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Thomas Jefferson: At a Glance

Updated on December 27, 2016
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.


Thomas Jefferson was an American statesman, philosopher, architect, historian, paleontologist, archaeologist, and political theorist; and fulfilled many other roles within the young American nation.[1] Serving as Secretary of State under President George Washington,[2] Jefferson was a proficient linguist, speaking Italian, Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, and English. According to historian Stanley Haver, Jefferson also played a central role in the founding of the University of Virginia.[3] Through Jefferson’s design of the University of Virginia as an “academical village,” Jefferson employed elements of classical Greek architecture with domes, pavilions, and columns through architectural symbolism for an emphasis on democratic principles and maintenance of order.[4] While serving as the American Minister to France from 1784 until 1789, Jefferson proposed construction of a prison in Virginia to the Virginia State Legislature, with a similar emphasis on maintaining discipline.[5]

[1] Joyce. Robinson, "An American Cabinet of Curiosities: Thomas Jefferson's Indian Hall at Monticello", Winterthur Portfolio, Vol.30, No.1 (Spring 1995) pp. 41-43.

[2] Mark Wenger, "Thomas Jefferson, Tennant." Winterthur Portfolio, Vol.26, No.4, (Winter 1991) 249.

[3] Stanley Haver, "Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo Saxon Language" PMLA Modern Language Association, Vol.98, No.5, (October 1983) pp. 879-882.

[4] Mary Woods, "Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia: Planning the Academic Village" Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 44, No.3, (October 1985) pp. 266-269.

[5] Ibid., 276-279.

Economics and Property

Thomas Jefferson encouraged a "dynamic, prosperous economy" based in the principles of anti-capitalism, according to political analyst Claudio Katz, who argues that John Locke's theories “played a decisive role” in the development of Jefferson's ideology; in which a forceful critique of wage labor formed the basis of a stringent sense of anti-capitalism. Expressive of a civic humanist and communitarian sentiment, Jefferson’s opposition to hired labor and his desire for protection of self-directed work, placed great emphasis on independence rooted in "access to ones own productive property." According to Katz, such principles of Jefferson’s economic ideology were rooted in the intended prevention of what Jefferson recognized to be "wage slavery."[1] The Lockean core of Jefferson's political economy is shattered according to Katz analysis, because Lockean ideology is deeply rooted in the belief that private property is a natural right of man. In a close analysis of Locke's influences on Jefferson's ideologies, Katz recognizes that despite the many ideologies of Locke adopted by Jefferson, Jefferson did not adopt Locke's belief in the right to appropriate. Jefferson did not find property amassment to be a natural right, as evidenced from Jefferson's omission of property in his encouragement of life and liberty as the natural rights of man in a progressive society. [2]

[1] Claudio Katz. "Thomas Jefferson's Liberal Anticapitalism", American Journal of Political Science, V0l.47, No.1, (January 2003) pp 1-3.

[2] Ibid., 7-9.

Native American Relations

Jefferson held an ironic belief in the "expropriation of American Indians" simultaneous to his condemnation of "the dispossession of independent small holders,” as he envisioned a market economy in which there is no necessity to wok under direction of another (for white Americans), and goods could be obtained through bartering of payment in kind. Thomas Jefferson viewed Native Americans as existing in a state of nature, in a state of "barbarism and wretchedness" with disgraceful manners; thus deserving of a lower status in society than white citizens. Despite his condemnation of Native American lifestyles, Jefferson believed in the possibility of Indian assimilation, including turning nomadic Indians into sedentary farmers for the economically efficient redistribution of Indian lands to white Americans. Jefferson believed in the ability of Native Americans to make progress through the "promotion of agriculture and household manufacture," a process through which cultivation and agricultural production might provide a comfortable independence for Native Americans. [1]

[1] Ibid., 9-15.

Slavery and Gradual Emancipation

According to his writings on the position of Africans within American society, Jefferson perceived slavery is a “political and moral evil” in which the “lasting interests of the American States” as well as the “rights of human nature” were deeply wounded. Jefferson advocated emancipation of slaves, on the condition that the freedmen would be removed from America to colonies located in such places as Santo Domingo and coastal Africa due to his fear that such citizens as freed slaves might become would never fully assimilate into white American society. According to Jefferson, “Santo Domingo proved to be attractive after the bloody scenes of the revolution had passed away.” Contending that the difference between African slaves and American whites was not only one of status but of mental “faculty” (despite his supposition that “in music, they are generally more gifted than the whites”), Jefferson explained his belief that given the choice, those slaves who have grown in slavery lack the knowledge and skill of self government and would not choose to leave their state of subservience within the established American social hierarchy. In his discussion of the origins of American slavery in comparison to contemporary slave life, Jefferson stated that “an inhumane practice once prevailed in this country, of making slaves of Indians. This practice commenced with the Spaniards with the first discovery of America. Under the mild treatment our slaves experience, and their wholesome, though coarse food, this blot in our country increase as fast, or faster than the whites.”[1] As he aged and through experience in the political realm of American life learned that the economic and political climate of the young nation made an immediate emancipation of slaves unlikely, Jefferson became increasingly supportive of a gradual emancipation, which he felt was more likely to be accomplished.[2]

[1] Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on the Negro” The Journal of Negro History, Vol.3, No.1 (January 1918) pp. 55-61.

[2] Ibid., 85-87.

Church and the State

Thomas Jefferson's 1786 "Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom," outlined his belief in the need for a strict separation of church and state, in what historian Robert O’Neil called a "guide to the constitutional proximity of government and religion."[1] In his January 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists Association of Connecticut, Jefferson condoned the existence of a “wall of separation between church an state,” drawing the connection between his metaphor and the religion clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Jefferson’s wall of separation indicates that the First Amendment was intended for what historian James H. Hutson contends was “more than merely preventing the federal government from favoring one religious denomination over another; rather, he seemed to suggest that its purpose was to cordon off government from religion and to block any meaningful interaction between the two.” According to Hutson’s analysis of the Danbury Letter, Jefferson’s metaphor of church-state relations in the new nation was possibly intended as a counterattack against his federalist enemies, as the letter proclaimed the need for a wall of “eternal separation” as the original text of the letter stated.

Jefferson regarded religious proclamations by the state as “yet more British weeds that needed to be pulled from the American political system” according to Hutson. In response to the letter and the sentiment it embodied among the American people, groups of citizens such as the “Americans United for Separation of Church and State” claimed to be fighting the “second American Revolution”, a crusade to undo the work of those whom Jefferson contended were Federalist Party “monocrats” and “Anglomen,” who wished to impose a British style monarchy on the United States in place of a republican government. Through his letter, Jefferson sought to put an end to such threats to Republican government by ensuring no religious-federalist alliance in collusion against republican government.[2]

[1] Robert O'Neil. "The Wall of Separation: And Thomas Jefferson's Views on Religious Liberty" The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.56, No.4, (October 1999) p.791.

[2], James H. Huston “Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists: A Controversy Rejoined” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.56, No.4 (October 1999) pp. 775-777.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to my husband for encouraging my research!
Special Thanks to my husband for encouraging my research!


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