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Thomas Jefferson

Revolutionary Leader

In the colonial house of burgesses Jefferson was (1769–75) a leader of the patriot faction. He was a founding member of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, and in A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), prepared for the First Virginia Convention, he brilliantly expounded the view that Parliament had no authority in the colonies and that the only bond with England was voluntary allegiance to the king. Although never an effective public speaker, he won a reputation as a draftsman of resolutions and addresses.

A delegate to the Second Continental Congress (1775–76), he served as a member of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. That document, except for minor alterations by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and some others made on the floor of Congress, was wholly the work of Jefferson. In spirit it reflects his debt to English political theorists, particularly John Locke, and to French and other continental philosophers.

Jefferson returned to the Virginia legislature in the hope of being able to translate his ideals into reality in the establishment of a new state government. He urged the abolition of entail and primogeniture to prevent the continuance of an aristocracy; both practices were abolished, although primogeniture existed until 1785. His bill for establishing religious freedom, grounded in the belief that a person's opinions cannot be coerced, was not successful until 1786, when James Madison was able to carry part of the Jeffersonian program to completion.

In 1779, Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as governor of Virginia. He served through the trying last years of the American Revolution when Virginia was invaded by the British, and, hampered by lack of financial and military resources, experienced great difficulty. His conduct as governor was investigated in 1781, but he was completely vindicated.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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