Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and other key documents of early American constitutionalism. He was almost certainly the founder most instrumental in developing the philosophy of limited government that dominated American political thought until the 20th century. Jefferson was a quintessential Renaissance man, with law and politics as perhaps the least favorite of his many interests, yet he was drawn into the political conflicts of his time because of his devotion to what he called “the holy cause of freedom.”

Educated at the College of William and Mary and trained as a lawyer by Williamsburg attorney George Wythe, by the mid‐​1760s, Jefferson was well versed in the English radical Whig political tradition and its core principle that government, when its citizens are not vigilant, can threaten liberty. Like other radical Whigs, he was profoundly distrustful of concentrated power and intensely devoted to the ideals of limited government and the rule of law.

Jefferson’s involvement in the colonists’ disputes with the Crown began when, as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, he helped organize committees of correspondence with the other colonies. In August 1774, he wrote proposed instructions for the Virginia delegates to the first Continental Congress. Published under the title A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson’s essay stridently defended Americans’ rights against the British Parliament, which he maintained had no authority to legislate for the colonies.

In 1775–1776, Jefferson was a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where in June 1776 he drafted the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Congress on July 4. As he later described his purpose, he sought “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject”—justification of American independence—“in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.” In doing so, he also defined the American philosophy of government, which was premised on the fact that each person, by virtue of his or her humanity alone, possessed inherent natural rights, among them the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These he identified as “self‐​evident truths.” “To secure these rights,” he wrote, “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson sought to help establish new republican governments both in his home state of Virginia and in the United States. In the summer of 1776, he drafted a constitution for Virginia, but it was not adopted. As a member of the state’s House of Delegates again during the years 1776–1779, he served on the committee to revise the laws of the Commonwealth and drafted several important bills, among them the one subsequently enacted as Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, which broadly prohibited government establishment of religion and protected its free exercise. From 1779 to 1781, he served two 1‐​year terms as governor of Virginia; following his retirement from that office, he wrote the draft of Notes on the State of Virginia, his only book‐​length publication.

After a brief return as a Virginia delegate to Congress in 1783–1784, during which time he helped draw the plan for settling the West that was later enacted as the Northwest Ordinance, Jefferson was appointed to succeed Benjamin Franklin as minister to France in 1785. While residing in Paris from 1785 to October 1789, Jefferson witnessed firsthand the early events of the French Revolution and advised his friend the Marquis de Lafayette on the formation of a French constitution.

Although Jefferson was absent from the United States when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to adopt a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, he played a critical role in the Constitution’s ratification during 1787–1789. Jefferson maintained neutrality in the ratification debates—calling himself “neither a Federalist nor an Anti-Federalist”—although he generally supported the new Constitution. Through his trans‐​Atlantic correspondence with James Madison and others, however, he helped push for the addition of a Bill of Rights, which he considered “necessary by way of supplement,” to ensure that the national government would not abuse the powers granted it under the Constitution.

During the 1790s, Jefferson served as secretary of state during the presidency of George Washington and then, after a brief retirement from politics, as vice president of the United States during the presidency of John Adams. With his friend and collaborator James Madison, Jefferson headed the Republican Party opposition to the Federalist administrations of Washington and Adams. Among his many political writings during that decade were his opinion on the constitutionality of the bank bill (1791), which advised Washington that the Constitution does not empower Congress to charter a national bank; and the Kentucky Resolutions (1798), which Jefferson drafted anonymously in protest against the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

In the election of 1800, Jefferson’s Republican Party won control of Congress and he was elected president, although a peculiarity in the electoral system resulted in a tie vote between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, which threw the election into the House of Representatives. Jefferson regarded the Republican electoral victory of 1800 as a vindication of his party’s principles and “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.” In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1801, although he was conciliatory, Jefferson nevertheless affirmed Republican principles, among them “a wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, [but] which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits.”

As the third president of the United States (1801–1809), Jefferson for the most part succeeded in following those principles. His administration pursued a policy of economy in government, drastically reducing the size of the federal payroll, while also repealing all internal taxes. Critical of his predecessors’ failure to respect the “chains of the Constitution” that restrained presidential powers, Jefferson refrained from exercising the veto power (which he believed should be used only against clearly unconstitutional legislation) and, as commander in chief during the Barbary War in the Mediterranean, ordered the navy to engage in defensive operations only until Congress authorized war. In an important symbolic move that set a precedent that lasted until Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Jefferson refused to personally deliver his annual message to Congress, instead sending it in writing. He regarded a personal address as too reminiscent of the British monarch’s speech from the throne opening a new session of Parliament.

Perhaps the most noteworthy event of Jefferson’s first term as president was the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States. Although Jefferson’s critics, both past and present, have decried the Purchase as in violation of his strict constitutionalism, Jefferson opened himself up to the charge of hypocrisy by questioning the constitutionality of the Purchase and attempting to validate it explicitly by constitutional amendment, and thus “to set an example against broad construction”—an effort that he abandoned when his political advisors told him it was unnecessary and might jeopardize ratification of the treaty. More troubling as a precedent for broad federal power, however, was the embargo policy that Jefferson pursued during his second term in order to avoid U.S. involvement in the war between Britain and France. That policy failed, and conflict came during the presidency of his successor, James Madison, with the War of 1812.

Following his presidency, Jefferson again retired to Monticello, his Virginia mountaintop home, where he continued his keen interest in political matters through a voluminous correspondence. He encouraged the “Old Republicans,” a group of radical Jeffersonians in Virginia, in their protest against a series of decisions by the Supreme Court that they believed threatened to consolidate power at the national level. Jefferson also advocated a system of public schools in Virginia, believing it necessary for the preservation of republican government that all citizens be sufficiently educated, particularly in history, so they can “know ambition” in all its forms.

A lifelong slaveowner who nevertheless repeatedly stated his abhorrence of slavery, Jefferson had an ambivalent record regarding the institution that was so incompatible with the principles he articulated in the Declaration of Independence. In his draft of the Declaration—in a passage deleted by the Continental Congress—he condemned slavery and denounced the British king for allowing the slave trade to continue. His 1776 draft of a constitution for Virginia prohibited the importation of new slaves; his 1784 report for Congress on the government of the Western territories proposed a ban on slavery and involuntary servitude, a proposal finally adopted in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; and as president he signed into law a bill ending the importation of slaves into the United States in 1808, the first year the Constitution permitted Congress to do so. In his retirement years, however, he refused to publicly oppose slavery, maintaining that he was too old to fight such a battle; largely because of his indebtedness, he failed to manumit more than just a few of his own slaves.

Before his death on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution—Jefferson wrote the epitaph for his own tombstone, asking to be remembered for only three achievements: his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and his founding of the University of Virginia, the favored project of his twilight years.

Further Readings

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

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Time. 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948–1981.

Mayer, David N. The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

———, ed. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1984.

Yarbrough, Jean M. American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Originally published