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Thomas Jefferson (1744-1826)

Oklahoma Historical Society Executive Director Bob Blackburn, the dean of 21st century Oklahoma historians, rated President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase as the most important event in Oklahoma history. He cited how the act annexed into the United States all the land of present Oklahoma except, debatably, the Panhandle, and that Jefferson intended a portion of the land to provide a colonization area for American Indian tribes.

Thus, a case could be advanced for Jefferson as the “Father (or perhaps Grandfather) of Oklahoma.” His importance likewise towers over the annals of American history. Amongst countless deeds en route to Mount Rushmore, Jefferson authored the bulk of the Declaration of Independence, stood as a bulwark against the powerful forces already attempting to imbue the national government with unconstitutional powers, and prophetically warned Americans against political connections and treaties with other nations.

He also wrote legislation—in the 1700s—intended to outlaw slavery, helped insure freedom from any state-mandated religious institution, and spearheaded a lofty intellectual legacy for the new nation, including planning, designing, and building the University of Virginia.

The third of 10 children of possible Welsh ancestry, Jefferson hailed from Virginia. He spoke five languages and possessed an inordinate array of talents, including architecture, which spurred him to plan, design, and build his own famed plantation home, Monticello, near Charlottesville, as well as the University of Virginia.

Declaration of Independence

An attorney and tobacco planter, Jefferson served as a young man in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769-1775. During that time, he authored legislation to outlaw the slave trade. This constituted an act of startling boldness in a nation where all geographic sections practiced it, not least the Old Dominion. The Burgesses voted down the motion by a single vote, to Jefferson’s great dismay.

In 1775, Virginia appointed him to the emerging American nation’s Continental Congress in Washington. Still barely past 30 years old, he rocketed to immortal world fame the following year upon the advent of the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the United States. Continental Congressmen chose him, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, as one of their “Committee of Five,” to draft the document.

The youthful Jefferson was already known for the power of his intellect, his grasp of history, economics, and political theory, and his literary acumen. Championed by Adams, he became the principal author of America’s written secession from the crown of England a year into their bloody war with one another.

Drawing on a philosophical heritage that included Aristotle, Jesus Christ, de Montesquieu, and Adam Smith, Jefferson framed the document in dramatic terms: the organizing American body politic responded for its own well-being to a betrayal of trust by its former sovereigns, the Crown and Parliament of Britain. Appealing to the Enlightenment-supported concept from Natural Law of a presupposed Divine Being who created humankind and to whom the latter is responsible, he drew from the notions of John Locke of the right of all people to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” The other Committee of Five members made some adjustments to the document, and the full Congress made more. Jefferson privately resented the latter, particularly removal of his passage criticizing the slave trade. But the work remained essentially his. The following lines endure as Jefferson’s, the Declaration’s, and perhaps America’s most famed:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Jefferson’s reference to “Nature’s God,” the “Creator,” the “Supreme Judge of the world,” and “divine Providence” notwithstanding, historians such as J. Gregg Singer have demonstrated the non-Christian nature of the Declaration, the war accompanying it, and its primary author:

“It has been increasingly recognized by historians of American culture and thought that behind the political philosophy of the American Revolution, as it found its expression in Locke and the Declaration, there lay a view of God and of human nature which was not Christian but Deist, which was not orthodox and conservative but radical. It thus follows that the American Revolution in its basic philosophy was not Christian, and the democratic way of life which arose from it was not, and is not Christian, but was, and is, a Deistic and secularized caricature of the evangelical point of view…That the Jeffersonian democracy was founded on Christian principles and simply reflects the social implications of the Gospels is one of the most deadly, and at the same time one of the most persistent errors of contemporary America.”

A contrasting Christian perspective posits that as God, according to the Bible, established the Church and human government as distinct entities to promote good and restrain evil till the return of Christ, His followers should not grow anxious or even surprised that a government does not reflect a Christian doctrinal statement. Though government exists for the good of all, including Christians, the latter, drawing on the example of Christ, should not perhaps even attempt to participate in its operation.

Jefferson’s later Revolutionary War experiences as a high-ranking official demonstrate the desperate plight of the American resistance in that conflict. He served as Governor of Virginia from 1779-1781. Fighting raged across the state, the most populous in the new Union, and nearly cost Jefferson his life. The murderous British Colonel Banastre Tarleton led Redcoat cavalry on a mission to capture Jefferson and other state leaders in the state capital of Richmond.

He escaped to a plantation he owned farther west. Compounding these hardships, Jefferson faced opposition from fellow Virginia Patriots, many of whom criticized his leadership and his struggles to protect the people and government of the state. An official inquiry, however, exonerated him of any malfeasance in office.


Jefferson wooed and in 1772 won the hand of the widowed Martha Wayles Skelton, one of the most pursued women in the colonies. They enjoyed a blissful marriage and produced six children, but four died before reaching adulthood. Compiling Jefferson’s grief was the “catastrophe” in 1782 of Martha’s death.

Not long before her passing, she copied lines from Tristam Shandy: “Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hoursof it are flying over our heads likeclouds of windy day never to return—more. Every thing presses on—”

Jefferson completed the quotation: “—and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!”

“A single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up,” he wrote of losing Martha. His close friend and future President John Adams feared Jefferson would commit suicide. His daughter, also named Martha, recalled her father’s inconsolable grief and that he locked himself in his bedroom for three weeks, pacing the floor till exhausted.

Later he took long rides alone on secluded Virginia country roads. He barely spoke of his wife in the nearly half-century of life remaining to him and never again married—as he had promised her.

Recognizing Jefferson’s depth of mourning over Martha’s passing, Adams engineered his younger friend’s appointment in 1785 as Ambassador to France. Jefferson thus missed direct participation in the Constitutional Convention. In 1789, though, he returned as President George Washington’s Secretary of State.

Ironically, Adams and Jefferson faced off in the 1796 election to succeed Washington. The contest launched a series of vicious contests between the Federalist Party, which favored a more nationally-centralized approach to government, and close alliance with Britain, and Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists’ new (Democratic-) Republican Party, which tended more toward localized control and closer alliance with France. Adams won by just three electoral votes, but Jefferson’s strong showing earned him the Vice Presidential spot through a quirk of that era’s election process.

Presidential Battles

Throughout the 1790s, Jefferson’s Anti-Federalists sustained repeated political defeats to the more central government-friendly Federalists. The latter’s mounting power culminated with the infamous Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798, which clamped controversial—and often politicized—restrictions and even prison terms on free speech and press. Jefferson, denounced as a traitor by half the newspapers in America, gained further national renown by opposing these unpopular laws, while serving as Adams’ Vice President!

Agreeing with masses of Americans that the Federalists had abused the Constitution in order to corral power away from the people in the states and to the reigning party in Washington, Jefferson and James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” pseudonymously penned the famed Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, respectively. These asserted various rights for the states, as the formers of the Union, including Jefferson’s Kentucky ones for nullifying (rejecting) federal laws they believed injurious to themselves.

This formed part of Jefferson’s national campaign of opposition against the Federalists for the elections of 1800, the first time the Anti-Federalists/Republicans had mounted such an effort. They stood for limited national government, including local control, free trade, no national bank, negligible tariffs, and a foreign policy of equitable trade, non-political intervention, and peace with all.

Indicative of Jefferson’s and other Founders’ views of the transitory nature of the Federal Union they themselves had recently created, he told Madison that he was "determined…to sever ourselves from the union we so much value rather than give up the rights of self-government…in which alone we see liberty, safety and happiness."

According to historian Thomas Woods, “Jefferson refused to view the American Union as anything more than a utilitarian political arrangement to be judged by the test of time, and he expected it ultimately to devolve into two or three independent confederacies—a development he did not view with any particular dread.”

So dramatic loomed the contrast between Jefferson the challenger and his legions, and President Adams and his, Jefferson called the event the Revolution of 1800. Sickened by the excesses of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the young nation thundered its approval, sweeping the Virginian and a legion of allies into office and retiring Founding Father giant Adams from public life.

Louisiana Purchase

The brutal mercantilist wars of England, France, Spain, and others reached epic proportions of tragedy with the rise of Napoleon, and so did their threat to United States hegemony in North America. When Napoleon offered the vast tract of land known as Louisiana (comprised of all or part of the modern states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana), a land he could not defend, to the Americans for an incomparably small cost in order to stockpile cash for his coming showdown with the English, Jefferson faced one of the supreme dilemmas of his life.

The champion of a strict and loyal reading of American Constitutionalism, he saw no warrant for purchasing Louisiana, whatever the issues of national security, without a Constitutional Amendment. He proposed one, and sought counsel from colleagues who esteemed the great document as highly as himself.

At length, Jefferson feared the volatile Napoleon removing his offer before an amendment could pass, which might take years in the partisan Federalist vs. Republican Congress. So the Virginian cut the deal with the French ruler, stunning the world—especially the British Empire—and catapulting the U.S. forward as a national force permanently to be reckoned with, boasting gargantuan new resources and land.

How ironic for those who suggest a long national slide away from Constitutional fidelity to realize that its great first betrayal, for better or worse, came at the hand of its greatest champion. Such are the incongruities of human nature and the ironies of Providential history.

Judge Thomas M. Cooley recognized this when he declared:

“The poison was in the doctrine which took from the Constitution all sacredness, and made subject to the will and caprice of the hour that which, in the intent of the founders, was above parties, and majorities, and presidents, and congresses, and was meant to hold them all in close subordination. After this time the proposal to exercise unwarranted powers on a plea of necessity might be safely advanced without exciting the detestation it deserved; and the sentiment of loyalty to the Constitution was so far weakened that it easily gave way under the pressure of political expediency.”

Congressman and future President John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, albeit a Federalist, declared that the Louisiana Purchase “made a Union totally different from that for which the Constitution had been formed…and all this done by an administration which came in blowing a trumpet against implied power. After this, to nibble at a bank, a road, a canal, the mere mint and cumin of the law was but glorious inconsistency.”

“Louisiana was America’s first imperial possession,” wrote historian George Dargo. “For a regime based upon the principles of strict construction and limited federal power, this was a remarkable doctrinal turnabout and a perversion of the essential meaning of republicanism.”

The Louisiana Purchase did carry Jefferson away from his philosophy of strict constructionist Constitutionalism and local rather than national centers of government. Economist and historian Thomas DiLorenzo wrote, however, that the act no more negated the Virginian’s consistent beliefs than did free market economist Adam Smith’s late service as a tariff collector for the British government undo his historic case for free trade and against mercantilism in Wealth of Nations.

Jefferson’s own words evidence his aim with the Purchase to protect his young nation from European threats, benefit both whites and Natives by separating them with the Mississippi River, and consolidate and strengthen American citizenry east of the Mississippi rather than dilute it by allowing it to span the continent.

In the end, the Louisiana Purchase proved a double-minded betrayal by Jefferson of one of the great pillars of his personal and private belief system, as well as an audacious, visionary triumph of epochal scale and enduring majesty that helped shaped a nation, a civilization, and a world.

Second Term Challenges

Jefferson’s second term unfolded as troublesome as his first had been smooth and triumphant. Aaron Burr, his former Vice President, avoided conviction in an epic trial for treason. As war raged between Victorian Britain and Napoleonic France, the British bullied the United States again, particularly on the high seas. Jefferson’s embargo laws against them, though, wreaked havoc with the American economy, not the British. New Englanders responded to it with smuggling, nullification of the law—citing Jefferson’s own words from his Kentucky Resolution—and near-secession from the Union.

During one of the New Englanders’ several threats of secession, Jefferson demonstrated that despite his Louisiana Purchase accomplishment, he—unlike most modern Americans—had no more fear of the United States fracturing into sections than he had it hatching out of its British cocoon: "God bless them both (New England and the other states in Union) if it be for their good, but separate them, if it is better."

Another time, he wrote:

“Whether we remain one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children & descendants as those of the eastern…(and) I should feel the duty & the desire to promote the western interests as zealously as the eastern, doing all the good for both portions of our future family which should fall within my power."

Beliefs about Government

Jefferson would differ with modern American politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, as well as the public who elects them, and their willingness to buy today’s services with tomorrow’s tax dollars. “We should consider ourselves unauthorised to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves,” he wrote. Not doing the latter would constitute “taxation without representation.” He also rued the centralization of power he said national debt engendered.

President Jefferson inherited debt from the Washington and Adams administrations whose interest gobbled up over half the federal government’s budget. From the day of his inauguration, he aimed a now-unfamiliar Presidential scythe at that malady. Despite the large one-time expense of the Louisiana Purchase, he wiped out most of the national debt before leaving office by cutting government spending and exercising better wisdom on what was spent, yet still reduced taxes seven of his eight years as President.

“By reducing too the faculty of borrowing within its natural limits,” Jefferson wrote, “it would bridle the spirit of war, to which too free a course has been procured by the inattention of money-lenders to this law of nature, that succeeding generations are not responsible for the preceding.” The American people as much as the leaders they accuse have long rejected Jefferson’s warnings against both “the faculty of borrowing” and the “spirit of war.”


Jefferson lived in an era when not only Southern and Border States, but those in New England and the North practiced chattel slavery. Black slaves comprised 10% of colonial Boston’s population and 7% of New York City’s. In 1760, one in four white New England families were slaveowners. Ten thousand slaves served white masters across the North during the American War of Independence. They were not, in the words of one Northern chronicler, “a handful of domestic ‘servants’ afforded gentle treatment.”

The North only ceased the practice as its cold-weathered economic impracticality grew manifest. When it did, rather than free their slaves, many Northern slave owners sold them to folks farther south, where the climate and terrain made the practice more profitable. Upon such transactions many New England fortunes grow.

A tobacco plantation owner, Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. Like fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee a couple generations later, however, he opposed the practice and considered it a moral sin against both slave and owner. He and other Founding Fathers condemned the British for foisting the practice on North American colonists. He recognized its incongruity with the principles he himself had espoused in the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson translated these convictions into numerous attempts from the 1760s-1780s to end existing slavery both voluntarily by slave owners and by law and to prohibit the establishment of slavery in U.S. territories. Also, to free and deport slaves to other countries, where the American government would initially finance them (he feared free blacks would not choose to people a society with whites due to “ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained”), and to stop the import of slaves.

Only the last of these measures passed in his lifetime, with Jefferson himself signing into law in 1807 a bill banning the importing of slaves into the United States.

Critics cite Jefferson’s not freeing more than a half-dozen or so of his own slaves, but overlook that he feared for the safety and even the lives of freed slaves in that era of deep seated prejudice and discrimination. He treated his slaves with kindness and respect. The son of one of them, Madison Hemmings, claimed Jefferson fathered children with his mother, Sally. Later DNA tests confirmed the patrimony of a male from the Jefferson line, but not whether it was Jefferson himself, brother Randolph who was acquainted with Sally, or another Jefferson relative.

Legal scholar William G. Hyland Jr.’s In Defense of Thomas Jefferson approaches the controversy in the manner of preparing a courtroom brief. Marshaling an armada of supporting data, he attributes notions of a Jefferson-Hemmings affair to incompetent scholarship, political grudge making, and academic opportunism, points the finger at dissolute younger brother Randolph, and concludes: “(It) is simply the case that no credible evidence proves that Jefferson fathered any of Sally’s children,” nor engaged in intimate relations with her.

Religious Beliefs

Jefferson’s religious views endure as one of his many fascinating aspects. He possessed a Deistic worldview similar to that of many of the prominent Founding Fathers. Deism—the belief in a divine God, but not one closely involved in individual or world history, and of a single divine entity rather than the Trinitarian view of three—encompassed a variety of views in Jefferson’s time, views often at variance with modern versions. Jefferson left a treasury of thoughts on the subject, in his own words, none more illuminating than the following excerpt of a letter he wrote colleague Robert L. Livingston, who played a central role in effecting the Louisiana Purchase:

“…the Christian religion…I promised you…I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”

Demonstrating the searching mind and piercing analysis for which he is renowned, Jefferson contrasted for Livingston the seismic separation he reckoned between Christ and the (other) greatest minds of the human race: “The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.”

Even if he did not profess orthodox Christian faith, Jefferson was far from anti-Christian. He endeavored to shield Christians of all stripes, as well as people of other faiths, from threats to the practice of their faith—particularly by government. In the famed passage from his response to a Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association that feared establishment in the young nation of an English-style state church that would jeopardize their religious freedom, Jefferson penned a response whose central thesis modern Americans have repeatedly misconstrued:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their 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….”

Jefferson referred to “a wall of separation between” protecting the “church” from intrusion into religion matters by the “state” or government, not vice versa. Such is clear from the passage itself, his support of the First Amendment from the Bill of Rights that he cites, and his composite writings and speeches.

Final Days

Jefferson’s friendship with John Adams blossomed as the years and their political contests passed. How remarkable that both these giants of American history, and the nation’s second and third Presidents, died within a few hours of one another—on July 4, 1826, half a century to the day of the Declaration of Independence by the United States from Great Britain, a document primarily authored by Jefferson.

Nearly Jefferson’s final words were: “Is it the Fourth yet?” Adams died a few hours after his colleague, but his final words were: “Independence forever. Thomas Jefferson survives.”


Jefferson Speaks about Louisiana

Thomas Jefferson’s July 11, 1803 letter to famed British-born Revolutionary War Patriot General Horatio Gates brims with excitement over the Louisiana Purchase and with contempt for their (and future President James Monroe’s) common political adversaries of the Federalist Party, which included John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others. (Indentations and parenthetical insertions by author.)

I accept with pleasure, and with pleasure reciprocate your congratulations on the acquisition of Louisiana; for it is a subject of mutual congratulation, as it interests every man of the nation.

The territory acquired, as it includes all the waters of the Missouri and Mississippi, has more than doubled the area of the United States, and the new part is not inferior to the old in soil, climate, productions, and important communications. If our Legislature dispose of it with the wisdom we have a right to expect, they may make it the means of tempting all our Indians on the east side of the Mississippi to remove to the west, and of condensing instead of scattering our population.

I find our opposition is very willing to pluck feathers from (James) Monroe, although not fond of sticking them into (Robert) Livingston’s coat. The truth is, both have a just portion of merit; and were it necessary or proper, it would be shown that each has rendered peculiar services and of important value.

These grumblers, too, are very uneasy lest the administration should share some little credit for the acquisition, the whole of which they ascribe to the accident of war. They would be cruelly mortified could they see our files from May, 1801, the first organization of the administration, but more especially from April, 1802. They would see, that though we could not say when war would arise, yet we said with energy what would take place when it should arise. We did not, by our intrigues, produce the war; but we availed ourselves of it when it happened.

The other party saw the case now existing, on which our representations were predicated, and the wisdom of timely sacrifice. But when these people make the war give us everything, they authorize us to ask what the war gave us in their day? They had a war; what did they make it bring us? Instead of making our neutrality the ground of gain to their country, they were for plunging into the war. And if they were now in place, they would now be at war against the atheists and disorganizers of France. They were for making their country an appendage to England.

We are friendly, cordially and conscientiously friendly to England. We are not hostile to France. We will be rigorously just and sincerely friendly to both. I do not believe we shall have as much to swallow from them as our predecessors had…


Words of Jefferson

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

“Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.”

“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

“That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, and that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.”

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”

“I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

“I am for relying, for internal defence, on our militia solely, till actual invasion, and for such a naval force only as may protect our coasts and harbors from such depredations as we have experienced; and not for a standing army in time of peace, which may overawe the public sentiment; nor for a navy, which, by its own expenses and the eternal wars in which it will implicate us, grind us with public burthens, and sink us under them.”

“I am for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment.”


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