On July 9, 1776, as the “largest, most powerful force ever sent forth from Britain or any nation,” was gathering in New York waters, General George Washington ordered his soldiers to march onto the commons.1 At 6 p.m., a declaration approved by the Continental Congress five days earlier was read aloud. It began:

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.2

The troops listened in rapture, giving “their most hearty assent, the expressions and behavior both of officers and men testifying their warmest approbation of it.”3 Washington hoped this Declaration of Independence would “serve as a fresh incentive to every officer, and soldier, to act with Fidelity and Courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his Country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms.”4

These farmers and merchants turned militiamen had banded together for a redress of grievances concerning their rights as British subjects. But they were British subjects no more. Now they would fight, not for proper representation in parliament, but for recognition of their inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The principal author of these words, Thomas Jefferson, said they were “intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”5

Historian David McCullough details what then followed:

The formal readings concluded, a great mob of cheering, shouting soldiers and townspeople stormed down Broadway to Bowling Green, where, with ropes and bars, they pulled down the gilded lead statue of George III on his colossal horse. In their fury the crowd hacked off the sovereign’s head, severed the nose, clipped the laurels that wreathed the head, and mounted what remained of the head on a spike outside a tavern. Much of the lead from the rest of the statue would later be, as reported, melted down for bullets “to assimilate with the brains of our infatuated adversaries.”6

Though vastly outnumbered by a better trained and better equipped British military, Washington’s Continental Army now held more firmly than ever a weapon that would win the war: righteous, moral fervor. Such was the power of Thomas Jefferson’s words.

Jefferson is one of America’s most revered and most reviled founders. He is loved for authoring the Declaration of Independence, writing trenchantly against slavery, erecting a wall of separation between church and state, founding the University of Virginia, and more than doubling the size of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. He is loathed for violating principles he espoused (including some in the Declaration), owning slaves (more than six hundred in his lifetime), supporting the French Revolution, instituting an embargo on foreign trade, and appeasing Barbary pirates.

Whereas some say that Jefferson was a man of reason and “the pen of the revolution,” others say he was a walking contradiction who wrote powerful words but didn’t practice his alleged principles. Should Jefferson be placed on a pedestal? Should statues of the man be torn down, like those of George III? How should this founder be remembered?

‘Fix Reason Firmly in Her Seat’

Whatever his flaws and inconsistencies, Jefferson was a man of deep thought who spoke highly of reason and principle, and sought to anchor his ideas in reality. . . .

Endnotes

1. David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), loc. 2400.

2. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, edited by James P. McClure and J. Jefferson Looney (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008–2017), Main Series, vol. 1, 429.

3. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 5, 258 (capitalization altered).

4. Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 5, 246 (capitalization altered).

5. Thomas Jefferson, Writings (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984), 1501.

6. McCullough, 1776, loc. 2222–26.

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7. Jefferson, Writings, 1381–82.

8. Jefferson, Writings, 1444 (spelling modified).

9. J. Patrick Mullins, “The Anti-Jeffersonian Revolution,” The Intellectual Activist, July 2002, 10.

10. Jefferson, Writings, 896–97.

11. Jefferson, Writings, 815.

12. Jefferson, Writings, 815.

13. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Retirement Series, vol. 10, 223–24.

14. “Languages Jefferson Spoke or Read,” https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/languages-jefferson-spoke-or-read (accessed August 29, 2017).

15. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Retirement Series, vol. 7, 682.

16. “Number of Letters Jefferson Wrote,” https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/number-letters-jefferson-wrote (accessed August 27, 2017).

17. Visitors can see this in his calendar clock, his alcove bed, and the labor-saving pulley elevator built into the hearth of the entertaining room at Monticello.

18. Jefferson, Writings, 902.

19. Jefferson, Writings, 346–47.

20. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Retirement Series, vol. 6, 439.

21. Jefferson, Writings, 285.

22. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 36, 258.

23. These include the 1764 Sugar Act, 1765 Stamp Act, 1765 Quartering Act, 1766 Declaratory Act, 1767 Revenue Act, 1767 Indemnity Act, 1767 Commissioners of Customs Act, and the 1767 New York Restraining Act. These last four 1767 acts are commonly referred to collectively as the Townshend Acts.

24. James Webster, The Life of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817), 60.

25. This was Lord Botetourt from 1768 to 1770, succeeded by Lord Dunmore from 1771 to 1775.

26. Jefferson, Writings, 7.

27. Jefferson, Writings, 8–9.

28. Jefferson, Writings, 105.

29. Jefferson, Writings, 110.

30. “Printer and Binder,” http://www.history.org/almanack/life/trades/tradepri.cfm (accessed July 31, 2017).

31. Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (Williamsburg, VA: Clementia Rind, 1774), 3.

32. In George Washington A Life in Books (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 144, historian Kevin J. Hayes argues that Washington likely funded the publishing of A Summary View.

33. Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson vol. 1 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1865), 188.

34. Jefferson, Writings, 10. For a contrary opinion, see Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1948), vol. 1, 189–90.

35. “From John Adams to Timothy Pickering, 6 August 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-7674 (spelling modified). (This is an Early Access document from The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.) Adams wrote this account late in life, and Jefferson, referring to his notes from the convention, contested this claim. Nonetheless, these remarks ring true to the reasons for Jefferson’s selection.

36. “To John Adams from Benjamin Rush, 17 February 1812,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5758 (emphasis in the original). (This is an Early Access document from The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.)

37. Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800, (Chicago & London: The Univesrity of Chicago Press, 1996), 220.

38. Jefferson, Writings, 121.

39. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 1, 429.

40. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789, https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/2011_build/human_rights/french_dec_rightsofman.authcheckdam.pdf (accessed August 19, 2017).

41. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 14, 213.

42. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 25, 14.

43. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Retirement Series, vol. 8, 263.

44. Christopher Hibbert, The Days of the French Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), loc. 3274–79.

45. Hibbert, Days of the French Revolution, loc. 3280.

46. Hibbert, Days of the French Revolution, loc. 3291–96.

47. Hibbert, Days of the French Revolution, loc. 3318–20.

48. Hibbert, Days of the French Revolution, loc. 3332–35.

49. The Adams Papers Digital Edition, edited by Sara Martin (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008–2017), 304–5.

50. “William Short,” https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/william-short (accessed August 29, 2017).

51. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 24, 322. It is worth noting that Jefferson’s favorable opinion of King Louis XVI as “an honest and moderate man”—were it known by the revolutionaries—would have rendered Jefferson himself fit for the guillotine.

52. Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800, 220.

53. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Retirement Series, vol. 8, 262.

54. Noble E. Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 13.

55. Jefferson, Writings, 1344–46.

56. Jefferson, Writings, 5.

57. Jefferson, Writings, 115.

58. Jefferson, Writings, 22.

59. Jefferson, Writings, 44.

60. Jefferson, Writings, 1345–46. Some historians have noted that Jefferson freed only light-skinned, highly skilled tradesmen, concluding that he must have believed they would be able to assimilate into society. For instance, see Mullins, “The Anti-Jeffersonian Revolution,” 13.

61. The Haitian slave revolt (1791–1804) on the French island of Saint-Domingue reinforced Jefferson’s belief that slavery had caused such antipathy between races that they were incapable of living together. See Jefferson, Writings, 288, 1345.

62. Jefferson, Writings, 1434, 288, 44.

63. Jefferson, Writings, 1344–46.

64. Jefferson’s plan was his Plan for Government of the Western Territory, accessible at https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-06-02-0420-0001. It inspired the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, accessible at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/nworder.asp.

65. The U.S. Constitution had outlawed any changes on slavery for the nation’s first twenty years. Thus, the American the law didn’t take effect until 1808, but was nevertheless signed first.

66. Jefferson, Writings, 269–70.

67. Jefferson, Writings, 264–66.

68. Jefferson, Writings, 982.

69. Jefferson, Writings, 1202.

70. Jefferson, Writings, 1345.

71. Jefferson, Writings, 1202.

72. Henry Wiencek, “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson,” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-dark-side-of-thomas-jefferson-35976004/?all (accessed August 27, 2017).

73. See The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, edited by Robert F. Turner (Carolina Academic Press, 2001).

74. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 28, 59–60.

75. “Letter to Henry L. Pierce and others,” http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/pierce.htm (accessed July 31, 2017).

76. Jefferson, Writings, 48–49.

77. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 13, 442.

78. Jefferson, Writings, 71–72.

79. Jefferson, Writings, 72.

80. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 19, 278.

81. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 19, 277.

82. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 19, 277.

83. Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason, 165.

84. Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, (New York: Random House, 2012), 312–13.

85. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 30, 560.

86. Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason, 217.

87. For more details, see Doug Altner, “The Barbary Wars and Their Lesson for Combating Piracy Today,” The Objective Standard 4, no. 4 (Winter 2009), https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2009-winter/barbary-wars-piracy/.

88. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 7, 639.

89. Joseph Wheelan, Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801–1805 (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), 2; Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 34, 115.

90. Joseph Wheelan, Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801–1805 (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), 157.

91. “Richard Somers,” http://destroyerhistory.org/goldplater/ns_somers/ (accessed August 27, 2017).

92. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 37, 264–65.

93. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton Digital Edition, vol. 26, 82–85.

94. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 41, 170 (spelling modified).

95. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 41, 170.

96. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 41, 346–47.

97. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 41, 170.

98. “Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase,” http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/educate/educator-resources/lessons-plans/presidents-constitution/louisiana-purchase/ (accessed August 7, 2017).

99. Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason, 297.

100. William H. Cabell from Thomas Jefferson, June 29, 1807, http://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj1.038_0771_0771 (accessed August 19, 2017).

101. Ben Domenech, “Thomas Jefferson: The Original Isolationist,” The Federalist, September 23, 2013, http://thefederalist.com/2013/09/23/thomas-jefferson-the-original-isolationist/.

102. This phrase is used by David McCullough to describe typical habits of men contemporary with Washington and Jefferson. See McCullough, 1776, loc. 753.

103. Jefferson, Writings, 4.

104. Jefferson, Writings, 1149.

105. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Retirement Series, vol. 2, 259.

106. “Timeline of the Founding of the University of Virginia,” https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/timeline-founding-university-virginia (accessed August 7, 2017).

107. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, Main Series, vol. 31, 320 (spelling modified).

108. “To Thomas Jefferson from Wilson Cary Nicholas, 25 January 1819,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-0065 (spelling modified). (This is an Early Access document from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. It is not an authoritative final version.)

109. Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason, 338–41.

110. Jefferson, Writings, 1479–80.

111. Jefferson, Writings, 1149.

112. “From Thomas Jefferson to Augustus Elias Brevoort Woodward, 3 April 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-5105. (This is an Early Access document from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. It is not an authoritative final version.)

113. Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason, 349.

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