Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1

Author: Thomas Jefferson

Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1

It was due to Jefferson that our fathers laid deep the foundation of the State in the moral law. They first set to mankind the great example, and exhibited the mighty spectacle—the sublimest spectacle in the universe—of a great and free people voluntarily governing itself by a law higher than its own desire.

The doctrine of the Declaration was by no means new or original. Much of it is to be found in the prose writings of Milton. More than a hundred years before Milton said: "No man who knows aught, can be so stupid as to deny that all men were naturally born free; born to command and not to obey. They agreed by common league to bind each other from mutual injury and jointly to defend themselves against any that gave disturbance or opposition to such agreement. Hence came cities, towns and commonwealths. This authority and power being originally and naturally in every one of them, and unitedly in them all, they communicated and derived to one or more than one. The first was called a king; the others magistrates. Not to be their Lords and Masters, but to be their deputies and commissioners. It follows that since the king or magistrate holds his authority of the people, for their good in the first place, and not his own, then may the people as oft as they shall judge it for the best either choose him or reject him, retain him or depose him, though no tyrant, merely by the liberty and right of free-born men to be governed as seems to them best.

"That governors are not lightly to be changed is true with respect to the people’s prudence, not to be the king’s right.

"Nature teaches us to bear with oppression so long as there is a necessity for so doing.

"What the people may lawfully do against a tyrant no man of clear judgment need go further to be guided than by the very principles of nature in man."

Jefferson’s Declaration ended by the declaration that, as our British brethren had been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity, we must acquiesce in the necessity that denounces our separation, and hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war; in peace, friends.

Milton thus ends his lofty affirmation:

"He therefore that keeps peace with me near or remote, of whatever nation, is to me as far as all civil and human offices an Englishman and a neighbor, but if an Englishman forgetting all laws, human, civil and religious, offend against life and liberty, to him offended and to the law in his behalf, he is not better than a Turk, a Saracen, a heathen."

If we are to trust abundant tradition, indeed if we are to take Jefferson’s evidence, found in the correspondence where he poured out his heart to his intimate friends, he was by no means free from the faults common to his time—common to humanity in all time. He was no hypocrite. He made no pretense to be a saint. He liked political power and popularity. He had a natural and honorable aspiration for the affection and good will of his countrymen. He probably would not have said of himself as Washington did, that he never said of a man what he would not say to him. But more than any other statesman down to his time—more than any other statesman I can think of—save Lincoln alone—he had a steadfast and abiding faith in justice, righteousness and liberty as the prevailing and abiding forces in the conduct of States, and that justice and righteousness were sure to prevail where any people bear rule in perfect liberty. He accepted this doctrine with an unhesitating confidence. He never failed to proclaim it on all occasions. For it he was ready to encounter unpopularity, poverty, if need be, imprisonment and exile.. Upon it, as on a cornerstone, he laid the foundation of the Republic.

He was sometimes charged with dissimulation in the conduct of ordinary politics. I think it will be found, on thorough investigation, that that notion took its rise from the sweet and kindly courtesy, and the affectionate nature which liked to be on good terms with every human being. But however that might be, he never failed to utter his opinion where freedom and justice were concerned whoever might be hurt or whoever might be angered. In the midst of slave-holding Virginia he was wont to speak of the cause of the abolition of slavery as" the sacred side "and to say that he looked to the young for its accomplishment.

So far as appears, he took little pride in anything else that he accomplished in his long life, great as were his other services to his country. He was Secretary of State. He was Governor of Virginia. He was Minister to France. He was Vice-President. He was President. He acquired Louisiana. Yet, when he gave direction for his own epitaph, ’he cared to have none of these things remembered. The simple inscription on his tomb at Monticello sums up in his language as no other orator can, the character and career of Thomas Jefferson.

"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."

Political freedom, religious freedom, and the education that makes these possible and safe were the ends for which he strove, the monuments by which he desired to be remembered. Neither power, nor honor, nor office, nor popularity, nor fame entered into the mighty heart or stirred that mighty soul.

I remember in my youth that a brilliant writer undertook with some success to caricature Daniel Webster, although it was a rather audacious attempt. He represents Mr. Webster as saying: "The common opinion in the eastern hemisphere is so and so—I differ from this eastern hemisphere." That was not so unreasonable a thing for Daniel Webster to say. But if Thomas Jefferson had said it it would occur to no man that it was either extravagant or presumptuous. Thomas Jefferson was one of those men who can differ from hemispheres, from generations, from administrations and from centuries with the perfect assurance that on any question of liberty and righteousness, if the opinion of Thomas Jefferson stand on one side and the opinion of mankind on the other, the world will, in the end come around to his way of thinking.

The American people, favored beyond any other in many things, is favored especially in its great anniversaries. There is no other nation that celebrates such things as we do. There is no other nation that has such things to celebrate. The landing of the Pilgrims; the Fourth of July; the Nineteenth of April; the Birthday of Washington; the Birthday of Lincoln; the Birthday of Jefferson, and, I hope hereafter, the rounding of the Northwest and the Louisiana Treaty—these are not only great events in the history of our own people, but they are great events in the history of liberty. I have named eight. Six of them are already established holidays, either by law, or in a habit of the people powerful as law. Three of those—one of them perhaps the foremost and most generally observed of all—belong not only to the history of the country and of universal liberty, but to the life of Thomas Jefferson.


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Chicago: Thomas Jefferson, "Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1," Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1 in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.IX-XIII Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YCRVEPXUPD333ZT.

MLA: Jefferson, Thomas. "Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1." Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1, in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.IX-XIII, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YCRVEPXUPD333ZT.

Harvard: Jefferson, T, 'Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1' in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1. cited in , Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.IX-XIII. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YCRVEPXUPD333ZT.