Thomas Jefferson: Reactions and thoughts to the Constitution
Jefferson received a copy of the proposed Constitution in November 1787, while serving as Minister in France.
The Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, in his 1829 book "Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence" opens with these remarks about Jefferson:
"Thomas Jefferson was born on the second day of April, O. S. 1743, (April 13, 1743) at a place called Shadwell, in the county of Albermarle, and state of Virginia, a short distance from Monticello. His family were among the earliest emigrants from England. They sustained an honorable standing in the territory in which they resided, and lived in circumstances of considerable affluence. His father, Peter Jefferson, was much known in the province, as a gentleman of considerable scientific attainments, and more than ordinary firmness and integrity. [His mother was Jane Randolph Jefferson]. It was probably in consequence of these qualifications, that he was selected as one of the commissioners appointed to the delicate and responsible task of determining the division line between Virginia and North Carolina. On the decease of the father, the son inherited from him an extensive and valuable estate.
"Of the early incidents in the life of Thomas Jefferson, but little is known."
Jefferson made up for the lack of information about his childhood. Of all the founders, he was the most prolific writer, having penned an estimated 65,000 documents during his lifetime. Nearly every thought that entered Jefferson's adult brain was put on paper. Alexander Hamilton may have been intellectually superior but none of the founders could match Jefferson's clarity of thought, resourcefulness, historical research, and vision for the future. Like George Washington, his talents extended well beyond politics, into such areas as planting and farming, architecture, biology, scientific inquiry, geography, music, literature, and finance. He often corresponded with Benjamin Franklin expressing a keen interest in Franklin's inventions (stove, bifocals, harmonica) and electrical experiments. But Jefferson excelled in listening to others, conducting research, making up his mind, and acting on his conclusions.
On January 1, 1772, Thomas married widow Martha Wayles Skelton (1748-1782), and they had six children, but only two survived to adulthood; Martha Washington Jefferson (1772-1836) and Mary Jefferson (1778-1804). Politically correct historians and Christian scholars alike have classified him an atheist, making much to-do over Jefferson's never-declared religious affiliation, his failure to attend church and his efforts to embed the 'establishment' clause of the First Amendment into the Constitution, yet his writings are replete with references to God and Higher Authority. Also, when his wife Martha died from complications of childbirth in 1782, Jefferson was so distraught that he spent weeks behind closed doors mourning her loss and could be heard through the door offering prayers for her salvation.
While a youth he became a student in the college of William and Mary. Later he studied under the tutelage of fellow Founder George Wythe and was admitted to practice law in 1766. At age 25 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Major political offices held during his lifetime were:
- Member of Virginia House of Burgesses, 1769-74
- Member of Continental Congress, 1775-76
- Governor of Virginia, 1779-81
- Member of Continental Congress, 1783-85
- Minister to France, 1785-89
- Secretary of State, 1790-93 (under Washington)
- Vice President, 1797-1801 (under J. Adams)
- President, 1801-1809
Jefferson was a great President, arguably ranking among the top three or four. He pulled back from the Federalist policies of his predecessor John Adams; bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803 for $15 million from Napoleon Bonaparte of France nearly doubling the size of the United States; commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition by letter June 20, 1803, to Captain Meriwether Lewis; settled dozens of disputes with native American nations; and kept the United States out of the Napoleonic wars in Europe. At home and abroad his popularity soared the longer he stayed in office but he refused to seek a third term because, like George Washington, he believed that no one should serve more than two terms.
Jefferson's lifetime accomplishments are more remarkable when it is realized that he had two serious handicaps: He was extremely shy and he had a high-pitched, low voice with a serious stammer. He very much admired public orators, especially men like Patrick Henry, and was motivated by great public debate. In Jefferson's biography Goodrich quotes from Henry's speech before the Virginia assembly:
"Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third ('treason!' cried the speaker; 'treason! treason!' echoed the house;) may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it."
Young Jefferson had stood in the doorway of the capitol between the House chamber and the lobby when Henry delivered the now famous speech against the Stamp Act and was inspired by both words and style. Perhaps those words moved him toward national politics.
But today, Jefferson could not get elected dog catcher. The public no longer thinks in terms of achievement and purpose; only rhetoric, and Jefferson was no speaker. Few today pay attention to deeds: words are currency. In 1800 the press was an active participant in the process, delving deeply into the issues and reporting pros and cons depending upon their own intense agendas. Today's hypocritical press is a hollow shell with nothing more in mind than sleazy profits, political correctness, and a socialistic society for all others. The modern press has anointed themselves the conscious for the world, seriously believing that only they have the answers for goodness, virtue, righteousness, salvation, appropriate behavior, and correctness.
Jefferson had no such illusions. He was firmly grounded in the belief that the new nation must reach collective decisions for the future but he strongly believed that each individual must be free to reach their own conclusions. Therefore, when a copy of the newly drafted Constitution reached him in France he was dismayed by what he read. In his own words he described his reaction:
"As not a member of the Convention however, nor probably a single citizen of the Union, had approved it in all it's parts, so I too found articles which I thought objectionable. The absence of express declarations ensuring freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of the person under the uninterrupted protection of the Habeas Corpus, & trial by jury in civil as well as in criminal cases excited my jealousy; and the re-eligibility of the President for life, I quite disapproved. I expressed freely in letters to my friends, and most particularly to Mr. Madison & General Washington, my approbations and objections. How the good should be secured, and the ill brought to rights was the difficulty. To refer it back to a new Convention might endanger the loss of the whole. My first idea was that the 9 states first acting should accept it unconditionally, and thus secure what in it was good, and that the 4 last should accept on the previous condition that certain amendments should be agreed to, but a better course was devised of accepting the whole and trusting that the good sense & honest intentions of our citizens would make the alterations which should be deemed necessary..."
Those are not the words of a man who believed that the document when enacted should become a sacred cow, not to be tampered with. He began at once to collaborate with fellow Virginian James Madison to construct those changes which became the Bill of Rights but even that effort failed to include one of his strongest objections; term limits on the President. That provision had to wait until 1947, more than 165 years.
Jefferson in Europe
When Jefferson arrived in Europe in 1785 he did not go directly to France. He traveled extensively studying the people and cultures before delivering his credentials from the new nation to the authorities in Paris. Immediately he began investigating all aspects of the French culture; medicine, science, government, agriculture, business, finance, social protocols, education, and more. By 1787 he was firmly established, and highly regarded with the most prominent leaders of Europe.
John Adams, who had served as Minister to England in 1785, arrived with a mission to secure financing to run the U.S. government and called on Jefferson for assistance. Jefferson performed the financial analysis and together they traveled to the Hague and borrowed the correct sums to run the American government through 1791 with the potential for extensions beyond that.
By 1788 France was in turmoil from the early unrest which led to the French Revolution. Jefferson watched with great interest as French leaders wrestled with questions of a new constitution, new government, kings and queens. He was in France in 1789 when mobs stormed the Bastille and when King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were beheaded. Jefferson was asked to help form a new government and constitution but adroitly explained that he was there representing the U.S. government and that it would be inappropriate for him to participate or demonstrate support for either side.
He left France for a visit to America in late 1789 and arrived in Norfolk on November 23. From Norfolk he followed his usual custom of exploiting his travel for study, observation, and visitation. In his 1821 Autobiography he describes his arrival in part:
". . .to Eppington in Chesterfield, the residence of my friend and connection, Mr. Eppes, and, while there, I received a letter from the President, Genl. Washington, by express, covering an appointment to be Secretary of State. I received it with real regret. My wish had been to return to Paris, where I had left my household establishment, as if there myself, and to see the end of the Revolution, which, I then thought would be certainly and happily closed in less than a year. [It lasted until 1799]. I then meant to return home, to withdraw from Political life, into which I had been impressed by the circumstances of the times, to sink into the bosom of my family and friends, and devote myself to studies more congenial to my mind. In my answer of Dec. 15. I expressed these dispositions candidly to the President, and my preference of a return to Paris; but assured him that if it was believed I could be more useful in the administration of the government, I would sacrifice my own inclinations without hesitation, and repair to that destination; this I left to his decision. I arrived at Monticello on the 23d. of Dec. where I received a second letter from the President, expressing his continued wish that I should take my station there, but leaving me still at liberty to continue in my former office, if I could not reconcile myself to that now proposed. This silenced my reluctance, and I accepted the new appointment."
And so he embarked on a new round of government service, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and eight years as President.
Earlier in his life he had accepted the challenge of rewriting the laws for the Commonwealth of Virginia and he wrote the Virginia Constitution after independence was secured. Both the new state laws and the Virginia Constitution were used as models by most of the other states.
He personally designed and managed the construction of Monticello. He founded the University of Virginia and designed the buildings and campus. Jefferson is the first person to have correctly identified the huge earthen mounds found throughout the Mississippi valley as man-made, possibly religious or ceremonial structures, built by ancient inhabitants. Through all of his other endeavors, he maintain his plantation at Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia.
If Jefferson should reappear today he would be appalled at the inane madness practiced by politicians who are consumed by press accounts of their actions or inactions. He would be even more astonished to hear politicians read press accounts into the congressional record as though the accounts are factual. Jefferson would quietly begin to write proposed amendments to the Constitution to provoke public but orderly debate to resolve all the major questions before the nation. He would believe it proper to force special debates (to approve or disapprove amendments) in the congress and in each of the state legislatures to resolve abortion issues, hate crimes (resolve whether one life is more valuable than another), same sex marriage, police conduct during arrest, financing of national elections, power of federal courts, power of congress to use the Commerce Clause to stick its nose into everyone's daily life, prayer in schools (he would strongly oppose, but he would support public debate), and the federal role in education (it is not mentioned in the Constitution in ANY form).
Jefferson would be most appalled over the power of federal courts and the Executive Branch. He strongly believed that power belonged with the people and should be exercised through their legislatures and congress. His logical and straight mind would never comprehend the practice of congress writing federal laws that allow bureaucrats to make new laws by publication in the Federal Register. He would see it for exactly what it is: an assignment of legislative power to the Executive Branch. He would not comprehend how federal courts are able to conjure new interpretations of the constitution to suit every public whim and how federal courts get away with dreaming up new laws with so little outcry from the public.
He would be dumbfounded that in 1913 the American people permitted ratification of Constitutional Amendment XVI that allows the federal government to levy direct income tax on individuals and Amendment XVII that eliminated the guardians of states rights by direct election of U.S. Senators.
He would be most shocked by the apathy of the American people who have allowed two political parties to take control of the election process. Jefferson believed that the Revolution had wrenched the power from "the few" and handed it to the people. He believed that the people would forever fight to the death to retain it.
If Jefferson returned today he probably would erect a monument to the Constitution with the inscription, "Lapsed, from public apathy."
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