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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s Service to the New Nation

In 1783, Jefferson was elected to Congress from Virginia. In March 1784, he submitted to Congress his Report of a Plan of Government for the Western Territory, establishing procedures for the entrance of new states into the union. In it, he proposed that slavery be abolished in new states by 1800. Congress rejected this part of the plan and passed a revised Ordinance. The Northwest Ordinance, passed July 13, 1787, contained much of what Jefferson had prescribed.

  • In Jefferson’s proposed plan, what were the five principles on which the governments of new states should rest? Use what you know about Jefferson to identify a reason why each of the principles was important to him.
  • The Thomas Jefferson Timeline suggests that this report “marks the high point of Jefferson’s opposition to slavery.” If you were making a timeline of Jefferson’s writings on slavery, what earlier documents would you include? As you study documents from later in Jefferson’s career, look for evidence that Jefferson’s opposition waned after 1784.

That same year, Jefferson was appointed to join John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as a minister representing the United States in Europe. In July, he left for Paris, where he would serve for five years. In 1786, Jefferson learned of Shays’ Rebellion in letters from John Adams and John Jay. Shays’ Rebellion arose when farmers in western Massachusetts, angered by rising debts and taxes, took up arms against the government. Abigail Adams, who corresponded regularly with Jefferson, also wrote him about the insurgency. Jefferson responded in a letter dated February 22, 1787.

. . . The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Smith Adams, February 22, 1787”

In a letter to William S. Smith, November 13, 1787, Jefferson again spoke of the rebellion in western Massachusetts:

…Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure….

From “Thomas Jefferson to William S. Smith, November 13, 1787,” page 515

  • Why do you think Jefferson seemed less concerned about Shays’ Rebellion than most American leaders, including John and Abigail Adams?
  • What did he mean by the line to Abigail Adams, “I like a little rebellion now and then”? What did he mean in writing to William Smith that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”?
  • What impact did Shays’ Rebellion have on the American political scene?

Jefferson, still in Paris in 1787, received details of the constitutional convention’s work from Madison, who wrote Jefferson a series of letters explaining the Constitution. In a reply to one of Madison’s letters, Jefferson wrote of his general support of the document but listed two criticisms.

I will now add what I do not like. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land. . . . Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.

The second feature I dislike, and greatly dislike, is that abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President. From “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787,” page 729

  • What two problems did Jefferson have with the new Constitution?
  • How do these concerns reflect issues that Jefferson had been engaged with over time?
  • What do these concerns suggest about Jefferson’s political philosophy?

While in Paris, Jefferson was an eyewitness to the beginnings of the French Revolution and attended the opening session of the French Estates-General in October 1789. He predicted in a letter to Richard Price (January 8, 1789) that France would, through the Estates General, “press forward to the establishment of a constitution which shall assure to them a good degree of liberty.” Jefferson worked with the Marquis de Lafayette to draft a charter of rights that served as the basis for the French Declaration of Rights that Lafayette presented to the National Assembly in July. Jefferson returned to the United States before the French Revolution became violent.