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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.

True to his Enlightenment values, Jefferson placed a higher value on the logic and reason of secular education and sound government than on the ancient demands of ecclesiastical tradition. Correspondingly, he wished to separate school and state initiatives from religious strictures. But such a task was not an easy one. Since its foundation, the Commonwealth of Virginia had been expressly aligned with the Anglican Church, which collected taxes from all citizens and exercised considerable control in matters of government. In addition, many feared that disestablishment would serve to weaken religious convictions while strengthening the state apparatus disproportionately.

Jefferson himself had been raised an Anglican, but wished to disestablish the overarching control of the Anglican Church in the interest of broader religious freedoms. As he famously wrote, "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." This view bespeaks Jefferson's commitment to religious toleration and his own open approach to spiritual questions.

In his unorthodox scrutiny of the life and works of Jesus, Jefferson displayed a willingness to examine Jesus as a moral rather than strictly devotional figure. Such a critical appraisal of Jesus placed Jefferson outside of the Christian mainstream and more firmly in the New England tradition of Unitarianism that would later produce such religious freethinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (See the SparkNote on Walden by Thoreau). These views would later cause many to cast aspersions on Jefferson's faith, depicting him as an infidel and even an atheist during the presidential campaign of 1800. As was his custom in the midst of a scandal, Jefferson elected to remain above the fray, declining to honor such accusations with a response.

In religion as in politics, Jefferson's bedrock principle was to leave independent men with the liberty to decide for themselves. Thus, the separation of church and state was a first principle. Over time, the tide of revolution began to work in this direction, and priorities of state began to take precedence over the prerogatives of the church. The first major step in this direction occurred in 1779, when all Anglican clergy were removed from the government payroll. Although the Church retained significant powers, the first dent had been made. Then, in 1786, Jefferson's Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom was approved by the Assembly, after a decade of fierce opposition from church leaders. From this point on, all official association between church and state was utterly severed. Further, civil liberties were expressly guaranteed to all citizens regardless of religious convictions or lack thereof.

The push toward secularization in America remains one of Jefferson's most significant legacies to this day. As an apostle of the Enlightenment, he succeeded in planting an ethical-political framework where a moral-religious framework had previously stood, and this in a country that was supposed to be more fundamentally devoted to the cause of religion than the various nations of Europe. Later, as President, Jefferson would attempt to strengthen the integrity of the several states at the expense of the clergy in New England. In these efforts he was less effective, but by setting up a viable secular alternative in Virginia, Jefferson did much to create the foundations for a national society that was truly pluralistic in terms of religion.

Beyond religious reforms, Jefferson set about to modernize the existing legal system and penal code, which dated from the English feudal system. Although in many regards his amendments were improvements, Jefferson came under fire for certain clauses that his critics viewed as uncharacteristically illiberal. Chief among these were various gruesome methods of execution in the case of a capital offense, castration in the case of rape, and retributive violence in the case of a maiming or disfigurement. These measures were eventually moderated, and an original plan to sentence perpetrators of felonies and misdemeanors to hard labor was changed to provide for an incarceration system. After many lengthy and niggling debates, Jefferson's revised code of laws was adopted in full in 1796. He never considered it one of his greater successes.

From an educational, legal and religious standpoint, Jefferson's values were ahead of the curve, and his policies were correspondingly bold. However, with regard to slavery, Jefferson suffered from a truly mixed record: often discussing the need to abolish slavery, but finding himself continually frustrated at his unsuccessful efforts to affect change. Eventually, a sense of lassitude set in, driven perhaps as much by economics as by ideology. For as a large-scale slave-owner throughout life, a significant portion of his fortunes were predicated upon the peculiar institution.

Jefferson is frequently celebrated for his democratic reforms, but the blot on his record with regard to slavery is difficult to ignore. Further, Jefferson tended to penalize the privileged without markedly improving the lot of the poor. This too is a legacy that America continues to live with today. As historian Henry Adams suggested, "Jefferson's reforms crippled and impoverished the gentry, they did little for the populace, and for the slaves nothing."

Regardless of Jefferson's conspicuous failings, the positive influence that he contributed as a Virginia legislator was unsurpassed in his time. By setting up a model state constitution, he provided a blueprint for other states to follow. Moreover, many of his state policies were later adopted at a federal level. The immense economic, political and social changes that Jefferson wielded by the power of his pen have led many to call his accomplishment a "bloodless revolution" of sorts.

But while this "bloodless revolution" could be taken in the safe haven of the Virginia Assembly, war with the British continued to rage just to the north. And though he professed to have no interest in military operations, Jefferson's legal aplomb and aptitude for leadership gradually drew him toward the bloody fray that his own rhetoric had done so much to incite.

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