Readings

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

  • Declaration of Independence (1776)
  • Jefferson wrote several drafts of this founding document, incorporating suggestions from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The argument is based on the notion that human beings are rational thinkers capable of making their own choices based on the evidence available to them. This kind of human being is capable of being an active citizen in a democracy rather than a passive subject in a monarchy. Jefferson would later assist James Madison in writing the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a document further clarifying the political rights that rational thinkers in a democracy deserve.
  • Virginia Religious Freedom Act (1779)
  • When Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary in 1760-62, he was appalled to see professors in philosophy and the sciences being forced to change – and hence destroy – the content of logic and science courses to fit the religious doctrines of the Anglican Church (the established church in the colonies). As a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in the 1770s, he led efforts to redesign the school's curriculum and close its divinity school. By the late 1770s, Jefferson was convinced that religion must be a private and not a public matter. He wanted all Virginians to have the right to follow their religion of choice, so long as that religion did not affect public matters. He wrote the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1777 in an attempt to disestablish, or remove, the Anglican Church as the official religion of Virginia. Though that bill did not pass, this revised later version, known simply as the "Virginia Religious Freedom Act," was adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1779. The Act grants the free exercise of religion within the boundaries of Virginia. America had now created what we commonly refer to as "the separation of church and state."
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (selections) (1785)
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) is Jefferson's compilation of extensive data about Virginia's geography, resources, economy, laws, and inhabitants. It is both a meticulous account of the state of Virginia and an inquiry into the nature of justice and of what it means to be a human being. Jefferson wrote the book as a response to questions put to him in 1780 by Francois Barbe-Marbois, the French delegate to the United States during the Revolutionary War. The following selections from Notes compare animal species in America and Europe, human beings in America (whites, Blacks, and Native Americans), and the nature of slavery, law, and justice. These pages give us a good idea of how Jefferson examined physical evidence in order to discover scientific and philosophical principles. This reading is tricky: beware of Jefferson's long paragraphs and unusual spellings (which were acceptable in his time and place).