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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Paul Leicester Ford (1865–1902)

By Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

THE CONSIDERATION of Thomas Jefferson from the literary aspect involves a certain anomaly; for superficially he was not merely no maker of books, but took great pains that most of the productions of his pen should be only for the eye of his few intimates, or should, if issued to the public, appear without his name. His only important book, the ‘Notes on Virginia,’—which has been, of all works produced south of Mason and Dixon’s Line, the most frequently reprinted,—was written to oblige a single man, was then privately printed that a few friends might have copies, and was published only when it was no longer possible to prevent the appearance of a pirated edition. The Summary View of the Rights of British America, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill for Religious Freedom, the Territorial Ordinance of 1784, and the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, were all mere drafts of papers intended for the use of public bodies, necessarily appearing without his name; and so well was the secret of authorship kept that the origin of two of them became the subject of serious historical controversy. Almost the only important paper definitely put forth with his name was his inaugural address as President; which has been hailed as the platform of a new party, but which in fact was rather an expression of its highest culmination, and therefore by no means an influential factor afterwards.

Yet the fact remains that the writings of no single American have so powerfully influenced American thought and history. Jefferson was one of the most prolific of writers; and if not himself a direct molder of public thought through the press, he indirectly affected public sentiment to an unmeasurable degree. Hamilton must be refuted: he wrote to James Madison, roughing out the line of argument to be taken, and begged him to enter the lists. A States-Rights view of the Constitution was needed: he inspired John Taylor to write it. His views on religion ought to be made public: he outlined a book, sent it to Joseph Priestley, and succeeded in getting him to undertake the task. It was Jefferson’s often repeated assertion that he never wrote for the press; yet by means of his confidants, no man of his times approached him in the public expression of his ideas. He worked in fact through other men; and his twenty-five thousand letters, in contrast to his half-dozen State papers of moment, revealed the methods by which he influenced public opinion, and created that mass of doctrine, nowhere formulated, that is to-day known as “the Jeffersonian principles.”

The consensus of both public opinion and history has assigned to this man rank with Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln, as the four Americans who have reached the greatest eminence through public service. But while granting this position, a curious distinction is made, which deserves careful consideration. All men achieving political prominence are the object of attack, necessarily involving not merely criticism of their measures, but also of their character. Washington was accused of murder, treachery, corruption, hypocrisy, ingratitude, moral cowardice, and private immorality; Franklin was charged with theft, debauchery, intrigue, slander, and irreligion; while the manifold charges against Lincoln remain within the memory of many now living: and so there is nothing strange in the fact that Jefferson was accused of dishonesty, craftiness, slander, irreligion, immorality, cowardice, and incompetence. The contrast consists in the fact that while the failings of Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln have long since been forgotten, and their characters absolutely established in universal estimation, yet towards Jefferson there is still manifested by many a distinct partisan dislike; and as a natural corollary, by another class a distinct partisan affection. Our newspapers, our public orators, and even our histories, to this day give criticism or praise to him that rings so strongly as to suggest a conflict with the living, rather than judgment of the dead. No particular act of Jefferson excited any greater political opposition than did some advocated or enforced by Washington, Franklin, or Lincoln; and it is therefore necessary to seek some deeper reason for this difference than mere personality or policy. Without for a moment belittling the work of these others, the conclusion is forced that they worked for what was temporary, in the sense that when done it passed from the category of what is debatable to that which is decided; while what Jefferson worked for were issues of permanent importance,—in other words, that he was, and therefore still is, merely an expression of forces permanent in man; and to that fact is due the controversy which still centers about his name.

This is in effect to maintain that the political theories and usages originated or adopted by the great democrat have a far deeper and broader principle underlying them than is always recognized. In popular estimation, Jefferson stands as the founder of the Democratic party, and the developer of the theory of States-Rights; and on these foundations are based the so-called “Jeffersonian principles,” and the respect and acceptance, as well as the criticism and contravention, accorded to them. That this basis was deemed sufficient during his life, is natural; for judgment of a living man must always be partial and superficial. That this limited view should during that time acquire prestige and momentum enough to project it into history, is not strange; the more that the logical conclusions of certain theories advanced by him suited the policy of one of our political parties. The acceptance of this narrow view has enabled his antagonists and critics to charge him with hypocrisy, opportunism, and even lack of any political principles; and the contradictions and instability they have cited in his opinions and conduct have embarrassed even his most devoted adherents. If this view is still to be accepted, these criticisms must stand; and judged by them, the marvel of the Federalists and his later critics, that he should have been the chosen instrument of American democracy, is proper. The scholarly and recluse nature of his tastes and studies; the retiring and limited character of his intercourse with the world; the influence of his social equals; his dislike of party and personal antagonism; and his sensitiveness to abuse and criticism,—make his acceptance of that leadership as strange a problem as that the people should have chosen for their representative a man lacking nearly all of the personal qualities which are presumed to win popularity with the masses. And it is only explicable from the standpoint of his critics as the success of an ambitious and unprincipled self-seeking man, attained by astuteness and chicane so great as to deceive the people.

But if the people embody the total of human thought and experience, as our political theories maintain, there are better reasons than these for his elevation, and for the political influence his name has carried for over one hundred years; better reasons than the leadership of a party, or a fine-spun theory of the respective powers of the State and national governments. The explanation of these anomalies lies deeper than any mere matter of individuality, party success, or rigid political platform. Thus an understanding of what he endeavored to accomplish, explains or softens many of his apparent contradictions and questionable acts. The dominant principle of his creed was, that all powers belonged to the people; and that governments, constitutions, laws, precedents, and all other artificial clogs and “protections,” are entitled to respect and obedience only as they fulfill their limited function of aiding—not curtailing—the greatest freedom to the individual. For this reason he held that no power existed to bind the people or posterity, except in their own acts. For this reason he was a strict construer of the national Constitution where he believed it destructive of personal freedom; and he construed it liberally where it threatened to limit the development of the people. He was the defender of the State governments; for he regarded them as a necessary division for local self-government and as natural checks on the national power, and so a safeguard to the people. That he appealed to them in his Resolutions of 1798 was because he believed the people for once unable to act for their own interest; and the theories of that paper are a radical and short-lived contradiction of his true beliefs. Because he believed the national judiciary and the national bank to be opposed to the will of the people, he attacked them. Because he believed he was furthering the popular will, he interfered in the legislative department and changed office-holders. Because he wished the people free to think and act, he favored separation from England, abolition of religion, and the largest degree of local self-government. As already suggested, his methods and results were not always good, and his character and conduct had many serious flaws. Yet in some subtle way the people understood him, and forgave in him weaknesses and defects they have seldom condoned. And eventually this judgment will universally obtain, as the fact becomes clearer and clearer that neither national independence nor State sovereignty, with the national and party rancors that attach to them, were the controlling aim and attempt of his life; that no party or temporary advantage was the object of his endeavors, but that he fought for the ever-enduring privilege of personal freedom.

Recognition of the principles for which he fought does not, however, imply indorsement of his methods and instruments. Many of his failings can be traced to cowardice; the physical side of which was well known to his age, and the moral side of which is visible in nearly everything he did or wrote. Yet even with this allowance, it is difficult to reconcile such a faith as his in the people, with his constant panics over the smallest events. Indeed, it is hard to believe it possible that a man so instinct with the popular mood could shy wildly at the levees of Washington, and the birth-night balls, as evidences of a monarchical tendency; or conceive that his walking to his inauguration, and his reception of a foreign minister in soiled linen and “slippers down at the heel,” were serious political manœuvres. If he truly believed this “the strongest government on earth,” it seems little less than fatuous in him to declare that the scribbling of one abusive editor had “saved our Constitution,” and to refer the success of the Democratic party in 1800 to the influence of another. Still more of his defects can be accounted for by the influence of those with whom he labored: Demos being seldom scrupulous in its ways, and fighting without the feelings or code that go to make warfare a duel of equal conditions. His patronage of such hack libelers as Freneau, Bache, Duane, Paine, and Callender, to say nothing of the half-rebellious democratic societies made up chiefly of the mobs of the large cities and the “moonshiners” of the mountains, is well-nigh impossible to account for without a confession of the lack of certain moral qualities innate in most men, and of the noblesse oblige of his class.

Not less extraordinary is the freedom and sweepingness of his criticism of the financial plans of Hamilton,—certainly the ablest financier ever in charge of our national treasury,—when Jefferson himself was seldom able to add up a column of figures correctly, for over fifty years of his life was hopelessly insolvent, almost brought about the national mortification of the public arrest for debt of the President of the United States, was the recipient of several public subscriptions that he might live, and in his last years even urged the Legislature of Virginia to allow a lottery in his behalf. As he was blind morally in many respects, so too he seemed blind to the greatest truth of our governing principle,—the rights of the minority, as compared with those of the majority. “The will of the majority is the natural law of society,” he wrote; and except for the momentary attitude taken in the Resolutions of 1798, he never urged what is so obvious to any but partisans. On the contrary, his course in Virginia in the destruction of the old aristocracy, and his attack on the Supreme Court, show how absolutely he was lacking in the spirit of majority and minority compromise which is really the basis of republican government. It is true that in his inaugural address he said, “We are all Republicans: we are all Federalists;” but this only referred to the Federalists who were already coalescing with the Republicans, and towards the leaders of the opposing party he ever held an intolerant and unforgiving course.

A study of his life goes far to explain these facts. From his father, Peter Jefferson, an uneducated Indian-fighter, pioneer, and surveyor, he received an inheritance both of common-sense and of sympathy with the masses. From his mother, Jane Randolph, came a strain of the best gentry blood of Virginia; a line at once famous for its lawyers and statesmen, and shadowed by hereditary insanity. These dual heritages from his parents were both of vital influence in his career. Born on April 2d, 1743, at Shadwell, Virginia, on the foot-hills of the Blue Ridge, then one of the most western of settlements, the frontier life unquestionably developed the qualities he had received from his father; and bred in this cradle of democracy, he was ever after able to appreciate and to sympathize with the spirit. Nor was his mother’s influence less potent; for, carefully educated at William and Mary College, and with an entrée to the best society of the colony, he became the cultivated gentleman that he was. From this double or complex nature flowed curious results. During his whole life he was fighting the battle of the masses, yet at no period did he ever associate with them save in his own county, and then only as a great planter, or county squire; nor is there discernible in anything he did or wrote, the feeling of personal as opposed to theoretical liking for mankind. Humane, sympathetic, broad-minded, he always was in his views and actions; but in relations to his fellow-kind he seems to have had a distinct repugnance to association with hoi polloi. On the contrary, the chief happiness of his life was found in his intercourse with his social equals; and when his adoption of the people’s cause had produced social ostracism by the society of Philadelphia, so that old friends of his “crossed the street merely to avoid touching their hats to him,” and in his own words, “many declined visiting me with whom I had been on terms of the greatest friendship and intimacy,” he ever after, when alluding to the period, used expressions implying that he had endured the keenest suffering. With scarcely an exception, democracy the world over has fought its battles with self-made men as leaders; men near enough the soil not to feel, or at least able to resist, the pressure of higher social forces: but Jefferson was otherwise, and the suffering this alienation and discrimination caused him is over and over again shown by his reiterated expressions of hatred of the very politics to which he gave the larger part of his life.

Nor was it merely by heritage that Jefferson took rank with the “classes”; for intellectually as well, he belonged among them. From his youth he was a close and hard student: he stated himself that he studied over ten hours a day; and James Duane asserted in 1775 that Jefferson was “the greatest rubber-off of dust that he had met with; that he has learned French, Spanish, and wants to learn German.” He believed in the study of original sources; and in his desire to study these, even taught himself Anglo-Saxon that he might investigate the development of English law. Only when theorizing on the great principles controlling society does he seem to have taken distinct enjoyment in the political side of his career; and this distinction no doubt accounts for his great reputation as a theoretical statesman, and his almost absolute failure in every executive office he held. Not the least influence in his life was his intense interest in everything scientific. An eclipse, a new animal or plant, the meteorology or the longitude of a place, or any other scientific datum, was eagerly sought for. Mathematics was another youthful passion, and to this late in life he returned. In his early days he took great pleasure in music, fiction, and poetry; but with advancing years he lost this liking to such a degree that he himself said of the last, “So much has my relish for poetry deserted me that at present I cannot read even Virgil with pleasure.” In the words of a biographer, “His instincts were those of a liberal European nobleman, like the Duc de Liancourt; and he built himself at Monticello a château above contact with man.” Here the management of his farm was his constant delight, but chiefly on its experimental or scientific side, and it is to be noted that practically it never yielded him a profit; here he gathered an unusually fine library of standard books (for the time); and here, except for his few intimates, he shut out the world.

The result of these influences was that from his early manhood he became a thorough skeptic of tradition and precedent; and in his own words, he “never feared to follow truth and reason, to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way.” In fact, all through his life there was a certain affectation of original thinking; and a contemporary who knew him well declared that “it constituted a part of Mr. Jefferson’s pride to run before the times in which he lived.” This foible made him dreaded by the conservatives, and the Federalists were never tired of charging him with being a radical and a man of sublimated theories; but in the main his imagination was balanced by an almost equally strong logical quality of mind.

Almost alone of the Revolutionary leaders, Jefferson was born on the frontier. Among those conditions he passed the formative period of his life; and as representative of this region he made his first essay in politics in 1765, and naturally as an advocate and defender of the democratic mountaineers. In the Virginia Assembly, in which his earliest battles were fought, the strongest line of party division was between the aristocratic “planter” interest—great landed and slaveholding proprietors, with the prestige and inertia of favorable laws and offices—and the “settler” interest inhabiting the frontier, far from the law or protection of government, but strong in numbers, independence, and necessities; and in these conflicts he learned how absolutely selfish and grasping all class legislation is. Then came the Revolution; and Jefferson saw governments deriving their authority from laws innumerable, and their force from the strongest nation of Europe, utterly destroyed, with hardly a blow, merely through their non-recognition by the masses. With the Committees of Safety and the Congresses that succeeded, and in which he took a prominent part, he saw the experiment of “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” established and tested. Even more: he was the leader in Virginia from whom the great democratic movement received its greatest impulse; and chiefly by his measures were the State church swept away, and the laws of entail and primogeniture abolished,—reforms which, in his own words, inaugurated “a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy, and a foundation laid for a government truly republican.” Had he been in America between 1784 and 1788, he too might have become doubtful as to how far the masses could control themselves; for the reaction of the Revolutionary struggle was severe, and strained democratic institutions almost to anarchy. He would have seen, too, his bills for the establishment of a vast system of public schools and libraries but dead letters, and his act for religious freedom result in the closing of many churches. But in these years he was serving as our minister to France, and witnessing there another great struggle between the privileged and unprivileged. So he returned to America in 1789 true to the influences and lessons of his life, which had taught him to believe that only the people truly knew what the people needed; that those who could take care of themselves were wise and practical enough to help care for the nation; and that the only way of enforcing laws was that they should be made by those who were to obey them. In this country, then in a state of reaction from the anarchy of the last few years, he found his theories in disfavor with the conservative, and government slipping more and more from the control of the governed. Though he reluctantly accepted the appointment of Secretary of State under the new government, to oblige Washington, he disapproved very quickly the Federalist concept of national powers; and after vainly opposing the policy of the administration in which he had taken office, both openly and by stealth, he finally sought voluntary retirement as the greatest protest he could make. Even in this, however, his opposition was maintained; and when finally the Federalist party, misled by its leaders, revolted the nation by its actions, Jefferson was swept into power as the representative of the other extreme. Twice he was chosen President, and nearly every Legislature in the Union petitioned him to serve a third term; but he declined, and passed into retirement, from which he never was tempted, and in which he died on July 4th, 1826,—exactly fifty years after the adoption of his Declaration of Independence.