Accession number: 1978.22
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was prevented by illness from attending the Virginia Convention of 1774 that met to discuss what to do in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party and the closing of the port of Boston by the British. But Jefferson sent a paper to the convention, later published as A Summary View of the Rights of British America. The force of its arguments and its literary quality led the Convention to elect Jefferson to serve in the Continental Congress.
He was too anti-British to be made use of until a total break with Great Britain had become inevitable. Then he was entrusted with drafting the Declaration of Independence. This assignment, and what he made of it, ensured Jefferson's place as an apostle of liberty. In the Declaration, and in his other writings, Jefferson was perhaps the best spokesman we have had for the American ideals of liberty, equality, faith in education, and in the wisdom of the common man.
But Thomas Jefferson was not himself a common man. He never really worked a day in his life and his very uncommonness—his love of French wines, his extensive library, his dabbling in architecture—all were made possible by the labor of his slaves, most of whom were never freed, not even in his will. In truth, his rhetoric exceeded his intentions—he made statements without qualifications, but when pressed about his meaning, added qualifications.
To Jefferson, the radical "spirit of '76" seemed under attack during the conservative administration of President George Washington and his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson also thought they were not supportive enough of the French Revolution. For these reasons he founded what now is called the Democratic Party and he became its successful candidate for president in 1800.
But what Jefferson wanted to be remembered for, besides writing the Declaration of Independence, was writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and founding the University of Virginia, which initially had neither chapel nor study of theology. He fully expected that organized religion would die out, that everyone would become, at most, Unitarians. He was very disappointed when instead they became Baptists and Methodists and that after the Revolution, religion became stronger in the United States rather than weaker.