"Jefferson had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there that today and in all coming days it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny."--Abraham Lincoln
In an age when politicians slide seamlessly between serving in public office and hosting cable talk shows, Thomas Jefferson might seem patently old-fashioned. Then again, given the apathy and general timidity of the American populace today, perhaps it is we who have fallen out of touch with our radical roots. Certainly, in our American family tree, there is no one more radical than Jefferson.
Born on April 13, 1743, some 267 years ago, Jefferson was a Renaissance man--a philosopher, architect, statesman and founder of the University of Virginia--whose passion for individual freedom was rivaled only by his love of country. His legacy is one that, as Abraham Lincoln recognized, will live as long as free people walk the earth.
Just imagine what the world would be like had Jefferson never lived. Not only would American history have lost one of its greatest political philosophers, both nationally and internationally, but it would also lose one of its greatest champions of individual freedom.
The author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson took bold strides in reversing the history of governmental corruption and unbridled control over the people by asserting firmly and clearly that the fundamental role of the government is to serve and protect the people and their rights. Such concepts are still revolutionary today.
The Declaration of Independence, a document upon which numerous governments and institutions throughout the world, including the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are based, was approved by Congress on July 4, 1776. The words Jefferson penned are as radical as they come. In the brief preamble alone, Jefferson introduces the idea that God, not the government, is the source of rights, that all people are created equal and possess inalienable rights, while establishing the authority of the citizenry to use whatever means necessary, including force, to throw off a despotic government, or a government that no longer serves the needs of the people. As Jefferson stated, the government receives its power from the "consent of the governed" and the people have the right to "alter or abolish" a government that becomes destructive, instituting a new government and laying out new principles that better protect the "Safety and Happiness" of the people.
One revolution was not enough for Jefferson, however. In a later letter to James Madison, Jefferson stated, "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as in the physical...it is a medicine necessary for the sound health of the government." In fact, Jefferson was so convinced of the value of frequent, publicly-driven rebellions that he advocated for a new rebellion approximately every twenty years. In a 1787 letter to William Smith, John Adams' secretary and son-in-law, Jefferson wrote: "[G]od forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion . . . the tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure."
To suggest that American citizens turn to violence and bloodshed to ensure their liberty was, and still is, a radical idea. Although Jefferson was not an advocate of unnecessary violence, he was so firmly entrenched in his beliefs in the pursuit of liberty and its guarantee that he encouraged whatever means necessary to be used to secure it. As Jefferson wrote, "what country can preserve its liberties, if the rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take to arms."
In fact, Jefferson advocated the right of all citizens to carry arms in order to protect themselves against the tyranny of the government and the infringement of their liberties by fellow citizens. Writing to his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1785, Jefferson stated, "As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind...Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks."
The Bill of Rights itself is, in part, a radical Jeffersonian victory. James Madison, who drafted the Bill of Rights, initially felt that the inclusion of a bill of rights in the originally ratified Constitution was unnecessary to its success, but Jefferson noted that its absence was an enormous oversight on the part of the Framers. He told Madison "a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, & what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences." As such, Jefferson advocated for the inclusion of a document so revolutionary at the time that it was not even considered in the drafting of the original Constitution. Yet Americans now look to the Bill of Rights as the epitome of American liberty.
Jefferson also insisted on another radical idea at the time--the separation of church and state as a prominent feature of American government. In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Jefferson asserted his beliefs that "religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, [and] that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that...[American] legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."
However, this "wall of separation" phrase has been grossly misunderstood as Jefferson advocating for the removal of religion from the nation or from the government. In truth, Jefferson not only believed in and promoted religion, he also authored his own version of the Bible (which emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus) in an attempt to create a more easily understood moral and biblical guide. Thus, his coining of the phrase "separation of church and state" was not at all a swipe at religion or religious followers, but rather yet another mechanism to check the power of the government over the rights of the people.
Last but not least, Jefferson knew all too well that only the people, and not their government leaders or the privileged classes, could and should be relied upon as the "safe depositories" of freedom. "No government," he wrote to John Adams when he was 76, "can continue good, but under the control of the people."
Virtually until the day he died, Thomas Jefferson kept up the cause of liberty. "The mass of mankind has not been born," Jefferson opined in the last words he wrote, "with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately." One week later, Jefferson died.
Fittingly enough, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, half a century after he had changed the world and the cause of freedom forever. According to the memoirs of John Quincy Adams, his father John Adams--who, along with Jefferson, greatly influenced the shape of the nation--fell ill in his house in Quincy, Massachusetts, on July 2. Two days later, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died. His last words were "Thomas Jefferson survives." Unbeknownst to him, Jefferson had already drawn his last breath several hours earlier. Jefferson was 84.