Thomas Jefferson was in his own time and remains today the touchstone for the achievements and failings of the American Enlightenment. Jefferson's remarkable range of interests and pursuits exemplified the spirit of the Enlightenment—that great, diverse intellectual movement that dominated Atlantic civilization from the late seventeenth century to the dawn of the nineteenth century. The sorting and synthesizing habits characteristic of Enlightenment thought formed the core of Jefferson's thinking. Further, Jefferson, like his friend and fellow Revolutionary Benjamin Franklin, helped to establish the American version of the Enlightenment, stressing practical applications of scientific discoveries and what Franklin called “political building,” the creation of instruments and institutions of government based on a distillation of human wisdom and experience. More than intellectual curiosity and predisposition spurred Jefferson's labors and those of his contemporaries, such as Franklin, James Madison, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Paine, in the cause of Enlightenment and reform. The challenges posed by the American Revolution—creating a new nation, defining its form of government and politics, and shaping the kind of nation it would be and the character and culture of the citizenry it would have—lent practical urgency to Jefferson's investigations of the natural, social, and political world. As Jefferson's life intertwined with the history of America and that of the Enlightenment in the Old and New Worlds, this essay traces those encounters and interactions.
Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia, on April 13, 1743, the elder son and the third of ten children of Peter Jefferson (1708–57) and Jane Randolph Jefferson (1720–76). Jefferson's father was a gentleman planter and pioneering surveyor who was cocreator of the most authoritative map of Virginia. Though he had little formal education himself, he was determined to secure the best possible education for his son. Thomas was taught by a series of private tutors. In 1760, three years after his father's sudden death, the young Jefferson persuaded his guardians to allow him to enroll at the College of William and Mary. There, he distinguished himself from the great body of his classmates by his talents and his devotion to academic work. As William and Mary was in the heart of the provincial capital, Williamsburg, the young Jefferson soon drew the attention of his favorite professor, William Small. Small introduced Jefferson to Enlightenment thought in general and the Scottish Common Sense school of philosophy in particular, and inspired in Jefferson an abiding fascination and love for the study of natural philosophy. Small also introduced Jefferson to the province's governor, Francis Fauquier, who soon invited Jefferson to join a convivial and learned group including himself, Professor Small, and the attorney, George Wythe.
Jefferson's admiration for Wythe inspired him to study the law under Wythe's mentorship. In supervising Jefferson's legal training, Wythe insisted that he not only master the law but see it as a learned profession and situate his legal knowledge within a wide and deep classical, historical, and philosophical education. Jefferson eagerly took Wythe's agenda as his own. In 1767, after five years of study reflecting his fascination with the intellectual side of the law, Jefferson qualified for the bar with ease. In his greatest case, a complex and lengthy wills dispute known as Bolling v. Bolling (1770–1), he faced his mentor as an opponent, and may have defeated Wythe on several key issues of the case. Although Jefferson gave up his active practice in 1773, his legal training continued to shape his work as a politician and a scientific and political thinker, and in later years he mentored aspiring lawyers according to the model of his own training under Wythe's tutelage.
Jefferson qualified for the bar before the publication of the Commentaries on English Law by Sir William Blackstone (1725–80), generally regarded as the epitome of an approach to law flavored by the Enlightenment, and the book that guided the education of such younger attorneys as Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall. Though he owned and studied Blackstone both in the treatise's original form and in the American version prepared by St George Tucker, Jefferson came to loathe Blackstone for cloaking in an excellent, vigorous, and appealing prose style what he deemed to be a deeply conservative and monarchist approach to the common law and English constitutional governance; in his later years Jefferson lost no opportunity to criticize Blackstone and to steer younger lawyers away from studying the Commentaries.
Jefferson's lifelong commitment to public service began with his election in 1768 to a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the lower house of the province's legislature. There he watched with anxiety the growing dispute between Great Britain and its North American colonies over the scope of British power to tax the colonists and legislate for them. Jefferson worked behind the scenes with other opponents of British colonial policy, but he rarely emerged in the public eye as a leader of the opposition movement. In 1774, he drafted a set of instructions for the Virginia delegation to the First Continental Congress. Though the Burgesses rejected his draft as too radical, his friends saw it into print as a pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which was reprinted in London and found approving readers throughout the colonies. Though the pamphlet appeared anonymously, Jefferson's authorship was an open secret. His eloquence and cogency won him acclaim, but his willingness to lecture King George III (1738–1820) on his duty to his American subjects provoked hostility in London.
In 1775 the House of Burgesses chose Jefferson as a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia. Jefferson served in that epochal body until the summer of 1776. Though he rarely took the floor, he won his colleagues’ respect by his ability as a draftsman to synthesize their clashing views. His ultimate challenge came when, in June 1776, Congress named him to a committee, with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman, to draft a Declaration of Independence, the last salvo in the decade-long war of words between the Americans and the mother country. The committee assigned the task to Jefferson; John Adams, a leading polemicist against British constitutional arguments, later cited three reasons—that Jefferson was a Virginian, and a delegate from the largest and most populous colony should be at the head of the business; that Jefferson was far more popular with the delegates than Adams was; and that Jefferson could write ten times better than Adams could. Drafting the Declaration took Jefferson about three weeks; later, he claimed that he had not turned to any other book or paper in preparing his draft, though historians note the influence of John Locke and other Whig constitutional and political thinkers, and recognize his borrowing from the preamble of the draft constitution for Virginia that he prepared at that time. Jefferson always preferred his draft to the final version, complaining that Congress had ruined his work by cutting key portions of his argument, including a passage blaming George III for the American institution of chattel slavery; by contrast, most historians maintain that Congress's edits improved the document's cogency and force.
The Declaration of Independence soon became the emblematic statement of the American case for political independence. It has three parts: (1) a preamble invoking Lockean social-contract theory to lay the intellectual groundwork for the Americans’ assertion of the right of revolution; (2) an indictment of George III for violating the unwritten English constitution as the Americans understood it, thus dissolving Americans’ obligations to remain loyal to him and justifying their bid for independence; and (3) a closing incorporating the congressional resolution declaring independence. Virtually every item in the indictment of George III has a precedent in Anglo-American constitutional history, and Jefferson's targeting of the king also is grounded in the subtleties of Anglo-American constitutional argument, in particular the “patriot king” arguments of the early eighteenth-century politician and polemicist Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751). As George III was supposed to conduct himself as an impartial patriot king, heeding and protecting the interests of all his subjects, he had the last clear chance to avoid the breach between the colonies and the mother country. His failure to do so, which betrayed his duty as “patriot king,” justified the colonists’ claim of independence. The Declaration looks not only backward, tying off the constitutional argument with Great Britain, but also forward, delineating the core principles of an independent America. Further, the eloquence of the Declaration inspired democratic revolutions for generations thereafter, with later revolutionaries drafting declarations based on Jefferson's model.
Recognizing that independence required legitimate government, Congress also authorized the thirteen colonies to frame new constitutions—adopting the resolution calling on the colonists to do so (drafted by John Adams) nearly two months before adopting the Declaration. For Jefferson, new-modeling constitutions and laws was integral to creating a good American society. Sweeping away such vestiges of feudalism as primogeniture (a system of inheritance naming the oldest son sole heir) and entail (a system of land ownership allowing the original owner to restrict transfer of his lands to heirs of his family) would, he thought, advance the causes of democracy and republican government and purge America of the feudal aspects of its English heritage. The resulting society would be a true republic committed to the ideals of the Revolution.
For these reasons, Jefferson was eager to return to Virginia, and when he returned, he focused his energies on legal reform. With his mentor George Wythe and Wythe's rival Edmund Pendleton, Jefferson launched a project to revise the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Their report, which they submitted to the Virginia legislature in 1779, included such path-breaking proposals as Jefferson's “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” his “Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments,” and his “Bill for Establishment of a System of Public Education.” This compilation represented Jefferson's vision of the good society, crystallizing his application of Enlightenment ideas and forming his political agenda for Virginia for the rest of his life. The legislature, however, tabled the report. In the 1780s, Jefferson's ally, James Madison, spearheaded efforts to enact some of the report's bills, including the 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.
Two of the three key measures of Jefferson's lawmaking had to do with the life of the mind and individual liberty; all three embodied his devotion to Enlightenment ideals. Arguing that any alliance between church and state endangered individual liberty and the health of the secular political realm, Jefferson insisted on strict separation of church and state, denying government any power to direct what citizens should believe or do in matters of religious belief and observance. Jefferson's proposed system of public education embodied his view that an informed citizenry was essential to the success of republican government. Finally, his measure for proportioning crimes and punishments reflected the profound influence on his thinking of Marquis Cesare di Beccaria's (1738–94) Treatise on Crimes and Punishments (1764), often hailed as the greatest Italian contribution to the Enlightenment. In particular, Jefferson valued Beccaria's commitment to humanizing law and his setting aside of torture and the indiscriminate use of the death penalty as inconsistent with a modern, just legal system.
In 1779, the Virginia legislature elected Jefferson governor; he was the candidate of younger reforming politicians sharing his devotion to the ideals of the transatlantic Enlightenment. Jefferson found the governorship, which he held for two one-year terms, to be a post with many responsibilities but little power. In the late spring of 1781, the closing weeks of his governorship witnessed a British invasion of Virginia; Jefferson supervised the evacuation of the legislature from its temporary home at Charlottesville (and the evacuation of his family as well) and narrowly escaped capture himself. Unfortunately for him, once his duties as he saw them were complete, he viewed himself as discharged from the governorship and rejoined his family at his Poplar Forest plantation without reporting to the relocated legislature and taking part in the transfer of power to his successor. His unexplained absence provoked widespread criticism, including allegations of cowardice. These attacks on his character spurred him to return to the legislature to defend his conduct; provoking the withdrawal of an attempted motion to censure him and its replacement with a resolution of thanks. Nonetheless, deeply wounded by the criticism he received, Jefferson retired from politics, renouncing any further part in public life.
One seemingly minor incident of his governorship has had lasting significance for his contributions to the Enlightenment. François Barbé-Marbois (1745–1837), a French diplomat, sent the governors of all thirteen states a questionnaire about each state's geography, history, resources, people, and laws. Jefferson shuffled the order of this list of queries and made it the skeleton of his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, which occupied him, on and off, for the next six years. Authorship helped to distract him from his sorrows after his wife's sudden death in 1782, and it gave him an intellectual focus when he returned to public life, first as a delegate to the Confederation Congress in 1784 and then as the second American minister to France (1784–9), succeeding Benjamin Franklin.
Published privately in Paris in 1785 and in a revised form in London in 1787, Notes on the State of Virginia embodied the spirit of the American Enlightenment. In its pages, Jefferson advocated some of his cherished ideas, such as the need for religious liberty and separation of church and state, the excellence and desirability of republican government, and his love for his native land, which he promoted as a welcoming refuge from the corruptions of the Old World and a model of what a good society could be. Jefferson mounted a powerful defense of America against the strictures of such European thinkers as the French naturalist Georges Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–88), who argued that nature and humanity degenerated in the New World. In particular, Jefferson defended Native American peoples against charges that they were lesser beings than Europeans, evidencing his lifelong interest in ethnography. At the same time, Notes presents Jefferson's agonized struggles with the issue of slavery. Jefferson, himself a slave owner, wrote eloquently about slavery's injustice but also offered a tortured case for slavery based on his claim that people of African descent were inferior to Europeans in intellect, morals, and physical beauty, and thus could not be trusted with liberty. Though such thinkers as Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and David Hume (1711–76) had voiced racist views of Africans, these were casual asides. By contrast, Jefferson expounded a defense of slavery based on what later generations would call “racial science.”
Since the 1990s, another aspect of Jefferson's life—his ownership of and sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings has led many scholars and ordinary Americans to adopt an even more ambivalent view of him. While Jefferson was in France, he began a sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings (1773–1835), a daughter of Betty Hemings, who had been both the slave and the mistress of Jefferson's father-in-law. (Thus, Sally was half-sister to Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson [1748–82].) The teenaged Sally Hemings came to France with Jefferson's younger daughter, Maria Jefferson (1778–1804), whom he had summoned to live with him and his older daughter, Martha (1772–1836). According to Sally Hemings's son Madison Hemings (1805–77), the two became lovers in France, and Sally extracted from Jefferson a promise that if she returned with him to Monticello, he would free all her children. The liaison continued for more than two decades. When Jefferson died, the only slaves that he freed were children of Sally Hemings and others connected with the Hemings family.
During Jefferson's presidency, James Thomson Callender (1758–1803), a muckraking journalist furious that Jefferson had not rewarded his support with a government job, revealed the Jefferson-Hemings liaison in the Richmond Enquirer. Jefferson's allies, family, and most biographers rejected the accusation as a political smear. In 1997, however, Professor Annette Gordon-Reed of New York Law School reexamined the evidence and the controversy's history, challenging assumptions that influenced previous scholars (such as “black people lie, white people tell the truth” and “slaves lie, slave owners tell the truth”). Her rigorous assessment convincingly showed that the Jefferson-Hemings liaison was more probable than not. In 1998 a DNA analysis of evidence from descendants of Eston Hemings (1808–56) and descendants of Jefferson's uncle Field Jefferson (1702–65) found a match indicating that a male member of Jefferson's family was the father of Eston Hemings. That finding, combined with Gordon-Reed's analysis of the historical evidence and the discovery that every time Sally Hemings gave birth Jefferson was in the vicinity nine months before the delivery, reversed the scholarly consensus from rejection to acceptance of the liaison between Jefferson and Hemings.
Jefferson's sexual relationship with an enslaved woman in his power has raised issues of consent and coercion in the minds of many students of his life. Further, his vigorous and impassioned rhetoric about the evils of slavery clashes with his life as a slaveholder and his ultimate failure to free the vast majority of his slaves. Still other questions are raised, as we have seen, by Jefferson's views, expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia, of the alleged inferiority of people of the African race. In all these ways, Jefferson's life and thought pose in miniature the conflicts about race woven through the whole span of American history and the contradictions between the realities of American life and the aspirations expressed in the values of the American Enlightenment.
During his service as American minister to France, Jefferson became a mentor to such French politicians as Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), and Honore Gabriel Marqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749–91). Indeed, in 1789 Jefferson was an informal advisor to the drafting of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man—a role that overstepped the bounds of proper activities of an American diplomat in France, but one that the French government chose to overlook. Jefferson also traveled widely in Europe; his travel diaries and letters reveal him to be an astute observer of society and politics. Recurring themes of these documents include his contrast of European corruption with American innocence and his disapproval of the legacy of decadence, corruption, and misery afflicting the great body of the people and traceable directly to the ancien régime. Jefferson's often-expressed approval of the French Revolution (1789–99)—though its excesses horrified many of his friends, such as John and Abigail Adams and his protégé William Short—was rooted in his perceptions of the horrifying injustices perpetuated by the ancien régime and his belief that revolutionary violence was not too high a price to pay to end those abuses.
In late 1789 Jefferson sought and won a leave of absence and returned to America; he expected to stay no longer than a few months, long enough for the marriage of his older daughter, Martha, to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. (1768–1828). Instead, he found waiting for him a letter from President George Washington offering him the post of secretary of state in the new government under the Constitution. Jefferson accepted the offer, perhaps because he misunderstood the office as having greater scope than it in fact did. When Jefferson took office in May 1790, he found that his primary responsibility was for foreign policy, with an array of lesser spheres of authority such as weights and measures and the definition of the new nation's currency. By far the greater day-to-day authority rested in the hands of his colleague, and ultimate rival, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
Jefferson was profoundly dismayed by his perceptions of the changes that had overtaken America in the six years since he had left for France. Still in the grip of his impressions of the decadent ancien régime of Europe, he was horrified by what he found in the new national capital of New York City. In his eyes, Americans were falling under the spell of corrupting doctrines from Great Britain privileging commerce and speculation, undermining his vision of an honest agrarian republic of yeoman farmers. These realizations caused Jefferson to become increasingly doctrinaire and rigid, and ultimately, after years of juggling his responsibility to the Washington administration with his opposition to some of its principal policies, to leave the government and then to move into opposition.
Alexander Hamilton's fiscal policies formed the first flashpoint of contention, followed by clashing views about America's relations with the revolutionary French Republic. Unlike Jefferson, the prophet of agrarian democracy, Hamilton argued for a national economic system in which agriculture, trade and commerce, and manufacturing would form the three pillars of a healthy and prosperous nation. Jefferson rejected Hamilton's views as a scheme to remake America in the image of Great Britain, with Hamilton the American analogue to the great Whig politician Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745). Hamilton also favored a vigorous national government, including a principal of broad and generous interpretation of the Constitution's grants of power to the federal government; Jefferson insisted on a narrow interpretation of constitutional grants of power, regarding Hamilton's approach as another threat to American liberty.
Divisions within the administration and without worsened as news of the French Revolution reached American shores. Convinced that the French were following a lead established by the American Revolution in rejecting monarchy and aristocracy in favor of creating a constitutional republic enshrining democratic values, Jefferson hailed the French Revolution as the first salvo of a worldwide democratic revolution that he hoped would reshape the world. For Jefferson, the French Revolution was to join the American Revolution as among the most important and valuable products of the Enlightenment. By contrast, Hamilton and John Adams and their supporters saw it as a threat to stability, religion, property, and good order—the props of a stable republic. If either man linked his political and constitutional vision to the Enlightenment, it was to see that movement as distilling the amassed wisdom of the Western world into a heritage that ought to be defended and vindicated against half-baked plans for reform and revolution. In the eyes of Hamilton and Adams the American Revolution differed from the French Revolution in two key ways. First, the American people were experienced and expert in governing themselves, whereas the French were not. Second, the Americans had revolted on behalf of the core principles of Anglo-American constitutionalism, whereas the French were revolting against the sound wisdom of the past.
In this latter controversy, Jefferson and Adams marked out two contrasting approaches, each embodying a different aspect of the Enlightenment. Adams, in a series of essays he wrote in 1790 and 1791 under the title Discourses on Davila, sought to explain why the French Revolution represented a betrayal of the best values of Western civilization, in the process arguing for a synthesizing and conserving approach to the Enlightenment project. Adams came to see himself as increasingly distinct from and opposed to the philosophes whose ideas, he believed, were naïve, unrealistic, and doomed to failure. By contrast, Jefferson saw himself as an American philosophe, a theorist seeking to advance the cause of reform; further, he saw the goals of the Revolution as so necessary and valuable that he was willing to accept whatever costs and casualties the Revolution might leave in its wake. Jefferson's commitment to this vision of the Revolution prompted him to endorse an American printer's plan to republish Thomas Paine's Rights of Man in Philadelphia; when the edition appeared, Jefferson found to his horror that the printer had used as a preface Jefferson's encouraging letter backing the edition, but without his permission. This episode marked the opening of a widening breach between Adams and Jefferson.
Jefferson's epic political and constitutional battles with Hamilton and polemical contests with Adams helped to define key polarities of American politics—strict versus broad interpretations of the Constitution; agrarianism versus commerce and trade and industry; decentralized versus centralized government; and support for the French cause versus neutrality. In response to what they saw as the growing threat to liberty, republican government, and the success of the American Revolution, Jefferson and Madison helped lay the groundwork for partisan politics under the Constitution, working with like-minded politicians in New York and Pennsylvania to create what historians later called the Republican Party. Nonetheless, in the summer and fall of 1792, Jefferson and Hamilton found themselves in common cause as they each persuaded President Washington to stand for a second term.
By 1793, the wear and tear of political battle had left Jefferson frustrated and exhausted—the more so as he kept losing to Hamilton on nearly all fronts. At the end of that year, Jefferson retired, despite repeated pleas by President Washington that he stay on. Jefferson did not return openly to politics until his unsuccessful candidacy for the presidency in the 1796 election—though after a year or so of true retirement he gradually resumed his interest in public affairs and privately voiced his increasing alarm at the policies of Washington's administration. Narrowly defeated in 1796, the first contested presidential election, by his old friend and political adversary, John Adams, who succeeded Washington as the nation's second president, Jefferson became the second vice president of the United States under the rules defined by the original Constitution.
The Adams presidency was plagued by strife over the French Revolution and the wars convulsing Europe. In response to the Quasi-War on the high seas with France (1798–1800), the Adams administration rammed through Congress laws restricting rights of aliens and defining federal power to punish criticism of the government. Jefferson and Madison covertly penned two sets of resolutions against these measures that the Kentucky (Jefferson) and Virginia (Madison) legislatures adopted. These resolutions argued that the federal laws were unconstitutional and that the states had varying means to resist unconstitutional federal laws; Jefferson's Kentucky resolutions proposed that a state could nullify such unconstitutional federal laws within its own borders, whereas Madison's Virginia resolutions argued that a state could interpose its authority between the federal government and its citizens as a precursor to asking all the states to consider the federal measure's constitutionality. These sets of resolutions helped to fuel generations of controversy over the nature of the American union, the workings of constitutional federalism, and the powers of the federal government over the states.
In 1800, Adams and Jefferson again faced each other in a presidential election. This time, however, the Republicans backing Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr (1756–1836) of New York, had decided political advantages over Adams and his running mate, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina (1746–1825). The Republican ticket outpolled the Federalist ticket, but the Republican nominees tied with seventy-three electoral votes each. The resulting electoral deadlock dragged on for months and threatened to shake the government to its foundations. Ultimately, only a few weeks before the inauguration, the logjam broke and, on March 4, 1801, Jefferson was sworn in as the nation's third president.
With the support of solid Republican majorities in Congress, President Jefferson set out to undo what he viewed as Federalist corruption of American principles. In his eloquent first inaugural address, he outlined his approach to American government: “a wise and frugal government” overseeing a union of states held together by ties of common interest and affection that would keep its distance from the wars convulsing Europe.
When Jefferson took office, access to the Mississippi River was a key political and diplomatic issue, having behind it two decades of struggle with France and Spain. Determined to secure that access and American claims to the trans-Mississippi West, Jefferson devised a combined scientific and military expedition, blending the goal of scientific research into the geography, flora, fauna, and native peoples of the region—a classic Enlightenment project—with the equally important goal of assertion of American power. At the same time, he sent American diplomats to Paris to find a means to acquire the vital port of New Orleans. By good fortune and deft diplomacy, these diplomats secured from Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and his foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838), the entire Louisiana Territory, including New Orleans, under a treaty by which the United States would pay France $15 million. Jefferson then set in motion his plans for the expedition, to be commanded by captains Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838). Jefferson's confidential instructions to Lewis set an ambitious research agenda and became a model for all later American expeditions of science and discovery, and a classic document of the American Enlightenment. Though it failed in its most important goal, the mapping of a Northwest Passage, the Lewis and Clark expedition ranks with the Louisiana Purchase among the greatest achievements of Jefferson's presidency and the greatest fruits of the American Enlightenment.
Jefferson's first term was notably successful, in great measure because he could control the development of events; his second was less so, as increasingly he had to react to events beyond his control in the international realm. Seeking to end European threats to American shipping growing out of the Napoleonic Wars, Jefferson imposed an embargo on both warring nations, hoping to use American economic power to coerce Britain and France to make peace. The policy backfired, forcing Jefferson to adopt ever-more draconian enforcement measures for the embargo and, in the process, creating the very model of a strong central government that he had so long opposed. It was with relief that he retired from the presidency in 1809.
Jefferson's life followed a pattern of ventures into public life followed by retreats into retirement at his home, Monticello. In the early 1770s, Jefferson had leveled a hilltop inherited from his father and began to build a house, deriving its design from the works of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–80), himself strongly influenced by classical models. Not only did Palladio please Jefferson's aesthetic sense, his work echoed Jefferson's belief that classical architecture fostered values associated with the Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic. For a decade, Jefferson worked to make Monticello a model of classical refinement. When in late 1789 he returned from France, he recast his plans for Monticello; from 1793 to the early 1820s he undertook a massive program of pulling down and building up—a plan interrupted by his service as vice president, continued in fits and starts during his presidency, and resumed after his retirement in 1809. In this period, Monticello acquired its present form as a house designed to appear from outside as a single story, with a low dome and porticos on both fronts. Monticello was also a stage set where Jefferson, the sage of Monticello, could welcome and entertain visitors from far and wide.
Monticello is only one of Jefferson's architectural achievements. Another example is the Virginia capitol at Richmond, which he modeled on the ancient Roman temple known as the Maison Carrée at Nîmes, France. A third example is Jefferson's country home, the octagonal Poplar Forest, completed in 1809, which was his refuge from the pressure of visitors at Monticello. The last, and greatest, was the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which he proudly dubbed “an academical village.” These and other buildings that Jefferson designed were pivotal in popularizing classical ideas and ideals of architecture in the United States.
In retirement, the former president became a figure of interest for the hundreds of travelers and fellow-citizens who hoped to meet him. He also dealt with a massive correspondence, “drudging at the writing-table” (as he told John Adams, with whom he resumed friendship in 1812). Jefferson used his letters to explore issues of democracy and republican government that had preoccupied him since the Revolution. He argued that laws and constitutions must change with changing times and circumstances and that each generation ought to be able to make its own laws and create its own government without being held hostage by the work of previous generations. Dearest to his heart was his idea that society and government should be divided into wards or hundreds, which would form counties, which would form states linked together in a union of shared affection, sentiments, and interests and needing only a weak government to superintend foreign relations. Jefferson was not a rigorous political theorist, however, and never produced a sustained work of political philosophy.
Jefferson devoted his last years to two great endeavors of education, both flavored by his devotion to the ideals of the Enlightenment. Building on the work of his friend, the chemist and theologian the Rev. Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), he prepared a short book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, removing from the Gospels what he deemed false and fraudulent material attributable to “priestcraft.” Jefferson apparently first intended this small book to be a satirical reproof to the Federalists who had denounced him for infidelity, but he treated it later as a project for his own use. Published for the first time in 1904 by the United States Congress, this book, a pioneering example of historical criticism of the Bible, has acquired the (mistaken) title The Jefferson Bible.
Closest to Jefferson's heart, and in many ways his last great struggle, was his campaign to create a new university for Virginia, one not allied with any religious sect or denomination. It was the capstone of his long-cherished plan for a system of public education for Virginia, but he now realized that the university was the most that he could hope to create. At his urging, the Virginia legislature created a commission with himself as its chairman. He wrote the report of the Rockfish Gap Commission (so named for the hamlet where it met) and shepherded that proposal through the Virginia legislature. He then picked and hired the professors, defined the curriculum, laid out the campus, and designed all the buildings. When it opened in 1825, with Jefferson as its first rector, it was the culmination of much of his life's work.
Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, at the age of eighty-three. A few hours after he died, his friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, died at the age of ninety. The coincidence of these deaths seemed to their fellow citizens an event of almost biblical proportions, as if the almighty had called the two patriarchs to heaven together to honor their political labors.
In his epitaph, drafted in the last months of his life, Jefferson codified his legacy: “Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” This summation distilled his commitment to the revolution of ideas that reshaped the world in the late eighteenth century, which we associate with the Enlightenment.
See also: American Revolution; Colleges and Universities; Declaration of Independence; Presidents as Enlightenment Figures