Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in what is now Albemarle County, Virginia, and died at Monticello, Virginia, on July 4, 1826. Jefferson is best known as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as the third president of the United States. Two of his proudest accomplishments, which he memorialized on his gravestone, were founding the University of Virginia and authoring the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. In addition, Jefferson is widely cited for his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association expressing his views on separation of church and state.

Jefferson’s famous passages in the Declaration of Independence—that “all men are created equal” and that they enjoy “unalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—have been quoted by liberals and conservatives alike in cases ranging from equal protection of the law to substantive and procedural due process. His influence is apparent in the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which provide that no person shall be deprived of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

To Jefferson, education and government were inseparable. Self-government was the safeguard preventing tyranny, and the key to self-government was an enlightened, informed citizenry. He thought that a repressive government could deprive its citizens of their rights and liberties only if the people were ignorant. Jefferson believed that education of the common man was an essential prerequisite to preservation of a republican form of government. As president of the United States, Jefferson proposed an amendment to the Constitution to legalize federal support for education.

Jefferson envisioned an educational system beginning with grammar school and continuing through university. He strongly advocated free public education and urged the Virginia legislature to fund elementary and secondary schools. Although unsuccessful in this endeavor, Jefferson did secure funding for the creation of the University of Virginia. Insofar as Jefferson’s founding of the university fulfilled one of his greatest ambitions, he spent much of his later years designing its campus, organizing its administrative structure, and molding its curriculum. Many of Jefferson’s educational plans and ideas were later adopted and implemented by state legislatures and universities throughout the nation.

Thomas Jefferson’s most direct influence on the development of education law is in the area of First Amendment Establishment Clause jurisprudence. When attempting to ascertain the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers, proponents of strict separation of church and state look to Virginia history and the writings of Jefferson and James Madison. In 1784, when the Virginia Assembly introduced an Assessment Bill, which would have established a tax to provide funds in support of teachers of the Christian religion, Jefferson and Madison led the opposition to the bill. Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” denouncing the tax, is his most famous writing on the subject of separation of church and state. In 1786, after the defeat of the Assessment Bill, Madison secured passage of a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which had originally been introduced by Jefferson in 1779. Separationists argue that because the U.S. Bill of Rights is to a large extent modeled on the bill of rights in the Virginia constitution, great weight should be given to the Virginia experience.

Perhaps the language of Jefferson most cited in court decisions is his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which he stated that the First Amendment built a “wall of separation between church and state.” Jefferson’s famous phrase was first referenced by Justice Hugo Black in his opinion in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947) wherein the Supreme Court incorporated the Establishment Clause and applied it to the states.

Justice Black’s dictum has become embedded in American law. Yet, continuing questions have been raised concerning the relevancy of Jefferson’s metaphor and how it should be interpreted. Strict separationists argue that the wall should be high and impenetrable. Accommodationists contend that even if a wall of separation has been erected, it prohibits only the establishment of an official national religion, or it forbids the state from preferring one religion over another. Nondiscriminatory support by government for all religions, they maintain, is constitutionally permissible.

The sharpest attack on the use of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor came from Justice William Rehnquist in his dissenting opinion in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), wherein the Supreme Court struck down Alabama’s statute providing for a moment of silence for meditation or voluntary prayer. Rehnquist asserted that for almost 40 years since Everson, the Court had been misguided by a mistaken understanding of constitutional history. He pointed out that Jefferson was in France at the time the Bill of Rights was passed by Congress and ratified by the states, and that his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association was merely a short note of courtesy and not necessarily reflective his or the framers’ intent on the question of the proper relationship between religion and government.

Thomas Jefferson’s views on the role of the federal government, and particularly the role of the federal judiciary, were hotly contested during his lifetime and still debated today. His disputes with Alexander Hamilton, and later Chief Justice John Marshall, framed the national debate over issues such as states’ rights, national supremacy, and judicial review. Jefferson disagreed with Marshall’s pronouncement in Marbury v. Madison (1803) that the Supreme Court had the sole power to determine the constitutionality of laws enacted by Congress. Instead, he argued that each branch of government had a right to interpret questions of constitutionality. Moreover, he asserted that when the federal government assumed powers not granted to it by the Constitution, each state had a right to declare the action of the federal government unconstitutional.

The Court rejected much of Jefferson’s theory of constitutional interpretation in such cases as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Cooper v. Aaron (1958). Even so, throughout history, Jefferson’s criticisms of the Court have been echoed by presidents such as Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt and are still reiterated by opponents of so-called judicial activism.

Thomas Jefferson, paradoxically, has become the symbol of American ideals as well as the embodiment of personal frailties. Jefferson was an aristocrat with exquisite, expensive tastes who praised the virtues of the “common man.” A proponent of equality, he owned slaves. Polite, cordial, and civil in his public dealings, behind the scenes, he could be duplicitous and deceitful. Although he was a strict constructionist of the Constitution and a states’ rights advocate, by actions such as purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France, he expanded the powers of the presidency and the national government beyond their express constitutional boundaries. However, the great political and legal questions he raised are as pertinent today as they were 200 years ago. For example, it is unclear whether the No Child Left Behind Act is a worthy attempt to raise educational standards fostering a more educated citizenry or an improper interference by the federal government in an area, education, that is best reserved to the states.

Michael Yates

See also Establishment Clause; Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township; Marbury v. Madison; Wallace v. Jaffree

Further Readings

  • Ellis, J. J. (1997). American sphinx: The character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Knopf. 
  • Malone, D. (2006). Thomas Jefferson and his times (Vols. 1–6). Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 
  • Peterson, M. D. (Ed.). (1984). Thomas Jefferson: Writings. New York: Library of America. 

Legal Citations