Monday, July 4

Jeffersonian Complexities

On June 9, 1776, the Continental Congress accepted a resolution made two days earlier by Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee to appoint a committee to draft a declaration of secession from the dominions of the English King and Parliament. On June 29, the committee—composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston--presented their draft for debate and a vote. Finally, on July 4, an amended version of that draft was accepted. The war that had been raging for more than a year had finally driven the reluctant revolutionaries to sever all ties with their motherland.

The original draft of that Declaration of Independence had been penned by the youngest member of the committee, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), but they hardly bore the mark of immaturity, “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That day would not be the last time Jefferson’s words would launch significant reform. A quarter century later, his election to the presidency marked a profound but peaceful change in the administration of the young nation. Indeed, it was called by many the “Bloodless Revolution of 1800.” The reformer who boldly wrote religious and ethical beliefs into the Declaration of Independence brought to the office a philosophy of government firmly rooted in those same beliefs, a philosophy that concerned itself, above all, with the rights and liberties of the individual. It was Jefferson’s democratic views, with his enduring faith in the individual, that, more than anything else, turned the country away from the class rule of the Federalists.

Few men have been better equipped to become President--a graduate of William and Mary College and an able lawyer, Jefferson helped shape the destiny of the struggling nation from the beginning. He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, in the Continental Congress--writing the final draft of the Declaration, as a minister in the French court, as Governor of Virginia, as Secretary of State under Washington, and as Vice-president under Adams. But as President, Jefferson proved that philosophical ability and practical experience in office were no replacements for political leadership. He was a remarkable inventor, a scientist, a writer, an artist, a planter, an architect, a musician, and an educator--but he proved to be a rather poor politician and administrator.

He was able however to restore a profound sense of democracy to the nation’s highest office, an accomplishment that ranks with the celebrated purchase of the Louisiana Territory as the outstanding achievement of his administration. Interestingly, it was during his time in the White House that the noted skeptic and independent thinker became, for the first time in his life, a serious Bible student and regular church-goer (at the Capital Hill presbyterian congregation that met in the Supreme Court chambers on Sunday mornings).

A complex man, Jefferson was one of the most accomplished of our Presidents. He was talented as are few men in any age--the living example of his own belief in the capacity of men to learn and to grow under freedom.

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