Thomas Jefferson

Economic, Social, and Political Reforms 1776-1796

Summary Economic, Social, and Political Reforms 1776-1796

In starting a new government, how does one proceed? With attention to precedent, using an existing framework as a guide? From scratch?

This was the question facing the newly formed Virginia Assembly in the autumn of 1776. Jefferson's draft constitution had been received but dismissed, not out of malice but out of a desire to reach policy decisions by a fuller consensus. Nonetheless, Jefferson was put in charge of a committee to revise the existing laws of Virginia, making deletions where necessary and additions where appropriate. Significantly, one of his closest associates in the enterprise was a James Madison, a first term legislator eight years Jefferson's junior. It was the beginning of a political alliance that would last for fifty years.

Jefferson, Madison, and company gradually laid out a plan for the constitution of Virginia involving several proposals to create greater freedoms and opportunities for less privileged males of European descent. Under existing British laws, the right to vote was predicated on a man's property holdings, and the right to inherit property was predicated on one's place in the family line. Thus, the ruling class of colonial Virginia was essentially a fraternity of eldest brothers.

Jefferson attacked this system by helping abolish primogeniture and entail, two long-standing traditions that directed inheritances to a single heir. Under the new system, a more equal distribution of lands was encouraged. Since only landowners were eligible to vote, an increase in the number of landowners would increase the number of eligible voters. Further, by making immigration a less complicated and exclusive process, new families arrived in droves and began to settle along the frontier. Eventually, Jefferson reasoned, these measures would help to efface the influence of the long-standing oligarchy of large landowners.

In these early reforms, Jefferson's underlying devotion to democracy is made plain. Believing in the virtues of talent above the virtues of association, he envisioned a society founded on meritocracy rather than on aristocracy. To fully achieve the dream of a meritocracy, Jefferson recognized the necessity of overhauling the existing educational system. Unique to his day, he believed that the state should take up the task of schooling in order to best cultivate the most talented minds from all social classes.

Jefferson's views on universal public education were unprecedented and far too progressive for his associates at the time. But while Jefferson's plans to create free public schools did not succeed at first, many of his proposals on education later became law, and as such laid the groundwork for the labor of his later life, the founding of the University of Virginia.

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