Autobiography by Thomas Jefferson


Feb. 7. The acts of assembly concerning the College of Wm. & Mary, were
properly within Mr. Pendleton's portion of our work. But these related
chiefly to it's revenue, while it's constitution, organization and scope of
science were derived from it's charter. We thought, that on this subject a
systematical plan of general education should be proposed, and I was
requested to undertake it. I accordingly prepared three bills for the
Revisal, proposing three distinct grades of education, reaching all
classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor.
2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common
purposes of life, and such as would be desirable for all who were in easy
circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences
generally, & in their highest degree. The first bill proposed to lay off
every county into Hundreds or Wards, of a proper size and population for a
school, in which reading, writing, and common arithmetic should be taught;
and that the whole state should be divided into 24 districts, in each of
which should be a school for classical learning, grammar, geography, and
the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. The second bill proposed to
amend the constitution of Wm. & Mary College, to enlarge it's sphere of
science, and to make it in fact an University. The third was for the
establishment of a library. These bills were not acted on until the same
year '96. and then only so much of the first as provided for elementary
schools. The College of Wm. & Mary was an establishment purely of the
Church of England, the Visitors were required to be all of that Church; the
Professors to subscribe it's 39 Articles, it's Students to learn it's
Catechism, and one of its fundamental objects was declared to be to raise
up Ministers for that church. The religious jealousies therefore of all the
dissenters took alarm lest this might give an ascendancy to the Anglican
sect and refused acting on that bill. Its local eccentricity too and
unhealthy autumnal climate lessened the general inclination towards it. And
in the Elementary bill they inserted a provision which completely defeated
it, for they left it to the court of each county to determine for itself
when this act should be carried into execution, within their county. One
provision of the bill was that the expenses of these schools should be
borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his
general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor; and
the justices, being generally of the more wealthy class, were unwilling to
incur that burthen, and I believe it was not suffered to commence in a
single county. I shall recur again to this subject towards the close of my
story, if I should have life and resolution enough to reach that term; for
I am already tired of talking about myself.

The bill on the subject of slaves was a mere digest of the existing laws
respecting them, without any intimation of a plan for a future & general
emancipation. It was thought better that this should be kept back, and
attempted only by way of amendment whenever the bill should be brought on.
The principles of the amendment however were agreed on, that is to say, the
freedom of all born after a certain day, and deportation at a proper age.
But it was found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition,
nor will it bear it even at this day. 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. Nor is
it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same
government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction
between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of
emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the
evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu filled up by
free white laborers. If on the contrary it is left to force itself on,
human nature must shudder at the prospect held up. We should in vain look
for an example in the Spanish deportation or deletion of the Moors. This
precedent would fall far short of our case.

I considered 4 of these bills, passed or reported, as forming a system by
which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy; and
a foundation laid for a government truly republican. The repeal of the laws
of entail would prevent the accumulation and perpetuation of wealth in
select families, and preserve the soil of the country from being daily more
& more absorbed in Mortmain. The abolition of primogeniture, and equal
partition of inheritances removed the feudal and unnatural distinctions
which made one member of every family rich, and all the rest poor,
substituting equal partition, the best of all Agrarian laws. The
restoration of the rights of conscience relieved the people from taxation
for the support of a religion not theirs; for the establishment was truly
of the religion of the rich, the dissenting sects being entirely composed
of the less wealthy people; and these, by the bill for a general education,
would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to
exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government: and all this
would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any
one individual citizen. To these too might be added, as a further security,
the introduction of the trial by jury, into the Chancery courts, which have
already ingulfed and continue to ingulf, so great a proportion of the
jurisdiction over our property.

On the 1st of June 1779. I was appointed Governor of the Commonwealth and
retired from the legislature. Being elected also one of the Visitors of Wm.
& Mary college, a self-electing body, I effected, during my residence in
Williamsburg that year, a change in the organization of that institution by
abolishing the Grammar school, and the two professorships of Divinity &
Oriental languages, and substituting a professorship of Law & Police, one
of Anatomy Medicine and Chemistry, and one of Modern languages; and the
charter confining us to six professorships, we added the law of Nature &
Nations, & the Fine Arts to the duties of the Moral professor, and Natural
history to those of the professor of Mathematics and Natural philosophy.

Being now, as it were, identified with the Commonwealth itself, to write my
own history during the two years of my administration, would be to write
the public history of that portion of the revolution within this state.
This has been done by others, and particularly by Mr. Girardin, who wrote
his Continuation of Burke's history of Virginia while at Milton, in this
neighborhood, had free access to all my papers while composing it, and has
given as faithful an account as I could myself. For this portion therefore
of my own life, I refer altogether to his history. From a belief that under
the pressure of the invasion under which we were then laboring the public
would have more confidence in a Military chief, and that the Military
commander, being invested with the Civil power also, both might be wielded
with more energy promptitude and effect for the defence of the state, I
resigned the administration at the end of my 2d. year, and General Nelson
was appointed to succeed me.

Soon after my leaving Congress in Sep. '76, to wit on the last day of that
month, I had been appointed, with Dr. Franklin, to go to France, as a
Commissioner to negotiate treaties of alliance and commerce with that
government. Silas Deane, then in France, acting as agent2 for procuring
military stores, was joined with us in commission. But such was the state
of my family that I could not leave it, nor could I expose it to the
dangers of the sea, and of capture by the British ships, then covering the
ocean. I saw too that the laboring oar was really at home, where much was
to be done of the most permanent interest in new modelling our governments,
and much to defend our fanes and fire-sides from the desolations of an
invading enemy pressing on our country in every point. I declined therefore
and Dr. Lee was appointed in my place. On the 15th. of June 1781. I had
been appointed with Mr. Adams, Dr. Franklin, Mr. Jay, and Mr. Laurens a
Minister plenipotentiary for negotiating peace, then expected to be
effected thro' the mediation of the Empress of Russia. The same reasons
obliged me still to decline; and the negotiation was in fact never entered
on. But, in the autumn of the next year 1782 Congress receiving assurances
that a general peace would be concluded in the winter and spring, they
renewed my appointment on the 13th. of Nov. of that year. I had two months
before that lost the cherished companion of my life, in whose affections,
unabated on both sides, I had lived the last ten years in unchequered
happiness. With the public interests, the state of my mind concurred in
recommending the change of scene proposed; and I accepted the appointment,
and left Monticello on the 19th. of Dec. 1782. for Philadelphia, where I
arrived on the 27th. The Minister of France, Luzerne, offered me a passage
in the Romulus frigate, which I accepting. But she was then lying a few
miles below Baltimore blocked up in the ice. I remained therefore a month
in Philadelphia, looking over the papers in the office of State in order to
possess myself of the general state of our foreign relations, and then went
to Baltimore to await the liberation of the frigate from the ice. After
waiting there nearly a month, we received information that a Provisional
treaty of peace had been signed by our Commissioners on the 3d. of Sept.
1782. to become absolute on the conclusion of peace between France and
Great Britain. Considering my proceeding to Europe as now of no utility to
the public, I returned immediately to Philadelphia to take the orders of
Congress, and was excused by them from further proceeding. I therefore
returned home, where I arrived on the 15th. of May, 1783.

On the 6th. of the following month I was appointed by the legislature a
delegate to Congress, the appointment to take place on the 1st. of Nov.
ensuing, when that of the existing delegation would expire. I accordingly
left home on the 16th. of Oct. arrived at Trenton, where Congress was
sitting, on the 3d. of Nov. and took my seat on the 4th., on which day
Congress adjourned to meet at Annapolis on the 26th.

Congress had now become a very small body, and the members very remiss in
their attendance on it's duties insomuch that a majority of the states,
necessary by the Confederation to constitute a house even for minor
business did not assemble until the 13th. of December.

They as early as Jan. 7. 1782. had turned their attention to the monies
current in the several states, and had directed the Financier, Robert
Morris, to report to them a table of rates at which the foreign coins
should be received at the treasury. That officer, or rather his assistant,
Gouverneur Morris, answered them on the 15th in an able and elaborate
statement of the denominations of money current in the several states, and
of the comparative value of the foreign coins chiefly in circulation with
us. He went into the consideration of the necessity of establishing a
standard of value with us, and of the adoption of a money-Unit. He proposed
for the Unit such a fraction of pure silver as would be a common measure of
the penny of every state, without leaving a fraction. This common divisor
he found to be 1 - 1440 of a dollar, or 1 - 1600 of the crown sterling. The
value of a dollar was therefore to be expressed by 1440 units, and of a
crown by 1600. Each Unit containing a quarter of a grain of fine silver.
Congress turning again their attention to this subject the following year,
the financier, by a letter of Apr. 30, 1783. further explained and urged
the Unit he had proposed; but nothing more was done on it until the ensuing
year, when it was again taken up, and referred to a commee of which I was a
member. The general views of the financier were sound, and the principle
was ingenious on which he proposed to found his Unit. But it was too minute
for ordinary use, too laborious for computation either by the head or in
figures. The price of a loaf of bread 1 - 20 of a dollar would be 72.

A pound of butter 1 - 5 of a dollar 288. units.

A horse or bullock of 80. D value would require a notation of 6. figures,
to wit 115,200, and the public debt, suppose of 80. millions, would require
12. figures, to wit 115,200,000,000 units. Such a system of
money-arithmetic would be entirely unmanageable for the common purposes of
society. I proposed therefore, instead of this, to adopt the Dollar as our
Unit of account and payment, and that it's divisions and sub-divisions
should be in the decimal ratio. I wrote some Notes on the subject, which I
submitted to the consideration of the financier. I received his answer and
adherence to his general system, only agreeing to take for his Unit 100. of
those he first proposed, so that a Dollar should be 14 40 - 100 and a crown
16. units. I replied to this and printed my notes and reply on a flying
sheet, which I put into the hands of the members of Congress for
consideration, and the Committee agreed to report on my principle. This was
adopted the ensuing year and is the system which now prevails. I insert
here the Notes and Reply, as shewing the different views on which the
adoption of our money system hung. The division into dimes, cents & mills
is now so well understood, that it would be easy of introduction into the
kindred branches of weights & measures. I use, when I travel, an Odometer
of Clarke's invention which divides the mile into cents, and I find every
one comprehend a distance readily when stated to them in miles & cents; so
they would in feet and cents, pounds & cents, &c.

The remissness of Congress, and their permanent session, began to be a
subject of uneasiness and even some of the legislatures had recommended to
them intermissions, and periodical sessions. As the Confederation had made
no provision for a visible head of the government during vacations of
Congress, and such a one was necessary to superintend the executive
business, to receive and communicate with foreign ministers & nations, and
to assemble Congress on sudden and extraordinary emergencies, I proposed
early in April the appointment of a commee to be called the Committee of
the states, to consist of a member from each state, who should remain in
session during the recess of Congress: that the functions of Congress
should be divided into Executive and Legislative, the latter to be
reserved, and the former, by a general resolution to be delegated to that
Committee. This proposition was afterwards agreed to; a Committee
appointed, who entered on duty on the subsequent adjournment of Congress,
quarrelled very soon, split into two parties, abandoned their post, and
left the government without any visible head until the next meeting in
Congress. We have since seen the same thing take place in the Directory of
France; and I believe it will forever take place in any Executive
consisting of a plurality. Our plan, best I believe, combines wisdom and
practicability, by providing a plurality of Counsellors, but a single
Arbiter for ultimate decision. I was in France when we heard of this
schism, and separation of our Committee, and, speaking with Dr. Franklin of
this singular disposition of men to quarrel and divide into parties, he
gave his sentiments as usual by way of Apologue. He mentioned the Eddystone
lighthouse in the British channel as being built on a rock in the
mid-channel, totally inaccessible in winter, from the boisterous character
of that sea, in that season. That therefore, for the two keepers employed
to keep up the lights, all provisions for the winter were necessarily
carried to them in autumn, as they could never be visited again till the
return of the milder season. That on the first practicable day in the
spring a boat put off to them with fresh supplies. The boatmen met at the
door one of the keepers and accosted him with a How goes it friend? Very
well. How is your companion? I do not know. Don't know? Is not he here? I
can't tell. Have not you seen him to-day? No. When did you see him? Not
since last fall. You have killed him? Not I, indeed. They were about to lay
hold of him, as having certainly murdered his companion; but he desired
them to go up stairs & examine for themselves. They went up, and there
found the other keeper. They had quarrelled it seems soon after being left
there, had divided into two parties, assigned the cares below to one, and
those above to the other, and had never spoken to or seen one another

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