ePub 版

the youngest man but one, in the session of '76. The example is without a parallel in the personal annals of the world. We have been restrained by our design, to the capital and distinguishing points in his course. The minor features of his service, while engaged in conducting the general administration, were proportioned to the same standard; but they are shorn of all interest by the overshadowing importance, which attaches to his gigantic chef de' ouvres in the sphere of Revolution. In the multiplied operations of a subordinate character, which engaged the attention of the House, he sustained a corresponding prominency. To estimate the extent of his labors, it is only necessary to turn over the journals of Congress. In constituting the committees of importance it was the policy, in general, to put Virginia at the head; and the effect of this policy was to throw him into the situation of Chairman, unusually often. No member, probably, served on more committees, or executed a greater amount of business, in proportion to his term of service, than he did. The union of uncommon practical facility, with peculiar theoretical acuteness and propensity, is an anomoly in the constitution of man. It is proverbial, however, that he displayed "an aptitude no less original and surprising in the ordinary details of legislation, than in the high concerns of an abstract and metaphysical nature, which were committed to him. The retirement of Mr. Jefferson from a stage of action, on which he had performed such prodigies of Revolution, in the zenith of human popularity and power, and at the first crisis of Independence, may appear unaccountable, with the lights already in possession of the reader. The causes which he assigned, seem clearly disproportioned to the effect, reasoning from all analogy, applicable to himself alone, or the human character generally; and compel us to resort to more competent aids of revelation, for a satisfactory solution of the mystery. The predominant motive, which dictated his resignation, but which his modesty would not permit him to urge to the Convention, is found inserted among his private “Mem: oranda. It is alike curious and honorable. He says: “The new government (in Virginia) was now organized; a meeting of the Legislature was to be held in October, and I had been elected a member by my county. I knew that our legislation, under the regal government, had "gy very vicious points which urgently required reformation; and I thought I could be of more use in forwarding that work. I therefore retired from my seat in Congress,” &c. The whole secret of the transaction is here unveiled, and is singularly in unison with the reigning attribute of his character. Those who recollect the irrepressible anxiety which he felt for Wirginia, while in the crisis of her transition from the monarchical to the republican state, and the severe contribution which he made upon his own industry, towards securing the greatest practicable measure of freedom and liberality in the act, will be impressed with the admirable coincidence of purpose, which influenced his present determination. The new government in the first province of free empire, was now fairly put in motion ; and he felt an invincible desire to participate in the measures of the first republican Legislature under it. Every thing, he conceived, depended upon the stamp of political unction that should be impressed upon the new institutions of a State government, which was to set the example in the career of republican legislation, and which constituted so influential a member of the incipient confederacy. The principles of her present code were incompatible with the enjoyment of any considerable benefits under the change of Administration, and required a fundamental revision and reduction to a consistent standard. The English common law, with its odious and despotic refinements of feudal origin, was in full force; many of the British statutes, of the most obnoxious character, still binding upon them; the Virginia statutes themselves scarcely less aristocratic, and hostile to well-regulated liberty; presenting, in all, an unwieldy and vicious pile of legislation, civil and religious, which, in the mind of the political redeemer of men, embra. ced stronger attractions, and more imperious urgencies, than the scene which he had just immortalized with his labours. To have descended from an eminence in Congress, which placed him indisputably at the helm of the Revolution, to the subordinate station of representative to the municipal Assembly, was an act of magnanimous patriotism, of which history furnishes few examples. But he was impressed with the necessity of carrying into action, upon the generous flood of the national enthusiasm, all the sound principles which he meditated securing in the effort of emancipation; and now he thought was the propitious moment for commencing the enterprise.

“The spirit of the times,” he said “may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may become persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right, on a legal basis, is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.”

With the special design, therefore, of heading, in person, the great work of political regeneration, which he had sketched for his country, and for mankind, he early signified his determination to relinquish his station in the National Councils; and was instantly thereupon elected to a seat in the Legislature of Virginia.

Before following him into that body, however, the order of time requires us to notice a singular mark of distinction conferred on him by Congress. He had been absent from Philadelphia but a few days, before he received the appointment of Commissioner to France, in conjunction with Dr. Franklin, to negotiate treaties of alliance and commerce with that government. Silas Dean, then in France, acting as agent for procuring military supplies, and for sounding the dispositions of the government towards us, was joined with them in the commission. The appointment was made on the last day of September, 1776. Greater importance was attached to the successful issue of the transaction, than to any other that had yet been meditated. The prevailing object of declaring Independence, had been to secure the countenance and assistance of foreign Powers; and towards France,—chivalrous, highminded France,—whose friendship and co-operation appeared the most likely to be obtained, the hopes of the country were undividedly directed.

If any thing could mark more unequivocally, the respect of Congress for the abilities of Mr. Jefferson, as manifested by this appointment, it was the fact of their having associated a young man of thirty-three, with a venerable philosopher of seventy, then the most distinguished civil character in America.

But the same reasons which influenced his retirement from Congress, induced him to decline accepting the foreign station also, as appears by the following letter addressed to the President of Congress.

- “Williamsburg, October 11, 1776.

“Honorable Sir, Your favor of the 30th, together with the resolutions of Congress, of the 26th ultimo, came safe to hand. It would argue great insensibility in me, could I receive with indifference, so confidential an appointment from your body. My thanks are a poor return for the partiality they have been pleased to entertain for me. No cares for my own person, nor yet for my private affairs, would have induced one moment's hesitation to accept the charge. But circumstances very peculiar in the situation of my family, such as neither permit me to leave, nor to carry it, compel me to ask leave to decline a service so honorable, and, at the same time, so important to the American cause. The necessity under which I labor, and the conflict I have undergone for three days, during which I could not determine to dismiss your messenger, will, I hope, plead my pardon with Congress ; and I am sure there are too many of that body to whom they may with better hopes confide this charge, to leave them under a moment's difficulty in making a new choice. I am, sir, with the most sincere attachment to your honorable body, and the great cause they support, their and your most obedient, humble servant. .

But a more adequate and interesting revelation of his motives, than is contained in the above letter, is found among his private Memoranda. After repeating the domestic causes already stated, he says: “I saw, too, that the laboring oar was really at home, where much was to be dome, of the most permanent interest, in new-modelling our governments, and much to defend our fanes and firesides, 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.”

[ocr errors]


Mr. Jefferson took his seat in the Legislature of Virginia, on the 7th of October, 1776, the opening day of the session. The first ob. ject of reform, which arrested the attention of his enquiring mind, was the Judiciary System ; the organization of which, upon the broad basis of reason and common sense, struck him as a measure of superlative importance. Besides being indispensable, in great part, to meet the external revolution of the government, such a scheme of improvement, was eminently calculated to attach the popular bias to the new order of things, which should always be the first business of the Reformer. In the French Revolution, for instance, the principle of a la mode simply, which arranged all the handsome young women on the side of democracy, was an engine of more power in that Nation, than the two hundred thousand men of the King. But the potent enthusiasm of new opinions, will subside with the novelty of them, and expire in a more potent revulsion, unless fortified by the gradual attainment of such real advantages as are competent to satisfy the reasonable anticipations of the adherent multitude. No man had studied, with more fidelity, the operations of the human mind, or knew how to control them with more certainty and effect, than Mr. Jefferson. He was less adapted than many others, to raise the tempest, but no one was better fitted to ride on, and direct it. He was clearly the magician of the age in this way; and the secret of his power lay in his mode of exerting and applying it. The cherishment of the people was the vital principle of his policy, and the spring of his unprecedented success. The object, which he was now about to forward, was an eminent illustration of this wise policy. The administration of justice, is a subject of profound and universal concernment. It comes home to the “business and bosoms of men.' The measure which should engraft it, in sound and judicious forms, upon the infant body politic, would be an example of disinterested reform, that would concentrate, at once, the energies of popular favor.

On the 11th of October, therefore, he obtained leave to bring in a Bill for the establishment of Courts of Justice. The proposition

« 上一頁繼續 »