Jefferson’s Enlightenment influence is prominent in the Declaration of Independence, his most famous writing and an icon for liberty and freedom. Almost immediately, the document starts to talk about the “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God.” Jefferson’s second method of God-given knowledge, Reason, makes its appearance in the next sentence. Jefferson speaks of truths that are “self-evident.” They are irrefutable to any system of thinking when simple human reason is applied to the thinking. Just as Newtonian physics are part of the fabric of the universe, so are these “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Gaustad 46-8). Jefferson saw life and liberty as two concepts that were permanently bonded together. He saw them as one in the same. He wrote, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; vile hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them” (Gaustad, par. 2).
From the fact that “all men are created equal,” comes the application that this equality of form gives humans an equality of rights that cannot be taken away (Boorstin 61). In his drafts of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson seemed most upset about the removal of three subjects from his masterpiece. One was a section condemning King George for introducing and perpetuating the slave trade, against the colonists’ efforts to stop the trade. Ellis believes that despite anti-slavery remarks like this one, Jefferson was an Anglo-Saxon supremacist, as he argued this supremacy of African-Americans due to their very nature, not how their opportunities (Ellis 48-53, 296-7). However, Jefferson also admitted that he had limited experience dealing directly with African-Americans and thus seems to take his own judgments with a grain of salt. Later in life, however, he shows his belief in their self-evident human rights as well when he writes, “whatever be their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights” (Gaustad 75-6). With comments like these, one sees that Jefferson’s rousing words of certain “unalienable rights” and that “all men are created equal” may one day overcome bigotry and prejudice that infected even the men who swore by them and give all people equality of rights.
During Revolutionary times, while still in the Virginian legislature, Jefferson began his political crusade for religious freedom. His first major challenge in this area was to thwart the religious toleration bill of Patrick Henry. Under this bill, which had wide support, Christianity would be established as the official religion of the state and would provide for toleration of all denominations. Also, any church that met certain guidelines, set by the state, would be eligible for tax money from the state. Now, obviously Jefferson had many problems with this bill. He opposed the entire idea of the government having any kind of hand in the growth and development of the church. Once the state starts to feed money to the church and support its livelihood, or once the state can make rules for churches to have to conform to, then the state has power to reign over the church. This is the beginning of religious tyranny. Jefferson managed to stop this in the state legislature with the help of a large petition (Gaustad, par. 5).
The next step was for Jefferson to get legislation passed that would ensure religious freedom in the sense that it would completely separate the power of the state from the power of the church. It took many years for this bill to be passed after it was first introduced, and much opposition had to be overcome. When it finally past through the legislation, it was in the hands of Jefferson’s good friend, James Madison, while Jefferson was acting as an ambassador to France. When Jefferson heard the news, he wrote that he was honored “to have produced the first legislature who has had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his opinions.” Jefferson believed that established religion constrained the mind and he hoped that all people would learn to rely on reason and nature as their sources of revelation as he had. He accused clergy of perverting Jesus’ teachings into methods to yoke mankind and gain power for themselves (Gaustad par. 6-8). Given the track record of the established church, especially in the period from which the world was emerging, he may not have been far off.
Due to his stay in France, Jefferson did not have any direct influence on the next major writing in United States history, the Constitution. Madison, his close friend and political comrade, however is considered the Father of the Constitution due to the part he played. Madison was somewhat disheartened, as Jefferson did not immediately embrace the newly written constitution. Jefferson’s chief complaint was the lack of Bill of Rights. While some framers at the Constitutional Convention argued that one was not needed because the government only had the powers expressly specified in the Constitution, Jefferson was very wary of this, not wanting to leave such important fundamental rights to be inferred by the nation’s leaders (Gaustad, par. 7). Jefferson worried that future public opinion my use a loophole like that to enforce its will on the people to establish a tyranny upon them once again, rendering their long fight for freedom useless. If the people do not believe the system established, then all is for naught and they will not abide by it. A Bill of Rights also serves the purpose of delineating exactly what this newly formed country would come to stand for and strive to perfect, helping to create with it an American spirit still capable of uniting a nation still today.
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Last Updated: February 16, 2001
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