Requests for Information Related to Thomas Jefferson



> I have one rather concrete question concerning Jefferson at the moment,
> exactly one week before our presentation is due to take place: Who were the
> liberalist thinkers that Jefferson was most influenced by, was that someone
> like Thomas Paine, John Locke etc.? Where should I look for this kind of
> information, or can you help me out with this? The point is that I need to
> put Jefferson's life and work in the context of liberalist ideas before and
> after his time.

Jefferson rarely, if ever, referenced specific ideas of his to previous
thinkers.  My sense of the way his mind worked was that he read widely
and absorbed deeply, but he made it all his own possession, taking and
modifying the parts he liked, and deleting the parts that did not suit
him.  Which, if you think about it, is the way any independent intellect
functions.  In a letter to Henry Lee, dated May 8, 1825, he describes the
sources for the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, which, after
all, contained the essence of his political philosophy.  In this letter
(the entire one and on-half page letter is in the Library of America
volume of Jefferson's Writings, pg. 1500), he wrote:

was the object of the Declaration of Independence.  Not to find out
new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely
to say things which had never been said before; but to place before
mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm
as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the
independent stand we are compelled to take.  Neither aiming at
originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any
particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression
of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone
and spirit called for by the occasion.  All its authority rests then
on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in
conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books
of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c."

In addition to the persons cited above, one would need to include
Montesquieu, from whom he copied much into his Commonplace Book.  Gary
Wills, in his book, "Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of
Independence," proposes the Scottish moral philosopher Hutcheson, as a
source for some of the exact words in the Declaration.  But as you can
judge from the above quotation, the influences were innumerable and
almost self-integrating, resulting in a consistent philosophy that
covered the subject broadly and brilliantly -- something I am trying to
present in my website, "Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government."  That
website presents 1800+ excerpts from Jefferson's writings, yet I think it
offers a consistent philosophy, not a hodge-podge of ideas.  But they are
Jefferson's ideas, because I endeavored to include ALL of his significant
statements in the area, my job being merely (or I should say "merely" in
quotes, because it was truly the most difficult part of the project) to
organize them, not to eliminate inconsistencies (which seem to be
non-existent, IMO).

Except as one of the multitude of voices making up the common sentiment,
I don't think Jefferson was particularly influenced by Thomas Paine.
Others, such as James Wilson and George Mason, wrote things that seemed
to be merely reworded by Jefferson.  Yet, as I mentioned above, Jefferson
never seemed to acknowledge his sources and it is difficult to say who
got what from whom.  If you read Rayner's "Life of Jefferson," which I
have put on the web at the following address:

you come away with the impression that Jefferson was the instigator of
the entire top-to-bottom reconstruction of the American republic, that he
initiated major revisals of the law in Virginia that were then copied by
the other states, and that he was continually at the very cutting edge of
the movement that eventually led to independence.  Of course, Rayner was
not the only writer to take that view.  Jefferson's revisal of the laws
of Virginia, as Willard Sterne Randall states, "became a model for other
states and the pattern after which the federal republic of the United
States was modeled.  Jefferson, in short, in his legal laboratory atop
Monticello, invented the United States of America." (Thomas Jefferson: A
Life, pg. 306)

Perhaps Jefferson could be compared to J.S. Bach, who summarized, in a
sense, the music of an entire age and gave it it's highest expression.
Jefferson creatively summarized the progressive sentiments of an entire
age, and in the Declaration *and* in his other writings, especially his
letters, gave the highest and most brilliant expression of the meaning,
and for the cause, of liberty and the rights of man.

> I am an online middle and high school tutor. The > past two > days I have been reviewing your web site on Thomas Jefferson and find it > quite fascinating. While carefully studying this information, I wondered if > Jefferson's moral > and political views were somewhat influenced by literary giants such as > Locke, > and Milton. If this is the case is there any documented evidence? It is always somewhat speculative to identify who or what may have influenced another person. Jefferson considered Locke one of the three towering geniuses of all time (the others, Bacon and Newton), though he rarely referred to him directly, except to note that the principles of the Founding Fathers were derived from those set forth by Locke and several other writers. Jefferson rarely referred to Milton, and not at all as the source of political principles that I am aware of. Still, it is possible to trace great similarities between some of Milton's writings and the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence. The chief influence on Jefferson's moral principles seems to have been Jesus, and Jefferson certainly wrote much about his high regard for the latter's teachings. See his "Jefferson Bible" at the following website:


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