Apart from Abraham Lincoln, more has been said and written about Thomas Jefferson than about any other American President. Although Washingtons monument stands taller in the national capital, the monuments to Lincoln and Jefferson loom much larger. As ideological bastions to the modern-day Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, they endure as much fuller and ultimately grander testaments to their subjects, and welcome millions of visitors each year to a seemingly unassailable atmosphere of American grandeur.
These are the monuments. And then there are the men.
Lincoln, so widely venerated for his service to the nation in a time of war, had a very discrete, though not fully discreet, tenure as a statesman. A local lawyer and politician of some influence in his adopted home state of Illinois, Lincolns rise to widespread prominence was relatively rapid, and the national spotlight was his for less than a decade. Despite the intensity of his presidential tenure, his days and works present a manageable challenge for the biographer, cut short as they were by the assassins bullet that ended Lincolns life at the age of 56. In a way, this limited period of service helps make Lincolns achievements all the more digestible, if not always palatable. In the elementary schoolroom he is hailed as the prophet of emancipation and union, and while the reality is much more complicated than this, the laundry list that adds up to his legacy is more or less secure.
Not so Jefferson. A much more nebulous case, he was a major political figure for half-a-century, surviving well into his eighty-third year. An extremely precocious statesman, he served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and authored the Declaration of Independence at the age of thirty-three. From thence, he went on to hold various important offices, including that of governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and finally, President of the United States of America. Further, Jefferson lived for almost two decades beyond his retirement, serving as a close adviser to proteges James Madison and James Monroe, who succeeded him as the fourth and fifth Presidents of the United States, respectively.
All public figures, even the saintly Lincoln, are prone to accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy, and the longer the tenure the louder the charges. While Jefferson was been vilified at times throughout his long career, he seemed to emerge from his deathbed remarkably unscathed, given his many transgressions. In the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the amnesia of history did much to solidify a reputation that was rarely on solid ground during his checkered and tumultuous life. However, in recent scholarship, Jeffersons character has begun to suffer once again from a litany of severe and even virulent criticisms. It is true that many specific details of Jeffersons life remain obscured, much as he would have wished. But clearly, the day of the blindly venerating biography has passed, and Jefferson can no longer escape the scrutiny that his formidable legend was once strong enough to obscure.
To be sure, Jeffersons contributions to the enormous empire that emerged out of colonial America are inestimable. This makes him a vital subject for historical inquiry. But because of his inherent contradictions, Jefferson remains a confusing enigma to all who study him. Indeed, the early history of the United States itself is thoroughly confused and confusing, in no small part due to the confusing character of Thomas Jefferson himself. Try as one might to maintain the Jefferson mystique, there is little to mask the fact that his professed values, personal as well as political, rarely measured up to his actual practices. Like Jefferson, the United States has suffered, then as now, from an equivalent plague of hypocrisy with regard to conflicts between values and practices.
The following study is an attempt to provide a balanced account of Jeffersons remarkable legacy, celebrating the praiseworthy where possible and condemning the profane when necessary. Such an even-handed approach is essential to an understanding of Jefferson, as well as to a proper picture of what the United States has been, and of what it has become. Nevertheless, in forming value judgments about the past and its inhabitants, whether in positive or negative terms, the makers of history are wise to remember that while they retain the capital advantage of looking backward, their subjects, just as they themselves, forever were, are, and will be handicapped by the blinding light of an ever-encroaching future.
Although Christopher Columbus is popularly considered to be the foremost pioneer of Renaissance European exploration in the Western Hemisphere, he spent most of his time in the Caribbean islands and never actually reached the mainland of what is today the United States of America. The eastern seaboard of the continent, which had previously been visited by Scandinavian Vikings between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, proved resistant to settlement and remained largely unexplored until the later stages of the sixteenth century.
Whereas the Spanish made inroads in the southern and western portions of the American continent, and the French advanced into the interior, the English concentrated their early colonial efforts along the Atlantic coast. Even before the well-known journey of the Mayflower and the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the English had another plan for settlement in the form of the Virginia Company. Named after Queen Elizabeth I in honor of her long-time chastity, Virginia was a vast area of land that covered a significant portion of the present-day Southeastern United States, stretching to the Mississippi River and, by some claims, beyond.
Early publicity for the colony was drummed up by adventurer Sir Walter Ralegh and Thomas Harriot, whose Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, first published in 1588, was meant to encourage widespread enthusiasm for the venture. These early efforts were frustrated by poor organization and harsh living conditions, and it wasnt until several years later that a viable settlement was finally established.
Initial advances in Virginia, at outposts such as Jamestown, were made largely on the strength of tobacco cultivation. These efforts were pushed forward by settlers like John Rolfe in the face of royal disapproval over trade in narcotics. Additionally, colonists struggled with early disputes against the native Powhatan tribe. These last were somewhat eased by the marriage of Rolfe and Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan chief, but sporadic conflicts would continue to flare between settlers and natives for decades.
The Virginia Company lost its charter in 1624, and was completely dissolved by 1630. In the succeeding decades, the Commonwealth of Virginia came under the administration of the British crown, with a local governing body known as the House of Burgesses. This legislative wing was overseen by a group of royal governors, and ultimately under the absolute rule of the imperial monarch. Such an absolute hierarchy was weakened by the progress of the English Civil War, and by the time of the Glorious Revolution the House of Burgesses enjoyed more autonomy than ever before.
During colonial times, the Commonwealth of Virginia was an empire within a larger empire, maintaining claims to various portions of the American continent, and populated by a small cadre of powerful landowners who furthered their economic interests through the use of chattel slavery. Gradually, an established aristocracy entrenched itself in the agriculturally rich Tidewater region. This was the Virginia that Thomas Jefferson was born into.
As a frontier youth of sorts, Jefferson had a clear sense of the vast American canvas that the several European powers were struggling to control. The British did much to advance their claims in America with a victory in the Seven Years War, but incurred severe debts in the process. With a floundering enterprise in India also depleting finances, the British turned to the American colonies in hopes of generating much-needed revenues via taxation.
Such presumption on the part of Parliament was not well received in the American colonies, and before long a few strains of dissent had smoldered into an outright rebellion. The Revolutionary War was ultimately a success for the American rebels, but only on the strength of overwhelming military aid provided by France. In fact, while the Americans declared their independence in 1776, and officially established it in 1783, they were essentially beholden to the larger European powers during the first several decades of their existence as a sovereign nation.
Distrustful of a powerful central government, the United States originally organized themselves according to a weak federal plan under the Articles of Confederation. This approach was quickly shown to be inadequate, and a re-organization occurred under the Constitution, ratified in 1788. The first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, proceeded with an eye to consolidating federal power under a strong executive branch of government.
Although Jefferson was the self-professed enemy of such nationalization, he did even more than his predecessors to cement the overriding power of the federal body as third President. Through the Louisiana Purchase and the Embargo Act, Jefferson unleashed an unprecedented fiscal and political reach, giving the federal government the unassailably strong position it enjoys even at present. But while United States continued to prosper in the wake of the War of 1812, trouble loomed in the clashes to come between abolitionists and large scale slave owners.
Jefferson, never able to resolve this problem for himself, would pass the legacy of conflict on to the next generation. Ultimately, it would take the cauldron of a civil war to solve the slave problem. Only through this destructive process was the United States finally molded into the inviolable entity that we know today.
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