Thomas Jefferson & the Constitutional Convention

Instructor: Emily Romeo

Emily has taught college History and has a Ph.D. in History from The University of Chicago.

In this lesson, find out why Thomas Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but how he conveyed his opinions on the document and had an impact on the final version nonetheless.

Thomas Jefferson & the Constitutional Convention

''I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.''

- Thomas Jefferson, Letters of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most influential founding fathers in the American Revolution. The author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's contributions to the cause and his role in crafting the ideological foundations of the movement are without question. Jefferson is not, technically, a ''framer'' of one of the most important documents in the Revolution, however. Absent during the Constitutional Convention, Jefferson was not able to help write the document, but his ideas and arguments still influenced those who did. Jefferson's ideas about the limitations of federal power and the need for power to remain among the people offered a counterpoint to those who wished to consolidate power at the national level.

Problems with the Articles of Confederation

In the spring and summer of 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia with the goal of revising the Articles of Confederation. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress had been organized to govern under the Articles, but their shortcomings soon became apparent. Under the Articles, the central government had no executive authority to enforce its power or impose taxes, which meant that Congress was dependent on the states for funds. The Articles also required Congress to reach unanimous decisions before implementing policy, making decision-making nearly impossible. Almost immediately after the Constitutional Convention convened, some delegates began calling for a completely fresh start—a new document and a fundamental redesign of governmental structure.

Thomas Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention, but he offered advise to delegates while abroad
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1800

The Constitutional Convention

During the convention, Thomas Jefferson was serving as a trade commissioner, and eventually foreign minister in Paris representing American interests. News reached him about the convention, and while Jefferson agreed with the need for a stronger central government, he disagreed with the secrecy with which the convention was being conducted. Delegates were instructed not to speak of the proceedings outside of the convention. In a letter to John Adams from August 1787, Jefferson wrote, ''I am sorry they began their deliberations by so abominable a precedent as that of tying up the tongues of their members.'' He wrote of their ''ignorance of the value of public discussions.'' Regardless of his reservations, he did not doubt ''that all their other measures will be good and wise'' and he described the convention as ''an assembly of demigods.''  

Opinions on Government

Jefferson kept abreast of important events in the lead up to the convention, and during the debates over ratification of the Constitution that came from it, through his frequent correspondence with key leaders of the American Revolution, including James Madison and George Washington. Jefferson did not hesitate to express himself on issues likely to come before the convention. He wanted a stronger American central government, but he also wanted to ensure that there were limits on its power. He wanted to make sure that the states retained some authority apart from the central government. For instance, he opposed giving Congress authority to veto laws passed by individual states. The convention ultimately agreed, but Madison saw it as a weakness for the federal government. Jefferson also objected to the lack of a bill of rights in the original version of the Constitution, which he saw as critical for protecting individual freedoms. Term limits and rotation of office were also necessary, according to Jefferson's ideas about how the new government should be constructed.

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