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Thomas Jefferson


The Revolutionary War 1776-1781

Jefferson in France 1784-1789

Jefferson proceeded to attend more fully to the care of his lands and means, but was slowed by a broken wrist he had suffered the previous summer in a fall from his horse. Finding himself incapacitated, he resumed work on an extended questionnaire regarding methods of government that had been issued to him while governor by the French diplomat Francois Barbe-Marbois. This effort resulted in the renowned Notes on the State of Virginia, the only extended tract that Jefferson ever published.

In his Notes, Jefferson recounted many of the policies he had initiated while at work in the Virginia Assembly during the late 1770s. In addition, he produced a veritable encyclopedia of the region, outlining its environmental, geographical, and historical aspects while mixing in various architectural, archeological and climatic observations. Ever loyal to husbandry, Jefferson was vociferous in his claim for the primacy of agrarian interests against infringing manufacturing developments. To this end, he argued that whereas the farmer was truly healthy, all other occupations were at heart unsound.

The defense of agrarianism was only one in a set of conspicuous social theories that Jefferson advanced in Notes. The most famous of these were his remarks on the relative characteristics of the black, native, and white populations in Virginia. While Jefferson believed the native and white populations to be intellectually comparable, he found blacks to be inferior to whites in the endowments of both body and mind. Although willing to grant certain cosmetic similarities between blacks and whites, he insisted on shortcomings of blacks with regard to beauty, imagination, and reason.

Jefferson viewed such inherent differences between blacks and whites as enough to make abolition impracticable. Although he supported, and even encouraged, the mixing of native and white blood, he viewed miscegenation between blacks and whites to be a crime against nature. For this reason, upon the inevitable step of emancipation, Jefferson could see no resort but to remove all blacks from the American continent, in a massive relocation project that would effectively repopulate the slave coast of Africa.

Strange as it sounds to contemporary ears, Jeffersons policy was held in wide regard throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. It was earnestly supported by respected political figures such as Henry Clay, who helped to establish the charter of an American Colonization Society. Under their auspices, a group of freed slaves established a colony in West Africa in 1822, which became the independent country of Liberia in 1847. Even as late as 1862, Abraham Lincoln viewed the colonization scheme of repatriation as the best solution to Americas mounting racial tensions (See the Lincoln SparkNote).

Colonization was viewed by many as the only alternative to out-and-out race war. As Jefferson speculated, if the two races were allowed to co-exist in free relation, the thousand recollections, by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained...will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions that will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race. Faced with such a prospect, Jefferson trembled to consider the result. When I reflect, he wrote to his fellow whites, that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever...The Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with us in such a contest.

Jeffersons disparaging and paranoid remarks about blacks are among the most virulent of his day. They do not jibe well with his own conduct, and they are made all the stranger by his tremendously liberal views about the native tribes of America. Scholars have tried to explain away this discrepancy in every possible way. Some have proposed that Jeffersons cruel remarks against blacks were simply a suppression, whether conscious or not, of his true adoration, affection, and envy of them. Others have theorized that Jefferson truly despised blacks, and that his love of the native was a consequence of his own partial descent from their ranks. Although this would do much to explain his unusual support of mixing between the native and white populations, there is little extant evidence to support such a hypothesis.

Ever-reluctant to be pinned down, Jefferson disliked the idea of being held to his published words, and never again was he to write at such length on such a variety of topics as he did in Notes on the State of Virginia. His momentum as a writer was also severely stifled by the untimely death of his wife Martha. An extended mourning period ensued; his convalescence took weeks. Only the call of foreign diplomacy could stir him once again. Summoned in November of 1782 to travel to France in order to negotiate peace terms with Britain, Jefferson made for Baltimore and prepared to make the Atlantic crossing. However, a combination of icy waters and a hostile British naval presence delayed his passage, and by the time he was cleared for departure the 1783 Treaty of Paris had already been signed.

Returning to Virginia briefly, Jefferson next found himself back amongst the members of Congress, who convened first at Princeton and later at Annapolis. In the ensuing months, Jefferson took charge of the push to ratify the Treaty of Paris, successfully rounding up the necessary votes after a lengthy debate over terms which were by any measure generous to the newly formed United States. Then, with foreign relations relatively stabilized, Jefferson turned to the question of domestic policy on a national level.

One of Jeffersons most lasting innovations of the mid 1780s was to propose a decimal system of currency based on the Spanish dollar. But beyond this simple and sensible fiscal measure, most of his legislation related to land policies. Chairing a congressional committee on the administration of western territories, Jefferson drafted an Ordinance in 1784, providing for the eventual creation of sixteen states out of the Great Lakes region that Virginia had reclaimed during the war. Interestingly, Jefferson proposed a series of names for these new states, some of which, like Illinois and Michigan, were eventually adopted. Others, like Cherronesus and Polypotamia, never really stuck.

That such areas should obtain full rights of statehood upon acceding to the union was never really questioned. A trickier issue revolved around the slavery policy that was to be adopted in these newly created states. Jefferson wrote a proposal by which slavery would have been forever prohibited in these and all other new territories that the United States acquired after 1800. In one of the cruel ironies of democracy, the provision was defeated by a single vote. Had it passed, it would have precluded slavery in the Louisiana Territory that was later acquired, thus averting the bitter divisions that led to the Missouri Compromise, Bloody Kansas, and ultimately, the Civil War (See the Civil War SparkNote).

Jefferson understood the significance of this defeat, ruing the fact that the voice of a single individual would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country.... Thus, he continued, we see the fate of millions of unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment. As it stood, Jefferson was able to outlaw the expansion of slavery into the Great Lakes region, but the status of slavery in subsequently acquired territory remained an open question.

Once again, Jefferson stumbled where slavery was concerned, yet contributed to fantastic innovations in other regards. By the Land Ordinance of 1785, a comprehensive survey system of western lands was laid out, and the distribution and sale of lands was ordered into organized townships and counties. Further, a certain section in each township was reserved for the establishment of a public school. All of these aims, while ignoring the plight of the slave, did much to forward the cause of democracy in the swiftly developing United States.

And whither democracy, now that the war had been won? The success of the American experiment was by no means assured in the heady days following the revolution. Many of the new nations most important statesmen saw a limited term to the experiment of a democratic republic. John Adams believed that the United States would endure for a century, or maybe for a century and a half. His great-grandson, Henry Adams, later marveled at the audacity of this initial American project to raise the average man on a par with the most favored in terms of intellectual and social opportunity and privilege. As he wrote of this radical egalitarianism in his formidable study of American history in the Jeffersonian era:

The destinies of the United States were certainly staked, without reserve or escape, on the soundness of this doubtful and even improbable principle, ignoring or overthrowing the institutions of the church, aristocracy, family, army and political intervention, which long experience had shown to be needed for the safety of society.

Somehow, up until now, the improbable principle of egalitarianism, although, or perhaps because, mitigated, has worked to a fair degree of success in America. For other nations, adventures in democracy have been a far more tumultuous affair. During the last half of the 1780s, Jefferson was to receive a firsthand introduction to the potentially dangerous character of radical political reforms, during his tenure as minister to France.

In May 1784, having obtained an appointment as minister to France, Jefferson finally received the European invitation he could make good on. The summer saw him through the long Atlantic passage, accompanied by his daughter, personal assistant and most trusted slave. Then, on August 6, 1784, Jefferson entered Paris for the first time, poised on the brink of a life-altering five year tenure in a country he would grow to love even as he continued to revile it.

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