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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

60 min

Students will:

  • appreciate Jefferson’s efforts to protect individual rights and human liberty
  • evaluate the importance of Jefferson’s contributions to the Founding
  • understand Jefferson’s views on the Constitution and a bill of rights
  • explain the apparent contradictions between Jefferson’s words and actions

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Thomas Jefferson.

    Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, served as governor of Virginia, as the first U.S. secretary of state, and as the third president of the United States. He also founded the University of Virginia. Jefferson was known as a champion of American and individual liberty. He took a leading role in opposing British policy toward the colonies in the 1760s and 1770s. After independence, he pushed for the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution. As a member of the Republican opposition in 1798, he wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, which declared that states had the right to disregard federal laws they found unconstitutional. As president, he purchased in 1803 the Louisiana Territory, which he believed would provide enough space so that Americans could live in liberty for “a thousand generations.”

Thomas Jefferson hoped that he would be remembered for three accomplishments: his founding of the University of Virginia, his crafting of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. It is for the last that he has most endeared himself to succeeding generations as a champion of liberty and equality.

Jefferson indeed believed that these achievements were the high points of a life dedicated to the promotion of human freedom. Education, he held, freed the mind from ignorance. Tolerance freed the will from coercion. And the assertion of human liberty and equality freed the body from the chains of tyranny.

But Jefferson’s actions sometimes contradicted his words. An opponent of centralized power, as president he completed the Louisiana Purchase and unhesitatingly employed the resources of the federal government to enforce the harsh and unpopular Embargo Act. A proponent of individual rights, he excused the atrocities committed by the French Revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror. A critic of slavery who outlawed the slave trade as president, he was the owner of more than 200 African Americans. The key to understanding Jefferson lies in the difficult task of reconciling these inconsistencies.

Have the students share their answers to Handout D. Ask them to consider whether Jefferson’s disapproval of certain clauses of the Constitution is justified.
Answers will vary.

  1. Have the students compose a bill of rights based on Jefferson’s wishes as expressed in the letter to Madison.
  2. Have the students assume the role of Jefferson. Tell them Madison has responded to his letter. Congress is willing to incorporate all but one of his suggestions into the Constitution, and they want him to choose which one to disregard. Have the students explain in a short essay which suggestion they believe Jefferson would be willing to give up and why.

On September 6, 1789, six months after the new government of the Constitution had been instituted, Jefferson, who was still in France, wrote again to James Madison, reflecting on the idea of constitutions and laws as follows:

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this side or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. . . . I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by any individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. . . .

What is true of every member of the society individually, is true of them collectively. . . . No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. . . . The constitution and the laws of their predecessors [are] extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. . . . Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years [Jefferson’s calculation of a generation]. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.

Source: Jefferson to Madison, September 6, 1789, in Merrill D. Peterson, ed. Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), 444–451.


  1. Students could make a list of what might happen if Jefferson’s proposal to have laws expire every nineteen years were adopted in the present-day United States.
  2. Students could make a list of what would happen if their school adopted Jefferson’s policy and re-wrote school rules every two years.

Student Handouts

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