Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826)

Author:Merrill D. Peterson

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Thomas Jefferson, statesman, philosopher, architect, champion of freedom and enlightenment, was United States minister to France when the federal CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION met in 1787. Long an advocate of a strengthened confederation, he applauded the convention and anxiously awaited the result of its deliberations. On seeing the roster of delegates, he exclaimed to his diplomatic colleague and friend JOHN ADAMS, "It is really an assembly of demigods." Jefferson soon made the Constitution the polestar of his politics, aligning its principles with those of aspiring American democracy, with momentous consequences for the future of the republic.

Educated for the law in his native Virginia, tutored by GEORGE WYTHE, young Jefferson was a keen student of the English constitution. Like a good Whig, he traced the venerable rights and liberties of Englishmen back to Saxon foundations. The degeneration under George III turned on the system of minsterial influence to corrupt the Parliament. This upset the balance of king, lords, and Commons upon which the freedom and order of the constitution depended; and it threatened, Jefferson came to believe, tyranny for America. He was thus led in his first published work, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), to repudiate the political authority of the mother country over the colonies. When he penned the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE two years later, he placed the American claim not in the prescriptive guarantees of the English constitution but on the Lockean ground of the NATURAL RIGHTS of man. In recoil from the treacheries of an unwritten constitution, he concluded with the mass of American patriots that a CONSTITUTION should be written; in this and other ways he sought to secure the supremacy of FUNDAMENTAL LAW over statutory law, which was the great failure of the English constitution. Finally, Jefferson entered upon the search for a new system of political balance consonant with American principles and capable of breaking the classic cycle of liberty, corruption, and tyranny, thereby ensuring the permanence of free government.

Jefferson's constitutional theory first found expression in the making of the VIRGINIA CONSTITUTION OF 1776. In June, while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence for Congress, Jefferson also drafted a plan of government for Virginia and sent it to the revolutionary

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convention meeting in Williamsburg. The work of framing a new government, he wrote, was "the whole object of the present controversy." In his mind, the relationship of one state paper to the other was that of theory to practice, principle to application. Endeavoring to reach all the great objects of public liberty in the constitution, he included a number of fundamental reforms in Virginia society and government. The constitution adopted at Williamsburg contained none of these reforms, however. Jefferson at once became its severest critic, not only because of its conservative character but also because it failed to meet the test of republican legitimacy. The "convention" that adopted it, as he observed, was the revolutionary successor of the House of Burgesses, elected in April to perform the ordinary business of government. It could not, therefore, frame a supreme law, a law binding on government itself. Jefferson was groping toward the conception of constituent SOVEREIGNTY, in which the government actually arises from "the consent of the governed" through the constitution-making authority of the people. Thus it was that he proposed a form of popular ratification of the constitution?a radical notion at that time. He also proposed, and included in his plan, a provision for amendment by the consent of the people in two-thirds of the counties. This proposal was unprecedented. Jefferson made the omission of any provision for constitutional change a leading count in his indictment of the Virginia frame of government.

Jefferson returned to Virginia in 1776, served his state as a legislative reformer, then as wartime governor, and reentered Congress in the fall of 1783. Turning his attention to the problems of the confederation, he followed his young friend JAMES MADISON in advocating the addition of new congressional powers to raise revenue and regulate FOREIGN COMMERCE. He persuaded Congress to try the provision of the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION for an interim executive in the form of a committee of the states, thereby overcoming the dilemma of a congress in perpetual session, which was one source of its debility, or virtual obliteration of the government of the United States. The plan promptly collapsed under trial. Congress seemed as incapable of exercising the powers it already had as it was of obtaining new powers from the states. Jefferson was no "strict constructionist" where the Articles were concerned. In the case of the LAND ORDINANCE OF 1784 for the government of the western territory, he prevailed upon Congress to adopt a bold nation-building measure without a stitch of constitutional authority.

Jefferson's congressional career ended in May 1784, when he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to join BENJAMIN FRANKLIN and John Adams, in Paris, on the commission to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with European states. He had helped reformulate policy on this subject in Congress. The policy concerned trade, of course...

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