“We hold these Truths to be self-vident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) – revolutionary, political philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, and third President of the United States – probably did as much as anyone to shape our vision of what it means to be an American.
He was born into the one of the oldest families of Virginia’s planter aristocracy, learned the Greek and Latin classics as a youth, attended William and Mary, and became one of the most successful lawyers in the Colonies. He also owned one of the largest libraries in the colonies, which eventually became the basis for the Library of Congress. In 1768 he was elected to the House of Burgesses of Virginia, at that time the largest and probably the wealthiest Colony.
There was as yet no sense of an American identity, but the British were doing much to create one. During the Seven Year’s War (1754 – 63; don’t ask) Britain pursued its traditional strategy of playing both sides against the middle on the continent, while using its superior navy to seize as much overseas territory as possible. After wrecking the French fleet at Lagos and Quiberon (1759) the British captured French Canada and Spanish islands in the Caribbean, which had been left more or less defenseless.
This strategy succeeded a little too-well – the British captured the territory, but they spent money they didn’t have doing it. When they tried to make up the difference by taxing the Colonists, the Colonists balked. Why should they pay more in taxes for military protection that they needed even less, now that the French and Spanish had been beaten? Hadn’t Colonial trade been stifled with regulations and tariffs for years? Who was representing their interests in Parliament, where these taxes were being cooked up? The Colonists listened with rising irritation as the British explained to them that they _were_ being represented – virtually. “No taxation without representation!” became their motto. The Colonists dumped some tea, Parliament sent in soldiers to restore order, and soon skirmishes at Lexington and Concord announced the end of the “discussion phase” of the conflict.
Taxes may have been the inciting cause, but a larger issue was the spread of Enlightenment ideals to the United States – particularly through men like Jefferson, who liked to keep up with the latest Parisian philosophy, and who hoped, like some of the Enlightenment’s more radical voices, for a Republic. At that time all right-thinking people were monarchists, who firmly believed that popular belief in God and King were necessary supports to the social order. Being a Republican then was a bit like being a Communist now – it was a radical, dangerous, utopian, crazy idea that would obviously never work. However, the conflict with the British tended to radicalize people, and the latest French political theories offered an attractive alternative to the God and King model of the past. Gradually the idea took hold, at least among the elite, that the self-evident truths of Reason, not the ancient authority of kings and the mumbo-jumbo of priests, provided the only genuine basis for government. When the newly-formed Continental Congress needed a spokesman to explain this to George III, Parliament, and the world, they chose Thomas Jefferson as their most eloquent spokesman. He did not disappoint.
Jefferson spent most of the war as Governor of Virginia. Like most of the founders, he had no real military experience, and could do little to assist Washington except send him provisions, money, and men – which, as it turned out, proved quite challenging. Washington’s strategy of simply avoiding defeat (the tried and true tactic of third-world revolutionaries everywhere) proved highly successful. The French, for their part, were only too happy to help the Colonists secure their independence. After all it was their ideals that the Colonists were fighting for and making their own, and the war gave them an opportunity to even the score after the humiliation of the Seven Years War. They lent the Colonists money, sent them first-rate weapons, and smashed the British fleet at Chesepeake (1781).
This proved the turning point, for it effectively knocked the British navy out of the war and stranded their army on a hostile continent, which, the last several years of fighting had shown, they did not have the manpower to control. The main British army was just-then under siege at Yorktown. Under heavy bombardment, and with no hope of rescue or relief, Cornwallis surrendered. The Treaty of Paris (1783) officially ended the war two years later.
Jefferson’s vision for the new nation was inspired largely by Rousseau (subject of an earlier article, here: ) He hoped for a “Republic of Virtue” made up of simple, honest, independent farmers, free of the artificiality and vices of the city, and the corrupting influence of finance, commerce, and money. Although, like most of the founders, he thought too much direct democracy was a bad thing, and believed that limited suffrage and breaks on the popular will were necessary for responsible government, compared to his colleagues he was a radical egalitarian democrat. This philosophy placed him in permanent opposition to Alexander Hamilton (and his later protégé, John Adams), who insisted that commerce was the lifeblood of the nation, that a strong central government was necessary to keep the conflicting ambitions of the states from tearing the Republic apart, and who didn’t see any harm in a little aristocratic display now and then, to remind people who their betters were. Much American history could be, and the Constitution was, written in terms of the struggle between their two visions.
Jefferson was an effective President. He bought the Louisiana territory – about a quarter of the future landmass of the Republic – from Napoleon at a bargain-basement price, and sent the Louis and Clark expedition to explore the newly-acquired land. He supported the French, but kept the United States out of the war, despite significant provocation from the British, whose practice of kidnapping American sailors for use in the British Navy would provoke another war in 1812. North African pirates had a similar habit with respect to American merchant shipping, which the previous administrations had managed largely by paying tribute. As President, Jefferson refused to continue the practice. He sent a squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean, sank the corsair fleet, shelled Tripoli, and negotiated the release of American hostages. After his second term as President, Jefferson retired from public life, and spent his remaining years engaged in philanthropy and philosophy. He died, perhaps fittingly, on July 4th – within a few hours of his lifelong rival, John Adams.
The Republic that Jefferson helped found was regarded for more than a century afterwards as a highly uncertain experiment. In a sense it still is, though we are perhaps not as keenly aware of this as our ancestors were. Nevertheless, history offers no guarantee that our ideals, our values, and our vision of the world will prevail. These are, rather, things that have to be fought for and recreated in each generation. Ultimately the success of our nation, and of our ideals, does not depend on allegiance to any particular doctrine, ideology, or party. It depends, as Jefferson saw, on our willingness to recognize ourselves in other Americans, to respect the desire of all people for freedom and equality, and to work out our differences through reason, discussion, and good will.
Biographical Information: http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/thomas-jefferson-brief-biography
Declaration of Independence: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html
Part of a Series on the Enlightenment