Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826)
Jefferson wrote the original draft and was principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Representative democratic government owes its origin to Jefferson’s phrasing, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…’.
An empiricist and materialist, his personal letters reflected deist religious convictions. Critical of organized religion, he wrote, ‘I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies. Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man... perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind ... a mere contrivance (for the clergy) to filch wealth, and power, to themselves.’ Tolerant of the beliefs and nonbeliefs of others, however, he wrote, ‘It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.’
Challenging traditional relationship of church with state, he wrote, ‘State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Erecting the wall of separation between church and state, therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.’
Jefferson was strongly influenced by John Locke’s social contract theory. Jefferson believed a representative democracy required educated, self-sufficient citizens. An advocate of free public education, he envisioned a ‘natural aristocracy’ of ‘virtue and talents’ that would arise to preclude an ‘artificial aristocracy’ of ‘wealth and birth’.
Guided by truth, virtue, and the highest ethical principles, he wrote, ‘We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.’