly sympathetic towards the French. Unfortunately Jefferson’s plan of hurting the economy of Great Britain failed and the war of 1812 occurred instead. The trade embargo was ineffective and unpopular among the people so Jefferson repealed it. Nearing the end of his second term of presidency, Jefferson needed to ensure that his successor was an individual who had the same or similar ideals as he did. This position was secured for James Madison, a fellow Virginian, who ardently supported many of Jefferson’s ideas, as this period came to be known as the period of Jeffersonian Democracy.
Thomas Jefferson lived until 1826, outliving many of his contemporaries. This allowed for his writings to have a broader focal point. The remaining years of Jefferson’s life were spent in Monticello, Virginia, entertaining his many guests, some of who would stay for long periods of time. Jefferson never quite finished Monticello, as he had envisaged it. In the later days of his life he spent most of what was left of his wealth on entertaining and subsequently left little inheritance behind to his family. Also, he left little inheritance behind to the American people. Many of the changes he wanted to institute for them never came to fruition.
Thomas Jefferson, after the death of his wife, became engaged in a relationship with a slave mistress known as Sally Hemmings. The rival Federalist faction managed to turn these events into a “scandal.” This woman was his wife’s half-sister, although she was, ironically, a slave. Jefferson freed the five children born unto Jefferson and Hemmings in his will, although Hemmings herself was not. Thomas Jefferson was not lacking in compassion. His writing eloquently proves this. It was really simple logic on his part. The position Jefferson held allowed him to make a degree of liberal change to the government, yet still retain his position of political and societal influence. At the same time, this permitted Jefferson to write, with an intention to reach out to the future generations of Americans to make changes. Jefferson could never have led by example. Releasing slaves was not seen as a charitable thing to do, nor was it a passing trend Jefferson could have tried to establish amongst even his most ardent supporters. Enforcing equality among settlers and natives so that they might “regain their esteem” wouldn’t have worked either.
Thomas Jefferson would have looked foolish to his fellow Virginians, lose most or all of his popular support, and history would have portrayed him in a negative light. Instead of risking his reputation, and risking the legitimacy of his writings, Jefferson was forced to live in the environment he was brought up in. Thomas Jefferson realized that he could observe the world, and remark on the world, but never actually change the world. Although he was president, he was forced to act in the interest of the people who kept him in power, but he soon discovered they would never enable him to enact the equality he so desired to create. Thomas Jefferson finally rested his faith in the American people, and believed that whatever he could not accomplish in his lifetime, they would accomplish after he was gone.
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