The Complicated Legacy of Thomas Jefferson

On the day of his birth, I thought I’d write a post about the legacy of one of our Founding Fathers – the author of the Declaration of Independence and the godfather of “states rights” and a weak Central Government.

I am not a Jeffersonian, but I cannot deny his intellect.   A brilliant man who left so many legacies – founding the University of Virginia, and his inventions in areas of gardening, architecture, science, etc.  And of course, the Presidents who followed him in office; James Madison and James Monroe.    He acquired the Louisiana Territory and significantly expanded American sovereignty on the continent.

But Jefferson left another legacy – in some respects, he was the original Tea Party member.   He tried to convince Americans that the old man (George Washington) was senile.   Instead of civil discourse with Alexander Hamilton about the role of the federal government, he decided to resign as Secretary of State rather than to follow the consensus of the administration – and eventually working with James Madison to create the “yin (Democratic-Republican Party)” to the Federalist Party’s “yang.” 

As John Adams’ Vice President, he decided to leave Washington because he disagreed with the Alien and Sedition Acts.  He then secretly plotted with James Madison to write the “Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions,” an attempt to nullify these acts and thus an act of insubordination.  Jefferson decided to build his own opposition party instead of working in a bi-partisan administration.   And lest not forget Jefferson’s role in the XYZ Affair – where he sabotaged Adams’ negotiations with the French to avert a war.  Eventually, Adams was able to avert a war, but the political price was the loss of a second term in office.

Jefferson was about limited government and states rights.   But his politics were as underhanded as they are today.   Jefferson was a slaveowner, and he knew that the only way to ratify the Constitution was to skirt the issue of slavery, which came back to haunt America for 200 years.

Jefferson was brilliant as were all of our Founding Fathers.  But he was not a collaborator, not by any sense of the word.  Our nation is at a crossroads – a very fragile balance between federalism and state control.    Can we maintain equilibrium?   I do not know.   But we can thank Thomas Jefferson for ensuring the battle wages on.


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