An Introduction to the Work of Thomas Jefferson

Among the Founders, Thomas Jefferson was unusually given to theoretical speculation, but his almost lifelong involvement in politics left him little leisure to write at length on government. His distinctive formulation of liberal republicanism must be gleaned from the combination of his writings and his policies. Jefferson only published one book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), written in the form of answers to a French ambassador’s questions about the state. However, he also authored the Declaration of Independence and many shorter political writings, including the widely-published revolutionary pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774), legislation advancing freedom of speech and religion, annual messages to Congress, and a report framing the governance and curriculum of the University of Virginia. He also maintained a vast correspondence throughout his life both with important European thinkers and American political and scientific luminaries. Several important themes emerge from these writings, including the centrality of natural rights to Jefferson’s political thought, the importance of limited government to defend those rights, and in particular the importance of separating church and state and protecting the free expression of ideas.

Natural Rights

Jefferson’s political thought falls squarely into the tradition of natural rights thinking running from John Locke through the Scottish and French Enlightenments. The most concise statement of this view is found in the famous opening salvo of the Declaration of Independence, listing the truths we “hold to be self-evident”:

“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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

These simple claims of “unalienable natural rights” and governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” form the heart of Jefferson’s political philosophy. In this, the Declaration owes a substantial debt to John Locke – the discussion of rights is taken directly from the Second Treatise, with the Jeffersonian substitution of “pursuit of happiness” for Locke’s original “property.” This substitution is open-ended, directing governments to leave ordinary citizens free to work for their own ends rather than imposing the ends from above.

Jefferson’s natural rights doctrine does not begin from the necessity of government, but from its non-necessity. Explaining the Indians’ tendency to form “little societies” in the Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson writes that:

“This practice results from the circumstance of their never having submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power any shadow of government. Their only controls are their manners, and that moral sense of right and wrong, which, like the sense of tasting and feeling, in every man makes part of his nature.”

Like the Scottish moralists, Jefferson believed that man is innately sociable and moral by nature, from which he concluded that the coercive power of laws and government was only necessary to resolve conflicts in “great societies,” but that men could by nature subsist without them. Because government is not necessitated by our defective natures, such governments as are established must be limited and consensual.

In spite of the naturalness of morality, liberty requires active preservation because men can easily be corrupted by bad laws and poor education to submit to governments that violate their natural rights. Jefferson cautioned against permitting too many new immigrants into Virginia for the sake of population growth in the Notes, because such immigrants would arrive imbued with “the maxims of absolute monarchies” and soon overwhelm Virginia’s republican mores. Because free government must be “conducted by common consent,” republics require citizens who “harmonize as much as possible in matters which they must of necessity transact together,” and such harmony can only arise from a shared education and way of life. The best way to promote this according to Jefferson was by “diffusing knowledge more generally through the mass of the people” and encouraging of an agrarian way of life. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God…whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue…Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.”

Jefferson’s commitment to liberty and his famous statement of natural equality in the Declaration sets his and the nation’s continued reliance on slavery into high relief. Jefferson was himself a slave-owner ambivalent about what might be done to end the institution, and he advocated the gradual emancipation and expatriation of slaves in the Notes. But the Declaration’s promise of natural equality and liberty to all men became a lightning rod for anti-slavery efforts soon after Jefferson’s death. It was most famously invoked in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as the fundamental statement of slavery’s incongruence with American founding principles.

Limited Government

Jefferson’s commitment to limited government followed from his understanding of human nature. Because government is not necessary for men to be virtuous or happy, where governments must be instituted, they should be as limited as possible. As early as his “Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson argued that the colonies were independent states within the British empire rather than subsidiaries of the mother country and that “the British parliament has no right to exercise power over us.” Instead, the colonists were rightfully represented by their own colonial assemblies and bound to England only by their mutual subjection to the king, “the only intermediary power between the several states of the British empire.”

Within governments themselves, Jefferson opposed the centralization and concentration of power, criticizing the Virginia state constitution in the Notes for permitting too flimsy a separation of powers so that nearly all power flowed to the legislature. At the same time, he opposed a strong executive for its resemblance to monarchy, and during his own presidency, took measures to subordinate the executive to Congress and divest it of monarchical traces, including for example, refusing to deliver his State of the Union addresses in person for fear of appearing as the British king presiding over Parliament.

In addition to this localization and decentralization of power, Jefferson also sought strict limits on the scope of the government’s power over individuals. Since natural rights are inalienable, men carry them over from nature into government, where they cannot be impinged. “Our rulers can have authority over such nature rights only as we have submitted to them,” Jefferson wrote in the Notes. Certain rights – for example, to conscience, or to free movement and trade, cannot be legitimately “submitted” to any government. In his First Inaugural, Jefferson promised to “pursue…a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Religious Freedom

Although the federal government adopted no official religion, the First Amendment was not construed to mean that states could not establish their own churches or direct public funds to them. Many states retained their established churches after the Revolution and collected taxes from all citizens for their support, including those who professed other faiths. Jefferson, however, held a firm line on disestablishment, having written in his own legislation against it that, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical,” and he viewed such universal disestablishment to be the intention of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. His famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (1802) calling for a “wall of separation between church and State” is one of the early and influential interpretations of the Establishment Clause.

Jefferson was an early and longstanding proponent of religious freedom and disestablishment among the Founders. The author of Virginia’s first disestablishment bill, “The Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” (1777), he argued that coercion was essentially incompatible with faith. Legislation was incapable of inducing sincere religious belief and moreover obstructed the progress of human understanding. What was needed was to put religion on a voluntary basis and to protect “free enquiry” so that scientific discoveries like those of Galileo and Newton might be advanced. False or incorrect ideas will certainly arise along the way to truth, but these ideas pose no concrete harms meriting government proscription. “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” False ideas moreover will eventually fall before true ones in open contest, so no good can come of government coercion on the plane of ideas, because “reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

One of the animating principles behind Jefferson’s insistence on free speech and free exercise was his faith in moral and scientific progress. Writing to a young admirer in 1799, Jefferson described himself as believing that man’s “mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception.” He characterized the tendency to believe that all worthwhile knowledge had already been discovered as “despotic” and argued in the Notes that it was imprudent and even dangerous to model the American experiment on even republican precedents of the past like Rome. The way forward for mankind lay in the free exchange of ideas guaranteed by laws: “To preserve the freedom of the human mind then and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”


Although Jefferson was abroad during the writing of the Constitution and the subsequent ratification debates, his tenure as both Vice President under Adams and then President himself during the formative years of the republic put him in the position of having to work out in practice constitutional principles which had previously only existed on paper. Jefferson saw himself as a “strict constructionist” in constitutional interpretation, arguing that the federal government could only exercise powers explicitly granted to it by the Constitution, while all powers not so explicitly delegated were reserved to the states.

One of the early constitutional conflicts in which Jefferson played an important role was the question of federalism, or the relationship between the power of the federal government and that of states. Provoked by the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Jefferson drafted the Kentucky Resolution, which, along with James Madison’s Virginia Resolution, encouraged states to disregard the federal law. The Kentucky Resolution was the more radical of the two efforts, and laid out a theory of state sovereignty according to which “the [federal] government…was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself,” but that each state should “have equal right to judge for itself.” Where a state believes that the federal government has overstepped its bounds, “every State has a natural right…to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others.” The ideas about state sovereignty suggested by the Kentucky Resolution were taken up again and expanded by John Calhoun and his followers during the Nullification Crisis in 1832 and once more as a justification for secession in the Civil War, despite Madison’s insistence that he and Jefferson had not intended their 1798 protests to license these radical interpretations. The continued ambiguity of the extent of state powers was decided only by the outcome of the Civil War, which largely put nullification to rest, although the broader question of federalism remains a live one today.

Another problem of constitutional interpretation in which Jefferson played a role – equally on the losing side – was the doctrine of judicial supremacy, articulated for the first time in Chief Justice Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison (1803). Jefferson opposed Marshall’s view that the judiciary was the branch invested with the final decision in disputes over constitutional meaning, calling it a “usurp[ation]” in a letter to a Virginia judge in 1819. Alarmed by the apparently unlimited concentration of power in the judiciary that Marshall’s doctrine permitted, Jefferson advanced a view later known as “departmentalism,” according to which each of the three branches is invested with equal authority to interpret the Constitution for itself. He argued that the Constitution “intend[ed] to establish three departments, co-ordinate and independent, that they might check and balance one another,” and to give one “the right to prescribe rules for the government of the others, and to that one too, which is unelected by, and independent of the nation” would be to put the Constitution wholly at the discretion of the judiciary. Instead, “each department is truly independent of the others, and has an equal right to decide for itself the meaning of the constitution in the cases submitted to its action; and especially, where it is to act ultimately and without appeal.” This understanding of the co-equal place of the executive and legislative in constitutional interpretation has only rarely been invoked in subsequent American jurisprudence since presidents have often preferred to defer to the Supreme Court, but it has re-surfaced in key moments when powerful presidents have found themselves at odds with the Court, as when Jackson shut down the National Bank even after the Court upheld its constitutionality, or later when Franklin Roosevelt tried to “pack the Court” to ensure that his New Deal legislation would be permitted to stand.