Thomas Jefferson has undoubtedly made significant contributions to the founding of the United States. Regarded as one of America's most predominant political figures, Jefferson has been lauded for several milestones during his career. Jefferson is perhaps most well-known as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as the staunchest supporter of the separation of church and state. Several of Jefferson's writings are focused around religious and individual freedom as the American way of life. Among Jefferson's other well-known accomplishments include, serving as the first secretary of state, the second vice-president, the third president and as the politician responsible for the Louisiana Purchase.
Although Jefferson is strongly connected with the theology of personal and individual freedom, much has been made of his dependence on slavery and his conviction that American society remains a white male dominated one. Jefferson continues to be a paradoxical figure in American history having come under much scrutiny especially in the world of scholarly research. The discrepancies between his liberal writing and his practical personal life with relation to race and society has been widely studied and written about. To most however, both domestically and abroad, Jefferson remains an icon of democracy and a heroic symbol associated with the foundation of the United States. This paper will outline and discuss the contributions that Jefferson had made to the founding of the nation and will explore his views and opinions on slavery and race relations.
In order to understand Jefferson's contributions and his opinions regarding slavery it is important to discuss his personal background. By understanding Thomas Jefferson the person, we are better able to understand his contributions to the forming of the nation and his impact on slavery and race relations. Jefferson's impact on the forming of the nation is vast and it is with good reason that his accomplishments are considered to be nothing less than extraordinary for a man once called the "Apostle of Freedom" by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Considered by historian Dumas, as being a member of the "trinity of American immortals, along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln" Jefferson's contributions to the founding of the nation are nothing short of remarkable. Described by many as truly a learned person, Jefferson's interests and intellect has been a focus of much historical research. Modern scholars' fascination with Jefferson the man, have produced countless works of Jefferson's personal and professional contributions.
Thomas Jefferson was born in Albermarle County, Virginia in 1743. Jefferson grew up on the family plantation named Shadwell where he would later build his home famously known as Monticello. He was the third child born and one of eight siblings with one younger brother and six sisters. His father, Peter Jefferson, was an accomplished farmer and his mother was a descendent of one of the most predominant families in Virginia.
Jefferson was raised in a family life dependent on slave labor, having grown up on a plantation with at least 60 slaves. There are countless accounts of one of Jefferson's first memories as a child was as a three-year-old child being carried around the plantation on a pillow by a slave and as Dumas points out in 1794, Jefferson owned 150 (1932, p. 207). This area of Jefferson's hypercritic-like lifestyle has been studied extensively which will be explored later in this paper.
It is from his father that Jefferson may have inherited his passion for politics and the hunger for success. Peter Jefferson was colonel of Albemarle County and served as a member of the House of Burgesses. Jefferson's father instilled in his son the value of hard work and as Dumas elaborates, "he was no landless pioneer but an enterprising young planter," (Dumas, 1948, p. 4). Peter Jefferson died when Jefferson was only 14 years old, leaving the family with abundant financial resources and a high family status in the community.
Always a conscientious student, Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg when he was 17 years old and excelled in the field of law. According to many accounts, Jefferson was a disciplined and obsessive student who reportedly spent 15 hours a day studying. Dumas' writing highlight this trait and credit much of Jefferson's success to discipline.
Self-imposed, rather than external, discipline shaped his education from his youth onward ... The first period of his amazing life differed in many ways from the important and exacting era of public service which followed, but the habit of study persisted. Drafting state papers brought him no such joy as the free pursuit of knowledge, and he could not approach all public problems with the zeal of the explorer; but in all his tasks he could and did manifest the seriousness and the industry of the scholar (Dumas, 1948, pp. 55-56).
During the college years, there were two main influences on Jefferson's life significant to note. William Small, a teacher of math and science, and George Wythe the leading legal scholar in Virginia were the two people who impacted Jefferson's formidable years the most. It is from them that Jefferson developed a deep appreciation of mentors, a concept that later Jefferson would apply as a foundation of the University of Virginia. Small instilled in Jefferson the idea of thinking with a free-mind and was often included of Jefferson's writings.
It was my great good fortune and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. William Small was then professor of mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me and made me his daily companion when not engaged in school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expanse of science and of the system of things in which we are placed (Adams-Jefferson Letters).
Jefferson practiced law and represented clients, most of who were involved in land disputes, well but grew a reputation for being shy and an indifferent speaker. Although not known for his fight-like-a-tiger spirit publicly or in the courtroom, Jefferson was well-known as an exceptional law scholar and brilliant thinker and author. His reputation of being highly educated with great potential and the ability to think freely preceded him and his opinions were often welcomed.
Cunningham explains that although accomplished in many areas of study, Jefferson was driven mainly by his desire for freedoms granted by the laws of nature. "Despite Jefferson's diverse interests and accomplishments, certain basic tenets motivated his life and shaped his actions in whatever challenges he faced. Of these, none was stronger than his belief in 'the sufficiency of reason for the care of human affairs.' As a man of the Enlightenment who believed in the application of reason to society as well as to nature, Jefferson throughout his life pursued the use of reason as the means by which mankind could obtain a more perfect society" (Cunningham, 1987, p. 6).
Although his contributions to the foundation of institutions such as the separation of church and state and religious freedom and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence are the central focus of the accomplishments in this paper, it is important to note the other areas that he made a significant impact. Historians argue that Jefferson is responsible for more than the Declaration of Independence when it comes to laying the foundation of the nation. Basic social institutions enjoyed today, such as the public school system, can trace its roots back to Jefferson. Jefferson was more advanced than his contemporaries in the areas of women's rights, the formation of public schools and a prison system.
According to Mailer (2000), Jefferson tried to enhance equality among Virginians in many ways. Mailer cites Jefferson's article on "Rights Private and Public" as evidence that he supported poor and property-less people 50 acres of land and provided that females have equal rights with men in areas of inheritance and property (29). Jefferson also proposed a free public school system in Virginia that provided three years of tuition free instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as languages and history. It is important to note that Jefferson proposed this idea of public schooling for free males and females who resided in Virginia.
The issue of religious freedom and the idea of the separation of church and state have been the focus of much study and debate by historians and philosophers. Central to these debates are the Jefferson's contributions to the issue and because of this, a great deal of attention has been placed on his ideas, writings and speeches. Religious freedom and the separation of church and state are two of the building blocks that the United States was founded upon. Historians agree that Jefferson served as a trailblazer and made significant contributions in the areas…