WAR and PEACE – Thomas Jefferson Remembers
Generations of Americans have read and praised those classic autobiographies of Ben Franklin and Frederick Douglass. Mention the autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, however, and you’re likely to get mostly blank stares from these same people. Perhaps because it is less personally revealing and flavorful than those other two, and granted that Jefferson concluded this work even as much of his career still lay ahead, the autobiography nevertheless stands as a highly rewarding historical account rightfully deserving our attention.
It should be better known not because it reveals much about the author himself – which it doesn’t, but rather because it is a unique first-hand, eye witness account of arguably the most absorbing and significant period of our country’s history. In it we encounter Jefferson still in his early twenties, already in the midst of the action, in a positon to serve as a reliable guide to the many stirring events that led the colonists to take up arms against England, achieve independence, and ultimately form the United States of America. First as an engaged bystander, but soon after as an active participant, Jefferson reveals what went on both in his native Virginia and in the various colonial assemblies to which he is appointed or elected.
He writes to settle no scores or aggrandize his role. It is in 1821 that he prepares his autobiography, his position in the pantheon of American heroes long secure. He undertakes this project, he explains, “to make some memoranda and state some recollections of dates and facts concerning myself for my own ready reference and for the information of my family.” Such modesty aside, the “dates and facts” he presents represent an exceptionally valuable insider’s narrative of the birth of our nation.
Early on, Jefferson avows that he has, lost faith in the supposed benefits of English rule. “During the regal government,” he observed, “nothing liberal could expect success.” While studying law in Williamsburg under the tutelage of George Wyeth, Jefferson, in response to the growing opposition to the Stamp Act repairs to the House of Burgesses and positions himself, he says “at the door of the lobby.” There, “he heard the splendid display of Mr. [Patrick] Henry‘s talents as a popular orator. They were great indeed; such as I have never heard from any other man. He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote.”
As protests swelled along with boycotts of English goods, many hoped England would respond by relaxing its grip over the colonies. Not Jefferson. To him, “the Royal negative [veto]” closed, “the last door to every hope of amelioration.” Unfortunately, many colonists remained indifferent, still did not think to question English motives “out of habit and despair, not of reflection and conviction.” And when England, bowing to colonial pressure, rescinded the Townshend import duties, Jefferson became discouraged, noting in 1770 that “nothing of particular excitement occurring for a considerable time our countrymen seemed to fall into a state of insensitivity to our situation.” Now part of the elite inner circles of Virginia’s gentleman patriots including Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, he encouraged the formation of “a committee of correspondence” in each colony as” the best instrument for intercommunication.” Here we find one of the rare instances where Jefferson attempts to correct the record, writing that it was Virginia, not Massachusetts that should be credited with inaugurating this vital network for intercolonial communication.
In reaction to the Boston Tea Party (1773), England closed the port of Boston. Would Virginia take up the cause of Boston? Jefferson wasn’t sure. Fellow colonists, he stated, needed once more to be aroused “from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events.” Now seated in the House of Burgesses, Jefferson and others proposed that, as the Puritans had often done, there be a “day of general fasting and prayer.” So “we cooked up a resolution,” Jefferson writes and after modernizing certain phrases, called for “a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer to implore heaven to avert us from the evils of Civil War.” For such impertinence the Royal Governor, as had happened before when openly challenged, “dissolved the legislature.”
By this time (1774) Jefferson’s thoughts on America’s connection to England are quite radical. “Our emigration from England,” he writes “to this country gave her [England] no more right over us than the emigration of Danes and Saxons gave to its present authorities of the mother country over England.” He gathered such inflammatory thoughts (later printed in a tract – A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans) and sent them on to Patrick Henry about to leave for Philadelphia, where the First Continental Congress would be meeting. He feared, however, that Henry “was too lazy to read it (for he was the laziest man in reading I ever knew)”, Jefferson nevertheless informs us that, in fact, the pamphlet did circulate widely, including within England.
Jefferson now takes us to the Second Continental Congress, convened in Philadelphia, with most members, he observed, prepared to sever ties with England. But not all, especially one John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who still “retained the hope of reconciliation” and because he was “so honest a man and so able a one that he was greatly indulged, even by those who could not feel his scruples.” Despite this, on Friday June 7, 1776, Virginia urged that Congress should declare that these united colonies are “of right ought to be free and independent states.” Jefferson worried such a move might be premature insofar as the middle colonies “were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to the British connection” and as a result could “secede from the Union.” Furthermore, he was not confident Americans could count on French and Spanish assistance because both countries “had reason to be jealous of that rising power which would one day certainly strip them of all their American possessions.” Even so, he regrets not having enlisted France because the French “might have marched an army into Germany and prevented the petty princes there from selling their unhappy subjects to subdue us.”
Even as Congress worked for greater unity of opinion to emerge, Jefferson mentions that he was placed on a committee and instructed to prepare a declaration of independence. Readers will surely be disappointed here because Jefferson tells us next to nothing about how he fashioned this extraordinary document. The committee, he states, simply “desired me to do it” and “it was accordingly done.” He does, however, include a preliminary draft of the declaration and includes certain specific stylistic and word changes that were introduced. Eliminated was censure of the English people because of, according to Jefferson, “the pusillanimous idea that we have friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many.” The final draft also omitted casting blame for slavery on King George III because Jefferson writes our “Northern brethren. . . for though these people have few slaves themselves yet they have been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”
Independence declared, war with England underway, Jefferson still a delegate to the Continental Congress offers a lengthy account of that body’s efforts to devise a permanent government in order to conduct the war and secure assistance from Europeans. Endless wrangling ensues over how to balance small and large states and whether slaves should be counted when tabulating population. Should taxes be apportioned based upon population or property values in each state? These debates, Jefferson reports would continue endlessly before the Articles of Confederation government finally is formed.
Well before that Jefferson departed the Congress, having been elected in 1778 to the Virginia legislature. Here he and others threw themselves into the monumental task of revising archaic colonial laws, modernizing the language of statutes and introducing new legislation that reflected the reform spirit of the age. Jefferson endlessly writing reports and drafting laws was especially keen on revising land law which had, he asserted, “enabled families to amass, retain and pass on undivided large tracts of land.” He wishes instead “to annul this privilege and instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent. . . essential to a well-ordered republic.” Jefferson would win out here but not before doing battle with Edward Pendleton, “who was zealously attached to ancient establishments; and who. . . was the ablest man in debate I have ever met with.”
Jefferson also took aim at the “spiritual tyranny” represented by the Anglican Church establishment in Virginia for the support of which Quakers, Presbyterians, Baptists and other dissenters were taxed. Jefferson and other like-minded colleagues carry the day and, as he notes, “the establishment of the Anglican Church [was] entirely put down.” What is remarkable is that these and many other reforms are considered and achieved during war time, and despite “the endless quibble, chicaneries perverseness, vexations and delays of lawyers and demi-lawyers.” Having said this, Jefferson does concede that the reform tide left slavery largely intact. He observes though that
“nothing is now certainly written in the book of fate that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation, deportation peaceably and ensure slow degree so that the evil will wear off insensibly and their place is pari passu filled up by free white laborers.”
Once more Jefferson is on the move, having been appointed (June 1, 1779) Governor of Virginia. About his term of office he writes but a few words, excusing the omission by stating that others have written about this period of Virginia history. Such evasion is probably best explained by the fact that his term of office was generally regarded as unsuccessful, most historians agreeing it was not a high point in an otherwise remarkable career of public service. But as usual, Jefferson then eased into yet another post, back in Congress representing Virginia. As before, little is accomplished here, Jefferson remarking how erratic attention, frequent recesses and the lack of an executive resulted in considerable laxity and irresolution. No doubt he was relieved when the Congress appointed him to join John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in Europe to negotiate commercial treaties. He soon discovered, however, that most nations “know little about us,” regarding Americans as mere “rebels who had been successful in throwing off the yoke of the mother country,” the exception being France, its “government entirely disposed to befriend us on all occasions.”
Unfortunately for the Americans, the French government (so critical to American victory in the Revolutionary War), itself would succumb to revolution. Jefferson was on the scene during its early stages and begs readers to excuse him if he provides an overly detailed account of events there, which is what he does. “But I have thought it justified by the interest which the whole world must take in the revolution.” He is energized and reasonably hopeful about the prospect for reform, believing that the American Revolution had “awakened the thinking part of the French nation in general from the sleep of desperation in which they were sunk,” and that they were entirely justified in reacting against “the monstrous abuses of power, under which their people were ground to powder.” “I went daily from Paris to Versailles and attended their debates.” I was “much acquainted with the leading patriots of the Assembly,” who he tells us appreciated his role in America’s revolution “and had much confidence in me.” Alas, Jefferson writing his autobiography from the perspective of 1821 knows full well that early hopes dissolved into destructive upheavals and that the reformers “were unconscious (for who could foresee?) the melancholy sequel of their well-meant perseverance.”
But even as the French lost faith in their government, so had many Americans in the late 1780s, and one could even claim that they also overthrew their existing national structure, except that it was accomplished via a well ordered convention (albeit held in secret) which then submitted the new constitution to the people for their ratification. For all of this, Jefferson was not on the scene, had no role at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. He nevertheless applauded the fact that the “people as soon as they perceived the incompetence of their first compact, instead of leaving its correction to insurrectionists and civil war,” sent representatives to create a new framework of government. After receiving copies of the document, Jefferson wrote to James Madison and General Washington expressing “my approbations and objections.” The absence of a Bill of Rights disturbed him, as did the failure to limit a President to two terms. Without such limits he warned about the danger “of interference with money or arms by foreign nations, to whom the choice of an American president might become interesting.”
Whatever his misgivings, Jefferson was about to experience firsthand how well the new government would function. Summoned from France by President George Washington Jefferson would now serve as the nation’s first Secretary of State. And it is at this point that Jefferson’s Autobiography abruptly halts. He offers no explanation, even though he knew (in 1821) that he was about to embark on two exceptionally eventful decades of public life.
No matter. Let us appreciate the fact that he left us an autobiography of exceptional historical value, not by exposing the inner man, but by taking us step by step along a path he and fellow statesmen followed as they launched a wondrous national experiment.