Thomas Jefferson


Jefferson was the Third president of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.  He was  born in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1843, the son of an early settler and large landowner in the county.  He inherited considerable property and in 1769 he entered the lower house of the colonial Virginia legislature.  His career in politics ended 40 years later with his retirement as president of the United States.  We are interested in Jefferson because of the his vision for America.  He had clear ideas about the kind of nation he wished America to become.  Reading the selections below will allow you to trace the evolution of his thought about the desirability of country life compared to city life.

When reading the following selections keep an eye on Jefferson's thoughts about The readings begin with excerpts from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and then excerpts from a number of his letters.


by Thomas Jefferson, 1787


The following Notes were written in Virginia in the year 1781, and somewhat corrected and enlarged in the winter of 1782, in answer to Queries proposed to the Author, by a Foreigner of Distinction, then residing among us. The subjects are all treated imperfectly; some scarcely touched on. To apologize for this by developing the circumstances of the time and place of their composition, would be to open wounds which have already bled enough. To these circumstances some of their imperfections may with truth be ascribed; the great mass to the want of information and want of talents in the writer. He had a few copies printed, which he gave among his friends: and a translation of them has been lately published in France, but with such alterations as the laws of the press in that country rendered necessary. They are now offered to the public in their original form and language. Feb. 27, 1787.


QUERY XIX The present state of manufactures, commerce, interior and exterior trade?


We never had an interior trade of any importance. Our exterior commerce has suffered very much from the beginning of the present contest. During this time we have manufactured within our families the most necessary articles of cloathing. Those of cotton will bear some comparison with the same kinds of manufacture in Europe; but those of wool, flax and hemp are very coarse, unsightly, and unpleasant: and such is our attachment to agriculture, and such our preference for foreign manufactures, that be it wise or unwise, our people will certainly return as soon as they can, to the raising raw materials, and exchanging them for finer manufactures than they are able to execute themselves.

The political oeconomists of Europe have established it as a principle that every state should endeavour to manufacture for itself: and this principle, like many others, we transfer to America, without calculating the difference of circumstance which should often produce a difference of result. In Europe the lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to of necessity not of choice, to support the surplus of their people. But we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman. Is it best then that all our citizens should be employed in its improvement, or that one half should be called off from that to exercise manufactures and handicraft arts for the other? Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistance, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes perhaps been retarded by accidental circumstances: but, generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.

Letters of Thomas Jefferson  (Excerpts, 1785-1816)


        To John Jay         Paris, Aug. 23, 1785

        DEAR SIR, -- I shall sometimes ask your permission to write you letters, not official but private.  The present is of this kind, and is occasioned by the question proposed in yours of June 14. "whether it would be useful to us to carry all our own productions, or none?" Were we perfectly free to decide this question, I should reason as follows.  We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation.  Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.  They are the most vigorous, the most independant, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it's liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.  As long therefore as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans or anything else.  But our citizens will find employment in this line till their numbers, & of course their productions, become too great for the demand both internal & foreign. This is not the case as yet, & probably will not be for a considerable time.  As soon as it is, the surplus of hands must be turned to something else.  I should then perhaps wish to turn them to the sea in preference to manufactures, because comparing the characters of the two classes I find the former the most valuable citizens.  I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice & the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned.  However we are not free to decide this question on principles of theory only.  Our people are decided in the opinion that it is necessary for us to take a share in the occupation of the ocean, & their established habits induce them to require that the sea be kept open to them, and that that line of policy be pursued which will render the use of that element as great as possible to them.  I think it a duty in those entrusted with the administration of their affairs to conform themselves to the decided choice of their constituents: and that therefore we should in every instance preserve an equality of right to them in the transportation of commodities, in the right of fishing, & in the other uses of the sea.  But what will be the consequence?  Frequent wars without a doubt.  Their property will be violated on the sea, & in foreign ports, their persons will be insulted, imprisoned &c. for pretended debts, contracts, crimes, contraband, &c., &c.  These insults must be resented, even if we had no feelings, yet to prevent their eternal repetition, or in other words, our commerce on the ocean & in other countries must be paid for by frequent war.  The justest dispositions possible in ourselves will not secure us against it.  It would be necessary that all other nations were just also.  Justice indeed on our part will save us from those wars which would have been produced by a contrary disposition. But to prevent those produced by the wrongs of other nations?  By putting ourselves in a condition to punish them.  Weakness provokes insult & injury, while a condition to punish it often prevents it. This reasoning leads to the necessity of some naval force, that being the only weapon with which we can reach an enemy.  I think it to our interest to punish the first insult; because an insult unpunished is the parent of many others.  We are not at this moment in a condition to do it, but we should put ourselves into it as soon as possible. If a war with England should take place, it seems to me that the first thing necessary would be a resolution to abandon the carrying trade because we cannot protect it.  Foreign nations must in that case be invited to bring us what we want & to take our productions in their own bottoms.  This alone could prevent the loss of those productions to us & the acquisition of them to our enemy.  Our seamen might be employed in depredations on their trade.  But how dreadfully we shall suffer on our coasts, if we have no force on the water, former experience has taught us.  Indeed I look forward with horror to the very possible case of war with an European power, & think there is no protection against them but from the possession of some force on the sea.  Our vicinity to their West India possessions & to the fisheries is a bridle which a small naval force on our part would hold in the mouths of the most powerful of these countries.  I hope our land office will rid us of our debts, & that our first attention then will be to the beginning a naval force of some sort.  This alone can countenance our people as carriers on the water, & I suppose them to be determined to continue such.

        I wrote you two public letters on the 14th inst., since which I have received yours of July 13.  I shall always be pleased to receive from you in a private way such communications as you might not chuse to put into a public letter.


         To James Madison         Paris, Dec. 20, 1787

         DEAR SIR, -- My last to you was of Oct. 8 by the Count de Moustier.  Yours of July 18. Sep. 6. & Oct. 24. have been successively received, yesterday, the day before & three or four days before that....

.... I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America.  When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe. Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.  I have tired you by this time with my disquisitions & will therefore only add assurances of the sincerity of those sentiments of esteem & attachment with which I am Dear Sir your affectionate friend & servant

         P. S. The instability of our laws is really an immense evil.  I think it would be well to provide in our constitutions that there shall always be a twelve-month between the ingross-ing a bill & passing it: that it should then be offered to it's passage without changing a word: and that if circum-stances should be thought to require a speedier passage, it should take two thirds of both houses instead of a bare majority.


         To Dr. Benjamin Rush         Monticello, Sep. 23, 1800

         DEAR SIR, -- I have to acknolege the receipt of your favor of Aug. 22, and to congratulate you on the healthiness of your city. Still Baltimore, Norfolk & Providence admonish us that we are not clear of our new scourge.  When great evils happen, I am in the habit of looking out for what good may arise from them as consolations to us, and Providence has in fact so established the order of things, as that most evils are the means of producing some good.  The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation, & I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.  True, they nourish some of the elegant arts, but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere, and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue & freedom, would be my choice.


         To Jean Baptiste Say         Washington, February 1, 1804

         DEAR SIR, -- I have to acknowledge the receipt of your obliging letter, and with it, of two very interesting volumes on Political Economy.  These found me engaged in giving the leisure moments I rarely find, to the perusal of Malthus' work on population, a work of sound logic, in which some of the opinions of Adam Smith, as well as of the economists, are ably examined.  I was pleased, on turning to some chapters where you treat the same questions, to find his opinions corroborated by yours.  I shall proceed to the reading of your work with great pleasure.  In the meantime, the present conveyance, by a gentleman of my family going to Paris, is too safe to hazard a delay in making my acknowledgments for this mark of attention, and for having afforded to me a satisfaction, which the ordinary course of literary communications could not have given me for a considerable time.

         The differences of circumstance between this and the old countries of Europe, furnish differences of fact whereon to reason, in questions of political economy, and will consequently produce sometimes a difference of result.  There, for instance, the quantity of food is fixed, or increasing in a slow and only arithmetical ratio, and the proportion is limited by the same ratio. Supernumerary births consequently add only to your mortality.  Here the immense extent of uncultivated and fertile lands enables every one who will labor to marry young, and to raise a family of any size. Our food, then, may increase geometrically with our laborers, and our births, however multiplied, become effective.  Again, there the best distribution of labor is supposed to be that which places the manufacturing hands alongside the agricultural; so that the one part shall feed both, and the other part furnish both with clothes and other comforts.  Would that be best here?  Egoism and first appearances say yes.  Or would it be better that all our laborers should be employed in agriculture?  In this case a double or treble portion of fertile lands would be brought into culture; a double or treble creation of food be produced, and its surplus go to nourish the now perishing births of Europe, who in return would manufacture and send us in exchange our clothes and other comforts.  Morality listens to this, and so invariably do the laws of nature create our duties and interests, that when they seem to be at variance, we ought to suspect some fallacy in our reasonings.  In solving this question, too, we should allow its just weight to the moral and physical preference of the agricultural, over the manufacturing, man.  My occupations permit me only to ask questions.  They deny me the time, if I had the information, to answer them.  Perhaps, as worthy the attention of the author of the Traite d'Economie Politique, I shall find them answered in that work.  If they are not, the reason will have been that you wrote for Europe; while I shall have asked them because I think for America.  Accept, Sir, my respectful salutations, and assurances of great consideration.


         To Dr. Caspar Wistar         Washington, June 21, 1807

         DEAR SIR, -- I have a grandson, the son of Mr. Randolph, now about 15 years of age, in whose education I take a lively interest. His time has not hitherto been employed to the greatest advantage, a frequent change of tutors having prevented the steady pursuit of any one plan.  Whether he possesses that lively imagination, usually called genius, I have not had opportunities of knowing.  But I think he has an observing mind & sound judgment.  He is assiduous, orderly, & of the most amiable temper & dispositions.  As he will be at ease in point of property, his education is not directed to any particular possession, but will embrace those sciences which give to retired life usefulness, ornament or amusement.  I am not a friend to placing growing men in populous cities, because they acquire there habits & partialities which do not contribute to the happiness of their after life.  But there are particular branches of science, which are not so advantageously taught anywhere else in the U.S. as in Philadelphia. The garden at the Woodlands for Botany, Mr. Peale's Museum for Natural History, your Medical school for Anatomy, and the able professors in all of them, give advantages not to be found elsewhere. We propose, therefore, to send him to Philadelphia to attend the schools of Botany, Natural History, Anatomy, & perhaps Surgery; but not of Medicine.  And why not of Medicine, you will ask?  Being led to the subject, I will avail myself of the occasion to express my opinions on that science, and the extent of my medical creed.  But, to finish first with respect to my grandson, I will state the favor I ask of you, which is the object of this letter....

         I salute you at all times with affection & respect.


         To P. S. Dupont de Nemours         Monticello, June 28, 1809

         DEAR SIR, -- The interruption of our commerce with England, produced by our embargo and non-intercourse law, and the general indignation excited by her barefaced attempts to make us accessories and tributaries to her usurpations on the high seas, have generated in this country an universal spirit for manufacturing for ourselves, and of reducing to a minimum the number of articles for which we are dependent on her.  The advantages, too, of lessening the occasions of risking our peace on the ocean, and of planting the consumer in our own soil by the side of the grower of produce, are so palpable, that no temporary suspension of injuries on her part, or agreements founded on that, will now prevent our continuing in what we have begun.  The spirit of manufacture has taken deep root among us, and its foundations are laid in too great expense to be abandoned.  The bearer of this, Mr. Ronaldson, will be able to inform you of the extent and perfection of the works produced here by the late state of things; and to his information, which is greatest as to what is doing in the cities, I can add my own as to the country, where the principal articles wanted in every family are now fabricated within itself.  This mass of household manufacture, unseen by the public eye, and so much greater than what is seen, is such at present, that let our intercourse with England be opened when it may, not one half the amount of what we have heretofore taken from her will ever again be demanded.  The great call from the country has hitherto been of coarse goods.  These are now made in our families, and the advantage is toosensible ever to be relinquished.  It is one of those obvious improvements in our condition which needed only to be once forced on our attention, never again to be abandoned....


         To Benjamin Austin         Monticello, January 9, 1816

         DEAR SIR, -- Your favor of December 21st has been received, and I am first to thank you for the pamphlet it covered.  The same description of persons which is the subject of that is so much multiplied here too, as to be almost a grievance, and by their numbers in the public councils, have wrested from the public hand the direction of the pruning knife.  But with us as a body, they are republican, and mostly moderate in their views; so far, therefore, less objects of jealousy than with you.  Your opinions on the events which have taken place in France, are entirely just, so far as these events are yet developed.  But they have not reached their ultimate termination.  There is still an awful void between the present and what is to be the last chapter of that history; and I fear it is to be filled with abominations as frightful as those which have already disgraced it.  That nation is too high-minded, has too much innate force, intelligence and elasticity, to remain under its present compression.  Samson will arise in his strength, as of old, and as of old will burst asunder the withes and the cords, and the webs of the Philistines.  But what are to be the scenes of havoc and horror, and how widely they may spread between brethren of the same house, our ignorance of the interior feuds and antipathies of the country places beyond our ken.  It will end, nevertheless, in a representative government, in a government in which the will of the people will be an effective ingredient.  This important element has taken root in the European mind, and will have its growth; their despots, sensible of this, are already offering this modification of their governments, as if on their own accord.  Instead of the parricide treason of Bonaparte, in perverting the means confided to him as a republican magistrate, to the subversion of that republic and erection of a military despotism for himself and his family, had he used it honestly for the establishment and support of a free government in his own country, France would now have been in freedom and rest; and her example operating in a contrary direction, every nation in Europe would have had a government over which the will of the people would have had some control.  His atrocious egotism has checked the salutary progress of principle, and deluged it with rivers of blood which are not yet run out.  To the vast sum of devastation and of human misery, of which he has been the guilty cause, much is still to be added.  But the object is fixed in the eye of nations, and they will press on to its accomplishment and to the general amelioration of the condition of man.  What a germ have we planted, and how faithfully should we cherish the parent tree at home!

         You tell me I am quoted by those who wish to continue our dependence on England for manufactures.  There was a time when I might have been so quoted with more candor, but within the thirty years which have since elapsed, how are circumstances changed!  We were then in peace.  Our independent place among nations was acknowledged.  A commerce which offered the raw material in exchange for the same material after receiving the last touch of industry, was worthy of welcome to all nations.  It was expected that those especially to whom manufacturing industry was important, would cherish the friendship of such customers by every favor, by every inducement, and particularly cultivate their peace by every act of justice and friendship.  Under this prospect the question seemed legitimate, whether, with such an immensity of unimproved land, courting the hand of husbandry, the industry of agriculture, or that of manufactures, would add most to the national wealth?  And the doubt was entertained on this consideration chiefly, that to the labor of the husbandman a vast addition is made by the spontaneous energies of the earth on which it is employed: for one grain of wheat committed to the earth, she renders twenty, thirty, and even fifty fold, whereas to the labor of the manufacturer nothing is added. Pounds of flax, in his hands, yield, on the contrary, but penny-weights of lace.  This exchange, too, laborious as it might seem, what a field did it promise for the occupations of the ocean; what a nursery for that class of citizens who were to exercise and maintain our equal rights on that element?  This was the state of things in 1785, when the "Notes on Virginia" were first printed; when, the ocean being open to all nations, and their common right in it acknowledged and exercised under regulations sanctioned by the assent and usage of all, it was thought that the doubt might claim some consideration.  But who in 1785 could foresee the rapid depravity which was to render the close of that century the disgrace of the history of man?  Who could have imagined that the two most distinguished in the rank of nations, for science and civilization, would have suddenly descended from that honorable eminence, and setting at defiance all those moral laws established by the Author of nature between nation and nation, as between man and man, would cover earth and sea with robberies and piracies, merely because strong enough to do it with temporal impunity; and that under this disbandment of nations from social order, we should have been despoiled of a thousand ships, and have thousands of our citizens reduced to Algerine slavery.  Yet all this has taken place.  One of these nations interdicted to our vessels all harbors of the globe without having first proceeded to some one of hers, there paid a tribute proportioned to the cargo, and obtained her license to proceed to the port of destination.  The other declared them to be lawful prize if they had touched at the port, or been visited by a ship of the enemy nation.  Thus were we completely excluded from the ocean.  Compare this state of things with that of '85, and say whether an opinion founded in the circumstances of that day can be fairly applied to those of the present.  We have experienced what we did not then believe, that there exists both profligacy and power enough to exclude us from the field of interchange with other nations: that to be independent for the comforts of life we must fabricate them ourselves.  We must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturist.  The former question is suppressed, or rather assumes a new form.  Shall we make our own comforts, or go without them, at the will of a foreign nation?  He, therefore, who is now against domestic manufacture, must be for reducing us either to dependence on that foreign nation, or to be clothed in skins, and to live like wild beasts in dens and caverns.  I am not one of these; experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort; and if those who quote me as of a different opinion, will keep pace with me in purchasing nothing foreign where an equivalent of domestic fabric can be obtained, without regard to difference of price, it will not be our fault if we do not soon have a supply at home equal to our demand, and wrest that weapon of distress from the hand which has wielded it.  If it shall be proposed to go beyond our own supply, the question of '85 will then recur, will our surplus labor be then most beneficially employed in the culture of the earth, or in the fabrications of art? We have time yet for consideration, before that question will press upon us; and the maxim to be applied will depend on the circumstances which shall then exist; for in so complicated a science as political economy, no one axiom can be laid down as wise and expedient for all times and circumstances, and for their contraries.  Inattention to this is what has called for this explanation, which reflection would have rendered unnecessary with the candid, while nothing will do it with those who use the former opinion only as a stalking horse, to cover their disloyal propensities to keep us in eternal vassalage to a foreign and unfriendly people.

         I salute you with assurances of great respect and esteem.

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