« PreviousContinue »
of debts, for the organization of the courts, and for the reform of the penal code. By the latter the death penalty for twenty-seven felonies was abolished, and by a later addition (1796) the barbarous features of the lex talionis were stricken from the Virginia code.
On the other hand, two projects of reform which Jefferson cherished equally with religious emancipation and the abolition of entails were doomed to utter defeat. Jefferson was a consistent antislavery man. When he entered the House of Burgesses in 1769, he tells us in his Memoir, his first act was an effort to secure the passage of a bill permitting masters to emancipate their slaves at will. We have seen how in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence he arraigned George III for his part in fixing slavery on the colony of Virginia. Now that Virginia was free from royal control he hoped his countrymen would abolish the evil entirely. But he was doomed to disappointment. The committee on revision refused to report a bill in favor of emancipation and would only agree to the form of an amendment to be offered to the legislature in case such a bill should be taken up. This singular amendment, unmistakably from Jefferson's pen, provided that the children born of slave mothers "should continue with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up at public expense, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniuses, till the females should be eighteen and the males twenty-one years of age”; then they should be sent out in colonies to some “proper place” la West Indian island] furnished with arms, live stock, seeds, tools, etc., by the government, and taken under the protection of the State until they were strong enough to care for themselves. This quixotic plan was never even debated. Writing nearly a half a century later, under the ominous peace of the Missouri Compromise, Jefferson says of his emancipation plan: “It was found that the public mind would not bear the proposition, nor will it bear it even to this day (1821). Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
1 A colonial statute of 1729 provided that no slave should be set free “on any pretence whatsoever, except for some meritorious services, to be adjudged and allowed by the Governor and Council.”
Another project which was dear to Jefferson's heart, but which the "public mind” of Virginia “would not yet bear," was a general system of education. The bills which he prepared on this subject at the request of his colleagues on the board of revisers called for the institution of primary and secondary schools all over the State. At the same time the College of William and Mary, whose curriculum was confined to theology, philosophy, and the classics, was to be enlarged into a State university with ample provision for history, modern languages, and applied mathematics and science. And finally the sum of two thousand pounds a year was to be set apart by the legislature for the establishment and maintenance of a free public library at Richmond
The education bills were not acted on until 1796, and then “only so much of the first as provided for elementary schools,” whose establishment was left optional with the courts of each county. Little was done, naturally, under this system of local option, for public education in Virginia. The piedmont counties were poor, and the large dissenting population in them was jealous of the supervision of overseers and visitors who were required by law to be churchmen. The tide-water counties were “aristocratic,” without any conviction of the necessity or expediency of educating the “lower classes” beyond their station. In spite of the defeat of his projects, however, Jefferson never lost a grain of his faith in the mission of education to ameliorate the condition of the people at large. Like the warning against the danger of perpetuating negro slavery, this other warning against the evils of an uneducated populace runs through his writings. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” he wrote to Charles Yancey in 1816, “it expects what never was and never will be.”
After he had done with the cares of office and returned to Monticello to spend the declining years of life, Jefferson bent his best energies to the creation of a State university which should be a model for institutions of higher learning throughout the land. The results of his efforts of a half a century in the cause of education were so important both for his own State and for the country at large that we shall return to the subject in a later chapter. Here we simply record the eventual triumph of the project. which failed so signally in the meagre legislation which the friends of education could wring from the Virginia Legislature before the nineteenth century.
Jefferson thought of the revision of the Virginia laws as a contribution to a definite social reform of the State, especially in the major bills on entail, primogeniture, religious freedom, and public education. Referring to them, he says in his Memoir : “I considered four of these bills, passed or reported, as forming a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of an antient or future aristocracy, and a foundation laid for a government truly republican.” We have seen that his program was only imperfectly realized. It was utopian in parts; it was everywhere boldly and bravely optimistic. It failed in many of its recommendations; but its significance is not finally in the success or failure of this or that particular bill. James Bryce, in his lecture on “ Jefferson and the Constitution,” says truly: "Jefferson's influence has been on the spirit of the people
and their attitude towards institutions rather than on the formation of institutions themselves." To the mind that finds it difficult to appreciate such imponderable influences, Jefferson seems like a dreamer dwelling in a fool's paradise of optimism or blocking the path of efficient government with exasperating political scruples. "He died as he had lived,” says Oliver, “in the odor of phrases.” That is the way principles appear to some minds.
Jefferson's work as a reformer of the laws and customs of old Virginia has been far too little noticed by his biographers. This lies partly, no doubt, in the comparative indifference of the Northern scholars who have written most of our histories to the development of local institutions in the South. “If Jefferson had done his [legal] work east of the Hudson or north of the Susquehanna," writes a member of the Virginia bar, "he would be rated far higher among the greatest legal •minds America has produced.” To my mind, however, the neglect of Jefferson as a legislator and reformer is due far more to the overemphasis of his work as a party organizer and politician. He is far better known as the antagonist of Hamilton than as the colleague of Wythe and Pendleton. And yet, while we may not allow a man to be the final judge of his own character, it is only fair to respect his estimate of his own accomplishments, especially when he makes that estimate calmly and reflectively at the end of a