Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 5

Author: Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson as a Citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia.1

This is not a controversial occasion. The political philosophy of Mr. Jefferson will take care of itself. Its power, and majesty, and simplicity find confirmation in Parton’s statement that, "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson is right." [Applause] So from the extensive field in which Jefferson wrought, far and beyond the confines of his own State, for the good and glory of America and the world, the limitation of my toast requires that I should discuss, for a few moments, Mr. Jefferson as "A Citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia."

Mr. Jefferson was born and died upon his paternal estate in Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, had moved to Albemarle, then Goochland county, when it was a thinly settled community. The father was a successful farmer and surveyor, and possessed that sturdy self-reliance which has so characterized the American people. We have seen this spirit grow,—if Senator Hoar2 will pardon me—from a period thirteen years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, when on the Island of Jamestown, the first permanent English-speaking settlement in America was established, and thence in conjunction with a like spirit in the men of Massachusetts, it has made its victorious march across the continent. And yet from his early environment, one could not expect Jefferson to be otherwise than provincial. His opportunities for education were limited, and consisted of a little home tutoring until he came in touch with a remarkable schoolmaster in the person of Mr. Maury, under whose teachings the young Virginian first inhaled the sweet scent of the classics.

We next find him at Williamsburg, where his life was profoundly impressed by a notable man, Doctor Small, a Scotchman, and a professor in old William and Mary College, for a great contribution to whose rehabilitation I take occasion to make grateful acknowledgment to the illustrious Senator from Massachusetts. [Applause.] On his way to this college Jefferson met a very extraordinary character; a man who loved his gun, his hunting-shirt, and the conversation of his neighbors around their firesides, and under the trees of their yards and forests. A short while after this meeting, Jefferson, a tall, gaunt., youth, was pushing his way into the House of Burgesses and listening to this same man, "that forest-born Demosthenes," whose voice vibrated with revolution; and one cannot overestimate the influence of Henry’s oration as it surged upon the intense nature of the adolescent patriot.

In Williamsburg, Jefferson met the staid and conservative element—the Tories, if you please—of the Colony; but he moved steadily on with the most altruistic spirit ever possessed by an American statesman.. After two years of academic training at William and Mary, he devoted five years to the study of the law, mainly under the tutelage of George Wythe, the first chancellor of Virginia, and the first judge who ever declared an act of the Legislature null and void, because contrary to the Constitution; and as a chancellor easily ranking with Kent.

As a citizen of Virginia, Jefferson’s first office was that of justice of the peace (if we except his vestryman’s oath and service), a tribunal admirably adapted for education in justice and its concrete administration. But Jefferson’s interest in the Commonwealth was not confined to official service. His broad and masterful mind was concerned with the material growth and interests of the State. For example, he constructed a canal in the little river which runs at the foot of the great hill upon which he afterwards built his home, in order to reach the James River and thereby the sea. He studied agriculture, forestry, education, art and science. He could tie an artery or set a fractured leg, He was alike at home with the music of his violin and the "music of the spheres." Indeed, his mental activities and acquirements were a marvel.

We next find him in the House of Burgesses. Well has it been said to-night, that the mother Commonwealth could hardly claim him, for his great doctrines have extended over the world. Here he was in advance of patrick Henry, not only in contending against taxation without representation, but in asserting the right of expatriation and the freedom and independence of Virginia.

In this body with easy self-command, with no self-assertion, for modesty was one of his cardinal virtues, arduous and shirking no duty, and calm in the face of every peril, he soon possessed the full confidence of his colleagues. It is sometimes asserted that Jefferson was not a man of courage, but in a general convention of the people of Virginia, a convention call in response to resolutions which he originated for a conference of the people of the colonies to gain information and take counsel in connection with British oppressions, he produced a remarkable paper, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America;" and while conservative men of the convention declined to accept it as a pronouncement of the colonial policy, yet the paper found large circulation in England, and, with some slight interpolations by Edmund Burke, became a great document on the rights of the American people. So far in advance of his compatriots were the views of this paper, that Jefferson’s name soon found its way into a bill of attainder of the British Parliament, which happily, however, was subsequently suppressed.

Jefferson’s name was now known over the colonies, and when he took his seat in the Congress at Philadelphia, it was quite the common thought that he should write the Declaration of Independence, which, in spirit and in letter, was his creation. If one doubts this let him read his "Summary Rights of British America," and the form and substance of the great declaration which was so soon to come from his hands, will at once be recognized.

Jefferson’s ardent attachment to his State is exhibited upon his return from Congress by his appearance in the House of Delegates in Virginia, where he offers his bill for the abolition of estates tail, that moribund relic of juridical legerdemain so deterrent to freedom and progress. He next comes forward with a bill abolishing primogeniture, thus exhibiting his firm belief in the equality of man and man’s opportunity, and his conviction that merit in the evolution of all things would finally survive and win. Then come his bills for freedom of the press, for freedom of religion, and for freedom of education. These are the cardinal principles of jefferson’s governmental polity, for his whole creed may be termed free politics, free press, free education, and free religion. He opposed all despotism, political, academic, or ecclesiastical. This fundamental creed, together with the purchase of Louisiana, was the structural force which gave identity to the American people.

Mr. Jefferson now became Governor of the State. He was not a soldier, nor did he claim to be one. The first year of his administration was successful, but the second was filled with embarrassment. The seat of war had been transferred from Massachusetts to Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and Virginia was threatened from every quarter. Her seacoast was open, an inviting avenue of attack. Her western boundary was threatened by Indian invasion. Jefferson’s hands were full. He had to guard the prisoners of war taken by George Rogers Clarke after his almost incomparable march and capture of Vincennes. And he must support General Gates, who had gone to meet Cornwallis in North Carolina, who Jefferson believed should be headed off in that State, as he also believed that the resource of Virginia, her men and arms, should be sent thither. But Virginia had no money, and her men were without arms. And because efforts in this direction proved unavailing, Cornwallis’s invasion of Virginia was made, and Jefferson incurred great public disapprobation. A resolution of inquiry was introduced in the House of Delegates with a view of procuring condemnation of his action, yet it is apparent that he was not only doing the wise and statesmanlike thing, but that what he did was with the expressed approval of America’s foremost man, George Washington. When his term of office expired he declined re-election, but was again elected to a seat in the House of Delegates where he courted an inquiry, and demanded an investigation of his conduct as Governor. No public man can afford to do other than to make immediate and insistent demand for public investigation of any act reflecting upon his official character. Jefferson met the situation by urging the inquiry, but no one would respond. He then arose and with great dignity, read a paper containing every charge and his minute detailed reply thereto. It was a complete vindication, and the Legislature at once voted a resolution of confidence. Indeed, the mover of the resolution, subsequently, upon the floor of the body, expressed his regret for his connection therewith, and acknowledged that he was somewhat swept away by the passions and misfortunes of war.

So Mr. Jefferson ended his life as a citizen of the Commonwealth, save his connection with three subjects of which I will now briefly speak. Before he left the Legislature he performed a great work as one of the revisers and codifiers of the laws of his State. It is sometimes said that Mr. Jefferson was not a lawyer. The opinion of an unlettered neighbor of his was once asked upon this subject, and he replied that he could not say, as Mr. Jefferson "was always on the right side of every case." Certain it is, that his papers as Secretary of State, exhibit a great knowledge of international law, and show him the equal of any of the great men who have filled this high position.

Mr. Jefferson rose rapidly at the bar, and his remuneration was good. He appeared in the nisi prius and appellate courts, and was engaged in some of the most important litigation of the State. He confronted in active practice, and with much success, Wythe, Pendleton, Randolph, Lee, and others; but it is of him as a law writer that I wish now mainly to speak. Mr. Jefferson was one of a committee of three to codify the laws, and to his lot fell the common law of England and her statutes down to George III. Jefferson performed his work in an extraordinary manner. He wrote the statute of descents and distributions within one page, and hardly eighteen sections, thus exhibiting the must luminous condensation found in the statutes of the world. Over one hundred years have passed and only one case of litigation has arisen for the purpose of construing this statute. The statute of frauds and perjury, drawn by a great English lawyer, is said to have cost one tithe of the entire income of Great Britain for a long period of years, yet Jefferson was so clear in thought and perspicuous in style that no room for litigation followed his labors. Well might the makers of statutes for the American Commonwealths adopt him as a model.

And may I not remind these friends of Jefferson of his conspicuous part in drafting the Virginia statute of 1778, prohibiting the importation of slaves into the Commonwealth by land or water, under the penalty of one thousand pounds and the freedom of the slave, thus, perhaps, placing Virginia as the second of the States to destroy this wicked business.

About this period of his career Jefferson made a remarkable contribution as a citizen of Virginia in the publication of his "Notes on Virginia." This book was originally written in response to a series of inquiries addressed to Jefferson by direction of the King of France. These notes do not constitute a mere handbook; it is really a book of official statistics. The work at once established him as an author and a scientist, and is at this day a marvel of information, elaborated by observations and descriptions copious and profound.

Before speaking of the culminating act of Mr. Jefferson’s civic life mention should be made of its domestic and religious side. Jefferson early entered domestic and religious side. Jefferson early entered into the marriage bond, which happy tie lasted only ten years. His domestic life was a model. For three agonizing months before the death of his wife, he was a continuous nurse, and when the cord of her life was snapped his grief was so great that his mind seemed well-nigh unbalanced. For one year after her death he seemed struck dumb with sorrow. During this sad period one letter came from his pen, that wonderful pen that lit the pages of ten to fifteen thousand letters a year. The position of Minister to France had been tendered him; which he declined, however, on account of the delicate state of his wife’s health. After her death he accepted a second tender and repaired to Paris, taking with him his oldest daughter, then about eleven years of age. The devotion, delicacy, and exacting care at once of a father and mother marked him, perhaps, as it had never before marked a father in America of the two daughters left of this marriage, no detail of education escaped Mr. Jefferson. Their studies, their music, art, deportment, manners, and morals were assiduously and profoundly studied by him. His affection for them was romantic, and these children, as well as their grand-children, bear unbroken testimony of reverence and love for him, and unite in saying that never an unkind or angry word was spoken by him to them. Indeed, I challenge all literature to exhibit a purer affection than Jefferson entertained for his children, and all romance to show a more faithful love, amidst distractions and temptations, than that shown by him to his wife through life and to her memory after death.

Jefferson’s religious views have been much misunderstood. He has been misrepresented as an infidel. He was a profound believer in God, and his letters evince the highest ethical and religious standard. His affiliations were with the Episcopal Church, in which he served as a vestryman from his majority to his death; but it would probably be more accurate to class him as a Unitarian. Certainly he expressed the hope, in a letter to John Adams, for the day when every young man in America would be a Unitarian. He was a great student of the Bible, and abhorred orthodox theology. He would often say that if there had been no commentator, there would be no infidel, and that theologians had built a scaffolding around Christ that had hid Him from the world. He was accustomed to say that his life, and not his doctrine was his religion, exemplifying, perhaps, after all that it is not so much what one professes as what one does and is.

The achievements of Jefferson as Minister to France, as Secretary of State, as Vice-President, and twice President of the United States, are beyond the scope of my toast. In these fields of action he easily maintained his ascendancy as a statesman and a patriot; but he gladly laid down the irksome duties of public servant, which he would often say brought him "envy and enmity," and took up the great task of education for the people of his Commonwealth. He projected a system of public education which will, no doubt, meet the approval of the master educators of the world. The primary school, then the academies or colleges, then a university, and then a library. But his efforts were confined mainly to the idea which had been the inspiration of his earlier years, that is, the foundation of a University, which he finally established at the foot of Monticello hill. This great school was the darling of his old age. It is remarkable as a structure and as an intellectual and moral force. The architecture is from the brain and the hand of Jefferson. Tuscan, Roman, and modern designs are here woven into beautiful combinations. The architecture alone affords an intellectual stimulus, and one can hardly stand upon the classic walks of the University without breathing an educational aroma.

Mr. Jefferson would daily repair to this building. The nails which were driven into it were made by his own slaves, the sound of whose hammers would ring in his ears upon his porch at Monticello. With spy-glass in hand he would sit for hours watching the structure as it progressed. But what the University was to stand for as an educational force was his chief thought. Dr. Page has stated his broad and original views. Geneva and Edinburgh he often called the "eyes of Europe," and he expressed the wish to secure the entire faculty of one of these great schools. Though he did not succeed in this, he brought a large number of foreign scholars to fill the chairs at the University. Jefferson became its rector, and his two great friends and administrators of his political philosophy, Madison and Monroe, were of the Board of Visitors. These three men gathered at the University on the day of its dedication, and Mr. Jefferson’s heart seemed satisfied. One can easily imagine his exhilaration of spirit as the Pantheon dome rose before his eye, and as he saw the students pass in and out. He watched the University to his dying day. He saw the taper of learning which he lit grow in volume, and within its rays he saw, as if penciled with letters of a finer light, a motto often quoted and written by him, "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." [Great applause.]

1 An Address delivered by Hon. Andrew J. Montague, Governor of Virginia, at a dinner given April 13, 1902, at Washington, D.C. by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, in celebration of the one hundred and fifty-ninth birthday of the author of the Declaration of Independence.

2 United States Senator George F. Hoar, who was present and also delivered a speech on Jefferson.


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Chicago: Thomas Jefferson, "Jefferson as a Citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia.," Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 5 in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 5 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.I-XIII Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XJ99GBP1G2I2MN5.

MLA: Jefferson, Thomas. "Jefferson as a Citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia." Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 5, in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 5 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.I-XIII, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XJ99GBP1G2I2MN5.

Harvard: Jefferson, T, 'Jefferson as a Citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia.' in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 5. cited in , Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 5 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.I-XIII. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XJ99GBP1G2I2MN5.