Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy to America’s Youth of Today

Remarks of John McClaughry, Ethan Allen Institute, to an assembly at St. Johnsbury Academy, St. Johnsbury, Vermont, April 10, 2013

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

My topic today is Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy to the Youth of America – and for that matter, of the world.

Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable man – perhaps the most remarkable in all American history.  His accomplishments were acknowledged by President John F. Kennedy. When he hosted a large gathering of Nobel Laureates at the White House in 1962, he memorably observed that “this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

And that combination of genius, wisdom, vision, curiosity, political skill, and elegance of literary style is why Thomas Jefferson, of the many famous and accomplished Americans, remains a compelling figure not only in our country, but throughout the world, wherever people yearn for independence, liberty and self-government.

In the brief time we have together, I can only hope to spark your interest in learning more about this remarkable man. So let me give you a brief survey of his life, and especially of the political principles that he so brilliantly enunciated.

Two hundred and seventy years ago next Saturday Thomas Jefferson was born in a rude frontier house in Albemarle County, Virginia. At the end of his long and extraordinarily productive life – he died at his beloved Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, at the age of 83 –  Jefferson asked that only three things be engraved upon his tombstone: that he authored the Declaration of American Independence, secured adoption of the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, and founded the University of Virginia.

Of these, the immortal Declaration established Jefferson’s high rank in history.  Every Fourth of July I step out on my porch and read the opening paragraph, which begins with the thrilling and unforgettable words: “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.”

Had Jefferson favored a larger monument, it might also have noted that he was Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President of the United States. But  merely reciting his public offices falls far short of capturing the true genius of this man.

An early biographer, the Englishman James Parton, marveled at this remarkable man who could “calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.”

From his youth Jefferson devoured books and ideas  – and learned the practical arts of agriculture, architecture, commerce, and science. He could have discussed history with the great historians Tacitus, Herodotus or Gibbon. On any point of law he could have held his own with Lord Coke or Sir William Blackstone. A visitor who spoke to him of geography would have found it easy to believe that Jefferson had traveled with John Cabot to the northern seas or with Captain Cook to the South Pacific. In natural science his observations would have stimulated a Newton or a Darwin. He loved the poetry of Homer and Shakespeare, Moliere and Dante.  And he could have discussed those matters not only in English, but also in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish and French. A perusal of his library showed that he had also shown an interest in German, Arabic, Welsh, Gaelic, and especially Native American tongues.

Jefferson left behind an astonishing written record over a period of more than sixty years. “Jefferson,” scholar Clay Jenkinson has said, “has been dead for two hundred years, and some parts of his vision and his outlook are no longer useful to us. We need to clarify and preserve…. those parts of his core vision that are still vital to the success of the American experiment…  and not miscarry on the rock of literalism.”

I agree that it’s possible to extract from Jefferson’s vast outpouring a few phrases, shorn of their context, to support  a wide range of today’s political arguments. I want to assure you that in selecting the following ten key points of Jefferson’s thought today, I am doing justice to him and to the historical record, and taking care not to warp his thought into the service of any current ideology.

That said, let me select and briefly illustrate my “top ten” from Jefferson’s life and works, as his legacy to the statesmen and citizens of today and tomorrow.

Number One: The importance of character, decency, integrity and honor to the preservation of a free republic.

In 1785 Jefferson, then ambassador to France, wrote a letter to his young nephew Peter Carr. It glows in the dark yet today for its wisdom and sense of honor. It said, in part, “if you ever find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see, when you fetch one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible…Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties tenfold; and those who pursue these methods get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed.”

Number Two: Faith in the Common Man:  Looking back two years before his death, Jefferson summarized his lifelong view when he wrote “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties. First, those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. Secondly, those who identify themselves with the people, having confidence in them, and cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, though not the most wise, depository of the public interests”.

Jefferson obviously identified with this second group. He had a revulsion against the Hamiltonian ideal of government by the rich, well born and well connected – although he himself largely fit that description, dwelling in some elegance at his mountaintop estate of Monticello. But a key distinction was that the Virginia planters derived their prominence from making the land productive – albeit with the help of a large workforce of slaves.

By contrast, the rising class of the Federalist Party’s leaders waxed rich and powerful from commerce, finance, and trading things of value, rather than creating them. The Hamiltonian leaders were often eager to manipulate government favors to produce their riches, rather than earn them through honest work, and approved of the increase of public debt as a way of attaching more firmly the financial class  – who Jefferson called the stock jobbers – to the fortunes of the government.

Jefferson was convinced that self-government could be achieved and maintained only if the great bulk of governmental functions could be exercised close to the people, under their watchful eyes. “What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun?”, he inquired. “The generalizing and concentrating all cares into one body.” To this end he advocated the idea of the “ward republic”, where every citizen could take pride in participating in the ennobling process of self-government. Only such a system, he believed, could breed the virtuous, independent citizen, and become a bulwark against the rise of despotism.

That thought leads to Number Three: The Threat of Corruption.

Today we think of corruption as embezzling town funds or selling one’s vote for money. That has always been true, but in Jefferson’s day the term had a far broader meaning. To political theorists dating back to Polybius, corruption meant the deterioration of a desirable government into a far worse one. The 17th and 18th  century English political theorists viewed this trend as inevitable – unless it could be consciously prevented by wise design of institutions. That was the point of James Harrington’s Oceana, published in 1656.  It proposed a means of maintaining a healthy balance among interests, leading to an “immortal republic” of liberty. I’ll return to that later on.

Jefferson and his close friend James Madison were at pains to counter the new republic’s slide toward corruption.  They feared the unchecked power of the state – the tax gatherer – the place men – the standing army- torrents of paper money backed only by empty government promises – grants of special privilege – the flatterers and interest seekers of the court – an arrogant aristocracy – an established church – the dead hand of the past strangling the bright hopes of the future. The Jeffersonian motto was “equal rights for all, special privilege for none.”

As time passed, Jefferson grew increasingly despondent about the growing corruption of American institutions.  A few months before he died, he wrote his friend William Giles, denouncing those who “now look to a single and splendid Government of an aristocracy founded on banking institutions  and moneyed corporations, under the guise and cloak of their favorite branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.”

By this he meant not a criticism of enterprise per se. Jefferson had long since come to grips with the need to place manufacturing, commerce and navigation alongside his beloved agriculture as essential to the young nation’s economy.  These were, he wrote, “the four pillars of our prosperity, and the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.”

But he was appalled at the scheming of many leaders of those interests to enrich themselves through government benefits, protection, and subsidies. One can only imagine how Jefferson would have thundered against the business and financial bailouts of the past four years in Washington.

Number Four: Private Property Ownership. From the first beginnings of his political thought and his law practice, Jefferson affirmed and set out to implement James Harrington’s 17th century prescription for an immortal republic.  Like everyone else among the Founders, Jefferson firmly believed in private property. But, as with Harrington, there was more.

Private property not only needed to be secured against confiscation and invasion, but it must also be widely distributed among the people. Independent, self-reliant proprietors, constituting both the electorate and the militia, would act always to preserve their rights and liberties against the usurpations of a corrupt central power.

His early law practice focused on challenging colonial land grants to the King’s cronies, to open up those western lands to actual settlers. One of his greatest legislative achievements was the Virginia law, coauthored with Madison, to terminate primogeniture and entail in property law. That meant that estates would pass to all the heirs, not just the eldest male, and the property could be exchanged outside of the family, creating greater opportunities for the industrious.

Viewing the wretched poverty of rural France side by side with its opulent estates, Jefferson wrote Madison in 1785 to remark that “legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind.”

Number Five: Limited and Frugal Government. Jefferson well understood the need for effective government to repel marauders and invaders, apply the common law, and maintain order. But any government that went very far beyond these basics increased his suspicion of impending corruption. . “A wise and frugal government,” wrote Jefferson at his first inaugural, “shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned” …

Nor was his concern for limiting government confined  to the national government. He was an avid believer in keeping as many civic functions as possible at the local level.  He remarked to John Adams in 1813, that his bill for the diffusion of learning had the further “object to impart to these [local] wards those portions of self-government for which they are best qualified, by confiding to them the care of their poor, their roads, police, elections, the nomination of jurors, administration of justice in small cases, elementary exercises of militia; in short,  to have made them little republics, with a warden at the head of each, for all those concerns which, being under their eye, they would be better managed than the larger republics of the county or state.”

Jefferson looked with admiration on our self-governing New England towns, even when they vocally rejected his 1807 embargo against trade with the British.

Number Six:  Retirement of Debt. Jefferson hated public debt. Not only was government borrowing imprudent, but it offered a fertile field for corruption. Writing  in 1799, just before becoming President, Jefferson said “I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt.”

He meant what he said. In his first presidential budget he devoted seventy percent of the Federal government’s revenues to that end. Thanks to his strict fiscal discipline, and despite the costs of the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, the national debt was in fact extinguished in 1835.  He also proposed a constitutional amendment prohibiting the Federal government from issuing debt. Alas, it wasn’t seriously considered. Our national debt today is approaching $17 trillion dollars, greater than our national production of goods and services. Maybe we should have paid Jefferson more attention.

Number 7:  Respect the Constitution. Jefferson passionately believed that, after the Declaration, the Constitution of 1787, augmented by the Bill of Rights, was America’s splendid charter of liberty. The Constitution contained the rules of government, and in particular specified what powers the national government would have – and where the reach of government power ended.

As Chief Justice John Marshall’s Supreme Court expanded the power and scope of the Federal government, Jefferson was outraged. That outrage is evident in this letter of 1823:

“It has long been my opinion, and I have never shrunk from its expression…that the germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the federal Judiciary; …working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped. … The judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric. They are construing our Constitution from a coordination of a general and special government to a general and supreme one alone.”

The Constitution is the operating manual for the republic. If new problems and new situations suggest amending it – then use the process specified to make the needed change. But, he would say, never, never, stretch, distort, undermine or amend the Constitution by construction.

Number Eight: The Value of Learning:  Throughout his long life Jefferson strongly held the belief that humanity, if not actually perfectible, could vastly improve its lot through education and learning. That required freedom of thought and respect for the scientific process. He famously said “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility to any form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Education brought not only understanding of the past and of the great questions of natural law and ethical behavior,  but the opening of new opportunities for the arts of agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and the like.

In his early years, Jefferson advocated free public education for all boys up to what we could call third grade, to establish literacy and basic knowledge. After that, he envisioned a progressive weeding out of the less capable, as boys advanced to, eventually, higher education, leading to an aristocracy not of birth, breeding, or riches, but of virtue and talent.  Regrettably, the 18th century was not much interested in the education of girls, but I have no doubt that Jefferson would enthusiastically approve of equal opportunity in our day.

The great work of his life after the leaving the presidency, of course, was the founding the University of Virginia. It would, he believed, become a fine example for educating the people for leadership.

Number Nine: The Advancement of Liberty.  Infused throughout Jefferson’s thinking was the preeminent value, the goal of all sound public policy, the preservation and advancement of individual liberty. Property promoted liberty and free institutions; therefore it was essential that the majority of the voters owned property. Education meant little without the liberty of thought and inquiry. The accumulation of government debt stole the liberty of future generations to make their own decisions. Taxation, beyond some minimal level, took away the liberty of the taxpayer to best apply his just earnings to his own benefit. To every question of public policy, the first response must be: will it advance and expand the liberty of the individual – or undermine and restrict it?

That concern is certainly much with us today, as governments become ever larger and more intrusive.

Number Ten: America as a Shining Example for the World. In his day, Jefferson shared George Washington’s aversion to foreign entanglements. Over his lifetime, he saw much happen that ran against his deeply held principles, and threatened the liberty of the people.

But Jefferson never abandoned his optimism. Until his dying day – on the fiftieth anniversary of the Fourth of July – he gloried in the prospect of the grand American experiment, brought forth by enlightened statesmen on a new continent with limitless resources and boundless prospects.

“Should ever the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and libraries of Europe,” he wrote, “this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them… The flames kindled on the Fourth of July 1776 have not spread over half the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume those engines and all who work them.”

In the final letter of his life, he concluded with the memorable – and optimistic – lines, “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”


As inspirational and visionary as he was, and as committed as he was to advancing the ideal of human liberty, Jefferson alas could never find a practical way to eradicate the curse of human slavery, about which he anguished throughout his life. He was also prone to some human weaknesses, such as deviousness in political behavior, an occasional flirtation with censorship, and poorly managing his own finances.

But the great principles of his faith – liberty, property, human rights, democracy, economic independence, limited and decentralized government, universal education, freedom of enterprise, sound money, and America as a moral example to the world – have well endured throughout the two centuries of our national life. Indeed, many of today’s problems can be traced to our unfortunate habit of abandoning the path he mapped for us two centuries ago.

As we Americans honor the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth, we can improve little upon the brilliant testimonial offered a century ago by Senator John W. Daniel of Virginia:

Wrote he, “There is not a heart that loves humanity, and thrills with noble rage for right and truth and justice, there is not a people on earth who are weary and heavy laden under the burden of oppression, there is not a chancellor who loves equity, there is not a devotee who bows his head in free worship to his maker, there is not an ingenuous student by the midnight lamp, there is not a toiler by land or sea, yea, there is not an astronomer who reads the stars, nor a humble farmer in his cabin, nor a freeman anywhere who treads the earth with the spirit of the free, who does not bless God that Thomas Jefferson lived, and that his life goes marching on…”

“Dying without a penny, his very books, his land, his home were sold away from his inheritors, and fighting successfully in every battle but his own, he crowned the people as victor in every battle that he won … If it is right that man sues for, and if he does not believe that one man is born bridled and saddled, and the other booted and spurred, let him pluck a flower from this good man’s life, and wear it in his soul forever.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil May 1, 2013 at 10:02 am

You said it man!


kiana bashardoost May 31, 2018 at 11:57 pm

Wow! amazing work. i had a project in social studies about why Thomas Jefferson was important. Have i not gotten an A for this web. thank u and for all Ur help.


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