Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”