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Source: Chapter VIII of Trevor Colbourn's The Lamp
of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American
Revolution (Indianapolis: Liberty
CHAPTER VIII. Thomas Jefferson and
the Rights of Expatriated Men
The earth Belongs always to the living generation,” Jefferson reminded James Madison. Thomas Jefferson is perhaps best known for his commitment to this belief. Dedicated to the proposition that man had a right to happiness and fulfillment in this world, Jefferson strove to emancipate the present from the tyranny of the past. The dead hand of custom and habit were not for Jefferson.
It was to the tyranny of the past that Jefferson was opposed, not to the past itself. He rejected oppressive custom, but not custom. Convinced of the intrinsic virtue of his fellow man, Jefferson searched for an explanation for the seeming corruption of that virtue. He saw history as an extension of political experience, as a guide to a perfectible future through a heightened awareness of the blemished past.
Jefferson probably read his first history book in the modest library of his father. In Peter Jefferson’s collection young Thomas found Rapin’s History of England in a two-volume folio edition, and he never ceased singing its praises. When he started buying books for himself, history soon emerged as his favorite category. The Virginia Gazette Day Books show Jefferson purchasing in March 1764 his first copy of David Hume’s History of England (which he soon learned to detest), along with William Robertson’s History of Scotland. Between 1762 and 1767 Jefferson studied law under the wise tutelage of George Wythe, gaining familiarity with works which combined historical and legal scholarship. When admitted to the bar he was well advanced in his studies of the Reports of Salkeld and Raymond and the Institutes of Coke.
But his reading had indeed barely begun. By 1771, when he advised young Robert Skipwith on his book buying, Jefferson was able to include Sidney’s Discourses, Bolingbroke’s Political Works, Rollin’s Ancient History, Stanyan’s Grecian History, the Gordon translations of Tacitus and Sallust, as well as works by Clarendon, Hume, and Robertson. Into his Commonplace Book went passages from Dalrymple’s Essay on Feudal Property, Spelman’s De Terminis Juridicis, Kames’s Historical Law Tracts, Sullivan’s Feudal Laws, Blackstone’s Commentaries, Molesworth’s Account of Denmark, and the (to Jefferson) anonymously written Historical Essay on the English Constitution. He had his own copies of William Petyt’s Ius Parliamentum, Thornhagh Gurdon’s History of Parliament, and Anthony Ellis’s Tracts on Liberty. Later he acquired copies of Henry Care’s English Liberties, Rushworth’s Historical Collections, Acherley’s Britannic Constitution, Atkyn’s Power of Parliament, Catherine Macaulay’s popular History of England, Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters, and—of course—Burgh’s Political Disquisitions. The list is not quite endless. But it is extraordinary for the representation Jefferson accorded the “True Whigs.” These were books Jefferson bought not once but twice or three times, books he found essential to his political existence, books which served him beyond the realm of his practice of law. These books by introducing him to the mysteries of feudalism and constitutionalism led to a personal (but not unique) perspective on the rights of the American colonies and the Englishmen residing there.
In the 1760s and early 1770s the political content of his reading mounted sharply; indeed Jefferson’s studies reflect his growing sensitivity to, and involvement in, his political environment. While studying law with Wythe in Williamsburg Jefferson breathed the air of the political controversy swirling about the bustling Virginia capital. He stood in the lobby of the Capitol building and heard Patrick Henry attack the Stamp Act in 1765. He knew, firsthand, the anger of the Burgesses at the Townshend Acts in 1767. When he secured election in 1769 as Burgess for Albemarle County, Jefferson brought experience as well as learning to his new responsibilities. He was ready to participate in Virginia’s Nonimportation Resolutions in 1769 and was fully alert to the challenge presented by the Coercive Acts in 1774. When he learned of the oppressive measures directed at his Boston compatriots, Jefferson and Charles Lee “cooked up” (as Jefferson so nicely phrased it) some resolutions calling for a general day of fasting and prayer on the day the Boston Port Act took effect. He hoped this would “give us one heart and one mind to oppose, by all just means, every injury to American Rights.” In the process of preparing his resolves Jefferson demonstrated his historical approach. He thought of the similarity of his own times to the days of the Puritan Revolution in seventeenth-century England and turned to John Rushworth’s Historical Collections for help. In the pages of Rushworth Jefferson “rummaged over for the revolutionary precedents and forms of the Puritans of that day.” While Jefferson found Rushworth interesting, Governor Dunmore did not, and he dissolved the House of Burgesses. Before breaking up, the Burgesses held a lively meeting of their own at the Raleigh Tavern and issued a call for a Continental Congress to discuss the new British oppression.
This move brought from Jefferson one of his most notable contributions to the literature of the American Revolution. He prepared a series of resolutions to present to a special Virginia convention meeting in August 1774; the resolutions would, if adopted, become instructions for the Virginia delegates to the forthcoming Congress in Philadelphia. Taken ill, Jefferson was unable to attend, but he sent two copies of his resolutions to Williamsburg. The convention took no official notice of his effort, but several members read the resolutions with enthusiasm. Without Jefferson’s knowledge they had the manuscript published with the title A Summary View of the Rights of British America. The Summary View laid the foundation of Jefferson’s Revolutionary reputation and was his most cogent and detailed examination of colonial rights before 1776.
In some ways, the Summary View is more representative of Jefferson’s political thinking than the Declaration of Independence; it is a more personal expression of Jefferson’s concept of Anglo-American relations. There has been criticism of the Summary View for the intemperance of its language and its lack of historical precision; some scholars have commented on the lack of attention paid to the natural rights philosophy which Jefferson later expressed in the superbly simple opening paragraphs of the Declaration. And yet the Summary View was an instant popular success with colonial patriots and sympathetic English whigs because Jefferson was telling men what they wanted to believe and arguing the American cause in language immediately familiar. He assumed a working knowledge of history and did not seriously misjudge his unexpected audience; he took for granted the doctrine of natural rights, which was part and parcel of the eighteenth-century political atmosphere. He did not attempt to justify the colonial position with philosophy, but instead undertook a historical appraisal of the colonial case. In the process Jefferson, unlike a revolutionary, identified the good with the ancestral rather than with the purely rational.
In the Summary View, Jefferson supplied a most persuasive and felicitously phrased argument for resistance to British tyranny, and at the same time he provided a graphic illustration of the political uses of his careful reading of history. He established the tone of his essay at the outset. After a polite opening address to the King as “chief magistrate of the British Empire,” the Summary View reminded George III of a history he seemed to have forgotten. Jefferson went back to his “Saxon ancestors” to point out how they “left their native wilds and woods in the North of Europe, [and] had possessed themselves of the island of Britain.” These ancient forefathers, he observed, had enjoyed the right of leaving their native land to establish new societies in the new world of England. The transplanted Saxons had carried their free customs and political democracy with them, establishing in England “that system of laws which has so long been the glory and protection of that country.” Jefferson noted that there was never any question of these Saxon settlers being subject to any form of allegiance or control by the mother country from which they had emigrated. These forefathers had “too firm a feeling of the rights derived to them from their ancestors to bow down the sovereignty of their state before such visionary pretensions.” Jefferson declared pointedly that “no circumstance has occurred to distinguish materially the British from the Saxon emigration.”
If the Saxon origins of English and American history held political lessons of merit, so too did the Saxon land system translated from ancient Germany to new settlements in England. Like the majority of the whig historians he consulted, Jefferson believed that in Saxon England “feudal holdings were certainly altogether unknown, and very few if any had been introduced at the time of the Norman conquest.” His Saxon ancestors had held their lands and personal property “in absolute dominion, disencumbered with any superior, [and] answering nearly to the nature of those possessions which the Feudalist term Allodial.” The responsibility for the obvious and tragic change in England Jefferson placed squarely upon “William the Norman”—just as did such favorite writers as Sir Henry Spelman and Sir John Dalrymple. Consequently Jefferson could and did insist that “feudal holdings were, therefore, but the exceptions out of the Saxon law of possession, under which all lands were held in absolute right.” Feudalism for Jefferson was an alien thing, Norman in nature, established and maintained by force. A Norman conquest may have inflicted feudalism upon the bewildered and betrayed Saxons in England, but Jefferson saw no reason why their modern descendants in America should suffer a similar fate. The ancient Saxons had made their settlements at their own expense, with no aid from the mother country, and thus were under no obligation. And so it was with the offspring of these same Saxons when they came to America: in both cases, argued Jefferson, “for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have a right to hold.”
An apparent weakness in Jefferson’s appeal to whig history lay in the current, if temporary, fact of American submission to the British Crown, a weakness rather reminiscent of general whig embarrassment over the Norman conquest. The ancient Saxons had not indulged their Germanic forefathers so generously as to pretend to be politically dependent upon them; but, Jefferson explained, the early American colonists were “laborers, not lawyers,” who had “thought proper to adopt that system of laws under which they had hitherto lived in the mother country.” Therefore, the early Americans had graciously consented to continue a form of union with the mother country by submitting themselves to a common monarchy, which became the “central link connecting the several parts of the empire thus newly multiplied.” Engrossed in winning existence from a strange and hostile land, the colonists had then been misled by crafty Crown lawyers into thinking that all American lands really did belong to the King. Accordingly, Americans had fallen into the grievous error of assuming they took their holdings from the British Crown, and as long as administration was mild, there was no occasion for the historic reality to be discovered. But recent efforts, begun in 1763, to restrict land grants and confine American settlements demonstrated that the time had come for fraud to be exposed, for a firm declaration that the King “has no right to grant lands of himself.”
However, the issue of feudalism and land tenure was only one instance of the perils of historical ignorance, and Jefferson employed the Summary View as an instrument of whig enlightenment. He found the history of the British empire full of examples of similar invasions by both Crown and Parliament of the colonial rights so dearly acquired with the “lives, the labors and the fortunes of individual adventurers.” And the list of British iniquities compiled by Jefferson was long indeed, demonstrating a continuous effort to reduce America to a modern version of feudal slavery. In each instance Jefferson reviewed the historical background and injustice involved, and with a fine impartiality indicted both British Crown and Parliament for an unrelieved record of arbitrary acts.
He blamed the Crown for continually authorizing the dissolution of colonial legislatures, a crime, Jefferson noted, for which the traitorous advisers of Richard II had suffered death. Jefferson recalled that since 1688, when the British constitution was supposedly restored “on it’s free and antient principles,” this power of dissolution had been rarely practiced in England. Since colonists were Englishmen equally entitled to ancient privileges, they were equally entitled to respect for their representative institutions.
Naturally the same argument applied to the suspension of the New York legislature over the recent Quartering Act controversy, although on this issue Jefferson chose to attack Parliament and denounced that body for an unwarranted assumption of authority. After all, as any well-read colonist knew, Parliament was now both corrupt and unrepresentative; if Americans submitted to the pretensions of the House of Commons, “we should suddenly be found the slaves, not of one, but of 160,000 tyrants,” the limited electorate in Britain. Most of the recent acts of oppression Jefferson laid at Parliament’s door and suggested that the King was influenced by “the partial representations of a few worthless ministerial dependents, whose constant office it has been to keep that government embroiled, and who by their treacheries hope to obtain the dignity of the British knighthood.” The Administration of Justice Act, the Coercive Act which permitted trial of colonists in England, served to illustrate Jefferson’s alarm at “parliamentary tyranny.” Measures such as this were completely contrary to Magna Charta, since the accused American would be “stripped of his privilege of trial by peers, of his vicinage.”
What made Jefferson’s indignation at the contemporary condition of English politics so impressive in the Summary View was his recollection of past difficulties. British interference with colonial trade and industry was not new; its history was painfully long and familiar, reaching back to the despotic Stuarts. Here was “a family of princes … whose treasonable crimes against their people brought on them afterwards the exertion of those sacred and sovereign rights of punishment, reserved in the hands of the people for cases of extreme necessity.” But the execution of Charles I had not brought freedom for colonial trade; the Commonwealth Parliament proved equally capable of arbitrary acts, which were tragically maintained when Charles II was restored to the British throne. Once more American rights fell “a victim to arbitrary power.”
For Jefferson, this record of Crown and Parliament presented an obvious message: “History has informed us that bodies of men as well as individuals are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny.” And history also demonstrated to Jefferson that the British nation had so succumbed: “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably thro’ every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”
Jefferson even found danger in apparently harmless measures: setting up a colonial post office in Queen Anne’s reign became just another device “for accommodating his majesty’s ministers and favorites with the sale of a lucrative and easy office.” This fitted perfectly with Jefferson’s conclusions about England’s political decline from the glory of Saxon times. The day had now arrived “when the representative body have lost the confidence of their constituents, when they have notoriously made sale of their most valuable rights, when they have assumed to themselves powers which the people never put into their hands.”
If the British had forgotten that “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest,” Jefferson had not. The colonists were standing upon their historical rights as transplanted Englishmen; “expatriated men” was Jefferson’s later phrase claiming liberties sadly forgotten in the mother country. Clearly George III would not be permitted the role of another William the Norman and allowed to fasten a similar tyranny upon the Saxon emigrant in America. Jefferson concluded with an earnest plea to the King: “Let not the name of George III be a blot in the page of history.” In Jefferson’s view, the King already had much for which to answer.
The warnings of Jefferson offered in his Summary View went unheeded. Indeed the King himself seemed bent upon destroying the empire, pursuing beliefs and policies that could only end in disaster. Jefferson was deeply disturbed by George III’s address to Parliament in October 1775, a speech in which the King claimed for Britain complete credit for the establishment and survival of the American colonies. Drawing upon Hakluyt and Raleigh for corroboration, Jefferson reviewed the colonization efforts of Gilbert and Raleigh. The historical record showed “no assistance from the crown,” and any claim to the contrary was a “palpable untruth.” Jefferson knew only contempt for “a king who can adopt falsehood.” One might pity and even pardon error. But flagrant misstatements of historical fact Jefferson found intolerable. The King, his “weak ministers,” and “wicked favorites” now joined Parliament as objects of Jefferson’s scorn. American separation from England had become a necessity.
For Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence did not demand any great originality of thought or scholarship. Its object was to rally its colonial readers, to set down for all to see the justification for the step the colonies were taking. As one recent writer has observed, Jefferson’s famous and felicitous opening paragraphs were possibly “the least important part of the document.” The Declaration was to inform the world of the universality of the rights of Englishmen and to identify them with the rights of man. This it did, briefly, superbly. But much of the ensuing text discussed the specific violations of the English rights to which Jefferson was so committed. Indeed, the differences between the Summary View and the Declaration of Independence are mainly reflections of the pace of events during the intervening two years. The Declaration proclaimed what the Summary View had threatened: the independence of Englishmen in America, who like their Saxon ancestors had migrated, settled, and sought to live in freedom and in enjoyment of their inherited liberties. Where Jefferson had earlier attacked Parliament, he now focused upon the King as the major culprit. No longer would George III be excused as misled or misguided; he was now “a prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant … unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free.” And yet the British people—a term which would encompass Parliament—did not escape unnoticed. Theirs was the ultimate responsibility for legislative tyranny. “We have,” Jefferson remarked, “reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.” They had been warned of the usurpations practiced by their government at American expense. They had been told “that submission to their parliament was no part of our constitution, nor ever in idea, if history may be credited.” And now came “the last stab to agonizing affection,” the dispatch of “Scotch and foreign mercenaries to invade and deluge us in blood.” Accordingly the link between Britain and her American colonies was ruptured: allegiance to the Crown, connection between “the people or parliament of Great Britain,” both were repudiated and renounced.
Independence did not signify any diminution in Jefferson’s use of history. Having illustrated his belief in the rights of man with a historical substantiation of those rights in the face of British encroachment, Jefferson maintained his affection for both his Saxon ancestors and the wisdom his whig authors claimed for them. If tyranny came with the Norman conquest, and feudalism was its badge, then every care was needed to rid Virginia of all vestiges of feudal practices. Even before the colonies formally announced their independence, Jefferson turned to the preparation of a suitable constitution for Virginia.
Jefferson hardly achieved the reputation for constitution writing later earned by his friend Madison, but he took his responsibility seriously, preparing three drafts of a frame of government intended to avoid the mistakes committed by Great Britain. In all versions Jefferson followed the recommendations of his whig historians, consciously seeking to “re-establish such antient principles as are friendly to the rights of the people.” The whig anxiety for annual parliaments influenced Jefferson’s decision for annual elections (“fresh without bribe”) of both Senate and House of Representatives. To avoid potential dictators or hereditary monarchs, he planned an executive term of one year, the executive to be ineligible for reelection for five subsequent years. Even though he was given “the powers formerly held by the king,” he was denied authority to veto legislation and deprived of the prerogatives resented in George III. Since feudal tenures had long ago crept into Virginia, Jefferson insisted that all such feudal appendages as quitrents, primogeniture, and entail should be swept aside: “Lands heretofore holden of the crown, and those hereafter to be appropriated shall be holden of none.” And standing armies in peacetime were forbidden; Jefferson preferred to encourage a revival of the Saxon system of a free militia by providing that “no freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
To Jefferson’s distress, his Virginia colleagues were not ready to accept the lessons of whig history as completely as he, for the abolition of the feudal features he deplored did not take place immediately, though they came in time. Edmund Pendleton, for example, argued that the quitrent system should merely be adapted so that the annual dues were paid to the state of Virginia. Pendleton thought Jefferson’s proposal a radical “Innovation.” However, Jefferson believed that quitrents were dismal reminders of the misunderstanding that American lands were thought to be held of the Crown, and he wanted all land tenure on the same allodial basis enjoyed by the freedom-loving Saxons. This indeed was Jefferson’s familiar yardstick, “the practice of our wise British ancestors.” Quitrents were emblems of feudal tyranny, a means once of financing standing armies which his history showed to be a constant source of domestic insecurity. Appealing to his whig view of the past, Jefferson demanded of Pendleton: “Are we not the better for what we have hitherto abolished of the feudal system? Has not every restitution of the antient Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century?” Pendleton’s response was illuminating: “I highly esteem the old Saxon laws in General,” he conceded, “but cannot Suppose them wholly unalterable for the better after an experience of so many Centuries.” After all, he added, these old Saxon laws were perhaps better calculated “for a few, Hardy, virtuous men, than for a great Countrey made Opulent by commerce.”
Unwittingly, Pendleton touched one of the key concerns of whig historians generally and Jefferson particularly. Had Jefferson ever written further to his friend he would have readily agreed that the Saxon system he wished to recreate was best suited to a simple agrarian state. Jefferson had no desire to see America become opulent from commerce or industry, for all his recent criticism of the British for interfering with both activities. In every historical instance, such opulence had led to luxury, corruption, and political and moral decadence, and whig writers like James Burgh had well advised him of the impact of luxury upon contemporary England. If the former mother country was a sample of a nation refined through commerce and made wealthy through trade, Jefferson knew enough history to want no part of such prosperity for America. Remaining convinced that the happy system of his Saxon ancestors was “the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man,” he persistently labored for the revival of his historically tested utopia.
Perhaps typical of Jefferson’s efforts was his sustained attack on the established church of Virginia, beginning in 1776. While in Jefferson’s eyes the Anglican church’s tax-supported and privileged ecclesiastical status was inherently wrong, there were also readily available historical reasons for disestablishment. Jefferson entered two such objections to the continued support of the Anglican church in Virginia, and both were derived from his study of the Saxon past. First, he knew from reading Sullivan’s Treatise on the Feudal Law that “in the infancy of the Christian church … the clergy was supported by the voluntary contributions of the people,” and that the state tax-supported system came later. Since Jefferson thought Sullivan particularly partial to the clergy, he felt this information would carry great weight. Secondly, and of greater importance to Jefferson, there was the question of the historical foundation of the Anglican establishment.
When investigating his Saxon utopia, Jefferson became deeply concerned with the question of when Christian or ecclesiastical law became part of English common law. Reading widely and selectively into the subject, Jefferson took issue with such authorities as Sir Matthew Hale, Sir William Blackstone, William Lambarde, and Justice Fortescue Aland. He noted that Hale agreed that “christianity is parcel of the laws of England,” but discounted this because Hale cited no authority, and in any case Hale was only “a sound lawyer when not biassed by his belief in Christianity or Witchcraft.” Blackstone he rejected for quoting Hale, and both showed “the necessity of holding the judges and writers to a declaration of their authorities.”
Jefferson himself could find no evidence for the adoption of Christianity as part of common law during the period of its creative but unwritten development. Common law, commented Jefferson, “was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that to the date of the Magna Charta which terminates the period of the common law … and commences that of the Statute law.” Since the Saxons had settled in England two hundred years before the introduction of Christianity, then some late grafting had taken place. For the record between the Saxon conversion to Christianity and Magna Charta, Jefferson found the compilations of Lambarde and Wilkins adequate, but he could not find when Christian law was taken into common law. Bracton was “valuable” since he wrote shortly after Magna Charta; yet although he was an ecclesiastic, and therefore suspect, significantly he did not mention the adoption of Christianity into common law. Fortescue Aland, “who possessed more Saxon learning than all the judges and writers before mentioned put together,” came closer, but it was a recent French writer who gave Jefferson his final answer.
David Houard’s Traités sur les coutumes Anglo-Normandes contended that four chapters of Jewish law were appended to the body of King Alfred’s codification of common law by “some pious copyist.” Thus the basic connection of ecclesiastical and common law derived from an “awkward Monkish fabrication,” a fraud and forgery which to Jefferson was so obvious that English judges could only be accused of deliberately if piously avoiding the truth. Unfortunately, concluded Jefferson, the manner in which the clergy falsified the laws of Alfred was typical of “the alliance between Church and State in England,” and judges have always been “accomplices in the frauds of the clergy.”
The thoroughness with which Jefferson undertook his research into the antiquity of ecclesiastical pretensions reflected his abiding devotion to what he believed to be the system of his abused Saxon ancestors. Indeed, it is likely that his original interest in Saxon history first stimulated the direction of this particular inquiry. For among the many whig works Jefferson consulted before writing his Summary View had been Hulme’s Historical Essay. And Hulme had not only supplied Jefferson with quotable material on “our Saxon forefathers” and their “free constitution” but had also argued that the clergy “were foreign to the original institution, and only grafted themselves upon it.” In a very real sense Jefferson’s campaign for the disestablishment of the Anglican church was part of his protracted endeavor to reestablish the true Saxon form of government. That Jefferson believed firmly the “Almighty God hath created the mind free” is well known; that he found historical support for his belief is also true. In fact the same year that Jefferson first declared Virginians should “have full and free liberty of religious opinion: nor … be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution,” he was also proposing a unique and symbolic seal for his new nation. The design suggested would feature representations of Hengist and Horsa, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honour of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” Jefferson’s affection for such a historical emblem was appreciated, but his plan was not accepted. Yet he was not discouraged and continued to work for a realization of his Saxon “heavenly city.”
Jefferson’s political career attained a pinnacle in 1776. He found the next decade less satisfying. He met with but limited success in his efforts to remodel his country in the image he desired, and his term as Governor of Virginia ended amid a flurry of criticism over his failure to prevent the British invasion. By September 1781 he was contemplating retirement from public life. To Edmund Randolph he confessed “I have … retired to my farm, my family and books from which I think nothing will ever more separate me.” In these circumstances he undertook his Notes on Virginia, an illuminating commentary on American life and history, and an enlightening review of the lessons he felt history continued to teach.
Jefferson was anxious that the nation he helped to create prove successful in avoiding the economic, moral, and political pitfalls he saw afflicting Great Britain. His perspective on America was greatly affected by his perspective on his former mother country. In a Newtonian mood he observed that “human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic, and will be alike influenced by the same causes.” Recalling his Roman history, he noted that when “a heavy-handed unfeeling aristocracy” ruled a people made “desperate by poverty and wretchedness” the door was opened for a temporary tyrant who inevitably became perpetual. Potentially, this was the fate of divided Americans and decadent Englishmen, and a warning to both. The current trouble in Great Britain was simply explained, and in familiar whig terms: “The government of Great Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear.” Jefferson concluded that the main security against similar corruption in America must lie in numbers; the English example precluded a reliance upon government by the wealthy.
Jefferson gave added point to his remarks in the Notes by referring to the present situation in Virginia. His suggestions for a state constitution had not, he felt, been adequately digested; the result was a legislature that looked dangerously uneven in representation. The homogeneous and somewhat unrepresentative Virginia Assembly with its 149 delegates and 24 senators now filled Jefferson with alarm. Relying upon the experience of history, he rendered his verdict that “173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one. … An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.”
Despotism was what the Revolution was about: there was no sense to substituting an American tyrant for an English one. Jefferson wished to avoid the demonstrable evils in the corrupted British constitution by dividing and balancing the branches and powers of government so that the known weaknesses of men might be circumvented. With the example of British history ever before him, Jefferson urged that “the time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold of us.” He frankly feared that the Virginia Assembly, like the Long Parliament in England, might “be deluded by the integrity of their own purposes. … They should look forward to a time, and that not a very distant one, when corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people.” If corruption takes hold, if Virginians “will purchase the voices of the people,” then they will pay the price as in Britain.
Jefferson’s fear of despotism was not wild or groundless. Under the stress and strain of war with Britain, some flirted with the idea of setting up a dictator in Virginia in June of 1781. Well-meaning men “had been seduced in their judgment by the example of an ancient Republic, whose constitution and circumstances were fundamentally different.” There were perils in learning Roman rather than British historical lessons. But in any case it was important to avoid the past and present troubles of others; Jefferson was sure that the logic of whig history dictated a dreadful collapse for the misguided and forgetful British. Well informed by writers like Thomas Gordon, Bolingbroke, and Burgh, Jefferson could see little help for his corrupted mother country: her stockjobbing, her enormous national debt, the erosion of the gains of 1688—all combined with recent events to show that “the sun of her glory is fast descending to the horizon.” England “seems passing to that awful dissolution, whose issue is not given human foresight to scan.” Nor was Jefferson’s conclusion particularly extreme in its context: American newspapers were recently filled with reports of the terrible Gordon riots that broke out in London during June 1780. To a contemporary with a sound whig orientation, the news that London was temporarily in the hands of the city rabble seemed an omen of impending collapse.
Anxious to save America from such a fate, Jefferson did not limit himself to warnings and criticisms of constitutional failings: he was also aware of other aspects of England’s recent history, such as the dependent character of her citizens huddled into industrial cities and deprived of the economic independence permitted a landowning nation. At least some of the corruption of English morals and politics came from manufacturing, in which large numbers depended for their substance on the “casualties and caprice of customers.” American salvation could very well be found in her abundance of land “courting the industry of the husbandman.” Jefferson urged that America rely upon the Old World for manufactures and avoid developing great industrial centers. Having just marked the menace of the London mob run wild at Lord George Gordon’s foolish instigation, Jefferson was convinced that “the mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Cultivators of the soil, in contrast, were “the most virtuous and independent citizens.” As Jefferson later reminded John Adams, “the man of the old world was crowded within limits too small or overcharged, and steeped in the vices which that situation generates.” American history should tell a different and potentially happier story, since “here men have choice of their labour, and so may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs, and a degree of freedom.”
Jefferson was not a particularly accurate prophet, but he was a patient observer. He was always ready to mark the progressive signs of a decline he knew must come; George III and his wicked ministers had spent “the fee simple of the kingdom, under pretence of governing it; their sinecures, pensions, priests, prelates, princes, and eternal wars, have mortgaged to its full value the last foot of their soil.” He was convinced that a heavy national debt, such as endured by the collapsing British, was a national sin; “the modern theory of the perpetuation of debt,” wrote a debt-ridden Jefferson in 1816, “has drenched the earth with blood.” He could allow that “the English have been a wise, a virtuous and truly estimable people”; the trouble was that “commerce and a corrupt government have rotted them to the core.” Reformation, possibly through “civil war, massacre,” had to come, but the aftermath held distinctly good possibilities. “Their habits of law and order, their almost innate ideas of the vital elements of free government, of trial by jury, habeas corpus, freedom of the press, and representative government, make them capable of bearing a considerable portion of liberty,” thought Jefferson generously. But as he had remarked in his Notes, “the first settlers in this country [of Virginia] were emigrants from England,” and the final outcome was a constitution that was “a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution.”
Jefferson’s enthusiasm for a nation of independent farmers and his awareness of the vast expanse of land available for this form of democratic preservation did not blind him to human realities. He knew that his new nation could survive only if its citizens were suitably informed of their precious heritage, their reason thus adequately armed. Helpful as economic self-sufficiency might be in fighting the evils of corruption, the foundation for a working democratic republic had to be an educated electorate. And by “educated” Jefferson meant exposed to history, and the earlier the exposure, the safer the nation.
The extent of Jefferson’s concern for properly educated youth was first indicated in 1778, when he submitted his famous “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” The admitted reason was that “experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time … perverted it into tyranny.” The purpose of the Bill was “to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large” and particularly to offer a reliable understanding of the past. Jefferson argued that with a “knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth,” the people would thus enjoy the experience of other ages and countries and be better equipped “to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.” From the first of the educational stages planned, Jefferson wanted an acquaintance “with Graecian, Roman, English, and American history,” with students of promise given opportunity to continue their education on the college level. And the first subject he suggested for advanced academic study was again history, “ancient and modern.”
Nothing was closer to Jefferson’s heart in his last years than planning and working for a university, conveniently close to Monticello, where young Virginians would be suitably prepared for the outside political world. In a sense the University of Virginia was the climax to Jefferson’s educational program, but it also served other important purposes. During his youth, Jefferson had disapproved a colonial tendency to go abroad for a college education. Going abroad for this purpose involved risks with which most whig writers were familiar. James Burgh had described the terrible temptations facing students at the English universities in the eighteenth century: Oxford and Cambridge were “little better than seminaries of vice.” Jefferson agreed. Education abroad exposed innocent American youths to “a fondness for European luxury and dissipation … a contempt for the simplicity of … [their] own country … a passion for whores, destructive of health.” In England, the American “learns drinking, horse racing, and boxing. These are the pecularities of English education.” Most menacing was the likelihood of contracting “a partiality for aristocracy or monarchy.” The foundation of the University of Virginia was Jefferson’s antidote to such a disease. In Charlottesville, students were to have their minds safely enlightened and their morals cultivated along sound whig lines, developing “habits of reflection and correct action.”
This academic plan for moral cultivation was not just a polite form of historical indoctrination. Jefferson wanted a rounded education to be offered, including languages such as German, which had the distinct merit of being “of common descent with the language of our own country, a branch of the same original Gothic stock, and furnishes valuable illustrations for us.” Even more important was Anglo-Saxon, “of peculiar value” because it helped us to better understand “our ancient common law, on which, as a stock, our whole system of law is engrafted.” Further, Anglo-Saxon was “the first link in the chain of a historical review of our language,” and was “already fraught with all the eminent science of our parent country.” And to be sure that proper principles of political philosophy developed with such tools, Jefferson wished students to master Locke’s Essay Concerning the True Original Extent, and End of Civil Government, and Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, which he recommended for “the general principles of liberty and the rights of man.”
In a letter to George Washington Lewis, of the University of Virginia’s faculty, Jefferson discussed details of the history curriculum. He argued for the merits of ancient history, and the inclusion of Thucydides, Livy, Caesar, and Tacitus. But he devoted most attention to modern history, particularly that of England. Significantly, the one whig history included in Peter Jefferson’s small library remained the first choice of his son Thomas Jefferson nearly seventy years later. “There is as yet no general history so faithful as Rapin’s,” Jefferson still insisted; only after Rapin should students read such unreliable historical heretics as David Hume.
Hume constantly drew Jefferson’s irritated attacks as an apologist for the iniquities of the Stuarts: “he suppressed truths, advanced falsehoods, forged authorities, and falsified records.” Hume disturbed Jefferson by the dangerous charm of his writing: “His pen revolutionized the public sentiment [in England] … more completely than the standing armies could ever have done.” Along with “bewitching” style Hume offered a view of history totally opposed to Jefferson’s, a view that argued “it was the people who encroached on the sovereign, not the sovereign who usurped on the rights of the people.” When this dangerous Scotsman treated Saxon and Norman history, he twisted the facts, at least as Jefferson conceived them. The Saxon period, Jefferson carefully reminded his faculty members, exhibited “the genuine form and political principles of the people constituting the nation, and founded on the rights of man.” The Norman regime, on the other hand, was “built on conquest and physical force.” The Conquest of 1066 settled nothing, because the English will “to recover the Saxon constitution continued unabated, and was at the bottom of all the unsuccessful insurrections which succeeded in subsequent times.” This was the viewpoint of Jefferson’s favorite whig historians, who had “always gone back to the Saxon period for the true principles of their constitution, while the Tories and Hume … date it from the Norman conquest.” Students should not be allowed to read Hume without preparation in other works: “If first read, Hume makes an English Tory, from whence it is an easy step to American Toryism.” Jefferson returned to the whig superiority of Rapin as supplying a needed basis of truth.
Fond of Rapin’s History as he was, Jefferson conceded that it was a rather large dose for the average university student. But there were alternatives to tory historical seduction at the hands of Hume: another Scotsman, George Brodie, published in 1822 A History of the British Empire from the Accession of Charles I. to the Restoration, which included “a Particular Examination of Mr. Hume’s Statements Relative to the Character of the English Government.” Brodie offered a long and partisan review of Hume’s tory failings, and like Jefferson, was convinced that “England at an early period, was distinguished for her freedom, and the comparative happiness of her people.” However, Brodie was a little too obvious, and much more attractive to Jefferson was John Baxter’s older but rarer offering, A New and Impartial History of England. Jefferson bought his copy in 1805 and enjoyed recommending the book to his friends as “Hume’s history republicanised.” He reported delightedly that when Baxter “comes to a fact falsified, he states it truly, and when to a suppression of truth he supplies it … [and] it is in fact an editio expurgata of Hume.” For those who found Rapin difficult, Baxter was the best possible substitute. This was not very surprising: Baxter’s attitude toward history was also Jefferson’s. “By a knowledge of the History of England,” noted Baxter, “we are able to contrast the present with former times; to see where our liberties are invaded, or in danger; and learn, from example, how the evil is to be prevented.” Baxter had actually written an abridged version of Hume, changing words here, omitting some there, making over Hume’s pages, as Jefferson said, into “sound history.”
If Baxter was to be of value in saving Americans from Hume’s influence, his work had to be made available. Jefferson tried to secure an American edition, “and by reprinting it, place in the hands of our students an elementary history which may strengthen instead of weakening their affections to the republican principles of their own country and its constitution.” Failing in this, Jefferson tried to secure additional copies from England, if only to replace his copy which went to the Library of Congress on the sale of his second collection. Neither Mathew Carey, nor John Laval, nor even the American minister Richard Rush could oblige him with copies, in spite of his repeated requests, and Baxter remained a rarity in America. It was in vain that Jefferson urged a copy of Baxter for the University of Virginia library. So impressed was Jefferson with Baxter’s “method,” that he suggested an extension of the practice as a guaranteed antidote to Hume’s “poison.” To the publisher Mathew Carey, Jefferson suggested reprinting Hume, and alongside in parallel columns placing the whig refutations, thus confronting Hume’s “misrepresentations” with “authentic truths” from “honest writers” like Edmund Ludlow, Catherine Macaulay, and Rapin. After all, he wrote Carey, “the knowledge of our own history must be based on that of England”; in this manner a little historical learning need not be a dangerous thing.
No historian so exasperated Jefferson as did David Hume. Not only did Jefferson fret publicly over the menace Hume represented to innocent students at Charlottesville, but he continued to worry privately over Hume’s pernicious influence. One occasion was an article that appeared in the London Globe in the spring of 1824 offering a quotation from Edmund Burke on David Hume: “I believe we shall all come to think at last with Mr. Hume,” said Burke, “that an absolute monarchy is not so bad a thing as we supposed.” This thought set Jefferson to reviewing Hume again, particularly his claim that the first two Stuart kings were not sinners, but sinned against by the people who willfully encroached upon the royal prerogative. Jefferson wrote in his Commonplace Book that Hume described Charles I as “a very virtuous prince and entirely worthy of the trust of his people,” an opinion impossible for a good whig, and characteristic of Hume’s Jacobite outlook. Hume’s political philosophy offended Jefferson: his assertion that “it is seldom that the people gain anything by revolutions in government,” his characterization of the theory of representative government as a noble dream “belied by all history and experience,” his observation that “it is dangerous to weaken … the reverence which the multitude owe to authority” were all highly objectionable. Jefferson concluded that Hume’s purpose was to instruct people in doctrines of obedience so they would mistakenly learn the impossibility of achieving freedom from the duty of their allegiance. The very existence of the United States in 1824 seemed ample evidence of Hume’s error. Beyond that, Jefferson was prepared to propagate the doctrine of disobedience and the right of revolution and to illustrate from history the justice revolutions had achieved.
Jefferson’s last years were remarkable for the vigor with which he still conducted his extraordinary correspondence. In the summer of 1824 he received and replied to a letter from an unusual admirer, Major John Cartwright, the famed English radical. The exchange of letters between these two octogenarians is a remarkable one on several counts: it illustrates the esteem in which Jefferson was held by surviving members of the English Real Whigs who had sympathized with the American Revolution; it confirms their agreement on the importance of history and its interpretation; and it reveals anew Jefferson’s lasting commitment to the whig view of English history.
The excuse for Cartwright’s communication was the publication of what was to be his final volume, The English Constitution Produced and Illustrated. Cartwright discussed at great length the “well-known existence of the Anglo-Saxon Elective Legislature, and the equally well understood Rights and Liberties out of which it naturally grew.” Repeatedly he stressed the pre-Norman origin of the English constitution he so ardently wished to restore in the early nineteenth century. And Jefferson agreed completely with Cartwright’s historical interpretation: “I think,” Jefferson told Cartwright, “it has deduced the Constitution of the English nation from its rightful root. … Your derivation of it from the Anglo-Saxons seems to be made on legitimate principles.” Jefferson read Cartwright’s work “with pleasure and much appreciation,” and in acknowledging his enjoyment, he related his reasons.
The Saxons, Jefferson agreed, were the ancestors of present-day Englishmen. It is true that no written evidence of their constitution has been handed down, but “doubtless” they had one, and from their known history and laws “it may be inferred with considerable certainty.” Jefferson conceded the Norman conquest, but insisted that “force cannot change right,” that violence was part of recorded history but could not set aside historically established rights. Despite the Normans, “a perpetual claim was kept up by the nation, by their perpetual demand of a restoration of their Saxon laws.” This was adequate evidence the Saxon system was “never relinquished by the will of the nation,” and eventually, when the Stuarts were expelled, “the thread of pretended inheritance” was broken and the English regained their former rights. Admittedly not all such privileges were specified in the bills of rights, “yet the omission of the others was no renunciation of the right to assume their exercise also, whenever occasion should occur.” After all, William and Mary “received no rights but those expressly granted.”
Jefferson had no hesitation in avowing his historical allegiance: “It has ever appeared to me,” he told Cartwright, “that the difference between the Whig and the Tory of England is, that the Whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the Tory from the Norman.” The category for David Hume was inescapable: Hume remained “the great apostle of Toryism,” a “degenerate son of science,” and a “traitor to his fellow men.” And while Jefferson reminded Cartwright that the American Revolution was not confined by “the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry,” still he discussed the merits of a new division of local government that “would answer to the hundreds of your Saxon Alfred.” Jefferson was as dedicated an admirer of his Saxon ancestors as he had ever been, still arguing that in the glorious days of Alfred there was no real alliance of church and state, that this was the work of judicial forgers: “What a conspiracy this, between Church and State!” exclaimed Jefferson, adding exuberantly, “Sing Tantara, rogues all, rogues all, Sing Tantarara, rogues all!” But Jefferson could look with genuine satisfaction at the elements of the Saxon system which he had helped restore in America. “The wit of man,” he concluded, “cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable and well-administered republic.”
Had Cartwright lived to reply, he would have enviously agreed with Jefferson. As he had remarked earlier, there were too many enemies to freedom in England, “hereditary Kings, privileged nobles, and time-serving priests,” and yet England too might recover this same ancient glory if only, “by one comprehensive radical reform of her government,” she would shake off “the Norman Counterfeit” and restore “her genuine Polity in all its purity.” Cartwright did disclose to Jefferson his hope that with the ancient English constitution reestablished in America, the new nation might act like “a faithful mirror” upon the eyes and sympathy of his uninformed fellow countrymen. And Jefferson, reading Cartwright’s English Constitution, could find the same thought expressed more flatteringly: in the United States, “we have Democracy divested of its turbulence, its unsteadiness, its liability of being duped by Demagogues … while it yet retains its naturally genuine patriotism and disinterested devotion to the public good. … Such was the government of a Wittagenmote, executed by an Alfred! Such is the government of a Congress, executed by a Monroe!”
Jefferson himself provided a final footnote to his lifelong attachment to history. He was invited to participate in celebrations to be held in Washington on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson declined on account of failing health, but he offered some brief remarks on the meaning of independence. “All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man,” he wrote. “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.”
This comprised Jefferson’s last formal statement on democracy to his countrymen. But Jefferson’s words were not his own. The phrases referring to mankind’s freedom from saddles and spurs came directly from the dying speech of another revolutionary, Colonel Richard Rumbold, owner of the famous Rye House in which the deaths of Charles II and his Roman Catholic brother James were unsuccessfully plotted. Rumbold met his death on the scaffold, asserting that he was dying “in the Defence of the ancient Laws and Liberties.” He was departing from “a deluded Generation, vail’d with Ignorance, that though Popery and Slavery be riding in upon them, do not perceive it.” He concluded with the observation employed by Jefferson: he did not believe, declared Rumbold, “that God made the greater part of Mankind with Saddles on their Backs, and Bridles in their Mouths, and some few booted and spurred to ride the rest.”
Just where Jefferson met with Rumbold’s speech is uncertain. James Wilson had quoted it in his law lectures. Bishop Burnet cited Rumbold in his History of His Own Time. Rapin drew from Burnet. So did James Burgh, who began his Political Disquisitions with Rumbold’s “shrewd” saying. Jefferson knew these authors intimately. English history was so much a part of Jefferson’s intellectual existence that it seems singularly fitting that an English martyr’s metaphor should also be the parting phrase of a successful American Revolutionary.
The persistent and enduring affection for whig history that is so pronounced in Jefferson suggests a certain consistency in his historical thought and political action. It is abundantly clear that the whig historical approach had much that was attractive to Jefferson, although his receptivity probably varied with political necessity. Certainly it is more than pleasant to think of one’s forefathers as exponents of democracy and liberty, and it was a comfort to subscribers to the Saxon myth to know that there had existed a political utopia in Saxon England. In fact the basis of whig history was largely this pre-Norman utopia, where there had been no menace from a standing army, no society organized for war on a feudal basis, and no land held other than allodially. This Saxon society, Jefferson learned, had been a society of law, unplagued by a shackling established church, a society governed originally by an elective monarchy and a popular assembly meeting in that original of parliaments, the annual Saxon witenagemot.
This was the encouraging and sometimes inspiring view presented by the books Jefferson studied most carefully, books which contributed to his peculiar historical optimism, his belief in the “happy system” of his Saxon ancestors, his staunch faith that the past could be successfully adapted to the future in America. As he came increasingly to see the uniqueness of the United States by reason of its size and its unexploited land, history came to lack the immediate pertinence previously evident. He never needed history as desperately as when he sought guidance for the Revolution, but he was never dominated by it. History helped him understand his political and economic problems; it supplied a reassuringly empirical basis for argument.
It was Jefferson’s ability to learn from and employ history for the present and future that contributed to his historical optimism. While he might repeat the historians he studied and admired, he did not see why history should repeat itself, and he did not subscribe to any cyclical theory which would deny man’s perfectibility. The past for Thomas Jefferson was by no means the past portrayed by modern scholarship. What matters is that he was governed by what he believed happened in the days of his Saxon ancestors, and that he was optimistic enough to believe that this early version of democracy would be reestablished on an enduring basis in America.