October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
JEFFERSON, Thomas (1743-1826). Jefferson was the most outstanding American philosopher of the eighteenth century, the ideologist of the bourgeoisdemocratic tendency during the War of Independence of North America, 1775-83 ( q.v. ) and President of the U.S.A., 1801-09. He came from the circles of the land-owning aristocracy of Virginia, and received a broad education. In 1769 he was elected as a member of the legislative assembly of Virginia. After the congress had been dispersed by the English governor in 1775, he became a member of the illegal committees of correspondence. In 1774 he was outlawed for his pamphlet against George III. In 1775 he was elected to the second Continental Congress. In June 1776, on the commission of the Congress, he drew up the Declaration of Independence of the U.S.A. ( q.v. ). The paragraph censuring slavery and slave trade was rejected by the Congress. Between 1777 and 1779 he secured the acceptance of the laws directed toward the eradication of survivals of feudal land-ownership law in Virginia; on his recommendation the “statute on the establishment of religious freedom in Virginia” was accepted. The statute deprived the state Church of England of its privileges, and it exerted an influence on the subsequent separation of church and state in the U.S.A. Between 1779 and 1781 he was governor of Virginia. From 1785-89 he was the U.S. minister to France. Being already acquainted with the literature of French enlightenment, he became a friend of Condorcet and Cabanis ( q.v. ) and a frequenter of the salon of the widow of Helvetius. During 1790-93 he was Secretary of State of the U.S.A.
Jefferson greeted the French bourgeois revolution of the end of the eighteenth century and came forward with a proposal for giving diplomatic and material aid to France. The refusal by Washington’s ( q.v. ) government to follow this policy was the chief cause for his resignation. Not agreeing with certain positions taken by the reactionary Constitution of 1787, Jefferson in 1790-91 advocated a wide movement for introducing a bill of rights ( q.v. ) into the Constitution. He was the founder of the anti-Federalist (Republican) party.
In the background of a violent political struggle, in 1796 Jefferson was elected Vice President, but after the defeat of the Federalists ( q.v. ) in the election of 1800 he became President. In 1804 he was elected President for a second time. Jefferson overruled the reactionary laws introduced by his Federalist predecessor, John Adams ( q.v. ), which dealt with “aliens” and “sedition” and allowed the imprisonment of all “suspicious” people. He introduced several reforms of a bourgeois-democratic character, but he did not take any measures which would touch on the institution of slavery. In 1803 the government bought the state of Louisiana from Napoleonic France for a sum of fifteen million dollars. In 1808-09 diplomatic relations were established with Russia.
At the height of the war between France and England, Jefferson, wishing to prevent America’s entrance into the war and to cut short the seizures of American merchant ships by the warring nations, obtained the prohibition of marine trade between the U.S.A. on the one hand, and England and France on the other (Embargo Act of 1807). This measure met with strong opposition from the upper bourgeoisie , which did not want to yield its commercial profits. In the beginning of March, 1809, this embargo was repealed.
On finishing his second presidential term of office in 1809, Jefferson dedicated himself to educational activity. He founded the University of Virginia (opened in 1825), where instruction which was independent of the church was introduced for the first time in the U.S.A. The theoretical views of Jefferson showed the influence of Locke, Harrington, and others, as well as of French enlightenment. In philosophy Jefferson supported the naturalism ( q.v. ) of the French materialists, although he polemicized against them as atheists. He stated that he was a supporter of deism ( q.v. ), that is, he recognized God as the first cause, and at the same time he rejected God’s intervention in the works of nature. Rejecting the religious bases of morality, Jefferson spoke, in the spirit of idealism, of the existence in the conscience of man of innate moral principles, by which he meant simply bourgeois “virtues.” He developed the theory of the uninterrupted development of revolution according to the degree of education of the masses and of their realization of their rights. In defending the right of the people to revolution, he considered it essential to have revolutionary changes in society, and to revise the constitution and social institutions every twenty years. He criticized the incompleteness and the limitations of the American revolution of the eighteenth century for not abolishing slavery, for not solving the agrarian question in the interest of society, for not providing it with political rights; and he predicted the necessity of new revolutions in the U.S.A. Jefferson’s ideal of society was close to the petit-bourgeois utopian ideal of J. J. Rousseau ( q.v. ) and it envisaged the division of the land to all workers without compensation. Jefferson idealized the small landowners, and looked upon them as the most valuable members of society. He criticized features of the capitalist system such as the gigantic concentration of ownership in the hands of the few, on the one hand, and the suppression and impoverishment of the working members of society on the other. The Utopian conception of the possibility of the existence of a class of independent small landowners, and the radicalism of his theory, were combined in an attempt at compromise with the slaveowners because of the unlikelihood of realizing his views in the field of politics.
American reactionary bourgeois historians falsify the figure of Jefferson; they gloss over and distort the progressive aspects of his teaching. The proressive forces of the U.S.A. make use of the best traditions of Jefferson in their fight for freedom and democracy.