2003-10-18: Autobiography [Jefferson]


1743-1790, With the Declaration of Independence (1821)

by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

“At the age of 77, I begin to make some memoranda and state some recollections of dates & facts concerning myself, for my own more ready reference & for the information of my family.” So begins Jefferson’s autobiography. Interestingly, he includes the Declaration (first draft and as edited by the Congress) not only as a complete document included in the larger work, but as a subtitle as well.

He lived a long and interesting life, and had many interests, but most people only know of the Declaration. His autobiographical notes cover aspects of the pre-revolutionary struggle against British tyranny, and the events leading up to the revolution in France. He describes his roles in shaping the post-revolutionary laws of Virginia, and some difficulties of governance under the Articles of Confederation, and his concern for rights under the Constitution.

He describes the way the attitude of the people had changed toward the established church, and how resentment had grown at being taxed to support it. In 1779 :

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.

This passage should be quoted at those who try to foist the Ten Commandments on us as a part of the Judeo-Christian basis of the nation.

He devotes a lot of effort on the French Revolution, and justifies it thus:

The minuteness with which I have so far given it’s details is disproportioned to the general scale of my narrative. But I have thought it justified by the interest which the whole world must take in this revolution. As yet we are but in the first chapter of it’s history. The appeal to the rights of man, which had been made in the U. S. was taken up by France, first of the European nations. From her the spirit has spread over those of the South. The tyrants of the North have allied indeed against it, but it is irresistible. Their opposition will only multiply it’s millions of human victims; their own satellites will catch it, and the condition of man thro’ the civilized world will be finally and greatly ameliorated. This is a wonderful instance of great events from small causes. So inscrutable is the arrangement of causes & consequences in this world that a two-penny duty on tea, unjustly imposed in a sequestered part of it, changes the conditions of all it’s inhabitants.

He had been in France a long time, and wished to return home. When Washington named him Secretary of State, he did so. However, he had this to say about leaving:

And here I cannot leave this great and good country without expressing my sense of it’s preeminence of character among the nations of the earth. A more benevolent people, I have never known, nor greater warmth & devotedness in their select friendships. Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled, and the hospitality of Paris is beyond anything I had conceived to be practicable in a large city. Their eminence too in science, the communicative dispositions of their scientific men, the politeness of the general manners, the ease and vivacity of their conversation, give a charm to their society to be found nowhere else. In a comparison of this with other countries we have the proof of primacy, which was given to Themistocles after the battle of Salamis. Every general voted to himself the first reward of valor, and the second to Themistocles. So ask the travelled inhabitant of any nation, In what country on earth would you rather live? – Certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest & sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France.


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