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Mr. Jefferson came of age in 1764. He had scarcely arrived at his majority, when he was placed in the nomination of Justices for the county in which he lived; and at the first election following. was chosen one of its Representatives to the Legislature.
He took his seat in that body in May, 1769, and distinguished himself at once, by an effort of philanthropy, to which the steady liberalization of sixty years has not brought up the tone of public sentiment; at least, so far as to reconcile the major will to the personal sacrifices which it involves. The moral intrepidity that could prompt him, a new member, and one of the youngest in the House, to rise from his seat, with the composure of a martyr, and propose, amidst a body of inexorable planters, a bill “for the permission of the Emancipation of Slaves,” gave an earnest of his future career, too unequivocal to be misunderstood. It was an act of self immolation, worthy the best model of Sparta or Rome. He was himself a slave holder, and from the immense inheritance to which he had succeeded, probably one of the largest in the House. He knew too, that it was a measure of peculiar odium, running counter to the strongest interests, and most intractable prejudices of the ruling population; that it would draw upon him the keenest resentments of the wealthy and the great, who alone held the keys of honor and preferment at home, besides banishing forever, all hope of a favorable consideration with the government. In return for this array of sacrifices, he saw nothing await him but the satisfaction of an approving conscience, and the distant commendation of an impartial posterity. He could have no possible motive but the honor of his country, and the gratification of a warm and comprehensive benevolence.
The bare announcement of the proposition gave a shock to the aristocracy of the House, which aroused their inmost alarms. It touched their sensibilities at a most irritable point, and was rejected by a sudden and overwhelming vote. Yet the courteous and conciliatory account which Mr. Jefferson has left of the transaction, ascribes the failure of the bill to the vicious and despotic influence of the government, which, by its unceasing frown, overawed every attempt at reform, rather than to any moral depravation of the members themselves. They were not insensible to the amazing merits of the proposition. “Our minds” says he “were circumscribed within narrow limits, by an habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country in all matters of government, to direct all our labors in subservience to her interests, and even to observe a bigotted intolerance for all religions but hers. The difficulties with our Representatives were of habit and despair, not of reflection and conviction. Experience soon proved that they could bring their minds to rights, on the first summons of their attention.” But indeed, under the regal government, how was it possible for any thing liberal to expect success. The Crown had directly or indirectly the appointment of all officers of any moment, even those, in part, of the ordinary Legislature. The King's Council, as it was called, which acted as an Upper House, held their places at the Royal will, and cherished a most humble obedience to that will; the Governor, too, who had a negative on the laws, held by the same tenure, and with still greater devotedness to it: and, last of all, the Royal negative, which formed the rear-guard to the whole, barred the final pass to every project of melioration. So wanton, indeed, was the exercise of this power in the hands of his Majesty, that for the most trifling reason, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, he refused his assent to laws of the most salutary tendency. Nay, the single interposition of an interested individual against a law, was scarcely ever known to fail of success, though in the opposite scale were placed the interests of a whole country. This was Mr. Jefferson's first measure of reform; and although rendered abortive by the immature state of things, it was but the inception, as the reader will in due time perceive, of a long series of efforts, partly successful, partly not, in the same benevolent cause. It was the first public movement which he had the honor to originate, and the one, in all probability, whose spirit and object were most congenial to his heart. Indeed, it was but the glimmering of that principle, which constituted the polar star of his whole destiny, and which afterwards burst with such astonishing magnificence upon the world, in that immortal manifesto of his country, which proclaimed, that “all men are created equal, and endowed by
their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” It was the primary development of the workings of a mind which comprehended, within the mantle of its benignity, every color and condition of human existence; and which saw, beyond the “rivers of blood” and “years of desolation” which intervened,that enchanting vision, which flashed upon his earliest musings, and kindled his expiring energies, the vision of emancipated man throughout the world. But a few years after his legislative debut in the cause of slavery, we find him dilating with enthusiasm upon the same subject, in flying “Notes” to M. de Marbois, of the French legation, and recording that vehement and appalling admonition which recent events have almost ripened into prophecy: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath Indeed, I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution in the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference | The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
But the business of ordinary legislation was drawing to a close in Virginia. The fatal collision between Great-Britain and her Colonies, had waxed to a crisis, which suspended the regular action of government, and summoned the attention of its functionaries to more imperious concerns. Patrick Henry, who was seven years older than Mr. Jefferson, and three or four ahead of him in public life, had hitherto been the master-spirit of the Revolution at the South, and, by his superiorboldness, had sustained its principal brunt. The time had now arrived, when he was to divide the burthen and the glory of the distinction, with one who was his junior only in years and eloquence, his equal in moral courage, but in every thing else his superior, at an immeasurable distance. The same session of the Legislature that first saw Mr. Jefferson a member, saw him first also in the little council of the brave. The same session also, (1769) witnessed the adoption of a new mode of resistance to British tyranny, which he acted a conspicuous part in promoting; to wit, the system of non-intercourse, by which the Colonies gradually dissolved all commercial connection with the mother country. The opponents of the embargo, who have slept a good sound sleep, will now begin to bristle up, and say they have discovered, at last, the very germ of that diabolical principle. But here a difficulty presents itself, for the origin of the non-intercourse proceeding be: longs to Massachusetts, the focus of all disinclination to embargoes! The honor of it is hers; she having been pressed, from the peculiar circumstances of her local position, to take the precedence of the other Colonies in this important step. Is it possible, that the bruited restrictive system, which was so humiliating in a Jefferson and a Madison, and so heritical in 1808–9, should owe its birth place to the “cradle of sound principles, or trace its pedigree upon the escutcheons of 76%. It is no less remarkable than true. And the measure, equally honorable on both occasions, was attended with correspondent and glorious results to our common country. Experience has proved, that the most effectual mode of warfare with a nation, which excludes the principle of reciprocity from her code, and grasps at monopolizing the commerce of the world, is to withdraw peaceably from her intercourse, and, by a vigorous system of retaliation, to debar her from ours. This indeed has never failed to bring matters to a favorable issue, either by compelling her to retire upon the high ground of the Law of Nations, or by exasperating her, as in two memorable instances, to such a pitch of madness, as is decreed to be the certain precursor of self-destruction. But in whatever light the principle may have been viewed in later times, its application was eminently efficacious in producing the final appeal, in 1775. It touched, at the most sensitive and irascible point, the great feeling which neutralizes every other in a commercial State, to wit, that of interest. Happily, Mr. Jefferson became a member of the Legislature, soon after the adoption of the system in Massachusetts; he foresaw its operation, if acted upon generally and in concert; and immediately conceived the design of bringing Virginia up to a line with her northern sister. A concise view of the state of affairs at this period is important. The bold and unequivocal attitude into which Virginia had thrown herself by the opposition, which she headed in '65, against the Stamp Act, was imitated with infectious rapidity by all the other Colonies; which raised the general tone of resentment to such a height, as made Great Britain herself quail before the tem) pest she had excited. The Stamp Act was repealed; but its repeal was soon followed by a series of parliamentary and executive acts, equally unconstitutional and oppressive. Among these, were the Declaratory Act of a right in the British Parliament, to tax the Colonies in all cases whatsoever; the quartering of large bodies of British soldiery in the principal towns of the Colonies, at the expense and incessant annoyance of the inhabitants; the dissolution. in rapid succession, of the Colonial Assemblies, and the total suspension of the legislative power in New York; the imposition of duties on all teas, glass, paper, and other articles of the most necessary use, imported into the Colonies, and the appointment of Commissioners, armed with unlimited powers, to be stationed in the several ports for the purpose of exacting the arbitrary customs. These despotic measures, with others of a similar character, produced immediate recourse to retaliation, in the commercial Provinces. The people of Massachusetts, upon whom they fell with their first and heaviest pressure, were the foremost also in resisting their operation. They entered into an association, by which they agreed and solemnly bound themselves, not to import from Great Britain any of the articles taxed, or to use them. They also addressed a circular letter to their sister Colonies, inviting their concurrence and co-operation, in all lawful and constitutional means, for procuring relief from their oppressions. Petitions, memorials, and remon strances were accordingly addressed to the King and Parliament, by the Legislatures of the different Colonies, entreating a rescission of the obnoxious measures, and blending with their entreaties, professions of unwavering loyalty. To these no answer was condescended. But the non-intercourse proceedings in Massachusetts were of a character too ruinous to the new revenue bill, not to excite attention. They immediately called forth a set of joint resolutions, and an address, from the Lords and Commons. These resolutions condemned, in the severest terms, all the measures adopted by the Colonies. They re-asserted the right of taxation, and of quartering their troops upon the Colonies. They even went so far as to direct, that the King might employ force of arms, sufficient to quell the disobedient; and declared that he had the right to cause the promoters of disorders to be arrested and transported to England for trial. These resolutions of the Lords and Commons arrived in America, ( May, 1769. The House of Burgesses of Virginia was then in