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What was his environment? First, he was a Virginian and a planter. Secondly, he was a frontiersman, because Albemarle County, when he was growing up, was still a frontier country. The county settled very rapidly, but still, during the formative period of Thomas Jefferson's life, his environment was a frontier environment. The life he lived later was that of an independent country gentleman. Thus from both sources individuality was the first and necessary product of his life and of the lives of those about him; its chief and indispensable lesson being a reliance on one's own intellect, initiative, and resources; from which proceeded an absolute contempt for authority and precedent — merely as such.
Much has been said about Jefferson's being influenced by Rousseau's “Contrat Social.” The idea of a social contract being at the base of government — a compact of the people amongst themselves — was ingrained in his thought and in the thought of all those around him, but it was not from reading. Jefferson never read Rousseau until long after his own political opinions had been formed. Indeed if he read him at all, I can find no trace of it. On the frontier people got this idea of government resting on compact because it was a fact of their lives. First one settler, then half a dozen, then a score would move into a neighborhood beyond the support of old settlements, and then naturally the neighbors would some day gather, and after they had chatted about the crops, about getting a teacher if they could, and about a place for the itinerant preacher to "hold forth” when he came, they would take up the question of the establishment of a practical local government; the selection of somebody before whom neighborhood differences should be argued and by whom they should be settled — by analogy of English law, a "justice of the peace” – the selection of somebody who should pursue horse thieves, or other criminals, arrest and bring them in for trial — by analogy of English law, a “constable” — the selection of somebody to correspond with the legislature to secure the organization of a new county, so that they might have a local board to lay out roads, designate ferries, etc., and so that they might have representation in the State legislative body; but preceding all, where and how and under what leadership they should meet for defence against the Indians, when needful. All of these things were done in America in each neighborhood, by a “compact” of the people with one another. This each frontiersman's son learned, with his other A B Cs, on his father's knee, as a part of the usual political experience of the American people.
JEFFERSON THE REVOLUTIONIST
1. IN AMERICA I TAKE it that the influence of our independence has permanently affected our institutions and that our revolutionary principles are the informing spirit of them; therefore, that Jefferson's acts and words as a revolutionist come within the scope of this inquiry.
Jefferson became of age in 1764. Before that, he had become attached to the cause of American freedom. Soon, nobody was more decided, none more radical, in opposition to the British policy towards the colonies than he.
In a letter to William Wirt, with his good sense and canny tact, he says: “Sensible, however, of the importance of unanimity among our constituents, although we often wished to go faster, we slackened our pace that our less ardent colleagues might keep up with us; and they, on their part, differing nothing from us in principle, quickened their gait somewhat beyond that which their prudence might of itself have advised, and thus consolidated the phalanx, which breasted the power of Britain. By this harmony of the bold with the cautious, we advanced with our constituents in undivided mass and with fewer examples” (in Virginia) “of separation than perhaps existed in any other part of the Union.”
In his biography he uses this language, concerning the origin of the committees of correspondence: —
"We were all sensible that the most urgent of all measures was that of coming to an understanding with all the other colonies to consider the British claims as a common cause to all and to produce a unity of action; and for this purpose that a committee of correspondence in each colony would be the best instrument for intercommunication: and that their first measure would probably be to propose a meeting of deputies for every colony, at some central place, who should be charged with the direction of measures which should be taken by all. I, therefore, drew up the resolutions which may be seen in Wirt, page 67.”
The resolutions to which he refers designate a standing committee of intercolonial correspondence and inquiry.
There has been some contention about which colony first organized the committees of correspondence. Bancroft has it about right when he says, “Massachusetts organized a province, Virginia promoted a confederacy. Were the several committees but to come together, the world would see an American Congress.”
Senator Lodge, in the History of Nations Series, Volume 23, is one of the few historians who gives due weight to the committees of correspondence and safety, as provisional governments. He calls them very aptly, “a system of revolutionary machinery.”
Much of this committee government was secret and constitutes lost pages of our history.
The real truth is that a Union for the colonies was effected with the inauguration of the intercolonial correspondence committees. They constituted as purely a revolutionary group of bodies as did the com
mittees of public safety and the other committees, formed partially in imitation of them, during the French revolutionary period. It was the American committees of safety, which suggested an example for the Ku Klux Klan in the South later in its history — both acting with a perfect secrecy, which thus far even has never been fully unveiled. By virtue of this self-constituted authority, men threw the tea overboard in Boston harbor and persuaded, coerced, or intimidated consignees in other American ports to refuse to receive any such consignments.
A more perfectly enigmatic Ku Klux announcement was never made than that of John Rowe, when — the people of Boston having exhausted all peaceful and legal means to prevent the Governor from granting a pass, which would enable the ship laden with tea to clear the harbor under the guns of the castle — he asked: “Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?” Then, Fiske recites that, “amidst profound stillness," Samuel Adams arose and said, quietly, but distinctly, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” This was the signal upon which the Massachusetts committees ceased by public utterance to direct the movement and when, in some agreed way, there came about the secret movement by disguised men. The “Mohawk Indians," hastening to the wharf, taking possession of the ship, unloaded its cargo into the sea.
Too much importance cannot be attached to the Revolutionary committees of correspondence; first, for making and keeping a united front between the towns in Massachusetts, upon the motion of Samuel Adams,