The constitutional thought of Thomas Jefferson

Mayer, David N., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Peterson, Merrill D., Department of History, University of Virginia
McCurdy, Charles W., Department of History, University of Virginia
Morgan, Robert J., Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Abbot, W.W., Department of History, University of Virginia

The lack of a thorough study of the constitutional thought of Thomas Jefferson is a surprising omission in Jefferson scholarship. Jefferson was a central figure in virtually every significant constitutional issue of his age, from the American Revolution to the crisis over state rights at the time of the Missouri Compromise. Yet there has been no comprehensive study of Jefferson's ideas about government--a study which would take into account Jefferson's views of law, individual rights, and governmental administration, within the context of Anglo-American constitutionalism. This dissertation attempts to fill this void in Jefferson scholarship. This study argues that Jefferson's constitutional thought is best understood as "Whig," "federal," and "republican," in the sense that Jefferson meant those terms. In other words, he viewed constitutions primarily as devices by which governmental power would be limited and checked, to prevent its abuse through encroachment on individual rights (the "Whig" aspect of his thought). His preferred system for doing this was one in which governmental power was divided into distinct spheres (the "federal" aspect), each of which was in turn subdivided into distinct branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) equally accountable to the "rightful" majority will of the people (the "republican" aspect). In the interrelationships--and, at times, tensions--between these three essential aspects of Jefferson's constitutional thought, his response to the particular constitutional issues and problems of his time can be best explained, showing an overall consistency of thought over time despite changes in circumstances.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Jefferson, Thomas -- 1743-1826 -- Views on constitutional law, United States -- Constitution, Constitutional law

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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