Thomas Jefferson Essay - Critical Essays

Jefferson, Thomas


Thomas Jefferson 1743-1826

American statesman, philosopher, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism on Jefferson from 1910 through 2000.

The third president of the United States, Jefferson is most famous as the author of the Declaration of Independence, a document that served as a profound expression of his own beliefs on equality and natural rights, as well as a concise articulation of the revolutionary impulses of an emerging nation. Long revered as one of America's founding fathers, Jefferson remains the subject of intense scholarly debate in the twenty-first century. Of particular interest to current critics and historians are his views on the separation of church and state, and the inconsistency between his well-documented belief in individual liberty and his status as a slave owner. His views on Native Americans, African-Americans, and women are considered at odds with the principle of universal equality he claimed in the Declaration to be “self-evident.”

Biographical Information

Jefferson was born at Shadwell, in Goochland (now Albemarle) County, Virginia. His father was a self-made man and an early settler of the Virginia wilderness, and his mother was a member of a prominent Colonial family, the Randolphs. Jefferson attended private schools and the College of William and Mary, where he studied law, science, literature, and philosophy. He was admitted to the bar in 1767 and practiced law for two years. In 1769 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. During that same year he designed and began building Monticello, his famous family home, in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

While a member of the House of Burgesses, Jefferson penned A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), the philosophical antecedent to the Declaration of Independence. A year later he joined the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and in June, 1776, he wrote the original draft of the Declaration. From 1776 to 1779, Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Delegates and was elected to the governorship in 1779. As governor, he attempted to reform the penal code, to abolish the inheritance policies of primogeniture and entail, and to establish a complete system of public education. In 1782, Jefferson briefly retired from politics following the death of his wife of ten years, Martha Wayles Skelton. He returned to politics two years later and Congress appointed him envoy to France to assist Benjamin Franklin; in 1785 he succeeded Franklin as minister to France, an office he held until the beginning of the French Revolution four years later.

During the 1790s Jefferson served as secretary of state in George Washington's administration, and as vice president under John Adams, while at the same time leading the Republican opposition to the Federalist programs of both men. The Federalists advocated a strong, centralized government that favored industrialism, commercialism, and banking, while Jefferson's vision of government was founded on states' rights, individual liberties, and self-reliant agrarianism. In 1800, Jefferson was elected president and he attempted to reconcile the differences between the two factions. In 1803, he presided over the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the territory of the United States and gaining complete control of the Mississippi River. After serving a second term as president, Jefferson retired to Monticello in 1809 after 40 years of public service.

During his last years, Jefferson received visitors at Monticello, composed his autobiography, and carried on an extensive correspondence. He continued to pursue philosophical, educational, and architectural interests. His efforts to establish a state-supported university eventually resulted in the creation of the University of Virginia, and he was involved in every aspect of its development from the architectural plans to the recruitment of faculty. He considered it one of his greatest achievements. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

Major Works

Jefferson's first important political treatise, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, presented his concept of natural rights—that people have certain inalienable rights superior to civil law. Jefferson denied that the British Parliament held any political authority over the colonists, and demanded free trade and an end to British taxation. The essay's considerable influence during pre-revolutionary debates brought Jefferson wide attention and contributed to his selection by the Second Continental Congress to write the Declaration of Independence. Although he was one of five committee members so chosen, most historians agree that it was Jefferson who wrote the original draft, and that he submitted it to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who suggested minor changes before sending it to Congress. The delegates debated its text line by line for two and a half days and adopted it July 4, 1776. Despite changes made by members of Congress, Jefferson is generally credited with authorship of the Declaration. He intended it to be less an original statement than an expression of beliefs held in common by most Americans: that all men are created equal and that they possess certain inalienable rights. The Declaration is considered the foremost literary work of the American Revolution and the single most important political document in American history.

During his tenure as governor of Virginia, Jefferson wrote An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Passed in the Assembly of Virginia in the Beginning of the Year 1786. Like the Declaration of Independence, this bill is based on the concept of natural rights, the assumption that each individual's conscience, rather than any secular institution, should dictate religious matters, and the contention that civil liberties should be independent from religious beliefs. While Jefferson's bill was originally intended only for Virginia, it is now considered the central document of the American experiment in the separation of church and state.

While governor he also produced his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). The work covers the geography, flora, and fauna of Virginia, as well as a description of its social, economic, and political structure. Using statistics to support his patriotic intent, Jefferson disputed the beliefs of Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, a French naturalist and philosopher who contended that America's intellectual standards and animal life were inferior to those of Europe. Although Notes on the State of Virginia established Jefferson's reputation as a scholar and a scientist, the work also engendered controversy because it contains Jefferson's disparaging views regarding Native Americans and African-Americans.

Critical Reception

Jefferson has long been revered as a statesman, a hero of the American struggle for independence, and a renaissance man whose varied interests included philosophy, architecture, and science as well as political and social theory. Such scholars as James H. Hutson and Robert M. O'Neil continue to study Jefferson's views on the “wall of separation” between church and state in an effort to shed light on modern controversies surrounding the issue. However, on the whole, Jefferson's reputation has suffered a series of setbacks in the past thirty years. Discrepancies between his idealistic rhetoric and his less-exalted practices, which hardly went unnoticed in his own time, have come to dominate the critical discourse surrounding Jefferson today. His phrase “all men are created equal” is seen as inconsistent with his beliefs about specific groups. According to Charles A. Miller, while Jefferson felt all humans were morally equal, he believed that blacks, Native Americans, and women were not culturally, physically, or intellectually equal to white males. The fact that he owned slaves himself while professing a deep abhorrence of the institution is equally troubling to modern day scholars. As Peter Onuf puts it: “For many present-day commentators, Jefferson's failure to address the problem of slavery generally and the situation of his own human chattel in particular is in itself the most damning possible commentary on his iconic standing as ‘apostle of freedom.’” And finally, the controversy over Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, rumored in his own time, resurfaced in the 1970s with the publication of Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Brodie took seriously the claims by Hemings' descendents that Jefferson carried on a long affair with Hemings, fathered several of her children, and then held those children as his slaves. Jefferson admirers, such as John Chester Miller, acknowledged the allegations, but dismissed them as inconsistent with Jefferson's nature and character. Miller, writing in 1977, a few years after Brodie's book was published, claimed that if the story were true, it would be “in utter defiance of the testimony he bore over the course of a long lifetime of the primacy of the moral sense and his loathing of racial mixture.” Miller also believed that Jefferson's record as a loving father would have precluded his failure to acknowledge his slave children—if, in fact, they were his. For Miller, if the charges are true, Jefferson “deserves to be regarded as one of the most profligate liars and consummate hypocrites ever to occupy the presidency.” Miller believed that Hemings' children resembled Jefferson physically because they were fathered by one of Jefferson's two nephews who were frequent guests at Monticello.

In the late 1990s DNA tests revealed a high probability that Jefferson fathered six of Hemings's children. Onuf acknowledges that the new evidence has been fatal to Jefferson's reputation: “If further evidence was needed to banish Jefferson from the national pantheon, the recent confirmation of his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings provides it: the master of Monticello could not even live up to his own infamous strictures against race mixing in his Notes on the State of Virginia.” Robert Booth Fowler goes so far as to suggest that Jefferson's reputation has been so thoroughly tarnished that the Jefferson Memorial would most likely not be built today. As he puts it, “the values celebrated by the Jefferson Memorial have not lost their cultural credibility. What has changed is the confidence that Jefferson is a fitting representative of them.”

Principal Works

A Summary View of the Rights of British America (essay) 1774

In Congress, July 4, 1776: A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled (state paper) 1776

Notes on the State of Virginia (essay) 1785

An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Passed in the Assembly of Virginia in the Beginning of the Year 1786 (statute) 1786

The Address of Thomas Jefferson, to the Senate, the Members of the House of Representatives, the Public Officers, and a Large Concourse of Citizens (inaugural address) 1801

A Manual of Parliamentary Practice (manual)...

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C. Alphonso Smith (essay date 1910-11)

SOURCE: “Thomas Jefferson,” in Southern Literary Studies: a Collection of Literary, Biographical, and Other Sketches, Kennikat Press, 1967, pp. 94-119.

[In the following essay, originally delivered in lecture form at the University of Berlin in the fall and winter of 1910-11, Smith begins with a brief biographical sketch that focuses on influences in Jefferson's writing. Smith then provides a broad overview of Jefferson's publications, including a discussion on some obscure works that have escaped critical attention.]


Had Thomas Jefferson not written the Declaration of Independence or had he written nothing...

(The entire section is 5716 words.)

Fawn M. Brodie (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Sally Hemings,” in Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, W. W. Norton and Company, 1974, pp. 228-45.

[In the following essay, Brodie examines Jefferson's writings and records from 1778-1779, concluding that they imply a close relationship between Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings.]

The earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead.

Jefferson to Madison, September 6, 17891

Sally Hemings' third son, Madison, born at Monticello in 1805, wrote explicitly of the beginnings of his mother's relationship with Jefferson:

Their stay (my...

(The entire section is 9350 words.)

James M. Cox (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Jefferson's Autobiography: Recovering Literature's Lost Ground,” in The Southern Review, Vol. XIV, No. 4, October, 1978, pp. 633-52.

[In the following essay, Cox assesses the literary value of Jefferson's Autobiography, claiming that it represents an early American example of the under-examined memoir genre. Cox also delves into the influence and interplay between Jefferson's work and the more famous Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.]

My text is the Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson. It is hardly fair to contend that devoting attention to it is to recover lost ground for literature since there is scarcely any evidence that...

(The entire section is 9471 words.)

Robert A. Ferguson (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Mysterious Obligation”: Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, in American Literature, Vol. 52, No. 3, November, 1980, pp. 381-406.

[In the following essay, Ferguson discusses the origins and structure of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. Ferguson dismisses the common claim that Notes is a disjointed, non-literary work, insisting that once the reader understands the influences and processes behind the formatting of the work, the text is much more cohesive and coherent than previously thought.]


Thomas Jefferson, by any standard, is a major writer of the early Republic, and his one book, Notes...

(The entire section is 10093 words.)

Charles A. Miller (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Human Nature: Variations on Equality,” in Jefferson and Nature: An Interpretation, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, pp. 56-87.

[In the following essay, Miller discusses Jefferson's views on human nature and equality. While Jefferson believed in the moral equality of all humankind, he felt that certain groups—blacks, Indians, and women—were not culturally, physically, or intellectually equal to white males.]

As a natural historian, Jefferson distinguished one species from another by grouping individuals according to their “prominent and invariable” similarities. On this basis, the basis of comparative anatomy, the distinguishing nature of the...

(The entire section is 15706 words.)

Harold Hellenbrand (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Language of Improvement and the Practices of Power,” in The Unfinished Revolution: Education and Politics in the Thought of Thomas Jefferson, University of Delaware Press, 1990, pp. 119-40.

[In the following essay, Hellenbrand explores the way Jefferson's thoughts on education informed his political and social philosophies.]


Between the publication of Notes on the State of Virginia and the end of his presidency, Jefferson devoted little time to philosophizing about education and planning free schools. In Virginia he reached an impasse. His legal project to reconceive patrimonial...

(The entire section is 10116 words.)

Garrett Ward Sheldon (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Liberalism and Classicism in Jefferson's Political Philosophy,” in The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Sheldon examines Jefferson's political philosophy within the context of Western political thought and concludes that Jefferson drew from several theoretical traditions in formulating his own philosophy.]

Great men are obliged to suffer many indignities, not the least of which is the tendency of lesser men continually to write books about them. Thomas Jefferson has suffered in this regard perhaps more than any other famous American. Volumes have been written on Jefferson as...

(The entire section is 5670 words.)

Kenneth A. Lockridge (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Commonplaces II: Thomas Jefferson,” in On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century, New York University Press, 1992, pp. 47-73.

[In the following essay, Lockridge examines Jefferson's Commonplace Book, written in his youth, noting that the selection of quotations and the writings that accompany them exhibit both rebellion and misogyny.]

William Byrd was not alone in the intensely misogynistic vision rendered in his commonplace. That view of women evidently persisted in private male discourse for some time, as at least one further case testifies....

(The entire section is 9301 words.)

George Alan Davy (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Argumentation and Unified Structure in Notes on the State of Virginia,” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 26, No. 4, Summer, 1993, pp. 581-93.

[In the following essay, Davy examines the rhetorical strategies employed by Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia and suggests that the work's detailed descriptive passages add credibility to the portions devoted to argument.]

Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia has been called “in form primarily a handbook”1; and indeed, Jefferson's own statements about the book's origins suggest that it was intended as a reference work. In his autobiography, he writes...

(The entire section is 4709 words.)

David Haven Blake, Jr. (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “‘Posterity Must Judge’: Private and Public Discourse in the Adams-Jefferson Letters,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 1-30.

[In the following essay, Blake discusses the correspondence between John Adams and Jefferson and situates their letters within the larger public political discourse of the time.]

I first saw the Constitution of the United States in a foreign country. Irritated by no literary altercation, animated by no public debate, heated by no party animosity, I read it with great satisfaction. … In its general principles and great outlines, it was conformable to such a system of government as I had...

(The entire section is 10999 words.)

Robert A. Williams, Jr. (essay date 1997)

“Thomas Jefferson: Indigenous American Storyteller,” in Thomas Jefferson and the Changing West: From Conquest to Conservation, edited by James P. Ronda, University of New Mexico Press, 1997, pp. 43-74.

[In the following essay, Williams, a Native American scholar, explores Jefferson's ideas of Native American inferiority that contributed to the Indians' removal in the nineteenth century, but suggests that today Jefferson's writings on natural rights could be used as arguments to decolonize Native American populations living on reservations.]


Writing as a Native American scholar, I wish to ask in this essay what use Indian...

(The entire section is 13369 words.)

James H. Hutson (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Thomas Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists: A Controversy Rejoined,” in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4, October, 1999, pp. 775-90.

[In the following essay, Hutson discusses the newly-restored manuscript of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, and its effect on current controversies over the separation of church and state.]

Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, January 1, 1802, contains a phrase that has become almost a household expression in the present-day United States: “a wall of separation between church and state.” In his letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson linked this phrase...

(The entire section is 6471 words.)

Robert M. O'Neil (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The ‘Wall of Separation’ and Thomas Jefferson's Views on Religious Liberty,” in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4, October, 1999, pp. 791-94.

[In the following essay, O'Neil discusses the importance of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists and his consistent view on the separation of church and state throughout his career.]

In the first Supreme Court case that dealt with the clause of the First Amendment that declares that Congress shall pass “no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the justices recognized the central importance of the framers' views in defining the proper relationship between church and state. Those views...

(The entire section is 1359 words.)

Anthony F. C. Wallace (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Notes on the Vanishing Aborigines,” in Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans, Belknap Press, 1999, pp. 75-107.

[In the following essay, Wallace discusses the sections of Notes on the State of Virginia that deal with Native Americans and claims that many of Jefferson's facts were inaccurate.]

After Jefferson left the Virginia governor's office in 1781, his letters to George Rogers Clark shifted from matters of war—which continued unabated in both the east and the west—to matters of science. In December 1781 he asked Clark to send to Monticello “some teeth of the great animal whose remains are found on the Ohio” and...

(The entire section is 11640 words.)

Douglas Anderson (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “Subterraneous Virginia: The Ethical Poetics of Thomas Jefferson,” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, Winter, 2000, pp. 233-49.

[In the following essay, Anderson discusses Notes on the State of Virginia as Jefferson's exploration of the intersections between the individual self and the collective self, between psychology and history.]

Whatever turns the soul inward on itself, tends to concenter its forces, and to fit it for greater and stronger flights of science.

—Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry

In defending the vigor of colonial culture against the...

(The entire section is 8625 words.)

Peter S. Onuf (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “Jefferson's Empire,” in Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, University Press of Virginia, 2000, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Onuf explores Jefferson's visions of America as a nation and as an empire, taking into account the more regressive tendencies of Jefferson's political thought.]

Thomas Jefferson cherished an imperial vision for the new American nation. Future generations of Americans would establish republican governments in the expanding hinterland of settlement. This rising empire would be sustained by affectionate union, a community of interests, and dedication to the principles of self-government Jefferson set forth in...

(The entire section is 7870 words.)

Robert Booth Fowler (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “Mythologies of a Founder,” in Thomas Jefferson and the Politics of Nature, edited by Thomas S. Engeman, University of Notre Dame Press, 2000, pp. 123-41.

[In the following essay, Fowler assesses Jefferson's declining reputation in recent years and discusses, in particular, Jefferson's ideas concerning natural rights.]

In his fine book The Natural Rights Republic, based on his Frank M. Covey, Jr., lectures at Loyola University Chicago, Michael Zuckert leads his readers to an appreciation of the intellectual dimensions of the founding of the United States. As Zuckert observes, the founders combined multiple sides of American political thought,...

(The entire section is 7742 words.)

Further Reading


Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1987, 414 p.

A comprehensive biography assessing Jefferson's life from his formative years to his final legacy.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 365 p.

Examines some of the contradictions in Jefferson's life and character, including his status as an aristocratic slaveowner at the same time he was drafting his famous statement on human rights and equality.

Lehmann, Karl. Thomas...

(The entire section is 703 words.)