Thomas Jefferson - Revolutionary: A Radical's Struggle to Remake America

Thomas Jefferson - Revolutionary: A Radical's Struggle to Remake America

by Kevin R. C. Gutzman


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"In this lively and clearly written book, Kevin Gutzman makes a compelling case for the broad range and radical ambitions of Thomas Jefferson's commitment to human equality." - Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize winning author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804

Though remembered chiefly as author of the Declaration of Independence and the president under whom the Louisiana Purchase was effected, Thomas Jefferson was a true revolutionary in the way he thought about the size and reach of government, which Americans who were full citizens and the role of education in the new country. In his new book, Kevin Gutzman gives readers a new view of Jefferson—a revolutionary who effected radical change in a growing country.

Jefferson’s philosophy about the size and power of the federal system almost completely undergirded the Jeffersonian Republican Party. His forceful advocacy of religious freedom was not far behind, as were attempts to incorporate Native Americans into American society. His establishment of the University of Virginia might be one of the most important markers of the man’s abilities and character.

He was not without flaws. While he argued for the assimilation of Native Americans into society, he did not assume the same for Africans being held in slavery while—at the same time—insisting that slavery should cease to exist. Many still accuse Jefferson of hypocrisy on the ground that he both held that “all men are created equal” and held men as slaves. Jefferson’s true character, though, is more complex than that as Kevin Gutzman shows in his new book about Jefferson, a revolutionary whose accomplishments went far beyond the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250010803
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/31/2017
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

KEVIN R. C. GUTZMAN, JD, PhD, is author of James Madison and the Making of America. Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University and a faculty member at, he is the author of several books, including best-sellers, has published in all the leading history journals, and writes and speaks frequently for popular audiences. He lives with his son in Connecticut.

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Thomas Jefferson Revolutionary

A Radical's Struggle to Remake America

By Kevin R. C. Gutzman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2017 Kevin R. C. Gutzman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01081-0



Thomas Jefferson's name is most commonly associated in American popular culture with what we now call "democracy," which Jefferson's friend and collaborator James Madison called "republicanism": government by elected officials. Abundant evidence supports that Jefferson placed a high priority on this principle.

It was not the only one. Even more important was freedom of conscience, the great American contribution to world freedom. Closely related to republicanism and freedom of conscience, in Jefferson's mind and practice, was a third: federalism.

This idea commonly goes by the name "states' rights" these days. Its opponents have conflated it with power in state governments, and some of those opponents have been so influential that many of federalism's friends are prone to see it that way too. As Jefferson and the like-minded understood it, however, it meant limitation on federal power. Insofar as the US government did not have power, they believed, that power remained in the states as distinct, preexisting political communities. Whether those communities gave particular powers to the state governments was up to them.

Their promise that the federal government would rest on this principle was a key component of the Federalists' success in persuading the states to ratify the Constitution in 1787–1790. In fact, it was the key component. Not just outliers, but leading Federalists in at least eight states made it the bottom line in their argument that the Constitution was not a threat to the revolutionary legacy. To join the new union under the new Constitution would not amount to surrender of the insistence on local self-government — "no taxation without representation," and since representation of the colonies in Parliament was impossible, taxation only by their provincial assemblies — that underlay the colonists' contention that Parliament was trying to deprive them of their political inheritance as Englishmen. New York's Alexander Hamilton and Virginian James Madison said so in The Federalist. Governor Edmund Randolph said so, repeatedly, in the Virginia Ratification Convention. A delegate from Jefferson's Albemarle County and close Madison collaborator, George Nicholas, echoed Randolph. William Cushing of Massachusetts said the same, as did South Carolina's Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Pennsylvania's James Wilson outlined this argument in the most widely disseminated Federalist case for the Constitution, his famous State House Yard Speech.

Thomas Jefferson believed them. In fact, since he held that the Constitution's meaning was to be found in its friends' explanation of it during the ratification campaign, the fact that these and other prominent Federalists sold it this way — while no significant Federalist said they were wrong — closed the question for him. Like it or not, the Constitution gave the federal government only the enumerated powers.

This is not to say that federalism was a be-all, end-all principle for Jefferson. On the one hand, he sometimes insisted on the common identity of an American people. That is certainly the most plausible reading of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, for example. Predictably, he spoke as an American in his roles as secretary of state and president. On the other hand, he held that to arrive at the optimal political organization, Virginians must "divide and subdivide": their counties were not the smallest political unit he wanted, but instead he hoped to see them adopt the idea of "ward republics." There, even common citizens might conduct their everyday civic affairs in company with their immediate neighbors. There, an average man could be the "political animal" to which Aristotle referred.

Yet, it was the states that were the chief resource of Jeffersonian constitutional thought. It was upon them that he relied for protection against overweening central authority, first British and then American. It was in Virginia that he endeavored to realize his chief revolutionary reforms. It was perforce in state-level politics that he would endeavor to sell his fellow citizens on the idea of ward republics.

* * *

Jefferson did certainly like the federal principle. In fact, this feature of the Constitution pleased him greatly. As Federalists had taught him to do, he considered it ever after as the Constitution's leading feature. For him, that made the Constitution a fulfillment of the revolution. He had after all first become prominently involved in the imperial crisis precisely over the question of federalism.

That came in response to the Townshend Acts. The House of Burgesses, the lower house of Virginia's colonial legislature and the Western Hemisphere's first representative assembly, on May 16, 1769, adopted four resolutions: that only the Burgesses had the right to tax Virginians; that intercolonial cooperation in resistance was lawful; that all trials for crimes committed in Virginia must be held in Virginia before Virginia juries; and that George III be petitioned to intervene with Parliament on the colonists' behalf. The Burgesses also adopted a "humble address" to George III.

When the royal governor dissolved the House, Jefferson joined the Burgesses' leadership, including his cousin Speaker Peyton Randolph, in signing a nonimportation agreement: the Association. Signatories would boycott British goods taxed by Parliament for revenue purposes. While some northern ports had taken similar steps, this was the first time a colonial port had taken what one of the leading Jefferson scholars called "an act of rebellion." Other colonies followed Virginia's example, and the effect on British business prompted Parliament to repeal all but the tax on tea. Among the other significant effects of this chain of events was that it persuaded Jefferson of economic coercion's utility. He had not, however, become a prominent opponent of British policy.

That happened in 1774. Jefferson, barely past age thirty, had sat for a few years in the House of Burgesses, the lower house of the colony's legislature. Although connected by blood to the speaker, the attorney general, and other leading political figures (his mother was a Randolph), he had not made much of an impression. Absent the dispute with Britain that marked the period 1765–1776, his name would likely have been forgotten.

In response to Parliament's hostile measures against Massachusetts, the House of Burgesses called for a Continental Congress to commence in 1774. Jefferson, by now a moderately senior member of the House of Delegates, contemplated Virginia's role. As the largest, most prosperous, and most lucrative colony, besides Massachusetts' longtime coadjutor in leadership of the resistance, it would be expected to take a stand. The Albemarle County delegate's proposal took the form of a pamphlet ultimately known as "A Summary View of the Rights of British America."

"Ultimately known," because Jefferson's physical indisposition kept him away from the House of Burgesses that term. He therefore sent his pamphlet to Williamsburg for senior members' consideration. They decided not to adopt it as the Burgesses' official position, but did have it published under the unwieldy, therefore un-Jeffersonian, title. Perhaps the Burgesses' leadership judged Jefferson's very forceful summary of the patriot position impolitic, as they had Patrick Henry's Stamp Act Resolutions in 1765.

Thomas Jefferson struck those who interacted with him in politics as reserved, even taciturn. His friend John Adams, a short, round man whose loquacity matched the tall, thin Jefferson's reserve, said that "during the whole Time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three Sentences together." On the other hand, Jefferson as penman could rile a reader with the best of them. In "A Summary View," Jefferson put his writing talents on full, public display for the first time.

"A Summary View of the Rights of British America" combined several forms of writing in one. It was a polemic. It was a historical argument. It was a legal argument. It was a political argument. Most of all, it was a virtuoso display of rhetorical ability. In writing it, Jefferson had punched his own ticket to immortality: due primarily to this performance, Adams would tap Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence two years later.

"A Summary View" begins by saying that it is to be an instruction to Virginia's congressmen "to propose ... a humble and dutiful address" to King George III. That address, it continues, has been provoked by "the legislature of one part of the empire" (Parliament), which has been infringing upon the American colonists' God-given and legal rights. Here in its first sentence we see that Jefferson will be developing the theory that Parliament, understood in Britain as sovereign over the entire British Empire, is simply the local assembly of one part of the empire. The king is going to be asked to intervene "in the language of truth ... divested of those expressions of servility which would persuade his majesty that [the colonists were] asking favours, and not rights." The king should accept this as appropriate, because he is "no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government, erected for [the people's] use, and consequently subject to their superintendence."

The "humble and dutiful address" would not be very humble. Its version of the imperial constitution would instead be ... revolutionary.

Drawing on the teaching of his cousin and fellow burgess Richard Bland, Jefferson next somewhat fancifully recounted the settlement of the North American colonies. The colonists had left the mother country in exercise of their natural right to emigrate, he said. They had established the North American colonies through their own effort and with their own money. They had entered into a legal relationship with the Crown of their free will and for their own good. Parliament had no role in the story. True, he conceded, Britain had finally — for the first time — given financial aid during the Seven Years' War, but that did not prove that Parliament rightly could legislate for the colonies. After all, Parliament had given similar aid to Portugal, and no one contended Parliament could legislate for Portugal.

Jefferson complained of the interruption of "a free trade with all parts of the world, possessed by the American colonists, as of natural right," through various acts of Parliament's legislation from time to time over more than a century. Not only that, he said, but Parliament had occasionally intruded into the colonies' internal legislation, such as by creating a North American post office — which served chiefly to establish a patronage plum.

After these five pages of introductory material, Jefferson turned to contemporary matters in the essay's remaining twelve. While there had occasionally been objectionable acts of the English-cum-British government before, he said, things had changed markedly in the years leading up to 1774. "Scarcely have our minds been able to emerge from the astonishment into which one stroke of parliamentary thunder has involved us, before another more heavy, and more alarming is fallen on us."

In 1763, Britain had emerged victorious from the first world war. Americans generally refer to that conflict as the French and Indian War. Europeans know it as the Seven Years' War. Americans used different terminology for the war because it lasted more than seven years in North America and because the adversaries of the British colonies were the French and their allied Indians.

Britain's smashing victory, won against overwhelming odds over Europe's foremost military power, had two notable legacies. First, it made the British masters of North America above the Rio Grande, and second, it left Britain enormously in debt. The reason that Britain, far less populous than Louis XV's France and inferior in every kind of natural resource, had won the war was that it had invented a system we still know, if not exactly love, today: deficit finance.

The war's end left Britain with an unprecedented problem of political economy. Traditionally, the United Kingdom — island nation that it was — had relied on its naval superiority for protection. When a war started, his majesty's government would raise taxes to pay for putting his army on a war footing. When the war ended, nearly always successfully, the soldiers would virtually all be discharged, and taxes would return to peacetime levels.

The new national debt meant that this last step could not be taken in 1763 or the years following. Even with the discharge of the soldiers, Britain had to maintain wartime taxes to service its debt. This problem proved especially pressing because in those days, only about 10 percent of male Britons were eligible to vote in elections for the House of Commons. Those 10 percent were the wealthiest male commoners, the men who met the income threshold for voting. They were also the ones who had to keep paying wartime taxes even with the war behind them.

An obvious solution to this conundrum was to make the innovation of taxing the North American colonists to help defray the expense. Since those colonists had turned out to be the French and Indian War's chief beneficiaries, with the threat of French attack from their north permanently eliminated and Francophile Indians' threat to them forever vitiated, the idea proved especially appealing.

The measures Jefferson listed in the next section of "A Summary View" were all very familiar to his readers. He had no need of naming them, but instead could give brief descriptions of the various attempts by Parliament to tax the colonists and, when they proved resistant, to show them who was boss. The short of it is that the Seven Years' War/French and Indian War (1754–1763) had left Britain in a tangled political knot. Where customarily military victory led immediately to reduction of Britons' taxes to peacetime levels, the sizable debt incurred fighting this first world war made that step impossible. Taxpayers, for their part, insisted that their taxes be cut, and the substantial property qualification for voting members of the eighteenth-century House of Commons meant that taxpayers and the constituents of Parliament's lower house were essentially the same people. Politically speaking, what taxpayers wanted to happen would happen.

Jefferson referred in his pamphlet to the chief attempts by Parliament to levy taxes in North America in the years after the French and Indian War: the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), and the Townshend Acts (1767). He also referred to some of the draconian measures Parliament adopted in its attempts to wring the anticipated revenue out of recalcitrant colonies: the Quartering Act (1765), the suspension of the New York Assembly (1767–1769), the Coercive (Intolerable) Acts (1774), and the Quebec Act (also 1774). Those acts had prompted the colonists to develop formal arguments against them (notably Patrick Henry's Stamp Act Resolutions, adopted by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765, the Stamp Act Congress's resolutions of that same year, Richard Bland's 1766 "An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies," and John Dickinson's 1767–1768 Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania). They also led the colonists into continental boycotts of British goods. Besides making legal/constitutional arguments and launching boycotts, colonists used mob violence in several urban areas to coerce some people who cooperated in enforcing or even simply obeyed the British legislation.

Things changed markedly on December 16, 1773. That night, numerous men dressed as Indians, with war paint on their faces and feathers in their hair, boarded British ships in Boston Harbor, broke into chests, and dumped a fortune in tea into the water. An extremely large crowd of onlookers cheered them on.

When news of the Boston "Tea Party" reached England, Parliament had finally had enough. Within weeks, it adopted the four Coercive Acts — dubbed by Massachusetts resistance leaders the Intolerable Acts — to compel the Bay Colony to bend the knee. First came the Boston Port Act, which closed the Port of Boston to all shipping, incoming or leaving, until the city compensated the East India Company for its tea. This extreme measure seemed to Sam Adams's relatively moderate cousin, lawyer John Adams, to violate the basic English legal principle that only those found guilty at law should be punished. Far from training its fire solely on those responsible for the Tea Party, this act blasted New England's leading city and its extensive economic hinterlands, which included virtually all of New England. John Adams became a foursquare opponent of British rule in response to the Port Act.

Yet, there was more. A few weeks later, Parliament by the Massachusetts Government Act essentially revoked Massachusetts' charter. Now town meetings would not be able to meet without the approval of the general sent to serve as governor, and he would assume the function formerly filled by the elected lower house of the General Court in selecting members of the Council. The Administration of Justice Act empowered the governor to move the trial of any government employee — say, a soldier — accused of murder in Massachusetts to some other part of the British Empire. Not a Boston jury, but perhaps an admiralty judge in Halifax, Nova Scotia, would decide whether the accused agent of King George was guilty and, if so, what punishment he received. Finally, a Quartering Act empowered British officials in certain circumstances to commandeer sleeping quarters for British troops in Massachusetts. The hated "lobsterbacks" not only would be staying on in Boston for the purpose of cowing the locals indefinitely, but now they might be imposed upon property owners.


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Table of Contents

Note from the Author xiii

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Federalism 9

Chapter 2 Freedom of Conscience 97

Chapter 3 Colonization 125

Chapter 4 Assimilation 175

Chapter 5 Mr. Jefferson's University 195

Conclusion 241

Acknowledgments 247

Notes 249

Index 277

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