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Jefferson and the Declaration

May 2024
16min read

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence announced a new epoch in world history, transforming a provincial tax revolt into a great struggle to liberate humanity from the tyrannies of the past.

Thomas Jefferson

Notwithstanding the assaults of generations of iconoclastic critics, Thomas Jefferson remains an American icon. A touchstone for partisans of all persuasions, the author of the Declaration of Independence has risen above partisanship as America’s “inventor,” the great apostle of democracy and national self-determination. His eloquent formulations of “self-evident ... truths” constitute the American creed: “all men are created equal”; “they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”; and the governments men institute to secure these rights derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Historians may insist, and Jefferson would have agreed, that these principles were hardly original; they may acknowledge that he was a gifted writer but emphasize the crucial editorial role of fellow congressmen who purged the document of most (but not all) of its embarrassing rhetorical excesses; or they may be appalled by the bald hypocrisy of a Virginia slave owner holding forth on the rights of man. 

Jefferson said the Declaration of Independence was “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

But Jefferson’s language and the man himself seem impervious to historians’ qualifications and caveats. Because modern Americans know what Jefferson really meant, they know their man. They think they know Jefferson because Jefferson — in visionary moments — seems to know them. Jefferson’s Declaration announced a new epoch in world history, transforming a provincial tax revolt into the opening salvo of a great struggle to liberate humanity from the tyrannies of the past; his first inaugural address, of March 4, 1801, reaffirmed the universal republican principles of 1776 while envisioning a glorious, specifically American, future in this “chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.

Jefferson’s language continues to resonate, but its radical edge has been lost. In an eighteenth-century world, where all men were self-evidently created unequal, the principle of equality threatened to turn the world upside down, subverting social and political order, even family governance. But what does “equality” mean now, when most right-thinking Americans take it for granted, assuming it to be compatible with — and even to make legitimate — the glaring inequalities in contemporary society that we also take for granted? And what about that “chosen country,” now that there is no longer “room enough” for further waves of settlement and improvement? 

Americans today often forget how radical Jefferson's idea was that "all men are created equal." Society was highly stratified and divided by religious and other affiliations. Common people were often mocked, as in Samuel Butler's "Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington." Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Americans today often forget how radical at the time was Jefferson's idea that "all men are created equal." Society was highly stratified and divided by religious and other affiliations. Common people were often mocked, as in William Hogarth's "Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington" — a procession in a country village ridicules an unfaithful spouse, with one neighbor holding a cuckold's horns and petticoat aloft while a boy throws a cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art.Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In what sense are Americans still Jefferson’s “chosen people,” the virtuous, independent yeoman farmers who surged westward to conquer a continent, now that family farmers have virtually disappeared? Are Americans chosen to act as proxies and exemplars for the human race, or chosen instead to be uniquely free and unequally prosperous?

To underscore what should be obvious, we live in a radically different world than Jefferson’s, yet one that must remain inextricably linked to ours — simultaneously foreign, yet uncannily familiar — as long as the nation itself survives. The historian’s challenge is to sustain the tension between past and present, to restore our subjects to their own uncertain world while reconnecting it to ours by fresh translations from the increasingly foreign language of a distant time and place. 

The national idea is timeless and transcendent, an ongoing collaboration across the generations. The historian’s role is to protect us against facile appropriations of the past to serve present purposes, to challenge the assumption that the founders’ “original intentions” — whether they are supposed to be “liberal” or “conservative” — can be fully known and should be authoritative guides to future action. 

Thomas Jefferson in 1786, painted by Mather Brown. National Portrait Gallery.
Although the image of Thomas Jefferson is well known, he remains an enigma. He was painted in 1786 by Mather Brown while Minister to France. National Portrait Gallery.

Who was Thomas Jefferson? If Americans know Jefferson, they don’t know much about his private life. Jefferson could be indiscreet, but he kept his own secrets, destroying his correspondence with his wife, Martha, and revealing nothing about his long-term relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson’s autobiography (drafted in 1821) is a sketch of his public career, virtually bereft of illuminating details about his private life. It was, instead, yet another effort to secure his legacy as a Revolutionary founder and to guarantee his own everlasting fame.

Most modern Jefferson biographers have agreed with Merrill D. Peterson that Jefferson was “impenetrable.” But this impenetrability is as much a function of their unwillingness to probe as of their subject’s unwillingness to be probed. Jefferson’s defenders make their ignorance into a virtue, invoking an upright and stainless “character” that makes the improprieties attributed to him seem like “moral impossibilities.” To be fair, Jefferson constructed a formidable self-defensive barrier, leaving us all in the position of a baffled Maria Cosway, recipient of the famous dialogue between Jefferson’s “Head” and his “Heart.”

Jefferson’s dialogue is one of the strangest, most mystifying “love letters” in the English language, seeming to reveal everything while in fact revealing nothing. Heart gets the best lines, yet its sentimental “pulsations” are contained by the dialogue’s frame, an artifice that serves Head’s purposes. The paradoxical effect of Jefferson’s artful performance is distancing — Heart is too self-absorbed, too busy explaining itself to Head, to speak directly to another heart — leaving Cosway to wonder if she had any role at all to play in Jefferson’s inner drama.

Jefferson had a brief romantic relationship with society hostess and musician Martha Cosway in 1786 and the pair kept up a correspondence until his death in 1826.
Jefferson had a brief romantic relationship with society hostess and musician Martha Cosway in 1786 and the pair kept up a correspondence until his death in 1826.

Scholars have mined the rich veins of the Head-and-Heart dialogue for insights into Jefferson’s political and social thought. American hearts had triumphed in the American Revolution, whatever part Jefferson’s heart may have played in his private affairs: “If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts, where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman’s. You,” Heart tells Head, “began to calculate and to compare wealth and numbers: we threw up a few pulsations of our warmest blood: we supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers: we put our existence to the hazard when the hazard seemed against us, and we saved our country.”

Throughout his career, Jefferson expressed his fundamental political beliefs with eloquence and clarity even as he sought to suppress, disguise, or conceal private interests and impulses. The Head-and-Heart dialogue epitomizes the contrast between Jefferson’s “self-evident” principles and the protective shield he constructed around his inner life. The boundary between his transparent public and opaque private worlds has enabled subsequent generations of Americans to take Jefferson at his word, to make his words their own, and so conflate “Jefferson” and “America.” 

Xxx Of course, the apotheosis of Jefferson has generated its dialectical opposite, a persistent, powerful impulse to demolish his exalted image and pull the great man off his pedestal. Perversely, however, iconoclasts reinforce, even as they seek to reverse, the synecdoche: the “real” flesh and blood Jefferson was a liar and a hypocrite, all talk and no action, a man of no character. The apostle of democracy and equal rights, they say, was a slave owner who held his own children in bondage; thin-skinned and duplicitous, he was a partisan ideologue who pretended to be above the political fray; profligate and self-indulgent, he cultivated an aristocratic lifestyle while plunging ever further into debt. 

This anti-image has always shadowed Jefferson’s more benign public image, reflecting in darker shades the icon’s familiar outlines. Image and anti-image alike pay fealty to Jeffersonian principles, and so follow Jefferson’s own script even while reaching radically different conclusions about the man himself.

There are encouraging signs that Jefferson scholarship is finally breaking free from this vicious circle of celebration and condemnation. We know more now — and can speculate more intelligently — about the private Jefferson than ever before. Probing Jefferson’s life is not an end in itself, nor is the point to come to some sort of definitive judgment on whether he is worthy enough to retain his place in the founders’ pantheon. Instead, I argue, the great value of historicizing Jefferson — of putting him in his proper place and time — is that it enables us to bridge the gap between private and public, practice and profession, that Jefferson himself took such pains to cultivate, and thus to take the measure both of his thought and of our own.

The Jefferson image itself was never fixed but always a work in progress. As Jefferson and his followers constructed a public persona for the reluctant party leader, he simultaneously fashioned an alternative, private, “self,” at home in the idealized domesticity of Monticello. In yet another flirtatious letter to a married woman, Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church, Jefferson anticipated returning to Virginia at the end of his term as Washington’s secretary of state: “I am then to be liberated from the hated occupations of politics, and to sink into the bosom of my family, my farm, and my books. I have my house to build, my fields to farm, and to watch for the happiness of those who labor for mine.” When both of his surviving daughters were married and had gathered their families around him, “I shall imagine myself as blessed as the most blessed of patriarchs.”

As Jan Lewis persuasively argues, Jefferson’s conceptions of home and world, of the “blessings of domestic society” and the “torments” of politics, were reciprocal constructions, evoked at a distance, one from the other, in the sentimental effusions of his familiar correspondence.

Andrew Burstein’s illuminating work on the inner Jefferson focuses on his letter writing, the nexus between “private” and “public” worlds that defined each other and could not be kept apart.” In a sentimental age that scorned artifice and prized authenticity, the familiar letter was the ideal medium for self-expression. But, of course, the selves inscribed in the most heartfelt language were utterly banal and conventional; as they strained toward the “natural,” literary scholar Jay Fliegelman shows, Jefferson and his fellow sentimentalists reached new heights (or depths) of artifice. Burstein shows how the sensitive and suggestible Jefferson so eagerly followed in novelist Laurence Sterne’s footsteps in his own “sentimental journey” through France, a kind of homecoming for this displaced provincial in the great “republic of letters.”

Of course, the artifice of sentimentalism is increasingly conspicuous to us, as is the futility of the quest for “natural language.” 

Yet it is precisely the historical and cultural specificity of Jefferson’s literary performances that gives us access to the hidden depths and dark recesses of his life. Or, we might better say, the very assumption of a deep and “impenetrable” inner life — an assumption that comes all too naturally to us in our own solipsistic, therapeutic age – is fundamentally misleading, for Jefferson’s “self’ is hidden in plain sight. The materials he deployed in his self-construction project drew from the common stock – the conventional and unconventional ideas, the literary forms and experiments of his age – that he collected in his library and personal archive and recycled in his own writing. We reflexively turn to psychology in our quest for the inner springs of character, for psychology now provides the conventional methodology and language for self-examination and self-explanation. But our psychologized view of our world is no less time bound than the moral philosophy of Jefferson’s sentimental age.

Historically sensitive literary analysis is thus a much more promising route into Jefferson’s depths (or surfaces) than psychohistory.

Late in life, in a famous self-effacing moment, Jefferson disclaimed any “originality of principle or sentiment” in authoring the Declaration of Independence. It was not “copied from any particular and previous writing,” he told Henry Lee, but “was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right.” Jefferson always said this about his political principles – after all, if they were not “self-evident,” he was a fraud – but surely would have insisted on the “originality” and uniqueness of his private self. 

But I would reverse this self-serving formulation. Notwithstanding the intellectual debts that he acknowledged and that subsequent scholars have so carefully calculated, Jefferson’s social and political theory – his adumbration of the “American mind” – was much more original and consequential than he could comfortably acknowledge; by contrast, and not surprisingly, the “inner Jefferson” predictably voiced “the harmonizing sentiments of the day.” His only originality was in his idealized definition of domesticity as a distinct, isolated, and self-contained sphere of private life – and this was a definition, Jan Lewis tells us, that derived from his understanding and experience of a life devoted to public service.

Recent scholars have subjected the Jefferson archive to new and revealing questions. But we also need to know more about what Jefferson did not say, to interrogate the silences in and around his life that have contributed so much to his status as an icon who seems to rise above the sordid realities of his own slaveholding world. Over the last generation, historians have focused intensively on Jefferson’s implication in slavery – and on the implications of slavery – for Jefferson. Only recently, however, in the wake of DNA evidence establishing the strong likelihood of his long-term sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, have they begun to put private and public Jefferson back together again, bringing the planter-statesman back down to earth and resituating him in his mountaintop home, in the midst of his white and black families. 

Jefferson was a beloved father and grandfather of his white family, but a more distant and problematic figure for Sally Hemings’s children — offspring he owned but did not own. The complexities of life at Monticello — the peaceful, apparently harmonious, coexistence of related black and white families — must have shaped Jefferson’s attitudes toward race and slavery

The distinction between “public” and “private” that Jefferson cultivated has encouraged commentators to distinguish between what he said (and might have believed) and what he did (and perhaps could not do) about slavery, bridging the yawning gap between precept and practice with judgments about his character. But I suspect that Jefferson was not gripped by guilt over slavery or torn by its contradictions. If he had been, he could not have found refuge at Monticello from the “torments” of political life, for he would have been constantly, inescapably tormented by his personal failure to take any effective action against this most barbarous and unjust institution. The “real” Jefferson was an enlightened slaveholder, evidently satisfied with the self he so arduously fashioned, not a guilt-ridden schizophrenic. 

Jefferson was a moralist acting (or not acting) in accord with his own enlightened, teleological understanding of history’s moral imperatives. He did not stand at the bar of conscience or moral judgment and find himself wanting, as modern moralists would like to imagine. To the contrary, his enlightened moral sense, the “pure” principles that guided both his private life and his political career, constituted the solid and enduring foundation of his character, as he understood it.

Our moral sense leads us to take Jefferson apart, with the hope of isolating and preserving something in his life — or at least some inspiring words, however intended — that we can live by. But Jefferson’s moral sense worked in the opposite way, not simply to reconcile or suppress what we like to see as fundamental, irreconcilable personal conflicts but rather to underwrite an abiding self-assurance that verged on self-righteousness. Jefferson the moralist lived comfortably with himself. He also lived comfortably at Monticello, where family members and slaves (including enslaved family members) struggled constantly to fulfill Jefferson’s idealized conception of domesticity.

Jefferson’s life and his thought are inextricably linked. Jefferson was no more a bundle of contradictions and conflicting impulses than we sophisticated, self-conscious moderns know ourselves to be: he made sense to himself and he can make more sense to us now if we engage him on his own terms and in his own cultural and moral contexts. I also believe that a fresh, historically informed engagement with Jefferson’s thoughts both complicate and make more vital the political principles that he articulated so eloquently and that continue to exercise such a powerful influence in our national self-understanding.

Jefferson’s conception of the world historical significance of the American Revolution and his vision of the new nation’s boundless promise remain inspiring, and it is hard for modern Americans to resist the complacent conclusion that the United States today represents the fulfillment of his prophecy, that his future is our past. 

But Jefferson’s racially exclusive vision of American nationhood also raises profound and troubling questions. The “chosen people” of his inaugural address looked westward to a virgin continent, a vast, unpeopled domain awaiting progressive cultivation and civilization: he imaginatively obliterated Indian country in a single bold rhetorical gesture. In contemplating the future of a continent (and hemisphere) freed from the incubus of slavery, Jefferson imagined a similarly expansive whitening process. 

“It is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits,” Jefferson wrote Governor James Monroe of Virginia in 1801, and “cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, & by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface.” When African Americans were finally emancipated, Jefferson insisted, they had to be expatriated, leaving no “blot” on the American landscape.
Callout: Jefferson’s responsibility for an expanding “empire of slavery” is a controversial question in contemporary scholarship.

Jefferson’s responsibility for an expanding “empire of slavery” is a controversial question in contemporary scholarship. He certainly wanted African Americans to disappear, and the fulfillment of that hope was on the face of it incompatible with the expansion and perpetuation of the peculiar institution; nor is there any reason to doubt that Jefferson loathed slavery and that his racist speculations about black inferiority in Notes on the State of Virginia were secondary and subordinate to his commitment to emancipation. 

Yet it is unquestionably true that Jefferson believed that African Americans had to remain in slavery, however unjust the institution, until a comprehensive emancipation scheme could be implemented; piecemeal, gradual emancipation could not work, and the growing population of free blacks resulting from the 1782 liberalization of manumission law in Virginia constituted a grave threat to racial hierarchy, social order, and the success of the republican experiment in Virginia.

Of course, there is no reason on good Jeffersonian grounds why we cannot extricate race and nation, even if this was inconceivable to Jefferson himself, convinced as he was of the eternal enmity of the captive black nation and fearful of the genocidal bloodbath that emancipation without expatriation would unleash. Jefferson’s thinking about the immigration of Europeans to America became progressively more liberal and his conception of the nation more inclusive in the post-Revolutionary period; and notwithstanding his animus to ‘merciless savages,” he could also imagine racial amalgamation of civilizing whites and civilized Indians on the expanding western frontier. 

Jefferson’s nation may have been “white,” but whiteness itself was a protean construct that could accommodate different emigrants from European nations (or “races”), civilized Indians, and even mulattos after three “crossings” with whites. Jefferson wanted to keep whites and blacks apart — miscegenation was an unnatural abomination — but he was not nearly as obsessed with race purity as with the purity of republican principles.

Jefferson’s nation was a great family of families, coming together across the generations as republican civilization spread westward. This was not the exclusive genealogy that romantic nationalists would later invent for European peoples, but, rather, one that could absorb new streams of freedom-loving immigrants from all over the world. Jefferson’s conception of a dynamic and expansive American people, fulfilling its destiny through history, provided the essential foundation for his republican superstructure. The progress of political enlightenment, the enjoyment of natural rights, and the fulfillment of human potential were all predicated on the heartfelt principles that bound the nation in affectionate union. Jefferson’s modern admirers often overlook his teleological framework, instead abstracting universal and transcendent rights from the specific historical and cultural circumstances within which alone they could flourish. 

Natural rights, Jefferson insisted, could only be recognized and perfected within particular communities as they crossed the threshold of republican self-government and national self-determination. Outside the context of national history, man’s natural rights remained merely potential and practically inoperative. For all the peoples of the world to gain the great boon of nationhood, millions of lives would be sacrificed and “rivers of blood” would flow.” In the case of the enslaved African nation, he hoped, a comprehensive scheme of emancipation and expatriation initiated and sustained by the “generous energy of our own minds” might yet spare the new nation a replay of “the bloody process of St Domingo.” Whether such a scheme was adopted or not, “the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come.”

The modern tendency to talk about rights in universal, ahistorical terms leads us to misunderstand Jefferson’s language precisely when he seems to be speaking to us most directly. Lifting rights out of history, we universalize them; universalizing rights, we individualize them, thus authorizing claims against any and all oppressive regimes. Jefferson, by contrast, historicized rights, locating them in specific civic contexts within which—and only within which—the most enlightened and “civilized” peoples could enjoy them. In other words, we overlook the nation (or, perhaps, we confuse the nation with the world), imagining ourselves beyond history and the further bloody struggles Jefferson anticipated. 

The libertarian assumption of a never-ending struggle between the individual, with his “natural” (property) rights, and society, exercising its voracious (property-consuming) power through the state, was alien to Jefferson. Jefferson instead saw the progressive development of society as the necessary precondition for the emergence of the modern individual in full enjoyment of his rights; by eliminating the despotic rule of privileged classes, a republican government would secure national unity and facilitate individual “pursuits of happiness” that in turn would promote the community’s prosperity and well-being. 

Invoking Jefferson’s authority, modern advocates of property rights look backward for justification: history authenticates their claims or entitlements just as genealogy once established the privileges of birth. But Jefferson looked to the future, insisting in a famous letter to James Madison in 1789, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” That meant that “the portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society.” For Jefferson, living individuals constituted a “generation,” indebted to its predecessors for the liberty and property it now enjoyed and responsible for the well-being and progressive improvement of succeeding generations. In Joyce Appleby’s eloquent formulation, “the future was the screen upon which Jefferson projected his faith in the unfolding of the human potential under conditions of freedom.”

Jefferson was never complacent about what he and his countrymen had achieved, in 1776 or in 1783 — when the Peace of Paris was negotiated — or even in the “Revolution of 1800,” when right-thinking Republicans finally captured the federal government. Even when the republican experiment seemed secure and counterrevolutionary forces at home and abroad were at bay, Jefferson believed that the new nation only stood at the threshold of progressive improvement. 

Many great obstacles still had to be overcome, and none was more conspicuous or perplexing than dealing with slavery, a fundamentally unjust and antirepublican institution that threatened to demoralize and destroy the republic. If slavery worked for Jefferson, and if he could live with it very comfortably at Monticello, he knew that the survival of the institution would work against the republic’s glorious future prospects, dividing the nation and thus perhaps even threatening to reverse the outcome of the Revolution itself, as he came to fear during the great controversy over the extension of slavery to the new state of Missouri in 1819-21.

Jefferson’s moral horizon extended far into the future (too far, many critics have charged), and he did not think moral perfection had been achieved in the new nation or that it could be easily or fully attained in the future. But history demonstrated that progress had been achieved. The American Revolution, the touchstone of Jefferson’s faith, had inaugurated a remarkable new chapter in human history, raising his expectations—and therefore his anxieties—about the new nation’s prospects. In 1799, as Republican hopes began to revive after the Federalist “reign of witches,” Jefferson struck characteristically optimistic and anxious notes in a letter to William Green Munford, a young scholar at the College of William and Mary. “The generation which is going off the stage has deserved well of mankind for the struggles it has made, & for having arrested that course of despotism which had overwhelmed the world for thousands & thousands of years.” 

The American Revolutionaries had achieved great things. It was now up to Munford’s generation to carry on the good work, conscious of its enormous responsibilities: “If there seems to be danger that the ground they have gained will be lost again, that danger comes from the generation your cotemporary.” But Jefferson reaffirmed his faith; he could not believe that the younger generation would fail. That Munford and his peers, with “the enthusiasm which characterises youth should lift its parricide hands against freedom & science, would be such a monstrous phaenomenon as I cannot place among possible things in this age & this country.”

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