Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Four Years at the Mount

Junior year

On the nature of Thomas Jefferson

Leeanne Leary
Class of 2017

(2/2016) Our third president was Thomas Jefferson – the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, an American Founding Father, a supporter of individual rights and republicanism, and a Virginia native. He was a father, a husband, a student of language and philosophy, a violinist, the second Vice President of the United States, and eventually the third president.

He fought a reported eight cases in defense of slaves seeking freedom, lowered the national debt by nearly $30 million during his presidency, and played key roles in the Louisiana Purchase, the Indian Removal Act, and more. All of these things are part of our fundamental history. He helped to shape early America in monumental ways and lived as an example to the American man.

In the weeks before Presidents Day and in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s natural to reflect on our past presidents and in doing so it is also natural to remember a few key moments or details about each president. For Thomas Jefferson, he showed the country and its future generations how he wanted to be remembered by requesting the printing of three things on his tombstone when he died: Author of the Declaration, Passing the Statute of Religious Freedom in Virginia, and Founding the University of Virginia.

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was, and still is, the epitome of the morals, goals, and ideals that formed our country as we know it today. As the primary author, Thomas Jefferson was a member of a five person committee selected by the Continental Congress also including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. At the time he was selected, Jefferson actually didn’t want the role, he instead wanted to return to his home in Virginia to help write the Virginia State Constitution. He used this desire in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence by taking ideas and information from several Virginian documents including their Declaration of Rights and his first draft of the Virginia Constitution.

The Declaration, in summation, was a statement from the people of the colonies explaining their right and prerogative to rebel against Great Britain and further create their own government.

Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration, defended his writing through the editing process, chaired the Declaration committee, and was ultimately most proud at the end of his life of this work, choosing it to go first on his tombstone.

Jefferson has been referred to as " the best spokesman we have had for the American ideals of liberty, equality, faith in education, and in the wisdom of the common man." From the Declaration, we get words, ideals, and goals still incorporated in today’s debates and functioning government. We get the famous mantra that fuels many arguments and positions today– "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Statute of Religious Freedom

In three short paragraphs, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom discusses and addresses both religious freedom for individuals on a mental level and the establishment of the separation of church and state doctrine. It was passed on January 16, 1786 and set the precedent for the First Amendment dealings with freedom of religion. The statute is fully representative of Jefferson’s personal philosophy and ideals, making it both a political and personal achievement. When Jefferson wrote this statute, there were already groups petitioning for the separation of church and state and for religious freedom. These petitioning groups set the groundwork and opened up the platform for Jefferson to take his stance and pass a statute that he would personally be proud of until the day he died.

The Statute goes paragraph by paragraph and discusses the natural right of freedom of thought in the first section, sets the act in the second paragraph claiming that no person should be compelled to attend or support any church, and the third paragraph reminds the people that no law is set in stone and the people have the right to change them at any given time.

When we consider the context of this statute- it being the first of its kind and a bold move by Jefferson- it is a true example of Jefferson’s moral leadership and his character. The statute was of course met with opposition and some saw it as a real attack on the church, but it was successful and became the precedent for the religious freedom we hold so dearly today.

The University of Virginia

The final act on Jefferson’s tombstone was the founding of the University of Virginia. Throughout his life and presidency, Jefferson was a firm believer and supporter of education for all men. He believed that education and freedom were closely linked and in order for our nation to succeed, all men should receive an education. He spent his final 17 years of life working with, designing, and founding the University of Virginia, another testament to his personal beliefs and values.

Jefferson’s vision was to create a state University that offered an education to any man. This vision started to become a reality in February of 1816 when the Virginia General Assembly granted a charter for a Central College and the work began. Jefferson’s hard fight was rewarded, land was purchased and buildings began to go up. In 1817, in preparation for the school’s final touches and opening, Jefferson was asked to draft a bill for a system of public education. He did and called it "revolutionary," proposing a three-tier system – free elementary education, tuition based secondary education, and a public state university for those who make it to that point. The original bill failed, but after a long legislative fight the General Assembly finally approved a state funded university to be called the University of Virginia.

Jefferson’s life was indeed revolutionary. He redefined much of what was known at the time in terms of freedom, religion, and education – three things that I regard so dearly in my life today and I know others do as well. His life and presidency were marked by bills, political fights, and new laws, and in the end he is remembered as one of America’s favorite presidents for good reason.

Read other articles by Leeanne Leary