Thomas Jefferson and the People's Government
by Frank Shuffelton
For more than 200 years, people of diverse — and
opposing-political leanings have professed Thomas Jefferson to be one of their own, the embodiment of their beliefs. For example, Jefferson has been claimed by liberals and conservatives alike. More recently, libertarians have pointed to Jefferson's letter to Sam Kercheval in July of 1816. "The true foundation of republican government," Jefferson wrote, "is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property, and in their management." (Thomas Jefferson: Political Writings, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 212). Kercheval, a resident of Winchester, Virginia, had been agitating for a convention to write a new state constitution, and he felt sure he would gain the support of Jefferson, who had been trying to give Virginia a new constitution since 1776.
Jefferson's response to Kercheval in 1816 outlined the necessity of "ward republics," small units of local government, within Virginia's existing counties. The counties were too large for direct participation of all the voters, thought Jefferson, but dividing the counties into "wards of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person … will relieve the county administration of nearly all its business, will have it better done, and by
making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its republican constitution." (Political Writings, 213)
Furthermore, since Jefferson thought that such ward republics, among their other functions, should elect jurors, these units of local government would act as a restraint on the judicial as well as the legislative and executive
branches of government.
The so-called "liberal, conservative, or libertarian Jefferson" might seem to be just another of the many contradictions that he supposedly embodies, but these Jeffersons are perhaps less contradictory than they seem: for behind each position is a political thinker and statesman who is confident in the ability of ordinary men and women to govern themselves as citizens of a nation.
Jefferson strongly believed that liberty could only be preserved by a knowledgeable people willing to act on the basis of their reason and morality. As he wrote from France to a Virginia correspondent, "Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you & I, & Congress & Assemblies, judges & governors shall all become wolves." (Political Writings, 153) If a republican government had a responsibility to be open about its affairs with the citizens, it therefore had another responsibility as well: to provide for their education, for the acquisition of knowledge that would enhance their natural powers of judgment and moral sense.
Between 1776 and 1779 Jefferson served on the "Committee of Revisors" with George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton to revise Virginia's laws. He is most remembered for his authorship of the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, and when in France he later informed Wythe that the law on religious freedom was "extremely applauded." But he went on to say, "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge
among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness … Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the people." (Political Writings, 251)
Jefferson's Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge  was never passed in the form he proposed-in fact, only well into the nineteenth century did Virginia set up a system of mandatory common schools — but he continued
to campaign for public education as the safeguard of republican citizenship. One of the crowning achievements of his life was the University of Virginia whose ultimate object was to form its students "to the habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves." (Political Writings, 300)
When we look closely at Jefferson's 1779 education bill and his later plan for the
University (1818), we notice a number of interesting features.
The 1779 bill proposed a three-tiered system of public education from primary schools, through what we would know as high schools, and finally to college. Because the College of William and Mary already existed, the Bill focused on the primary and secondary levels. Jefferson's Bill proposed that each county would be divided into "hundreds … so as that they may contain a convenient number of children to make up a school, and be of such convenient size that all the children within each hundred may daily attend the school to be established therein." Jefferson's deliberate use of the term "hundreds" echoes the Anglo-Saxon term for such a political sub-division because he along with many of his contemporaries believed that English liberties-and by extension American liberties-were rooted in Anglo-Saxon political life. Moreover, in these "hundreds" we see the origins of Jefferson's later conception of "ward republics," political units so small that "every citizen, can attend, when called on, and act in person." (Political Writings, 212) Just as the schools were envisioned as a tiered system, so the ward republics were the smallest, most intimate scenes of political life and the basis for state republics and the national republic.
Jefferson's ward republics turn out to be an expanded version of his earlier "school hundreds," reconceived now as sites in which adults can practice citizenship as the unbounded use of reason.
His theory of ward republics evolved in parallel with his concern for an enlightened citizenry; recognizing the affinity between Jefferson's ideas for education in Virginia and his plan for a tier of republics with the system of local governments supporting it all, we discover that his scheme may not be so utopian after all.
If government in the United States has evolved in directions contrary to Jefferson's wishes, at least his dream of local political life still survives in our
school systems. Perhaps to truly understand the role of Jeffersonian liberty in our society we need to look more closely at the political implications of his ideas about schools. The idea of the ward republic, that bastion of local government and face-to-face politics, is certainly a central expression of his confidence in an enlightened people — but it is also the ground upon which young Americans would first exercise their reason in the interest of citizenship.
Frank Shuffelton is a
member of The Jefferson Legacy Foundation Board of Directors and professor in the department of English and American Literature at the University of Rochester. This article is based on lectures sponsored by the JLF and the Vermont Humanities Council, which he presented at Chimney Point and Old Constitution House State Historic Sites.
Thomas L. Benson Assumes JLF Presidency
The Jefferson Legacy Foundation is delighted to announce the unanimous election of JLF Board Director Thomas L. Benson to President. President Emeritus Clarence W. Leeds, III, has been named Vice-Chairman. Look for a complete profile of Tom Benson in the next issue of News and Comment as well as on our web site (www.jeffersonlegacy.org.)
Jefferson & Adams Draws Raves in VT and VA
The Jefferson Legacy Foundation was proud to present a dramatic production of Howard Ginsberg's stage play, Jefferson & Adams, to audiences in Colonial Williamsburg and Middlebury, Vermont in Summer 2002.
As described in a past issue of News and Comment, the JLF first co-produced Jefferson & Adams at the newly restored Kimball Theatre in Colonial Williamsburg as a costumed reading in October 2001. It traveled there once again for three performances (as a full production) in July 2002 before more than 1,000 people, receiving standing ovations.
We were privileged to received the following note from a member of the audience in Williamsburg: "I have just joined
your wonderful organization, and I had to write to tell you that my husband and I were privileged to see last night the fabulous production you sponsored, Jefferson & Adams. We live in Williamsburg and feel so fortunate to be able to experience so many of the terrific programs and productions at Colonial Williamsburg. The play we saw last night is one of the finest we have ever seen! [The actors] were superlative! What a fabulous way to learn history!
I sat in the audience wishing that every single person in our country could see this play and learn about the relationship between these extraordinary leaders! How blessed was our young country to have these men to guide and mold it. Thank you for all you are doing to educate our citizens about Thomas Jefferson and the incredible legacy he left for us."
The JLF was delighted to then bring a production of Jefferson & Adams to its own backyard in Middlebury, Vermont in
With both shows sold out a week before the performances, we were extremely gratified by the interest and enthusiasm that greeted the production, including three curtain calls on opening night. The Town Hall Theater provided a wonderfully intimate setting for actors and audience alike. A member of the audience wrote, "Sunday evening my wife and I were treated to a great evening at the theater. The production of Jefferson & Adams was the most inspiring and moving piece I've seen in years. It certainly won't soon be forgotten. Thank you for the part that you played in bringing it to Middlebury."
Jefferson & Adams tells the story of the turbulent 50-year friendship through the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Abigail Adams.
The play focuses on both the intersections and divergences in their lives and beliefs from their work together at the Continental Congress until the year of their deaths. The two summer productions were directed by Douglas Anderson and featured Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson, Sam Goodyear as John Adams, and Abigail Schumann as Abigail Adams.
The United States is facing its most challenging tests at this time. We are asking ourselves what we stand for, where our national
character is rooted, what we aspire to perpetuate and preserve.
Jefferson & Adams provides two hours of thought-provoking and stimulating awareness of America as a nation and America as a people. The JLF is seeking significant funding to bring the play to a wider audience through grants, private contributions, and corporate sponsorship. Venues include historic and restored theaters throughout the country. Jefferson & Adams is an extraordinary vehicle with which to further our mission and is assuming a significant role as part of the JLF's outreach programs to encourage civic responsibility. It is an inspiring example of the two great minds of American independence.
A Letter from the Chairman
With record-low voter turnout in the election behind us, we would like to bring your attention to this issue's feature article, "Thomas Jefferson and the People's Government," by Frank Shuffelton, along with former U.S. Senator Gary Hart's new book, Restoration of the Republic:
The Jeffersonian Ideal in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2002). Each examines Thomas Jefferson's vision of free society, offering the most timely and relevant treatment of that vision ever published. For Jefferson, free society is more than just citizen rights. It is about the responsibilities that accompany those rights — the responsibility of informed participation.
As America debates the troubling aftermath of 9/11, Hart and Shuffelton succeed in identifying what has
been called "the revolutionary tradition and its lost treasure" - the town meeting system of self-government — and the failure to incorporate this system into our constitutional framework. This failure was a direct result of Shays Rebellion in 1786, an event which caused fears of anarchy and violence. In response to those fears, the United States adopted an elaborate check and balance scheme based on representation.
Hart's book and Shuffelton's article focus on this
tragic oversight in our political development, and they re-establish Jefferson as the primary exponent for a public space where the voice of the whole people can be, as Jefferson said, "fairly, fully, and peacefully expressed, discussed, and decided by the common reason of society."
Jefferson believed that violence could be avoided by creating, along with public education, a place for a redress of grievances. A place, he thought, where citizens could be "participator[s] in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day."
Jefferson's vision of republican government has profound implications for the 21st century, and both Hart and Shuffelton deserve high praise for identifying and bringing focus to the
central legacy of Thomas Jefferson.
Sydney N. Stokes, Jr., Chairman
JLF Publishes Broadsides
The Jefferson Legacy Foundation has published a set of three Broadsides representing Thomas Jefferson's "triple faith" in self-government, religious freedom, and education. The Broadsides
are: The Declaration of American Independence, 1776; the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, 1777; and Goals for Public Education, 1778/1818. Jefferson intended these documents to serve as instruments by which people live in free society. Please call us for more information or visit our web site.
- JLF Chairman Chip Stokes and the JLF Library were featured in a lengthy Associated Press interview by reporter Krista Larson that ran in newspapers across the country on the Fourth of July. As a result, we received many e-mails, phone calls, and letters from people interested in learning more about our mission.
- The JLF co-sponsored
(along with the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia) an Evening Conversation at Monticello in July. Guest speaker Ted Koppel provided a fascinating and illuminating evening of discussion.
- Hardly slowing down long enough to celebrate his 80th birthday, Norman Lear is spearheading the Declaration of Independence Road Trip-a three-and-a-half-year cross country tour which began
on July 3, 2001 to rekindle a "connection to country" in Americans of all ages. Lear's presentation illustrates the "cherished values and ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence that laid the foundation for personal freedoms and individual rights." Bringing the multi-media presentation (which includes one of only 25 known original Declaration of Independence broadsides) to towns and cities across America, Lear wants to inspire participation in free society-to
"get Americans to their feet." For more information visit www.independenceroadtrip.org
- The JLF was delighted to welcome Natalie Bober, distinguised historian and author, in October. We were also happy to again host Thomas Jefferson Foundation Librarian Jack Robertson in August, in town to attend Frank Shuffelton's lecture at Chimney Point (see related article).
- The JLF presented the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation with a Declaration of Independence broadside (see related article) on the occasion of "Old Home Day" at the site. Founding Father interpeters (Bill Barker as Jefferson, Bill Sommerfield as Washington, and Jim Cooke as Coolidge) participated in a roundtable discussion on such topics as democracy, independence, and governance.
- The JLF had a rewarding year with its outreach program. In April, 200 children, parents, and teachers attended our birthday for Thomas Jefferson, featuring an appearance by the Thomas Jefferson Lady; in June, we brought Colonial Williamsburg's Bill Barker to the Vermont History Expo, where a standing-room-only crowd enjoyed his interpretation of Thomas Jefferson; then we presented two productions of Jefferson &
Adams (see related article); our exhibit, 1791: Thomas Jefferson & James Madison in Vermont, was mounted in two historic Vermont venues throughout the summer, complemented by lectures by Board member Frank Shuffelton; we had a third successful summer in the Community Garden; and, finally, we are helping local schools commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition with the distribution of Monticello's poster series and teacher's guide.