Crafter of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, father of the University of Virginia, and author of the Declaration of Independence: these three acts are how Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered. He had them etched on his gravestone in front of his Monticello home in Charlottesville, Virginia, noticeably leaving off the fact that he also served as president of the United States. Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 and would have turned 271 this week.
One of the greatest and most recognizable Americans, the “Sage of Monticello” left an impressive mark on world history. Mr. Jefferson, as he is still known at his beloved University of Virginia, has become nearly synonymous with his ideas regarding liberty, limited government, and individual rights. His voluminous writings provide a wellspring of beautifully-written quotes that bring inspiration to every generation with rediscovery.
This week, while American Christians celebrate Palm Sunday and Good Friday, is a good time to remember Jefferson’s firm belief in religious liberty.
Jefferson spent a lifetime reading and learning from the great minds and philosophers of antiquity, but considered the teachings of Jesus Christ, whom he once called the “first of human sages,” to be amongst the most important. According to one of Jefferson’s greatest modern biographers, Dumas Malone, Jefferson came to this view after concluding that the “heathen” moralists of antiquity were “insufficient”; he believed that the teachings of Jesus were critical to a more complete conception of morality.
Jefferson said of Jesus to Dr. Joseph Priestly in 1803 that, “his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has ever been taught, and consequently more perfect than any of the antient philosophers.”
However, it is clear that Jefferson most strongly believed in free inquiry and that the United States would be a stronger nation with a free competition of ideas, including religious ones. Jefferson envisioned an America whose citizens would come to their own conclusions about what religious views to accept and in which the very best ones would prevail.
A clear heir to the Enlightenment, Jefferson believed that a strong, classically liberal education–with an emphasis on history–was critical for the citizens of a free republic. Education was critical because it would give Americans the knowledge to understand violations of their liberty. Founding a world-class university in his home state of Virginia was a big part of this vision for the future United States, but teaching young Americans at a lower level was also critical. The modern school choice movement can draw inspiration from his goal to diffuse knowledge among people of every economic level, so that “youths of genius from among the classes of the poor” could have a chance to lift themselves up and contribute to society. He wrote that the people must be the “guardians of their own liberty,” which would be difficult for an uneducated people.
Jefferson is most well-known for his role in the American Revolution, when he became one of the lead voices in the call for separation from England.
As a strong believer in natural law and an admirer of the great political philosopher John Locke, Jefferson based American opposition to the British government on a deep belief in self-government and natural rights. He explained in his famous Summary View of the Rights of British America, published in 1774, how the government under King George III had violated the rights of its citizens by passing arbitrary and tyrannical laws without colonial consent–the Stamp Act, the Tea Act, the Coercive Act, and others. He said that while a government could through force trample on individual liberties, it did not have a right to do so:
These are our grievances which we have thus laid before his Majesty with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature and not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate… The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them.
For these writings Jefferson was labeled a radical by the British government. His name was put on a list of “proscriptions” that targeted revolutionary leaders, alongside those of other patriots like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams.
As the Second Continental Congress slowly came to the conclusion that the colonies would have to unite and separate from England, a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson was chosen to chair a committee to craft a declaration of independence. Though Jefferson’s draft was edited by Benjamin Franklin and others on the committee, the final Declaration of Independence was mostly the product his own pen. Nevertheless, the young but brilliant statesman said that his work was only “an expression of the American mind.”
This statement of principles would be Jefferson’s greatest accomplishment. It overshadowed his great, but flawed presidency and continues to inspire Americans hundreds of years after his death. The values that imbue the document are the timeless principles that have become an integral part of the American creed, a necessary component of what may be called “American exceptionalism.” Though Jefferson believed the principles of the Declaration applied to all men in all places, never has a country been expressly founded on them or come so close to adhering to its ideals as the United States:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…
The Declaration, often called the cornerstone of the Constitution, has met more than a few challenges since Jefferson penned it. Americans were fortunate to have such an articulate champion of their cause at such a critical time. It was the principles of the Declaration that allowed the newly-formed United States to survive in a sea of 18th century monarchies and thrive while surrounded by authoritarian governments in the 20th century.
Today, as the government expands beyond its proper limits and society embraces collective, positive rights over individual rights it is a good time to go back and reflect on the life and philosophy of Thomas Jefferson if we are to have our own “new birth of freedom.”