Thomas Jefferson and the Idea of Revolution

Thomas Jefferson had a lifelong dream when he died on Independence Day, 1826. The epitaph that he composed to mark his passing highlighted the three great achievements of his life: creating the Declaration of Independence, penning the Statute of Religious Freedom, and founding the University of Virginia. These three trumped, in his mind, his other achievements: President of the United States, Vice President of the United States, Minister to France, Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State. The focus of Jefferson’s life, as he reflected on it during his final years, was human freedom. Jefferson thought radically about human freedom, even as he contradicted his grand ideas by participating in the enslavement of other humans. Jefferson owned slaves for fifty years after the penned the words: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” His dream of a society that fully promoted individual freedom, of individuals such as himself being willing to take extreme actions for the sake of human freedom, died with him July 4, 1826, unfulfilled. But Jefferson believed, despite his personal failings, as well as the failings of the United States in regard to human freedom, that the actions of revolutionaries, marked by the Declaration of Independence in 1776, would someday fulfill the promise of the American Revolution, which transcended his life and the lives of his contemporaries. Jefferson believed, as wrote in 1818 to his old friend John Adams, that with their passing, even so, the phenomenon that they had created, the American Revolution, was far from over.

Jefferson was one of the most radical of the Founders. He clearly seems to have been years ahead of his time, although the many years since his death have failed to realize his dream of the unshackling of the individual from the constraints of the standards and institutions of modern society and culture. To be sure, multicultural awareness, the emergence of women and people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as political forces, expanding suffrage, the democratization and integration of education and public facilities, points to expanded individual freedoms. But this conclusion is only true if one’s definitions of revolution and freedom are limited to an external, institutional, structural meaning. There is a more fundamental meaning to these two concepts, one that transcends the normal meaning assigned by historians and politicians. Revolution has several standard definitions: a cycle or rotation; a successful colonial revolt; a violent political change; or a novel and dramatic change that completely supplants the past. Revolution usually means an event that occurs over a specific time period with a clearly defined end. Jefferson’s use of the word revolution, however, implies an ongoing process without end.

The Revolution never ended. The idea seems a bit absurd, but consider it. The idea of an ongoing revolution implies that revolution is made anew by each person who is willing to formulate, believe, and express his/her own singular experiences and ideals. The idea implies that revolution is not bound by war, government, or time, but is a more spiritual, amorphous phenomenon. It implies much about the time of the actual war for independence—that the people of the time had a personal experience. Below the surface lies a burning passion for freedom, for liberty of thought and conscience, for personal knowledge unencumbered by traditions, standards, institutions. One’s glorious cause, to use the phrase of the American patriots, is personal knowledge and liberty. Oppression comes in a variety of different forms: in the past it was the oppression of an imperialistic government; today it is the oppression of a well-meaning government built on a brilliant document, the Constitution, that was meant to provide order and stability more than freedom and liberty.

The perspective of history tells us that America has come closest to accomplishing freedom and liberty than any government of all time. Perhaps it is impossible to have a government that grants complete freedom. Indeed, as Thomas Paine noted two centuries ago, government and individual liberty are at odds. Government is often perceived as a “necessary evil”–necessary to prevent the chaos generated by rampant liberty. But deep inside, doesn’t the individual yearn to break from the oppression that forestalls complete freedom? It is there within us, this sense of wanting to do anything in one’s power to overcome oppression so to breathe free, unimpeded, unstructured air. Freud figured that such a sense of freedom, if realized, would yield random acts of sexual and abusive terror. Indeed, there have been those in American history who view liberty through pessimistic eyes. The Hamiltonians among us seek freedom as granted through government rather than government granted through freedom. No wonder Jefferson distrusted the Constitution, which was created while he was in France, in 1787. For it countered his meaning of revolution.

The great error of Madison, Washington, Adams, and Hamilton–the Federalists–was to make government an end in itself, rather than a means to an end—the means to the “end” of government. The wise parent who raises the child to be independent knows that the consequence is complete and utter independence. The best teacher teaches the student to be an independent learner. The old cliché, “the government that governs best governs least,” should perhaps be reworked to conform to the philosophy of Jefferson: “government should govern itself out of existence.” John Adams once wrote that he studied politics so that his sons and grandsons could study architecture, music, and art. But he clearly failed. His son John Quincy Adams lived his life in government and politics, as did his grandson Charles Francis Adams. Adams should have studied politics so that politics would never again exist.

The American Revolution first implemented the humanistic ideals of the European Renaissance and the 18th century Enlightenment. Renaissance thinkers, reaching the limitations on freedom of thought imposed by Aristotelian logic and Medieval Scholasticism, argued that individual experience was the cornerstone to knowledge, and the government that promoted this individual quest for knowledge would gain the greatest allegiance of its citizens. Such was the “civic humanism” of Renaissance city-states. Machiavelli’s other great work, the Discourses, argues precisely this point. The poet and orator Petrarch, not a statesman but the leader of the Italian literati, developed a historical perspective that established the uniqueness of a given historical epoch—and the uniqueness of the individual as well. Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth century French essayist, though a conservative thinker who resisted political change, nevertheless fought to retain the sanctity of personal knowledge and free thought. Montaigne was an intellectual revolutionary who fought battles against oppression from the library of his Bordeaux chateau. But was he therefore any less a revolutionary than Jefferson?

The battle for the ideas of freedom of conscience are most grimly fought within one’s own mind. It is an easy thing to give in to the ways of culture, the standards and trends of another’s choosing rather than one’s own. The great challenge of human existence is to formulate one’s own views independent of one’s times, then to live accordingly, “to live appropriately,” in Montaigne’s words.




About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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One Response to Thomas Jefferson and the Idea of Revolution

  1. Eileen Burke says:

    The analogy of government and parenthood is a useful one. If we consider the government as a parent, the aim is not no government, but self government. A person who imagines that adulthood means being able to do whatever you want–who sees only liberty in it–is an immature and thoughtless person. A mature person realizes that his or her decisions have consequences, both personal and public, and assumes rssponsibility for them. A mature citizen of a rebublic must acknowledge his or her part in creating and maintaining the government, including any decision to abstain, or to be always on the losing, or “out” side. Not “the man”, but “we the people”.

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