Who was Thomas Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson was a man who authored remarkable political and literary works. It was his words that changed a nation.
Jefferson’s ability to write made him the prominent author who was given the honor of writing the Declaration of Independence. His writings reflected on the rights of humanity and the role in which a government must protect the rights of its people.
Thomas Jefferson’s writings on fundamental human rights would cause the American public to question their views, and his writings would affect the choices made for emerging country.
Thomas Jefferson's Childhood
Jefferson was born on April 13th 1743, in Shadwell Virginia. “As a boy Thomas Jefferson’s was shy and often tongue-tied…preferred the company of books to that of most people.” (Wilmore, 1) Due to his preference for the written word over social interactions, he would spend 15 hours each day reading and writing during his childhood; he would later use the skills he learned as a diligent student to write the many political documents that he is known for (1).
After becoming an adult, he studied law in Virginia at the William and Mary College at Williamsburg (Bottorff, 15). During his time at the university, he became a member of the Whig party, and advocated the rights and liberties of mankind (Peterson, 1). Despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson lived in a world where the freedom of some men were repressed by others, he still fought through his words to advance the liberty of mankind.
I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.
— Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson's First Work of Renown
A Summary View of the Rights of British America, written in 1774, was Thomas Jefferson’s first work of notoriety. A Summary was a relatively short piece. It looked upon the fight for justice within American Colonist’s lives, and spoke to the American public in general, and not solely to the elitist aristocracy. (Bottorff, 33).
Jefferson’s central concept within this book was that the British government had too much authority over Colonial America (Jefferson). A Summary contained grievances to the British government and toward the King himself. The radical Whig Party in America also upheld these thoughts and through this book felt that Jefferson was supporting their ideals and the Whig party (Passos, 169).
Jefferson’s views on the rights of mankind can be express through a quote in his work “Every Individual is equal to every individual.”(Bottorff, 33) His, message is clear that no man should rule over another man nor should any man be treated with a different respect with than others. This brings about the idea that humanity deserves natural rights, and that no one should take these rights from mankind.
What Did Thomas Jefferson Write?
- A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774)
- Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775)
- Declaration of Independence (1776)
- Memorandums taken on a journey from Paris into the southern parts of France and Northern Italy, in the year 1787
- Notes on the State of Virginia (1781)
- Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States A report submitted to Congress (1790)
- Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States (1801)
- Autobiography (1821)
- Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth
Thomas Jefferson's and the US Declaration of Independence
In 1776 Jefferson was appointed by the Continental Congress to be on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, and he would later be chosen to the author the declaration (Bottorff, 13). In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson aimed his charges towards King George III of Britain. He claimed that the King had been a tyrant to the colonist, and that the King did not care about the ever important natural rights of the colonists. Due to these charges Jefferson therefore claimed that the purpose to break away from British crown was justified (Donovan, 21). Jefferson went on to say that the British parliament did not have any power over the colonies due to lack of representation. This was a radical idea at the time since most people only questioned the power that the British government had to tax the American colonies (Donovan, 68).
His fight for the natural rights of mankind became the main aim of the Declaration. “That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights.”(US Declaration 1776) These words are some of the most influential words within the Declaration. The meaning behind these words is that man has god given rights that he is born with, and these rights to freedom cannot be taken away by anyone. (Bottorff, 35.) These words sum up the main goal of Declaration that all mankind is born free and that no tyrant can control them. It was this simple document that was the cause for the colonists continued struggle for freedom. “The Declaration of Independence gave a renewed sense of purpose to the war that Americans had been fighting for 16 months.” (Wilmore, 3) The declaration provided Colonist a sense of hope, that the war they had been fighting for had a purpose.
Did Jefferson own slaves?
One of the biggest issues Jefferson faced with the Declaration was the subject of slavery, and whether or not to have it within the document. Many delegates of the Continental Congress said that would not accept the Declaration of Independence if slavery was not taken out of it (Wilmore, 2). However in Jefferson’s original Declaration, he claimed that the King was the reason for the horrors of slavery within the Colonies. This particular section of the Declaration was removed, since the colonies were too deeply involved with slavery (Bottorff, 38). Jefferson’s theory of natural rights and slavery was a peculiar, since Jefferson was a significant slave owner (38). However this should not discredit Jefferson’s fight for the natural rights of me, because the Declaration did start the movement towards natural rights for all humanity.
Separation from Politics
Jefferson’s views on natural rights were influenced by colonial thinkers of the time. A man who established the young Jefferson’s views was a man by George Wythe, Wythe was a leading attorney in Jefferson’s home of Virginia and taught at the William and Mary College in Williamsburg. He influenced the young Jefferson into breaking away from traditional thinkings and religion. Wythe helped Jefferson learn more about Deism, and to break away from the protestant churches. This put Jefferson on the path to explore the idea of natural rights (Bottorff, 16).
As Jefferson began to separate himself from the political life, he began to rely on the opinions of others. George Mason was one of these men; he was a man who help to write the Virginia Constitution. (Donovan, 23-24). George Mason’s helped Jefferson more than in finding a religion, he was the first to write, “That all Men are born equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights.” (Mason). These words paired with his relationship with Wythe, must have inspired Jefferson with writing the Declaration of Independence as well as his own works on natural rights. (Wilmore, 2).
Crash Course History - Thomas Jefferson
European Enlightenment and the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798
The European Enlightenment ideals were another factor which influenced Jefferson. During Jefferson’s involvement in the Virginia House of Burgesses he order a number of books on enlightenment views. He had over 905 books sent to him, it is said that during this time Jefferson was searching for the earliest forms of European government with popular sovereignty being applied (Donovan 62-63).
The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which Jefferson wrote, had high impacts of the early United States. These were written during President Adam’s administration in response to the crisis with France and the Alien and Sedition acts. The Alien and Sedition Acts were laws imposed by Adams in order to reduce the criticism he was receiving and reduce freedom of speech something Jefferson felt was one of the main natural rights (Burstein, 224). Both Jefferson and James Madison wrote related resolutions; both together were called the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. In these Resolutions they compared the Alien Sedition Acts to that of the Stamp Act, since they felt the power of states were being stomped over (224).
The Death of Thomas Jefferson
Even in death Jefferson’s ability to write shocked most people. “He died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence…John Adams himself died that same day, reflected with satisfaction that Jefferson was still alive, but Jefferson, who was by then gone.” His death on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was a mystery of fate or could just be a coincidental (Bottorff, 118). Also Adams, whom rekindled his friendship with Jefferson after it had been broken by political difference, died on the same die within hours of each other (117).
Jefferson’s last writing was for his grave stone, which said “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, And Father of the University of Virginia. Born Apr. 1, 1743 O.S. Died July 4, 1826.”(Donovan, 296) In his eyes his fight for natural rights and what he had accomplished for his country were his greatest achievements and most important factors of his life. His fight for natural rights made him one of America’s greatest hero’s.
- Bottorf, Kevin. Thomas Jefferson Volume 327 of Twayne's United States authors series. Twayne Publishers. 1979.
- Burstein, Andrew. “The Inner Jefferson.” University of Virginia Press. 1996.
- Donovan, Frank. “The Thomas Jefferson Papers.” Druid Meade and Company. 1963.
- Jefferson, Thomas. “Summary View of the Rights of British America.” 1774. Yale Law School, Law Library. Web. Accessed 6 Oct 2013. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/ 18th_century/jeffsumm.asp
- Mason, George. "Constitution of Virginia." Virginia’s Legislative Information System. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://constitution.legis.virginia.gov/_br>.
- Passos, John Dos. “The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson.” Doubleday Publishing. 1954.
- United States Declaration of Independence. 1776.
- Wilmore, Kathy. "Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence." N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2013 <http://freedomflix.digital.scholastic.com/exploremore_pdf/ 10011858/fflix/fflix//10011264_br>
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