Until Jefferson entered the House of Burgesses, it had been his ambition to be a lawyer, to follow, most probably, in the distinguished footsteps of the man whom he admired above all others, George Wythe. He had pursued his studies with a thoroughness most unusual but entirely consonant with the determination with which he habitually threw himself upon any task. After his induction to the bar, he had built up a promising practice, and he had otherwise occupied himself with the development of his farms and with plans for building himself a house. Almost overnight his interests shifted. In a brief spring meeting of the Virginia Assembly, it was brought home to him that the future held problems greater and infinitely more vital than any he would ever encounter as a barrister. The law already lay behind him, although he was not to be fully aware of this for some time. Neither could he know that in forsaking it he was taking the first steps along the road that was to lead to immortality. Henceforth his mind was to become fixed solely on the philosophy of government and on the solution of the many vexing and practical problems entailed in the relation of the colonies to the mother country.
It is our great good fortune that we possess a document which establishes, beyond question of a doubt, this fundamental shift in Jefferson’s interests. It is a bill for books that he ordered in the summer of 1769, shortly after the closing of the legislature. Instead of being an assortment of volumes of literature and books on law, as had been the only other known book bill of his early days—that of the Virginia Gazette of 1764-1765—every one of the 14 items on this bill deals with theories of government. There is not a single volume of any other character. The books were bought of T. Cadell, a London bookseller. In late September, 1769, they were, as the invoice states, “shipped by Grace of God in good order and condition upon the good Sloop Industry, now riding at anchor in the river Thames, and by God’s Grace bound for Virginia.” An advertisement in the Virginia Gazette for December 14 of the same year, by Sarah Pitt, informs us that she has a variety of goods for sale “just imported on the Industry, Captain Lowes, from London.” Thus we know that Jefferson received his books before the year was out.
The volumes ordered by the young legislator are informative in the extreme. The list of those shipped is headed by a “very elegant” copy in “gilt marble” of the “Petits Jus Parliamentum.” Gordon’s “History of Parliaments,” in two volumes, follows. Then “Modus tenendi Parliamentum,” “very scarce, could not be got otherwise bound,” along with “Determinations of the House of Commons.” Now come the books that are the real kernel of the order and which were to be so influential in the development and formation of Jefferson’s thought. There is Locke “On Government,” Burlamaqui’s “Le Droit Naturel,” Ellis’s “Tracts on Liberty,” Warner’s “History of Ireland,”—”History of Civil Wars,” Petty’s “Survey of Ireland,” the “Oeuvres de Montesquieu,” Ferguson’s “Civil Society,” and Stewart’s “Political Oeconomy.”
As might be expected, the reading and study of these books is immediately reflected in Jefferson’s commonplace book, that confidant of his inmost thoughts. The first 693 entries in this book dealt exclusively with abstracts from books on the law. Subjects such as treason, felony, murder, burglary, misprision, conspiracy, inheritance, history of property and privileges, history of entails, rules of descent, had occupied his attention. With the next entry Jefferson was just turning his attention to the history of the early populations of Europe, when his shipment of books from London arrived. He glanced through Ferdinand Warner’s “History of Ireland,” and noted: “The laws of the Tanistry among the antient Irish, like Alexander’s will, gave the inheritance to the strongest.” Then his eye fell upon Montesquieu’s “Esprit des Lois.” He picked it up and began devouring its words. They seemed like a revelation to him, expressing, as they did, so many of the thoughts and ideas he had more than half sensed and been mulling over these many months. He laid aside the page on which he had been writing, turned to a new one, and inscribed “Le droit des gens est naturellement fonde sur ce principe que les diverses nations doivent se faire dans la paix le plus de bien, et dans la guerre le moins de mal qu’il est possible, sans nuire a leurs veritables interets.” It was the first of 27 excerpts from the French philosopher which Jefferson transcribed—more than he was to devote to the work of any other writer.
The question of Jefferson’s debt to Montesquieu is one that has been much debated. As the date he secured the book has hitherto not been known, as there is no reference to him in Jefferson’s letters prior to 1790, and as all subsequent allusions are bitterly antagonistic, recent opinion has tended to minimize Montesquieu’s influence. No matter in what regard Jefferson may have held him later in life—and he was to alter his opinion of various writers and thinkers in the course of time—there can be no doubt that he was profoundly affected by Montesquieu at this early period. The freshness and originality of the Frenchman’s views—despite a certain leaning on Locke—his theory of liberty, his warm impulse for reform and for the betterment of the human lot, were qualities inevitably stimulating to the young Virginia idealist. The eagerness with which he transcribed passages from Montesquieu, and the extent to which he did so, lead to the conclusion that this may well have been Jefferson’s first contact with the work. French authors tended to make rare appearances in colonial libraries. Whether Wythe, Small, or Fauquier had a copy of the “Esprit des Lois,” which had appeared in 1748, we have no way of knowing. The inventory of Lord Botetourt’s library shows that he owned the work, but there is no indication that Jefferson was on such terms of intimacy with Botetourt as he had been with Fauquier—indeed, that they ever met, except as Governor and burgess. There was no copy in Dabney Carr’s rather extensive library, or in William Byrd’s magnificent one. The catalogue of the Library Company of Philadelphia for 1770 shows that they had an English translation published in London in 1750, and it is within the realm of possibility that Jefferson visited this library on his trip north in 1766. Even so, it would, of course, not mean that he became acquainted with this particular book.
Although apparently novel to Jefferson, Montesquieu’s ideas were, to be sure, more or less in the air at this time and were destined to become even more so within the following years. By the fall of 1772 an advertisement appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette advocating an American edition of his works with the recommendation that they “ought to be in every man’s hands.” A series of letters which Robert Carter Nicholas addressed to Purdie and Dixon, publishers of the Virginia Gazette, in 1778, concerning paper money and the devaluation of Virginia currency, shows that he was thoroughly familiar with Montesquieu, as well as Puffen-dorf, from whom he claims the former derived his ideas. So great became Montesquieu’s vogue, so influential his theories, that the leaders in the revolutionary movement did not hesitate to bandy his name about in their innumerable pamphlets and letters to the papers, quite confident that it would be understood by their public. Thus Alexander Hamilton observed “I hold, with Montesquieu, that a government must be fitted to a nation much as a coat to the individual.” And James Madison, in discussing the separation of the departments of power, remarked in The Federalist: “The oracle who is always consulted and cited in this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu. If he be not the author of this invaluable precept in the science of politics, he has the merit at least of displaying and recommending it most effectually to the attention of mankind.”
Jefferson’s later distaste for Montesquieu may be ascribed in part to his ever-increasing distrust and hatred of England, whose government and civilization the Frenchman admired most extraordinarily. “The British constitution was to Montesquieu what Homer has been to the didactic writers of epic poetry,” Madison wrote, and Jefferson came to be of this opinion. Furthermore, the passing years witnessed Jefferson’s own growth in wisdom and enabled him to pass judgment on certain of Montesquieu’s principles which experience had taught him were fallacious. This was particularly true of Montesquieu’s theory that a republican form of government is suited only to small territories—an idea Jefferson eventually found very galling. Another reason for his veering from the French philosopher was that when he went to France, in 1785, he became a familiar in the circle dominated by Helvetius, who, although an intimate friend of Montesquieu, was antipathetic to his ideas, more particularly to his Anglomania. Thus it came about that from an enthusiastic endorsement and admiration of Montesquieu in 1769, Jefferson was writing to his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, in May, 1790, “in the science of government, Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of Laws’ is generally recommended. It contains, indeed, a great number of political truths; but also an equal number of heresies: so that the reader must be constantly on his guard.” By September, 1810, he had reached the conclusion that “I am glad to hear of everything which reduces that author [Montesquieu] to his just level, as his predilection for monarchy, and the English monarchy in particular, has done mischief everywhere, and here also, to a certain degree.” When, in 1809, the French philosopher, Destutt de Tracy, sent Jefferson his “Commentaire sur l’esprit des lois de Montesquieu,” he wrote the author, “I cannot express to you the satisfaction which I received from its perusal. I had, with the world, deemed Montesquieu’s work of much merit; but saw in it, with every thinking man, so much of paradox, of false principle and misapplied fact, as to render its value equivocal on the whole. . . . A radical correction of them, therefore, was a great desideratum. This want is now supplied, and with a depth of thought, precision of idea, of language and of logic, which will force conviction into every mind.”
That Jefferson’s estimate of a work might alter in the course of time, that experience and rumination might lead him to change his opinion, instead of remaining slavishly true to an early impression, is well exemplified in his remarks on Hume’s “History of England.” He had first acquired the book on March 7, 1764, from the bookshop of the Virginia Gazette, and subsequently reordered it after the fire at Shadwell. “I remember well,” he was to write William Duane, in 1810, “the enthusiasm with which I devoured it when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it had instilled in to my mind.” Jefferson might, indeed, have written these very words about Montesquieu, at this time!
Among the other books that reached Jefferson in December, 1769, were Locke’s essays on government. Curiously enough, there is just one extract from them included in the commonplace book: “because a king, elected by the people, is one of the branches to whom the people have deputed the power of making laws; and they have never bound themselves to submit to any laws but such as have received the approbation of the Commons, the Lords, and a king so elected, and his being merely a delegated power cannot be deputed to others by the whole delegates, much less by two branches of them only, to wit, the Lords and Commons.”
It would seem that Jefferson was already familiar with the English philosopher, otherwise his words would doubtless have been so copiously transcribed as were those of Montesquieu. The “Two Treatises on Government” had been published eighty years before, and Locke’s “Works” were to be found on the shelves of every Virginia library of any pretensions. His ideas and principles were already part of the warp and woof of colonial thought.
As we know from the list of books recommended to Robert Skip with in 1771, Jefferson was also familiar at this period with Algernon Sidney’s “Discourses concerning Government,” another work upholding the propriety of resistance to oppression by the King and defending the authority of legislative bodies, as well as with Montesquieu’s “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” a work which has been called the “first important essay in the philosophy of history.” A recent work with which Jefferson was likewise acquainted at the time was Marmontel’s “Belisaire,” a romance published in 1764. What obviously interested him in this work was the famous chapter on religious toleration which called down upon the author the censure, not only of the Sorbonne, but of the Archbishop of Paris.
Although we have no record of when Jefferson acquired the works of the great German historian and philosopher, Puffendorf, it is obvious that he was thoroughly familiar with them before April, 1770, when he appeared for the plaintiff in the case of Howell vs. Netherland and argued that “under the law of nature all men are born free.” This, as we have seen, was Jefferson’s first public pronunciamento of this theory. Puffendorf occupied the chair of “the law of nature and nations” at the University of Heidelberg, the first professorship of the sort in the world. His bold and independent ideas were of great influence upon subsequent writers, both in Europe and America.
The study of these and similar books in his library, the hours and days and weeks of reflection on them, was to bear fruit in many ways. It was to lead, for one thing, to the stellar role Jefferson was to play in the gigantic struggle that culminated in the Declaration of Independence. It was to lead, likewise, to something quite as important and revolutionary within his own Virginia, the revisal of the ancient laws of the new state. How urgent he considered this need, what emphasis he laid upon the principles expounded by these philosophers, and his eagerness to realize them in a practical way were subsequently to be manifested in his leaving Congress, It is clear that his whole program of social reform was conceived about 1770, and that he waited only for a favorable opportunity to put it in effect.
In the summer of 1776 Jefferson was elected a member of the new Virginia state legislature to represent Albemarle. “I knew,” he writes of this event, “that our legislation, under the regal government, had many very vicious points which urgently required reformation, and I thought I could be of more use in forwarding that.” He therefore resigned his seat in Congress and set out on September 2 for Albemarle, where he arrived on the ninth. Early October found him back in Williamsburg, ready to take an active part in the session, which opened on the seventh of the month.
When Jefferson states that the laws of Virginia had hitherto had “many vicious points,” he is putting the case gently. They were still enveloped in a sort of religious fog which countenanced the most barbarous cruelty—as was indeed true of the laws of the other colonies at that time. Man’s inhumanity to man was never more perfectly exemplified than in some of the statutes as they then stood. In the “Notes on Virginia” Jefferson pictures the state of affairs before he introduced his far-reaching reforms. “The first settlers of this country,” he says, “were emigrants from England, of the English Church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religions of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they showed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government. The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect. Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the State; had ordered those already here, and such as should come thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country; provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but death for their third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets.”
“At the common law,” Jefferson continues, “heresy was a capital offense, punishable by burning. Its definition was left to the ecclesiastical judges, before whom the conviction was, till the statute of the I El. c. I circumscribed it. . . . By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of a God, of the Trinity, or asserts there are more gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the Scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military ; on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years’ imprisonment without bail. A father’s right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put by the authority of a court into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and their fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom.”
To a man of Jefferson’s advanced ideas such a state of affairs was unendurable. It is small wonder that he felt driven to throw off the shackles of intolerance along with the bondage to England. He forthwith set himself the task of humanizing and liberalizing these archaic conceptions of right and wrong which had become woven into the law. On taking his seat in the House of Delegates he wasted no time in starting the machinery that was to effect the reforms he had so long contemplated. The House was scarcely organized before, with almost breathless haste, he set to work. On October 11 he “moved for leave to bring a bill for the establishment of courts of justice, the organization of which was of importance. I drew the bill; it was approved by the committee, reported and passed after due course.” The following day he introduced a bill so revolutionary in character that it was to shatter the very foundations of Virginia society, and win Jefferson more enemies than any other act of his long career. To this day there are many people who have hardly forgiven him what they consider treason to his own class. This bitterly contested bill, “declaring tenants in tail to hold their lands in fee simple,” thus permitting lands to be divided among the several children of a landowner, was directed at the abolition of one of the most cherished laws of the Old Dominion. “In earlier times,” Jefferson writes in explanation of his championship of this cause, “when lands were to be obtained for little or nothing, some provident individuals procured large grants, and, desirous of founding great families for themselves, settled them on their descendants in fee tail. The transmission of this property from generation to generation, in the same name, raised up a distinct set of families, who, being privileged by law in the perpetuation of their wealth, were thus formed into a Patrician order, distinguished by the splendor and luxury of their establishments. From this order, too, the king habitually selected his counsellors of State; the hope of which distinction devoted the whole corps to the interests and will of the crown. To annul this privilege, and instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than benefit, to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions, was deemed essential to a well-ordered republic.”
“To effect it,” he goes on, “no violence was necessary, no deprivation of natural right, but rather an enlargement of it by a repeal of the law.” This repeal was violently opposed by Edmund Pendleton, a distinguished and able adversary, but despite this, the bill became law before the month was out.
But the fiery young reformer had only just started. The reading and thinking he had done in the years since he first sat in the House of Burgesses had led him far afield from the traditional point of view of the majority of his contemporaries and put him in the vanguard of a new order. “When I left Congress in ‘76,” he tells us, “it was the persuasion that our whole code must be reviewed, adapted to our republican form of government; and, now that we had no negatives of councils, governors, and kings to restrain us from doing right, it should be corrected, in all its parts, with a single eye to reason, and the good of those for whose government it was framed.” Jefferson thus presented a bill for the revision of the existing code of law and it was passed on October 26, three days after the final reading of his bill for the abolition of entails. George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, George Mason, Thomas L. Lee, along with Jefferson, constituted the committee appointed to execute this prodigious undertaking.
On January 13, 1777, the committee met in Fredericksburg, as had been agreed. They discussed whether to “abolish the whole existing system of laws, and prepare a new and complete Institute, or preserve the general system and only modify it to the present state of things. Mr. Pendleton, contrary to his usual disposition in favor of antient things, was for the former proposition, in which he was joined by Mr. Lee.” Wythe, Mason, and Jefferson inclined toward the latter. The work was divided between Wythe, Pendleton, and Jefferson. Mason excused himself on the ground of being no lawyer and Lee resigned. “The common law and statutes to the 4. James I (when our separate legislature was established) were assigned to me; the British statutes from that period to the present day, to Mr. Wythe; and the Virginia laws to Mr. Pendleton. As the law of Descents, and the criminal law fell of course within my portion, I wished the committee to settle the leading principles of these as a guide for me in framing them; and, with respect to the first, I proposed to abolish the law of primogeniture.”
Once again Jefferson was in advance of his contemporaries, once more he had designs upon a time-honored institution. Pendleton opposed him but, as Jefferson says, “seeing at once that he could not prevail, he proposed we should adopt the Hebrew principle, and give a double portion to the elder son.” Jefferson’s further comments on this are one of the rather rare occasions in which he descends from the Olympian heights he was likely to inhabit and gives way to his sense of humor. “I observed, that if the eldest son could eat twice as much, or do double work, it might be a natural evidence of his right to a double portion; but being on a par in his powers and wants, with his brothers and sisters, he should be on a par also in the partition of the patrimony; and such was the decision of the other members.”
The guiding principles of this great task being determined, the three men returned to their homes and set to work. “In the execution of my part,” Jefferson writes, “I thought it material not to vary the diction of the antient statutes by moderning it, nor to give rise to new questions by new expressions.” However, he thought it admissible “in all new draughts, to reform the style of the later British statutes, and that of our own acts of assembly, which from their verbosity, their endless tautologies, their inventions of case within case, and parenthesis within parenthesis . . . are really rendered more perplexed and incomprehensible not only to common readers, but to the lawyers themselves.”
In February, 1779, Wythe, Pendleton, and Jefferson met again, in Williamsburg, to examine “critically our several parts, sentence by sentence, scrutinizing and amending, until we had agreed on the whole.” Jefferson and Wythe undertook the task of making Pendleton’s part “what we thought it ought to be . . . and reexecuted it entirely so as to assimilate its plan and execution to the other parts.”
On June 18, Wythe and Jefferson, with Pendleton detained in Caroline County, but concurring, reported to the General Assembly. “We had, in this work,” says Jefferson, “brought so much of the common law as it was thought necessary to alter, all the British Statutes from the Magna Charta to the present day, and all the laws of Virginia, from the establishment of our legislature . . . to the present time, which we thought should be retained, within the compass of one hundred and twenty-six bills, making a printed folio of ninety pages only.”
The response to these labors was not to be immediate. “Some bills were taken out occasionally, from time to time, and passed, but the main body of the work was not entered on by the legislature until after the general peace, in 1785, when by the unwearied exertion of Mr. Madison, in opposition to the endless quibbles, chicaneries, perversions, vexations and delays of lawyers and demi-lawyers, most of the bills were passed by the legislature, with little alteration.”
During this memorable period that he sat in the Virginia legislature Jefferson, who had been placed on most of the important committees of the House, was to father other bills destined to shock the complacency of the conservatives. One was for moving the ancient seat of government from Williamsburg to Richmond, at the falls of the James, at this time no more than a village with a population of about six hundred persons.
On the same day, October 14, Jefferson was to introduce a bill for the naturalization of foreigners. Citizenship might be conferred after a residence of two years within the state and assurances, before the court, of “fidelity to the commonwealth.” When we consider that even today a person without three or four generations of Virginia-born ancestors is considered “a foreigner,” we realize how revolutionary was Jefferson’s proposal of 1776.
Another undertaking of greatest importance was to be the bill for the reformation of the educational system of the state. Jefferson was asked to undertake this. He “prepared three bills for the Revisal, proposing three distinct grades of education reaching all classes. 1st, Elementary schools, for all children generally, rich and poor. 2d. Colleges, for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life. . . . And, 3d, an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally, in their highest degree.” Not one of these was adopted. When it was discovered that “the expenses of these schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, everyone in proportion to his general tax rate,” it was realized that the wealthy would be educating the poor, and nothing more unpalatable could have been imagined.
The question of slavery, which had long haunted Jefferson and over which, for years, the House of Burgesses had, from time to time, shown distress and concern, was one of the great problems the revisors had to face. The bill on this subject, Jefferson writes, “was a mere digest of the existing laws concerning them.” No one was as yet prepared to follow him in his ideas for the emancipation of the Negro and subsequent deportation “peaceably, and in such slow degree, as that the evil will wear off insensibly.” With the words of a prophet, the far-seeing Jefferson added, “nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.”
Revision of the laws concerning crimes and punishments lay in Jefferson’s particular sphere as a revisor. In this undertaking, he is free to say in his “Autobiography” that he leaned on the Italian jurist, Beccaria. His famous treatise, “Dei Delitti e delle Pene,” had been published in 1764, translated into French in 1766, and into English in 1768, under the title “On Crimes and Punishments.” It would seem as though Jefferson must have acquired the book at about the time he did Montesquieu, for no less than 26 extracts from Beccaria, in Italian, follow directly those from Montesquieu in Jefferson’s commonplace book, and in the handwriting of the same period. Jefferson had, of course, absorbed Bec-caria’s ideas, along with those of many other writers, by the time he started to prepare his “Bill for proportioning crimes and punishments in cases heretofore capital.” By November, 1778, he had completed his work, elaborately annotated with extracts from the Anglo-Saxon laws, and sent the draft to George Wythe for comment and criticism. The country, however, was not yet ready for such mitigation of the barbarous and inhuman treatment of the criminal. Once more Jefferson was to be in advance of the times. The bill was not to be introduced into the House until 1785, when it failed by one vote, and it was not until 1796, eighteen years after Jefferson had drafted it, that, in a modified form, “avoiding the adoption of any part of the diction of mine,” it was to become law.
The bill which lay closest to Jefferson’s heart, indeed which he regarded as one of the greatest achievements of his life, so much so that he wished it inscribed upon his tombstone, was the one that came to be known as the “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.” When he returned to the House of Delegates he had been placed on the standing committee for religion. The committee was, of course, predominantly Anglican, but Jefferson, although belonging to that church, led a small yet determined minority in a struggle to rectify some of the abuses. In the “Notes on Virginia,” he says, “the Anglicans retained full possession of the country about a century. Other opinions began to creep in, and the great care of the government to support their own church, having begotten an equal degree of indolence in its clergy, two thirds of the people had become dissenters at the commencement of the present revolution.” The unfortunate and illegal situation of these dissenting bodies demanded redress. This first meeting of the new legislature was “crowded with petitions to abolish this spiritual tyranny.”
The ensuing struggle proved the most severe in which Jefferson had ever engaged, according to his own words. Edmund Pendleton and Robert Carter Nicholas, zealous churchmen, led the opposition. After some weeks, with the aid of a few of the more enlightened members of the House, the minority was able to obtain “feeble majorities” on certain points. They managed to secure the repeal of “the laws which rendered criminal the maintenance of any religious opinions, the forbearance of repairing to church, or the exercise of any mode of worship; and further, to exempt dissenters from contributing to the support of the established church, and to suspend, only until the next session, levies on the members of the church for the salaries of their own incumbents.”
This, of course, Jefferson could regard only as a palliative, not as a solution. He could be satisfied with nothing short of true toleration, which to him meant absolute freedom of conscience, unhampered by religious bias or considerations of state. “The error seems not to be sufficiently eradicated,” he writes in the “Notes on Virginia,” “that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of laws. But our rulers can have no authority over such natural rights, only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we have never submitted; we could not submit. We are answerable only to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others, but it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. . . . Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only.”
With such toleration in his heart, “well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested His supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint,” Jefferson was to set to work on his “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” He says of it, in his “Autobiography,” that it was drawn “in all the latitude of reason and right,” but although, or perhaps because, it meant “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination,” it was to meet with such violent opposition in the Assembly that it was not written in the statute books until ten years later, when Jefferson had long since gone across the seas as Minister to France.
“I considered four of these bills,” Jefferson observes in evaluating this work, “passed or reported, as forming a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican. The repeal of the laws of entail would prevent the accumulation and perpetuation of wealth, in select families. . . . The abolition of primogeniture, and equal partition of inheritances„ removed the feudal and unnatural distinctions which made one member of every family rich, and all the rest poor. . . . The restoration of the rights of conscience relieved the people from taxation for the support of a religion not theirs; for the establishment was truly of the religion of the rich, the dissenting sects being entirely composed of the less wealthy people; and these, by a bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in any government; and all this would be effected without free violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen.”
Great as we know his services to have been, Jefferson was not to take credit for effecting these reforms single-handed.
In paying tribute to his fellow workers, in his “Autobiography,” he modestly observes of his own part that “in giving this account of the laws of which I was myself the mover and draughtsman, I by no means mean to claim to myself the merit of obtaining their passage. I had many occasional and strenuous coadjutors in debate, and one, most steadfast, able, and zealous; who was himself a host. This was George Mason, a man of the first order of wisdom among those who acted in the theatre of the revolution, of expansive mind, profound judgment, cogent in argument, learned in the hire of our former constitution, and earnest for the republican change on democratic principles. . . . Mr. Wythe, while speaker in the two sessions of 1777, between his return to Congress and his appointment to the Chancery, was an able and constant associate in whatever was before a committee of the whole. His pure integrity, judgment and reasoning powers, gave him great weight.”
To this task, so stupendous that it was to have repercussions throughout the United States of America, Jefferson was to bring a boldness of conception, a maturity of thought, and an elevation of spirit that set him apart from all his fellow legislators, not excluding even George Wythe. It was as though he had already said to himself, as he was to write many years later, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” With this in his heart he set to work to bestow upon man, as has been remarked, the four great freedoms— the like of which had never been known. By destroying the last remnants of feudalism, the laws of entail and primogeniture, he gave man the freedom of the land; by advocating the abolition of slavery, the freedom of the body; by fostering universal education, freedom of the mind; and by the statute for religious freedom he conferred upon man the supreme boon, freedom of the soul.