Last April, John D. Boles wrote an extensive biography: “Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty.” He skillfully and thoughtfully examines all facets of Thomas Jefferson’s character and life, pointing out how Jefferson was a very complex individual. Basically, he was like any other human being with flaws and positive attributes. Boles does a fine job making sure the reader understands the historical perspective of the United States’ third president.
Americans need to take a realistic look at the Founding Fathers, in particular, Thomas Jefferson. He has recently come under attack and has been maligned. But let’s not forget that honorary dinners and presidents have been named after him. And for good reason, since he had many great accomplishments including writing the Declaration of Independence, America’s moral compass.
As an outspoken abolitionist he, more than any other Founding Father, spoke out against slavery. In the Declaration of Independence, he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: 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.”
“Nothing about Jefferson upsets modern readers more than his failure to emancipate his own slaves or work actively to end slavery completely,” Boles said. “Instead of explaining these failures, we should try to understand the constraints: legal, financial, personal, intellectual. We all know he owned slaves, which is impossible to reconcile with his beliefs about freedom and tolerance. However, it was the way the economy was organized in Virginia in his lifetime. That is why several of the early presidents were also slave owners. It is an undeniable black mark on an otherwise great life, but should not change the good he accomplished.”
The complexity of America’s third president can be seen with his desire to see slavery eliminated. Though he never found a means to end it, he made his distaste for it well known. Late in life, he bitterly concluded, “We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one side, and self-preservation on the other.” Readers can see that during Jefferson’s time, slavery was a necessary evil where plantation owners were dependent on this institution economically.
Yet, he did actively participate in legislation that would eventually lead to the abolishment of slavery. Jefferson was influential, in the 1780s, in having Virginia ban the importation of slaves. Also noteworthy is that by 1808 every state except South Carolina had imposed that ban. In his 1806 presidential annual message to Congress, Jefferson denounced the international slave trade and requested that Congress make it a federal crime, stating that a law was needed to “withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights … which the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe.” Congress complied and the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was signed into law on March 2, 1807.
“We all know about the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase, which are enough to put any person at the top of any list of historic achievements,” Boles said. “But he also laid the groundwork for religious freedom, now embodied in the First Amendment, was primarily responsible for founding the University of Virginia and he helped unify the country after the contentious Adams presidency.”
Jefferson considers among his greatest accomplishments the desire to have religious freedom. He had a profound dislike for government-backed religion, but also believed in the free exercise of faith, and that religion was a personal choice that should be free from governmental interference. When Virginia decided to reform its laws to reflect America’s newly declared independence, he introduced the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1779, which declared that the state government could not tell people what to believe and it made it illegal for the state to tax citizens to support religion.
Although today Hamilton gets many accolades, Jefferson was the Founding Father who believed in limiting federal power and the importance of state’s rights, with the need to defer to the wisdom of the common person. Jefferson’s political philosophy was based on faith in the common people, calling it a natural aristocracy centering on people’s virtues and talents and not on their wealth and birth.
“Jefferson is considered the champion of the ‘little man,’” Boles said. “If you believe in maximizing democracy, elections and anti-monarchial politics Jefferson should be your hero.”
Besides these accomplishments, it is noteworthy to understand that Jefferson was a gifted architect, a founder of the University of Virginia who was deeply committed to public education far before it became popular, an active naturalist, designed a more effective plow and foresaw the need to vaccinate his family and slaves against smallpox at a time when this was far from popular. Beyond that, at the end of his first term as president, he had lowered taxes, reduced the size of the government’s workforce and greatly paid down the federal debt.
People should not forget that Jefferson lived in an era that reflected a different culture and different morals. Today, there seems to be a tendency to put 21st Century values into different eras instead of trying to understand he was a creature of the times. Jefferson should always be remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence, which gave Americans the language and ideals of liberty and freedom. After reading this book, maybe people will once again realize that he was one of the greatest Americans with an astounding resume.