Thomas Jefferson

Virginia was the ground in which Jefferson planned to plant the roots of his ideal republic. Jefferson's broad vision of a republican society encompassed governmental, cultural, educational, and societal institutions and activities. In his view, Virginia's political, legal, and educational systems were to be reformed and molded into an ideal republican society as a model for America and Europe.

Once independence was virtually certain, Jefferson desperately wanted to help draft a new constitution for Virginia. The establishment of a government better than that of the past was, he said, "the whole object of the present controversy." Jefferson also actively attempted to reform the Virginia's laws on crime, inheritance, religion, education, and the slave trade.

Like many admirers of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was convinced that science and the scientific method held the keys to learning and education in the broadest sense. Jefferson promoted studies of natural history, botany, archeology, and architecture. His extensive library, the largest personal one in the United States by 1815, was a testament to his conviction that all subjects of learning fell within the purview of all learned men.

Privately educated in grammar schools, the College of William and Mary, and primarily the world of books, Thomas Jefferson was an ardent advocate of public education as a cornerstone of a free republican society. Throughout his life Jefferson promoted reform in public education as a prerequisite for an enduring republican nation. The founding of the University of Virginia (chartered in 1819) was the capstone of Jefferson's educational advocacy, and he devoted most of the last decade of his life to its establishment and well-being.

Seeking an Ideal Republic

"Under the law of nature all men are born free"

Thomas Jefferson acted as attorney pro bono in two Virginia legal suits for freedom by enslaved mulatto children, both of which he lost. In Samuel Howell v. Wade Netherland, April 1770, Jefferson unsuccessfully argued that not only had Howell's grandmother been a white woman but "under the law of nature, all men are born free." Samuel Howell lost his case in the 1770 session of the General Court and ran away shortly after the verdict. The trial was included in this book of select cases illustrating important points of law.

Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court of Virginia. Charlottesville: 1829. Page 2. Page 3. Page 4. Law Library (36)

Capitol Of Virginia

Thomas Jefferson prepared plans for the Virginia capitol in Richmond based on the famous building Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France, with the assistance of French architect and antiquarian Charles-Louis Clérisseau. The Virginia capitol was the first public building in the United States designed in the neoclassical style.

Capitol of Virginia. Richmond undated. Copyprint of engraving. Prints and Photographs Division (98)

Reforming criminal law in Virginia

Plans to reform criminal codes were a staple of Enlightenment thinkers, but few actually had the opportunity to attempt real reform. The committee to revise Virginia's laws put Jefferson in charge of the section on crimes and punishment. Jefferson's proposal contained some humanitarian sections (capital crimes for white offenders were reduced to two), but it remained largely traditional and harsh. Punishments for free and enslaved blacks were actually increased. Virtually none of the plan was adopted by the Virginia legislature.

Thomas Jefferson. Draft Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishment, 1777–1779. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (61)

Thomas Jefferson advertises for a runaway slave in Williamsburg's newspaper

Runaway slaves were not unknown on the Jefferson plantations. In this 1769 advertisement Thomas Jefferson, who had inherited half of his father Peter's more than sixty slaves, offered a forty shilling reward for the return of "a Mulatto slave called Sandy." After Sandy's return, Jefferson sold him, as he did many problem slaves, despite his value as a shoemaker and jockey, to Col. Charles Lewis for 100 pounds on January 29, 1773.

The Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, September 14, 1769. Reproduction of newspaper. Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond (37)

Bill for establishing religious freedom in Virginia

Thomas Jefferson drafted a bill in 1777 for establishing religious freedom seeking to prevent anyone from being "compelled to frequent or support any religious Worship place or Ministry" or having their religious actions or inactions "affect their civil capacities." This broadside of the proposed bill, printed in Williamsburg, is the earliest known printed text of Jefferson's proposed law. Virginia did not adopt the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom until January 16, 1786, when Jefferson was United States minister to France.

A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, printed for the Consideration of the People, 1779. Reproduction of broadside. Courtesy of the trustees of the Boston Public Library (66)

The Role of Education

Well-informed people can be trusted with self-government

The ability of people to govern themselves was a major goal of education in Jefferson's mind. The new Federal Constitution of the United States "& a submission to it" proved to Jefferson that "whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights."

Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, January 8, 1789. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (60)

Read the transcript

Public education as the engine of republicanism

For Thomas Jefferson, public education was the key to preserving republican government. To secure the broadest level of popular education Jefferson prepared his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" as part of the revision of Virginia's laws. As chair of the committee, Jefferson proposed a three level system in 1779, (never adopted): three years of primary education for all girls and boys; advanced studies for a select number of boys; a state scholarship to the College of William and Mary for one boy from each district every two years.

Report of the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in MDCCLXXVI. Richmond: 1784. Pamphlet. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (64)

Jefferson's vision of education for women

In this letter, Jefferson stated the very limited view he had of education for women. For his daughters, he thought it . . . "essential to give them a solid education which might enable them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive." He did enlist his daughter Martha's help—and acknowledged it—in compiling a list of eighty-three books "for such a course of reading as we have practiced."

Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell, March 14, 1818. Manuscript letter. Page 2. Manuscript Division (73)

"Providing for the instruction of slaves"

In writing to Robert Pleasants, a Quaker, Thomas Jefferson suggested that the Virginia government create a public educational system for slaves based on his 1784 plan "for the more general diffusion of Knowledge" as one step in preparing them for freedom. Jefferson proposed that Pleasants introduce the legislation urging that instruction be provided for those slaves "destined to be free" and noting that "Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other." Such a measure was proposed as an amendment to a bill but was taken out before the legislation passed.

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Pleasants, 1796. Fragment of manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (74)

Mastering the skill of writing

Although there is no evidence that Jefferson taught his slaves to write, he certainly knew and expected that many of them could read his written instructions. Hannah (b. 1770), a cook and laundress at Poplar Forest, demonstrates her writing skill and her Christianity in this letter. She writes expressing her sorrow "that you are so unwell you could not come. It grieve me many time, but I hope as you have been so blessed in this that you considered it was God that done it and no other one."

Hannah to Thomas Jefferson, November 15, 1818. Reproduction of manuscript. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston (71)

University of Virginia

The "illimitable freedom of the human mind"

Thomas Jefferson envisioned the University of Virginia as a vast resource for improving the American mind and governing the state and the nation. In this letter to an English reformer and historian, Jefferson boldly states: "this institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it."

Thomas Jefferson to William Roscoe, December 27, 1820. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (75)

Read the transcript

Jefferson's draft sketch of Rotunda at the University of Virginia

The rotunda at the University of Virginia was carefully planned by Jefferson to represent the authority of nature and the power of reason. To Jefferson, the classical architecture of Palladio, the famous Italian architect of the sixteenth century, best represented these ideals. The Rotunda originally housed the library, which Jefferson considered the major source of enlightenment and wisdom.

Thomas Jefferson. South Elevation of the Rotunda, begun 1818, completed March 29, 1819. Ink and pencil drawing. Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Architectural Drawings, University Archives, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library (77)

Village design of the University of Virginia

Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia as an academic village. Students and faculty were to live in close proximity in pavilions lining two sides of an open square. At one end was the great Rotunda, the architectural and institutional focal point. This lithograph shows the university with its original roof scheme intact. Jefferson's version of the Pantheon became the target of critics who considered it too extravagant. The north end was left open for expansion.

Henry Schenck Tanner after a drawing by Benjamin Tanner. "Village Design of University of Virginia," 1826. Detail of University of Virginia map by Herman Böÿe, 1827. Reproduction. Courtesy of the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library (76)

Serpentine wall at the University of Virginia

Serpentine walls line the ten gardens between the pavilions of the inner lawn and the outer ranges of the academic village of the University of Virginia. The serpentine walls were designed by Jefferson after English "crinkle-crankle walls," which provide strength, efficiency of materials, and beauty.

Detroit Publishing Company. Serpentine Wall, U Va., 1905. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division (76a)

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker's Almanac

On August 19, 1791, Benjamin Banneker, a free black trained as a mathematician, clockmaker, and surveyor, sent Jefferson a copy of his Almanac in an effort to change Jefferson's views on blacks' intellectual capacities that he outlined in Notes on the State of Virginia. In the accompanying letter, Banneker pleaded with Jefferson to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson never lent the "aid and assistance" Banneker sought. The correspondence between the two was published repeatedly by Banneker and his Quaker supporters. Jefferson's political enemies used this correspondence to charge that Jefferson was a secret abolitionist.

Benjamin Banneker. Benjamin Bannaker's New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanac, or Ephemeris, For the Year of our Lord 1795. Wilmington, Delaware, 1795. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (78)

"Talents equal to those of the other colors of men"

In an exchange of letters with Benjamin Banneker, a free black living in Maryland, Jefferson lauded Banneker's mathematical accomplishments: "no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men." However, in a later correspondence, Jefferson indicated that Banneker may have had help in his calculations, and, in an 1809 letter to Joel Barlow, stated that Banneker had "a mind of very common stature indeed."

Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Banneker, August 30, 1791. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (79)

Read the transcript

"Talents is no measure of their rights"

In this letter, Jefferson explains the reasons for his statements, in the Notes on the State of Virginia, on the limitations of African Americans, differentiating between demonstrable talent and rights: "be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained . . . my doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so . . . . but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights."

Thomas Jefferson to Henri Grégoire, . February 25, 1809. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (80)

The Rise of Science

Jefferson's Notes On The State Of Virginia

Notes on the State of Virginia is the only book published by Thomas Jefferson. While United States minister to France, Jefferson had this book published in May 1785, as a response to the Compte de Buffon's very public belittling of America and its people and natural resources. Jefferson's work quickly gained the Franco-American cultural spotlight and raced through nineteen editions in at least five countries before Jefferson's death. This edition is the first published in the United States.

Thomas Jefferson. Notes on the State of Virginia. Philadelphia: Pritchard and Hall, 1788. Page 2 Rare Book and Special Collections Division (88)

Optical principles of a rainbow

Jefferson's scientific knowledge is displayed in this July 19, 1788, letter to Bishop James Madison (1749–1812), president of the College of William and Mary and cousin of the fourth president of the United States. In it, Jefferson discusses Isaac Newton's theory of "opticks." Note the sketch drawn by Jefferson to help explain the optical principles of a rainbow.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, July 19, 1788. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (83)

Jefferson's Report on Megalonyx Jeffersoni

Thomas Jefferson sent this report, "A Memoir of the Discovery of Certain Bones of an Unknown Quadruped, of the Clawed Kind, in the Western Part of Virginia," to the American Philosophical Society in 1799 with the bone samples which had been brought to Jefferson from western Virginia, now Big Bone Lick, Kentucky. The report was published by the Society in 1799. Jefferson incorrectly identified the bones as those of a giant cat-like carnivore, instead of a giant sloth. The animal was named for him in 1822.

Thomas Jefferson. Report on Magalonyx Jeffersoni, ca. 1797-99. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (94)

Natural History and Science

Asserting the inferiority of American nature

George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 1788), was a leading French naturalist whose theory, published in this work, that all animal and plant life, including humans, degenerated in America. These theories angered Jefferson and energized his scientific collecting.

George Louis Leclerc. Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux. 10 vols. Paris: de l'Imprimerie Royale, 1770 1783. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (85)

My animals are bigger than yours

To refute assertions by the Comte de Buffon and others that animal and plant life in America was a faint and smaller shadow of European species, Jefferson asked friends in America to send him the hides and bones of several large animals. In this letter Jefferson tells Buffon: "I am happy to be able to present to you at this moment the bones & skin of a Moose, the horns of another individual of the same species, the horns of the Caribou, the elk, the deer, the spiked horned buck, & the Roebuck of America . . . ." Jefferson then diplomatically asks the Frenchman to reconsider his views.

Thomas Jefferson to Comte de Buffon, October 1, 1787. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (86)

The exhumation of the Mastodon

Thomas Jefferson took an active interest in the discovery and exhumation of an entire skeleton of a mastodon near Newburgh, New York by Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). Peale later found a more accessible cache of mammoth bones in a nearby swamp. Peale assembled and mounted a nearly complete mammoth skeleton (measuring more than 11 feet at the shoulders and 17 feet long) in the Peale family parlor in Philosophical Hall, Philadelphia, where it was displayed to the public in 1801.

Charles Willson Peale, Exhumation of the Mastodon, 1806–1808. Copyprint of oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore (92)

Bones of Magalonyx Jeffersoni

These toe bones of the Magalonyx jeffersoni were found in western Virginia. In 1797 newly elected vice-president of the United States and president of the American Philosophical Society, Thomas Jefferson presented the bones and a report on the megalonyx or "great claw" to the society. The study of these bones is said to have marked the start of technical vertebrate paleontology in the United States. In 1822 the animal was given the name Megalonyx Jeffersoni.

James Akin after a chalk drawing by W.S. Jacobs. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 4 (1799). Copyprint of engraving. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (94a)

Back to top