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First Published:  15 August 2019
Revised (substantive):  19 June 2021

A N     E X C E R P T     F R O M

Thomas Jefferson’s
ANB Entry

(re. Jefferson’s long fight to
reform Virginia’s Constitution)

Opening quotation markReturning to Virginia in the fall [of 1776], Jefferson immediately entered the newly constituted House of Delegates with plans to reform the old order there. While he was in Philadelphia a constitution had been adopted for the new commonwealth, but it was not at all to Jefferson’s liking. It left the old elite entrenched in power, excluded one-half of the white male citizenry from the political process, and was silent on feudal land tenures, the religious establishment, and other aristocratic abuses. Moreover, the constitution had been adopted without the ‘consent of the governed,’ laid down as a first principle in the Declaration [of Independence, authored by Jefferson], and without provision for periodic adjustment and revision. Jefferson had drafted a more democratic instrument and sent it to Williamsburg, but it was said to have arrived too late for consideration. Now he postponed the objective of a new constitution for the duration of the war and, from his seat in the House of Delegates, sought far-reaching reforms by ordinary legislation. Repeatedly in years to come Jefferson mounted his charger to overturn the first Virginia constitution, always without success.

“ Most of Jefferson’s reforms were part of a comprehensive revision of the laws, reported in 1779, of which he was the principal author. The rational aim of a revised code miscarried, but the general assembly eventually adopted or rejected 126 bills of the revisal one by one. The abolition of entail and primogeniture — vestiges of feudalism — worked in the direction, already manifest, of a uniformly individualistic system of land tenure. Jefferson took special pride in the Statute of Religious Freedom, drafted in 1777 and finally enacted in 1786. Religious freedom, being wholly a matter of private conscience in Jefferson’s philosophy, admitted neither protection nor support from the state. The celebrated statute became a powerful directive for the unique relationship of church and state in America and, by its bold assertion that the opinions of men are beyond the reach of civil authority, one of the great charters of the free mind as well.

“ But the Virginia oligarchs defeated his other major reforms. His Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (1778) offered a complete plan of public education from elementary schools through to a state university, with a state library and museum as well. Jefferson’s ‘quixotism’ on the subject of education was rooted in political principles. Education being essential to the making of republican citizens, it became a paramount responsibility of government. The opposition’s objections rang down the years. It was ‘impractical.’ It was ‘godless.’ It unfairly taxed the rich to educate the poor. By creating new units of local government called ‘wards’ it undercut the authority of the oligarchical county courts. The plan was defeated in 1785. Jefferson, then in France, was crushed by the news. ‘I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people,’ he wrote to Wythe. ‘Let our countrymen know … that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance’ (Jefferson Writings, pp. 859–60).

“ Slavery, like ignorance, was another obstacle to the hopes of republicanism. In retrospect, the fact that Jefferson was a Virginia slaveholder all his adult life has placed him at odds with his moral and political principles. Yet there can be no question of his genuine hatred of slavery or, indeed, of the efforts he made to curb and eliminate it. In his draft of the Declaration of Independence he denounced the African slave trade imposed by Britain as a ‘cruel war against human nature itself,’ but Congress struck this passage. Partly through his efforts, Virginia became the first state to close its doors to this infernal traffic. A plan of gradual emancipation was part of Jefferson’s reform system, but it was held back on the plea of expediency. His draft of a new Virginia constitution in 1783 mandated gradual emancipation of the slaves by declaring all persons born after the year 1800 free. The plan of emancipation to which he adhered all his life included provision for colonization of freed blacks in Africa or elsewhere, for he assumed this was a necessary condition for the citizenry’s adoption of emancipation and because Jefferson himself had no faith in the feasibility of an equal biracial society. Of course, no convention materialized in 1783, and Jefferson became convinced that, at least in Virginia and the other southern states, emancipation was a political impossibility. Unwilling to martyr himself uselessly, he looked to the younger generation to turn the fate of this question.

[  ...  ]

“ Although Jefferson wrote no books in retirement [after he retired to Monticello in 1809], he penned a memoir of his life before 1790, translated two works from the French, collected documents, compiled political notes and memoranda, essayed brief characterizations or lives of contemporaries, and in other ways contributed to the writing of American history. Some years before his death he completed a task begun in 1803 that is now known as the Jefferson Bible. Through a rough sort of New Testament criticism, he attempted to identify the real teachings of Jesus amid the Platonizing corruptions of priests and theologians. In his youth he had gone to the ancients for moral instruction; he still did, but now, in the ripeness of years, he concluded that the plain, unsophisticated teachings of Jesus made the best of all moral systems. He called his bible distilled from the four gospels ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth’ and thought it proof that he whom the priests and pharisees called infidel was ‘a true Christian’ in the only sense that mattered, the love of man taught by Jesus. Of course, believing religion wholly a matter of the private conscience, Jefferson disdained public profession. Even his family knew nothing of the red morocco-bound volume. And it had to be rediscovered some seventy years after his death. Clearly Jefferson was on the track of a unifying religion of humanity, enlightened, morally earnest but stripped of supernaturalism, of which he saw anticipations in Unitarianism.

“ The ‘holy cause’ to which Jefferson gave himself in old age was public education. In 1814 he revived his plan for a state system. Again the [Virginia] legislature rejected it. However, shamed, cajoled, and outwitted by Jefferson and a little band of ‘Monticello men’ in the assembly, it approved one part of the plan, the state university. Jefferson wondered at the folly of raising the apex of the pyramid without laying the foundations in primary and secondary schools. He rejoiced in the university, nonetheless. Chartered by the state in 1819, located in Charlottesville, he could legitimately call himself its father. His architectural design of an ‘academical village’ was strikingly original, perfectly attuned to his purpose, and cleanly executed in brick and mortar and wood under his watchful eye. He sent abroad for a faculty, formed the curriculum, acquired the library, and attended to countless details. Secular and modern in conception, raised against massive obstacles — legislative parsimony, sectarian fanaticism, and public indifference — the University of Virginia opened its doors to students only sixteen months before Jefferson’s
death.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Peterson, Merrill D. “Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826), philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, and president of the United States.” American National Biography. Online edition, Oxford University Press, Feb. 2000, n. pag. Accessed 7 Aug. 2019, from < https://​​10.1093/​anb/​9780198606697.​article.​0200196 >.