Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom 3

His correspondence was prodigious: the editors of the Jefferson Papers have located over nineteen thousand letters written by him. They reflect extraordinary energy, a ceaseless flow of ideas on every conceivable subject, and a restless, tenacious mind, as fertile in for¬mulating abstract ideas as in solving the most ordinary, mundane problems. Printing presses, phosphoric matches, cylinder lamps, and the shapes of plowshares fascinated him; so too did the principles of justice and the logical strengths and weaknesses of the thought of Hobbes, Hume, and Destutt de Tracy. He writes of the soil and of the heavens, and of everything in between: of economics and cur-tain beds; of political theory and “hydrostatic waistcoats”; of inter¬national law and carriage springs; of constitutions and macaroni machines; of poetry and pedometers. Through it all there glows a humane and generous purpose: to improve upon the inheritance; to meliorate the condition of life; to broaden the reach of liberty; and to assist in the pursuit of happiness.
Historians will never fully encompass Jefferson’s protean versatil¬ity, nor will they completely resolve the paradoxes in his career and the apparent contradictions in his character. But there are a few sign¬posts along the way to help one understand some, at least, of the basic elements in his public persona, and perhaps assess a little more accurately the complexity of his character and achievement.
With his enormous vitality and universal curiosity, he seemed for¬ever young. But he was in fact thirty-three in 1776—almost middle- aged, by eighteenth-century standards—and though Madison was younger by only eight years and Hamilton by twelve, they seemed to belong to a different generation. By the end of 1774, when Madison, only a year from college, took his first, very minor public post, and Hamilton was still an undergraduate, Jefferson was an established, successful lawyer and prosperous planter with five years of experi-ence in the House of Burgesses behind him. They had been extremely busy years in politics. On the day he had first taken his seat in the Burgesses, he had drafted the reply to the governor’s speech, and in the years that followed he wrote in quick succession several pieces of legislation, Virginia’s resolution to oppose the Boston Port Act, a Declaration of Rights for Virginia’s Revolutionary conven¬tion, and the learned and inflammatory Instructions to Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress. Sent to Philadelphia in 1775 as Virginia’s delegate to the Continental Congress, he contributed to the drafting of the Association, which in effect set the Revolution in motion, and wrote not only the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms but also America’s reply to the British conciliatory proposals. And the next year, a month before drafting the Declaration of Independence, he drew up a complete new con¬stitution for the state of Virginia.
That he was chosen to draft the Declaration is hardly surprising if for no other reason than, as John Adams later recalled, Jefferson was known to have “a happy talent of composition.” His writings, Adams said, were handed about and remarked on for their “peculiar felicity of expression.” But by then Jefferson had acquired something more important than a reputation for learning and literary skill. From his voracious reading, from his extensive knowledge of law, from his acute attention to the views of his teachers and of his colleagues in politics, and from his instinctive understanding of independence as he had personally experienced it on his borderland plantations, he had developed a comprehensive view of politics, freedom, and America’s unique role in world history which would shape all of his thought and much of his actions thereafter.
It was not simply that he had helped to construct the pattern of ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and aspirations that we think of as the ideol¬ogy of the American Revolution. He had personally achieved it— within the limits of the world he knew he had reached it, through years of study, thought, and public controversy. To break through the barriers of the ancien regime and to formulate and act on the princi¬ples of freedom was a triumph of enlightened thought which, he hoped, would usher in a new era in human history. In that happy time, which he felt America could now approach, legislatures would be truly representative; popular majorities would rule; the institutions of government would be stricdy separated so that no person or group of people would exercise undue power; power itself would be restricted; establishments of religion would be forever banished; and the human freedoms for which mankind had yearned—freedom of speech, of the press, of worship, and the right to the security of property and to impartial judicial proceedings presided over by judges independent of political pressures—all this would be perfectly protected by the instruments of free government.

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