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Thomas Jefferson

From 1743
 to 1826

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most eminent men of an exceptionally eminent generation. He was handsome, articulate, vigorous, and a steadfast friend. He was also an accomplished scientist, farmer, and architect. His massive library formed the core of the Library of Congress's new collection after the first was lost in the burning of Washington in the War of 1812. It could perhaps be said that when one thinks of America, one thinks of Jefferson.

Jefferson was born April 13, 1743, on a plantation on the Rivanna River in Virginia. He attended College of William and Mary; afterwards, he studied English common law. His political career began in 1768, when he was twenty-five. In his public life he served as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses, Virginia Convention, Continental Congress, Confederation Congress, as well as Governor of Virginia, Minister of Finance, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President of the United States. But of all these accomplishments of an accomplished life, near his death Jefferson chose as his epitaph, “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”

Jefferson was a deist, common for men of learning of his time. According to one commentator, he “rejected the Trinity, scoffed at the miracles recorded in the Bible, and commented that Jesus suffered from a delusion if he truly thought he was the son of God.” However, men of faith of the time could find common cause with Jefferson because he, like others of the Founding generation, understood that there is fundamental agreement between the moral precepts of human reason and those of revealed religion. In other words, political life is to be founded on natural right, and this doctrine of natural right forms the basis of Jefferson's arguments in such documents as the Declaration and the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty - arguments that have since ignited the fires of freedom around the globe. In Jefferson's words: “The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the 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 for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.”

Sources: Public and Private Papers by Thomas Jefferson (Vintage Books, 1990), and The Politics of Reason and Revelation by John G. West, Jr. (University Press of Kansas, 1996).