Jefferson by Parke Godwin

Jefferson would have been a notable man in any country and any age, because he possessed both genius and character. Without the former he could never have succeeded, as he did, in moulding the opinions of his contemporaries and successors, and without the latter, he would not have been, as he was, bitterly hated by his enemies and cordially loved by his friends. His genius, however, was not of that kind which in the ardor of its inspiration intoxicates the judgment; nor  was his character, on the other hand, of the sort which moves an admiration so profound, unquestioning and universal, as to disarm the antagonism its very excellence provokes. There was enough error and frailty, therefore, mingled with his eminent qualities both of mind and heart, to involve him in seeming contradictions, and to expose his life to double construction and controversy. At the same time, it has happened to him as it has often happened in human history, that the hostility awakened by his acts during his life, has dwindled with the lapse of time, while his fame has grown brighter and broader with every renewal of the decisions of posterity. No man, we may now safely say, who has figured on the theatre of events in this country, with the single exception of Washington, occupies a larger share of the veneration of Americans.

He was born at Shadwell, in Albemarle county, Virginia, in 1743. His father, dying when he was twelve years of age, left him a large inheritance. He was educated at the College of William and Mary, studied law under the celebrated George Wythe, began the practice of it in 1767, and in 1769 was chosen a member of the provincial legislature, where his first movement—an unsuccessful one—was for the emancipation of the slaves. But a greater question soon engrossed his mind. Already a spirit of opposition had been excited in the colonies to the arbitrary measures of the parliament of Great Britain,—that very legislature was dissolved by the Governor, in consequence of the sympathy displayed by its leading members with the patriotic proceedings of Massachusetts,—it appealed to the constituency, and was triumphantly returned,—and then in 1773, its more active spirits organized, in a room of a tavern  at Raleigh, a system of correspondence, designed to inflame the zeal and unite the efforts of the colonists against the encroachments of power. As a result of this activity, a convention was called in Virginia for the purpose of choosing delegates to a more general Congress. Jefferson was a member of it, but not being able, on account of ill-health, to attend, drew up a paper on the Rights of British America, which the convention did not adopt, but which it published; "the leap he proposed," as he says, "being too long for the mass of the citizens,"—and which Edmund Burke in England caused to run through several editions. The pamphlet procured him reputation, and the more honorable distinction of having his name placed in a bill of attainder, moved in one of the houses of Parliament. Thus early was he identified with the champions of liberty in the new world.

In 1775, Jefferson took his seat for the first time in the Continental Congress, whither he carried the same decided and liberal tone which had marked his legislative efforts. He was soon appointed on the most important committees, and especially on that, which, on the motion of the delegates of Virginia, was raised to prepare a Declaration of Independence for the colonies. It was a measure carried only after a strenuous and hot debate, but it was finally carried by a large majority; and to Jefferson was assigned the task, by his associates, of preparing the document destined to inaugurate a new era in the history of mankind. How he executed the duty the world knows; for this paper became the charter of freedom to a whole continent; and annually to this day, millions of people read it with gratitude, reverence, joy, and praise to God. For a second time, then, we behold our Jefferson, a chosen  champion of liberty, linking his name, not with a bill of attainder this time; but with the most signal event in the destiny of his country,—and one, second to none in the political fortunes of humanity.

The Declaration proclaimed, Mr. Jefferson retired from his place in the Congress to resume his seat in the legislature of his native State; where, an imperfect Constitution having been adopted, during his absence, he was immediately involved in the most indefatigable labors for its reform. In connection with Wythe, Mason, Pendleton, and Lee, he prepared no less than 136 different acts, from which were derived all the most liberal features of the existing laws of the Commonwealth. They laid the foundation, in fact, of the code of Virginia,—as a mere monument of industry, they were a most extraordinary work, but when we consider the importance of some of the principles of legislation which they introduced, sufficient in themselves to have immortalized the name of any man. Among these principles, were provisions for the abrogation of the laws of entail and primogeniture, for the establishment of religious freedom, for a complete amelioration of the criminal code, including the abolition of capital punishments in all cases, except of treason and murder, for the emancipation, at a certain age, of all slaves born after the passage of the act, for the division of the counties into wards and towns, and the establishment thereby of free municipal institutions, and for the introduction of a system of popular education, providing for schools in each town, academies in each county, and a University for the State. The three first were carried into effect; but the others, in consequence of his personal absence on other duties, failed. But what a different destiny would have been that of Virginia  if they had not failed! How intrepid, too, the mind which could conceive and urge such measures at that time! Society in Virginia was then divided into three classes, the land and slave-owners, the yeomanry, and the laboring people. Jefferson was by birth and position of the first class, but his chief associations had been among the second class, while his sympathies were with the third class, or rather with all classes. Had his suggestions been adopted, these distinctions would have been destroyed, and Virginia raised to the first place among the free nations of the earth. Thus, for a third time, we find Jefferson among the foremost advocates of the liberty and advancement of the people.

In 1779 he was chosen the successor of Patrick Henry, as the Governor of the State; but war having been declared, and a military invasion being at hand, he resigned the position on account of his want of military talents, in favor of General Nelson. He had barely time to escape with his family before the enemy entered his house. Congress twice solicited him to go abroad, first to negotiate a peace, and then a treaty of alliance and commerce with France, but as "the laboring oar," in his own language, "was at home," it was not until the year 1782, when the assurance that a general peace would be concluded, became stronger, that he consented to quit his country. The preliminary articles of a peace, however, were received before the time of his departure, and the objects of his mission being thus accomplished, he was again chosen to Congress in 1783.

The great question then, was the formation of a better government for the colonies, than the weak and ill-jointed confederation of the time had afforded. Jefferson was prepared to enter  into its discussion with ardor, bringing to the task that keen sagacity and that stern republican spirit, which were among his chief characteristics, when he was joined to Adams and Franklin in a commission for negotiating treaties of commerce with foreign nations. He arrived in Paris in June of 1785. His practical insight into affairs, his vast information, and his determined will, made him a valuable acquisition even to the distinguished abilities of his colleagues. His labors were incessant, and yet he found time to participate, as far as his diplomatic functions allowed, in the stirring and brilliant scenes then going forward on the theatre of Europe. The part that he had performed in the great battles for liberty in America, attracted towards him the regards and the confidence of all the prominent actors of the revolutionary drama of France. It was at his house that the patriots most frequently met; it was in his house that the Declaration of Rights which preceded the first French Constitution was drafted; it was at his house that the First Constitution was proposed; it was from him that Lafayette received many of his best and noblest impulses, and to him that the earlier leaders of the struggle looked for sympathy, concurrence, and direction. In after years, in the bitter political contests of the day, it was a topic of reproach that he was under French influence, but the truth was, as some one has sagaciously remarked, that the French had been brought under an American influence. He simply continued to be abroad what he had always been at home, the pioneer and consistent friend of popular rights,—the unflinching supporter of popular liberty.

It was during this interval of absence in Europe, that the controversy in respect to a better constitution of government  for the colonies, to which we have just alluded, was brought to a head. There had always been a substantial union between them, founded upon contiguous geographical position and their common interests, as well as their community of origin, languages, laws and religion, which the common danger of the Revolution had served to strengthen and cement. But as yet their political union was inchoate and fragile. It was a simple improvement upon the classical confederacies of history, such as had prevailed in ancient Greece, on the plains of Etrusca, before Rome was, among the dikes of Holland, or along the declivities of the Swiss Alps,—and such as Montesquieu and the accepted writers praised as the perfection of political arrangement, clear of all defects, and secure from foreign violence and domestic weakness. Yet, in the practice of the New World, it had not justified the praises of the theorists, for a fatal vice, an alarming and radical weakness had been developed in its want of due centripetal force. In other words, it was rather a conglomerate than a united whole, and the difficulty of the new problem which it raised consisted in the proper adjustment of the federal and central with the State and local authority. Parties were, of course, immediately formed on the question of the true solution of it, the one favoring a strong central power, taking the name of Federalist; and the other, disposed to adhere to the separate sovereignty and independence of the States, taking the name of Anti-Federalist. In the end, the Constitution actually adopted, a work only second in importance to the Revolution itself, or more properly the constructive completion of it, was a compromise between the two, although the original parties still maintained their relative positions, as the friends and foes of a preponderating general government.

Jefferson inclined to the anti-federalists, but not being in the midst of the debate, was scarcely mingled with its more exciting quarrels. It is hard to say, what shape, or whether a different shape at all, would have been given to the instrument of union, had he been at home to take part in its formation. We think it probable, however, that his immense personal influence, combined with his sharp forecast and decentralizing tendency, would have succeeded in modifying its more aristocratic and conservative features, especially in regard to the absorbing power of the Executive and the irresponsible tenure of the Judiciary. Be that as it may, the choice of him by Washington, in 1789, for the post of the first Secretary of State, gave him an opportunity of exercising his talents and manifesting his disposition, in the organization of the new experiment.

There were two antagonisms which he found it necessary at the outset to meet; first, the tendency to federal absorption, and second, the reliance upon law rather than liberty, both embodied in the person of Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, a man of genius, of energy, of sincere convictions, and the confidant of Washington. The two men were, therefore, speedily self-placed in strong opposition. Hamilton had been educated in a military school, he admired the British Constitution, and, though he was an earnest patriot, as his efficient services in the war, and his masterly vindications of the Constitution had proved, he cherished a secret distrust of the people. Jefferson, on the other hand, had sympathized all his life with the multitude, approved, or rather had anticipated, the French philosophy, which was then in vogue, disliked the English models of government, and was sanguine  of the future. It was inevitable, consequently, that the opposition of such men, both able, both decided, both earnest in their plans, should widen into an almost irreconcilable hostility. In 1793, Jefferson resigned, but not until, by his reports to Congress on the currency, the fisheries, weights and measures, and by his correspondence with foreign ministers, he had placed his department on a level with the Foreign Offices of the older nations. It is to him that we are indebted for our decimal coinage, and through him, as Mr. Webster, a competent and not too friendly judge, has confessed, our diplomatic intercourse was raised to a dignity and strength which will bear comparison with any that other governments can produce.

In 1797 Jefferson was called from his retirement to act as Vice-President of the United States,—a place of not much practical efficiency, but which he illustrated by compiling a manual of Parliamentary Practice, which has ever since been the standard by which the proceedings of legislative bodies in this country are regulated. There was no position, indeed, which he does not appear to have been able to turn to some advantage to his country and his fellow-men.

At the close of his term as Vice-President, he was chosen President,—a choice in which a final blow was given to the doctrines of Federalism, and the democratic republic finally inaugurated. We shall not, however, enter into the contests of that period, nor attempt to detail the measures of his administration. They are subjects for history, not for an outline like this we sketch. Suffice it to say, that the aspirations of the people were not disappointed by the results of his action. He rescued the functions of government from the improper direction which had been given to them, he organized strength  through simplicity, he almost doubled the territory of the Union, he caused the vast regions of the west, now the seat of populous empire, to be explored, he gave us character abroad, and maintained tranquillity at home,— and, last of all, against the solicitation of his friends, with a popular prestige that would have carried him in triumph through a third or fourth term of office, even to the close of his days, he consecrated for ever the example of Washington, by resigning, as that great man had done, at the end of eight years.

These are the simple facts of Jefferson's active career, and they need no comment. They present a character obviously too transparent to allow of much mistake. All his life points to a few simple but great objects. By his sanguine temperament, his keen insight, his quick and cherishing sympathies, his strong love of justice, his kindly visions of the future, he was made a democrat; and, under no circumstances could he have been any thing else. He hated tyranny, he loved truth, and he was not afraid of man; how then could he avoid becoming what he was, the apostle of freedom, author of the Statutes of Virginia and the Declaration of Independence, founder of the republican party, a name of power to future generations which have scarcely yet come up to the greatness and breadth of his enlightened opinions? Errors of conduct he may have committed, for who is perfect? impracticable views he may have enunciated, for who is all-wise? but the glory of his achievements is an imperishable remembrance of his countrymen, illustrating their history to all nations and to all times. "A superior and commanding intellect," it has been eloquently said, "is not a temporary flame burning brightly for a while, and then giving place to returning darkness. It is rather  a spark of fervent heat, as well as radiant light, with power to enkindle the common mass of human mind; so that when it glimmers in its own decay, and finally goes out in death, no night follows, but it leaves the world all light, all on fire, from the potent contact of its own spirit."

The retirement of Mr. Jefferson at Monticello was passed in the cultivation of his estate, in the pursuit of letters, in cheerful intercourse with friends, in the duties of a liberal hospitality, and in advancing his favorite project of a University of Virginia. His notes on Virginia, and his contributions to scientific periodicals, together with his extensive correspondence, had brought him to the acquaintance of the most distinguished scientific men of the world, and his eminent political services had made him known to statesmen. His house was, therefore, always thronged with visitors, who, attracted by his fame, were charmed by his conversation, astonished by his learning, and warmed into love by the unaffected kindliness of his deportment. A beautiful retirement, full of grandeur, of simplicity, of dignity and repose! A patriarch of the nation which he had helped to found, and which he lived to see in a condition of unparalleled advancement,—illustrious in two hemispheres,—his name connected with events that introduced a new era in the history of his race,—surrounded by the grateful admiration of growing millions of people; his old age was passed in the serenest contentment, amid the blandishments of literature and science, the interchanges of friendly offices, and in useful labor in the library or on the farm.

Monticello, which is the name which Mr. Jefferson had given to his home, was built in one of the most enchanting  regions of Virginia. "It seemed designed by nature," says a writer, "as the very seat from which, lifted above the world's turmoil, one who has exhausted what it can bestow of eminence, might look down, withdrawn from its personal troubles, but contemplating at leisure the distant animation of the scene. It was a place scarcely less fit for the visionary abode of the philosophic speculatist, than by its far-spread and shifting beauties of landscapes to inspire a poet with perpetual delight." On a spire of the romantic Blue Ridge, whose varying outlines stretch away from it till they are lost to the sight, with a sylvan scene of unsurpassed loveliness in the vale below, the quiet Rivanna meandering through rich fields on one side, the pleasant village of Charlotteville dotting the other, while the porticoes and domes of the University rise in the distance behind, it overlooked a combination of natural pictures that are rarely found in one spot.

"The country," says the visitor we have just quoted, "is not flat, but a gently waving one; yet, from above and afar, its inequalities of surface vanish into a map-like smoothness, and are traceable only in the light and shade cast by hill and plain. The prospect here has a diameter of near a hundred miles: its scope is therefore such that atmospheric effects are constantly flickering over it, even in the most cloudless days of a climate as bright if not quite so soft as that of Italy; and thus each varying aspect of the weather is reflected, all the while, from the features of the landscape, as the passions are over the face of some capricious beauty, that laughs, and frowns, and weeps almost in the same breath. Near you, perhaps, all is smiling in the sunlight; yonder broods or bursts a storm; while, in a third quarter, darkness and light contend  upon the prospect, and chase each other. The sky itself is thus not more shifting than the scene you may have before you. It takes a new aspect at almost every moment, and bewitches you with a perpetual novelty."

The mansion of the philosopher was placed on the top of an eminence commanding this beautiful scene. It was somewhat fantastic in its architecture, owing to the additions and rebuildings that had been constantly going on, to adapt it to the enlarged wants and changing tastes of the occupant, but it was spacious, richly furnished and commodious. The rarest treasures of literature adorned the library, and indeed every part bore witness to the affluence and cultivated pursuits of the venerable sage. A farm of some fourteen thousand acres lay about among the hills, which was laboriously and carefully husbanded, and which gave employment in various ways to a number of artificers and mechanics, whose dwellings were distributed about the slopes. His estate, in short, was a small and almost independent community in itself, capable of supplying the ordinary needs and even the luxuries of a highly civilized condition of social existence. As a proof of this, we may state by the way, that the carriage of the proprietor, as well as many of the tools and implements in daily use, had been manufactured on the premises. But the wonder of the place was the library, which was not only extensive, but extensively rich in its rare possessions, which the master had seduously collected during his long residence abroad from every nook and corner of Europe. Unfortunately many of these books, afterwards presented to Congress, were burned in the conflagration of the Capitol. Of the man himself, a guest, who was any thing but an admirer, has left this record.

"Dressed, within doors, as I saw him last, no longer in the red breeches, which were once famous as his favorite and rather conspicuous attire; but still vindicating by a sanguine waistcoat his attachment to that Republican color; in gray shorts, small silver kneebuckles, gray woollen stockings, black slippers, a blue body-coat, surmounted by a gray spencer; tall, and though lithe of person and decidedly graceful and agile of motion and carriage, yet long and ill-limbed, Mr. Jefferson's figure was commanding and striking, though bad, and his face most animated and agreeable, although remarkably ugly. His legs, by no means shunned observation; yet they were scarcely larger at the knee than in the ankle, and had never been conscious of a calf. Still, though without strength, they had always borne him along with vigor and suppleness. These bodily qualities and a health almost unfailing, he preserved, in a singular degree, to the very close of his long life. At the time I speak of, when he was in his eighty-first year, he not only mounted his horse without assistance and rode habitually some ten miles a day, but, dismounting at a fence breast-high, would leap over it, by only placing his hand on the topmost rail. He walked not only well and swiftly, but with a lightness and springiness of tread, such as few young men even have. It was a restless activity of mind, which informed all this unusual mobility of body; and the two, I think, were, in him, greatly alike. For his intellect had, like his person, more size than shape, more adroitness than force, more suppleness than solidity, and affected its ends by continuity of action not mass of power, by manipulation not muscularity. You may batter to pieces with a small hammer that which a cannon-ball would not shiver. He was never idle: nay, hardly a moment still.  He rose early and was up late, through his life; and was all day, whenever not on foot or a-horse-back, at study, at work, or in conversation. If his legs and fingers were at rest, his tongue would sure to be a-going. Indeed, even when seated in his library in a low Spanish chair, he held forth to his visitors in an almost endless flow of fine discourse, his body seemed as impatient of keeping still as his mind, it shifted its position incessantly, and so twisted itself about that you might almost have thought he was attitudinizing. Meantime, his face, expressive as it was ugly, was not much less busy than his limbs, in bearing its part in the conversation, and kept up, all the while, the most speaking by-play, an eloquence of the countenance as great as ugly features could well have. It stood to his conversation like the artful help of well-imagined illustrations to the text of a book: a graphic commentary on every word, that was as convincing to the eyes as was his discourse to the ears. The impression which it conveyed was a strong auxiliary of all he uttered: for it begat in you an almost unavoidable persuasion of his sincerity."

Jefferson's conversation is described as the most agreeable and brilliant of his day; but was it this which gave him his personal power? He was not in other respects a man of any pre-eminent personal qualities; he did not possess commanding military skill; he was no orator, having seldom spoken in public; and though a good writer, he was not particularly distinguished in that line. His conversation, therefore, may have helped him in acquiring a mastery of the minds of men; but the real secret of his success consisted in two things—in his general superiority of intellect, and in his rich, generous, noble intuitions. He saw the truths and spoke the words, which the  world wanted to see and hear, at the right time—a little in advance of his generation, but not too much in advance so as to "dwarf himself by the distance." His sympathetic genius beat responsive to the genius of his age. His instincts were the instincts of the men of his day; more decided and pronounced than theirs, but still recognized as a prophecy of what they felt the deepest and wanted the most. All the talent, all the cunning, all the selfish calculation of the world could not have enabled him to reach the heights which he attained by the simple and consistent utterance of his nature. He conquered, as Emerson says in speaking of the force of character over and above mere force of some special faculty, because his arrival any where altered the face of affairs. "Oh, Iole, how did you know that Hercules was a God?" "Because," answered Iole, "I was content the moment my eyes fell upon him. When I beheld Theseus, I desired that I might see him offer battle, or at least guide his horses in the chariot race; but Hercules did not wait for a contest; he conquered whether he stood or walked, or sat, or whatever thing he did."

Happy in his life, Jefferson was no less happy in his death, for he went peacefully to rest on the fiftieth anniversary of the great day which he had done so much to make great, the Jubilee of our national freedom,—when the shouts of the people, as they ascended from the innumerable vales, to his receding ears, must have sounded as a prelude to the swelling voices of posterity.