Thomas Jefferson, it is widely acknowledged, was polymathic. Throughout his life, he wore the hats of politician, architect, diplomat, anthropologist, musician, lawyer, bibliophile, farmer, palaeontologist, meteorologist, classicist, and philosopher. Yet he has never been taken seriously as a philosopher. Though he wrote no formal works on philosophy, his writings are filled with significant philosophical insights, which upon scrutiny, reveal a philosophical mind that was largely consistent over the years, greatly assimilative of significant philosophical literature, and moral at its core.
Concerning theory of knowledge, Jefferson was an out-and-out empiricist. He writes to John Adams: “‘I feel: therefore I exist.’ I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existences then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space.” All realities, even mind and deity, comprise matter. “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings.” All observed entities are nothing but collections of atoms.
Yet Jefferson was not a metaphysical atomist like the ancient philosopher Epicurus. No two realities, he observed, were alike in kind. “Nature has, in truth, produced units only through all her works,” he writes in 1814 to New Jersey politician Dr John Manners. “Classes, orders, genera, species, are not of her works. Her creation is of individuals …. No two particles of matter are of exact resemblance.” Jefferson, like John Locke, was a nominalist.
Study of the cosmos betrays “design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition,” he says to Adams in 1823. “The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their courses by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces; the structure of our earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters, and atmosphere; animal and vegetable bodies, each perfectly organised whether as insect, man or mammoth; it is impossible not to believe, that there is in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a Fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms.” Deity superintends the cosmos, probably in the manner of pre-established cosmic self-regulation comparable to a thermostat in regulating the temperature of a building.
Cosmic order had global implications. Like others of his day, Jefferson made purchase of the four-stage theory of social development. Humans began relatively asocially, as hunters and gatherers; they learned to domesticate and herd animals; they advanced to farmers; and last they became urbanites. Unlike others, Jefferson did not think that the process was linear – that advance to urbanisation signified social improvement and that urbanisation itself was capable of indefinite improvement. Urbanisation, for Jefferson, was symptomatic of social decay. As he wrote in separate letters to Madison and Edward Carrington in 1787, there were three sorts of societies: those with no laws (e.g., Native Americans), those with surfeit of laws (most European societies), and those with moderate laws (e.g., America). Lawlessness might be the preferred social state, since it allows for perfect freedom, but it is inconsistent with any degree of population, and people are, for Jefferson, social creatures. Superabundance of laws is symptomatic of governments of “wolves and sheep.” The only viable alternative is a society “under governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence,” though it suffers the defect of turbulence. Yet, he concludes, turbulent liberty is much preferable to quiet servitude. Thus, Jefferson argued that only the agrarian stage, the third stage and a mean between the primitivism of the prior states and the stage of urbanism, allows for maximum human liberty with some form of social structure.
Jefferson’s most recognised expression of liberty occurs in his Declaration of Independence, where he limns several rights: the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and revolution. The rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness imply that all persons are free to worship as they choose. Religion is not a political, but a personal, matter. It is a matter between a man and his God. Thus, legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There must be a “wall of separation between church and state.” Without such a wall, the clergy become a “very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.”
Instead, people should follow the example of the Quakers: live without priests, be guided by their internal monitor of right and wrong – their moral sense – and avoid matters inaccessible to common sense.
What are the true “principles” of morality? They compose the “moral branch of religion, which is the same in all religions.” Morality “instructs us how to live well and worthily in society.”
Yet morality is not reason-guided, but dictated by a moral sense. Thus, it is not strictly a matter of adherence to principles of right action, but instead of adherence to the inner voice of the moral sense. The God-given moral sense, innate and instinctual, is as much a part of a person’s nature as are the senses of hearing and seeing, or as are a leg or arm. Comparison to sensory organs suggests that moral judgements come naturally. Comparison to limbs suggests that the moral sense can be made better or worse through exercise or its neglect.
The moral sense works spontaneously, without any input of reason. When you are about to do something wrong, he advises daughter Martha, “you will feel something within you which will tell you it is wrong and ought not to be said or done: this is your conscience, and be sure to obey it.” Since morality is not reason-guided, moral principles are faulty guides. Thus, he disadvises nephew Peter Carr to attend lectures on moral philosophy: “He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science.” Without rules of right conduct, moral exemplars are indispensable. Jefferson says to grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph that morally correct action can be determined by appealing counterfactually to moral exemplars: “I am certain that this mode of deciding on my conduct, tended more to correctness than any reasoning powers I possessed.”
Just as not everyone is born with hearing or sight, not everyone possesses a moral sense. Yet want of a moral sense can be rectified by education and use of rational calculation in moral scenarios. That, however, is merely a matter of behavioural shaping in keeping with actions that are morally correct. Without a moral sense, strictly speaking, there can be no morally correct action.
Jefferson also believed that humans were morally progressing over time. There were, however, periods of moral stagnation or decline. The tension between England and France in Jefferson’s later years was to him evidence of such decline. Still, such moral declinations, considered overall, were temporary setbacks, not genuine declinations, and moral progress could not be thwarted so long as liberty was not suffocated.
In his First Inaugural Address, Jefferson lists 15 “essential principles of our Government.” Those include equal and exact justice to all men; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; election by the people; acquiescence to the decisions of the majority; freedom of the press; and freedom of religion, as well as economic aspects such as light taxation, ready payment of debts, and encouragement of agriculture and commerce. To P S Dupont de Nemours in 1816, Jefferson lists nine “moral principles” upon which republican government is grounded. Notable among them are rights to property and to self-determination; justice being the fundamental law of society; and citizens’ action “in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves, [constituting] the essence of a republic.” To John Taylor, Jefferson says, “Every other government is more or less republican, in proportion as it has in this composition more or less of this ingredient of the direct action of the citizens.” To Samuel Kercheval, he writes: “A government is republican in proportion as every member composing it has his equal voice in the direction of its concerns … by representatives chosen by himself, and responsible to him at short periods.”
Thus, republican government demands equality of opportunity for each citizen to participate in government and it guarantees equal rights. Moreover, being a government of the people, there must be periodic revisions of the Constitution at conventions to accommodate changes in the peoples’ will, and such changes will be dictated mostly by advances in science. Jefferson writes to Ken Kercheval, “The laws and constitutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” Thus, a republic for Jefferson is essentially progressive and scientific, not static and conservative.
Consequently, Jeffersonian republicanism is a schema for government by the people, not any particular system of governing. It is not wedded to any particular constitution – constitutions, Jefferson is clear, are merely provisional representations of the will of the people at the time of their drafting – but to the principle of government representing the will of the people, suitably informed.
Jefferson’s attempts at defining “republic” and his nine moral principles “proper for all conditions of society” suggest that republicanism is a political philosophy. For Jefferson, republican governing is essentially progressive, and being government of and for the people, it aims at involving all citizens to their fullest capacity. Over the centuries, he recognised, human potentiality had been stifled by coercive governments. Instantiation of republican governing, thus, was an attempt to impose the minimal political structure needed to maximise human liberty, free human potentiality, and ensure the political ascendency of the talented and virtuous, and not the wealthy and wellborn, who were politically privy to governing for centuries and who abused that privilege for centuries.
To guarantee that the popular will be represented, government by the people entailed periodic constitutional renewal. “No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law” Jefferson writes to C F W Malone. All constitutions expire with the ascendency of each new generation. With each new generation, there will be a constitutional convention, at which defects in laws can be addressed and changes can be made.
Finally, government by the people implies the right to revolution, when governmental abuses and usurpations are many and long, directed to the same end, and indicative of despotism. Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [of republican governing], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, & to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
To compliment his political philosophy, Jefferson developed over time a philosophy of education – both of which were in the service of a moral aim, human flourishing. To facilitate a government of and for the people, he thought, there must be educational reform to allow for the general education of the citizenry for fullest political participation, to enable citizens to carry on daily affairs without governmental intervention, and to funnel the most talented and virtuous to an institution like the University of Virginia.
There is no one-size-fits-all education for the citizenry. To Peter Carr, Jefferson writes, “It is the duty of [our country’s] functionaries, to provide that every citizen in it should receive an education proportioned to the conditions and pursuits of his life.” Each citizen, thus, is to be educated according to his needs.
Jefferson recognises that a prosperous nation comprises a small body of learned and a large body of labourers. The labourers – divided roughly into husbandmen, manufacturers, and craftsmen – are the bedrock of a republic, as they see to meeting their own needs and the needs of the citizenry as a whole. Thus, they must have access to primary education. The learned – comprising governors, educators, and scientists – must have access to grammar schools and university-level education. Thus, all citizens are to assume a participatory role to the best of their capacities in a thriving republic.
Jefferson, through several bills aimed at educative reform, fought for systemic reforms. Only a system of education would lead to robust republican governing. To Senator Joseph C Cabell, Jefferson outlines six features of that system: basic education should be available to all; education should be tax-supported; education should be free from religious dictation; the educational system should be controlled at the local level; the upper levels of education should feature free inquiry; and the mentally proficient should be enabled to pursue education to the highest levels at public expense. Only a system could offer all citizens an education proportioned to their needs: the labourers, a broad, general education to serve the needs of the citizenry; the learned, a more specific education in the service of the political and moral advances of their country.
Jefferson believed that human capacities were greatly underdeveloped, and thus, education needed to tap into untapped human potential in morally responsible ways. He writes to William Green Munford: “As well might it be urged that the wild and uncultivated tree, hitherto yielding sour and bitter fruit only, can never be made to yield better; yet we know that the grafting art implants a new tree on the savage stock, producing what is most estimable both in kind and degree. Education, in like manner, engrafts a new man on the native stock, and improves what in his nature was vicious and perverse into qualities of virtue and social worth.”
Human perfectibility, for Jefferson, is a matter of improved efficiency of living, which implies progress in the fields of human health and human productivity through discoveries and labour-saving inventions and, especially, moral improvement. Moral improvement is much more important than exercise of rationality: pure rationality being a matter of humans abstracting from reality for purposes adiaphorous; moral sensibility being a matter of humans immersed in reality.
Because of the subordination of rationality to morality, education must be useful, which implies social and political activity. Male citizens of greatest virtue and greatest genius must contribute by participation in science and in politics. Lesser citizens must contribute more modestly and mostly at local levels through, for illustration, jury duty, participation in militia, and voting for and overseeing elected representatives.
Finally, education for Jefferson is a way of living. Its aim is to give persons the tools they need to make them socially and politically involved, free, self-sufficient, and happy.