CREATING A VIRGINIA REPUBLIC
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
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.
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.
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.
Williamsburg, September 14, 1769.
Reproduction of newspaper.
Courtesy of the Virginia
Historical Society, Richmond (37)
Thomas Jefferson advertises for
a runaway slave in
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.
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
THE ROLE OF EDUCATION
Well-informed people can be trusted
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
Public education as the engine
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.
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."
"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.
Hannah to Thomas Jefferson,
November 15, 1818.
Reproduction of manuscript.
Courtesy of the Massachusetts
Historical Society, Boston (71)
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."
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."
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.
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
Detail of University of Virginia
by Herman Böÿe, 1827.
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.
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.
"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."
"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."
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.
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.
Jefferson's Report on
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.
NATURAL HISTORY AND SCIENCE
Asserting the inferiority of
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
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
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,
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.
of Congress Exhibitions - Online
Survey - Library of Congress Home