The Jefferson Web site can be a valuable tool to help students explore concepts central to Thomas Jefferson, develop critical thinking skills, express themselves through photography and online forums, and apply these ideas to modern times. The following resources are available on the Jefferson Web site:
The Pursuit of Happiness Student Photography Contest
Does Jefferson Matter? Online Forum
Archive with Photographs and Transcripts of Original Jefferson Writings
Student Study Sheets
Defining Freedom in the Supreme Court
Related Internet Links
Using the Student Study Sheets in the Classroom
The study sheets exploring political, religious, social, intellectual, and personal freedom can be printed out and distributed to students. (Study sheets are provided on PBS ONLINE courtesy of General Motors.)
When using the study sheets in conjunction with the series Thomas Jefferson (PBS airdate: February 18-19, 1997), it is recommended that the sheets discussing political and religious freedom be used to enhance your students' viewing of the first part of the series. The study sheets on social and intellectual freedom are designed for use in conjunction with the second part of the series; and the study sheet on personal freedom is suggested as a review.
An overview of each study sheet and suggested responses to the discussion questions posed in each sheet are provided here:
Political Freedom: An Expression of the American MindBibliography for the Student Study Sheets:
This study sheet focuses on the pivotal event of Jefferson's early years in public life, his authorship of The Declaration of Independence. The sheet calls attention to Jefferson's writing style as the most distinctive feature of the Declaration, which for the most part, as Jefferson acknowledged, restated ideas that were commonplace at the time.
A comparison between the most memorable passage of Jefferson's document and a parallel passage from George Mason's nearly simultaneous "Declaration of Rights" should help students appreciate that Jefferson was but one voice in a chorus reciting the reasons for self-government and, more importantly, help them tune into the special music of his voice, which has made his words seem the incantation that called our nation into being. A transcript of Jefferson's original draft for this passage is provided to illustrate for students that Jefferson worked hard to achieve the "tone and spirit" that have made his words immortal. You might underscore this point by having a member of the class read Jefferson's first draft aloud.
Religious Freedom: Almighty God Hath Created the Mind Free
- In comparing these different statements of a common set of ideas, students will probably notice that Jefferson's final version is more concise, more direct and more positive. The most revealing aspect of Jefferson's style is his dramatization of these ideas. His "We" provides a speaker of the truths, almost a witness, and the introduction of a "Creator" in his final version provides a kind of protagonist whose actions illustrate the relationship among the ideas. Jefferson's "Creator" also imparts a sacred and scriptural quality to his final statement. Through these devices, Jefferson makes the abstract truths outlined by Mason seem concrete facts observed in nature and at the same time makes them seem divine truths revealed by God.
- Daniel Boorstin's comment may lead students to notice how Jefferson's phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" opens out to embrace possibilities, particularly in contrast to Mason's emphasis on holding tight to what one has ("acquire...possess...pursue and obtain"). Together with the dramatic turn Jefferson has given to these ideas, which creates the impression of a dynamic process, this closing phrase gives the passage a tone of promise and aspiration. For Americans, in short, these words are inspirational, not a simple demonstration of self-evident facts. They spur us to achieve political freedom rather than take it for granted.
This study sheet examines Jefferson's Statute of Religious Freedom, which finally gained passage while he was serving as minister to France. Students are asked to consider why Jefferson had a reputation as an enemy to religion depite his lifelong commitment to freedom of conscience. Because Jefferson so frequently mentions God in his writings, students may find it hard to believe that his contemporaries could call him an atheist or infidel. You might sharpen the situation with this anecdote from John Adams: During the whole time I sat with him in [the Continental] Congress...the most of a speech he ever made in my hearing was a gross insult on religion...for which I gave him immediately the reprehension which he richly merited. What sort of "gross insult" could have come from this man who seems so deeply conscious of God? An excerpt from Jefferson's statute and a series of guided questions are provided to help students find an answer.
Students may also wish to consider the Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale in the course of the discussion on religious freedom.
Social Freedom: The Age of Experiments in Government
- The sections of Jefferson's statute eliminated by the Virginia assembly characterize the mind as influenced only by reason and evidence. Not even willpower, Jefferson says, can make us believe in something or keep us from believing what answers to reason; certainly the government cannot. If we accept this view, however, there is little point in having religious traditions or religious teachings. Every individual must discover a basis for belief on his own, or as Thomas Paine would later phrase it in The Age of Reason (1794), "My own mind is my own church." This is not just freedom of religion but freedom from religion.
- Religious officials would feel threatened by Jefferson's overwhelmingly negative attitude toward the church and church doctrine. He portrays organized religion here as destructive of human potential, an opponent to the divine order and in almost every case an enemy to truth. From the point of view of those who administer religious institutions and believe themselves sanctified by God, this is not only offensive but blasphemous. It is the kind of talk John Adams probably took as a "gross insult," the kind of logic defenders of the faith would call diabolical. Without actually saying so, Jefferson seems to see no need for ministers and churches in an individual's religious life; to the contrary, such outside influences are most likely to undermine one's religious freedom and lead one astray.
- The only "truth" Jefferson seems to accept is the fact that God exists and has empowered the mind with freedom. Armed with freedom, the mind can guard itself against error and gain knowledge, which is (we might assume) the first step toward happiness for individuals and society. This radical faith in freedom would probably set Jefferson apart from most religious people today, though it is debatable whether he would be considered an enemy of religion.
This study sheet highlights Jefferson's struggle against the advocates of a strong centralized federal government in the 1790s and his success in establishing a more democratic and limited form of government through his organization of the Republican party.
The underlying principle here is social freedom, the liberty which we exercise as self-governing members of a local community and which safeguards our pursuit of economic opportunity. In this context, students might see the Federalist philosophy of Alexander Hamilton as based on social control while Jefferson's Republican philosophy was based on social change (though this is only one of many important points of contrast). These two tendencies revealed their self-destructive potential in 1798, when the Federalists exerted control by imprisoning their opponents and Jefferson, in his Kentucky Resolutions, encouraged change almost to the point of dissolving the Union itself. The study sheet presents an excerpt from this legislation showing Jefferson's reaction to the governmental crisis of 1798, and a contrasting excerpt from his first inaugural address in 1800, showing his view when the crisis had passed.
Students may also wish to consider the Supreme Court case United States v. Eichman in the course of the discussion on social freedom.
Intellectual Freedom: The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind
- Jefferson's contrasting descriptions of American government, one founded in "jealousy," the other in "affection," are the two sides of a single coin. The former expresses Jefferson's innate distrust of political authority, his unshakable suspicion that all rulers are incipient tyrants. The latter expresses Jefferson's similarly innate faith in the American people, his conviction that beneath their differences and despite their disputes they share a common purpose and even a common destiny. In 1798, Jefferson speaks for the people, defending them against the threat of tyranny. In 1800, he speaks to the people, inviting them to reconstitute the union which is the true source of their strength. In both cases, he speaks as a champion of freedom, on the one hand asserting its power to restrain despotism, on the other invoking its power to restore fellow-feelings among those whom opinion had divided. Students might note, too, that Jefferson speaks on both occasions for a government based in human emotions - at the moment of crisis, jealousy, and in his moment of triumph, jealousy's counterpart, love.
This study sheet focuses on Jefferson's final great accomplishment, founding the University of Virginia in the decades after he left the Presidency, the culmination of his forty-year-long effort to establish public education in his home state.
The sheet provides an excerpt from Jefferson's 1818 report on plans for the University of Virginia, in which he stresses the role education plays in moral and social improvement. Finally, the sheet introduces students to some of the innovative features Jefferson incorporated in his university, and draws attention to some of the ways his thoughts on the purpose and nature of higher education are reflected in his design for the Charlottesville campus. By all these avenues, students are led to recognize the central importance of intellectual freedom in Jefferson's philosophy, its vital function as the enabling force behind the exercise of freedom in politics, religion and society.
Students may also wish to consider the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in the course of the discussion on intellectual freedom.
- It is of course possible to read too much into the physical features of the university Jefferson designed. Some of its seemingly most symbolic features were motivated in part by plain pragmatism: the preference for an "academical village" rather than a house, for example, was justified as a precaution against the spread of infectious disease. Yet with Jefferson there can often be a streak of idealism even in his most pragmatic decisions. Thus, in placing his university on Virginia's western frontier, Jefferson aimed first, obviously, to keep it in view of his mountaintop home and under his strict supervision. The setting was appropriate, however, for an institution intended to send out scouting parties across intellectual frontiers and eventually lead American civilization into new territories of useful knowledge.
- Jefferson took the idea for the lawn at the center of his university from the traditional New England town green, transposing it from common property into a common meeting place, a non-urban town square designed to encourage community and the free exchange of ideas outside the boundaries of school and subject. And while Jefferson's desire to provide examples of various architectural styles may have been a prime consideration in his domed design for the university library, we can also see in the building an echo of the hills surrounding it and can at least suspect that Jefferson wished to position his university students symbolically between the complementary sources of all knowledge, books written by human industry and the infinite book of nature.
Personal Freedom: The Pursuit of Happiness
This study sheet provides an opportunity to review Jefferson's character and career by highlighting the most constant preoccupation of his life, his mountaintop home, Monticello.
The sheet presents Monticello as the meeting place for two tragically intertwined aspects of Jefferson's existence, his exuberant pursuit of happiness through intellectual exploration and social exchange, and his appalling acceptance of slavery as the foundation of his domestic economy. Students are provided with an excerpt from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia where he unflinchingly examines the moral destructiveness of slavery on both sides of the master/slave relationship. And they are asked to ponder how this peerless advocate of human freedom in all its forms could so deeply violate his most cherished principle.
Students may also wish to consider the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in the course of the discussion on personal freedom.
- The questions posed on this study sheet have baffled every Jefferson scholar, but they are questions which anyone who hopes to understand Jefferson must struggle to answer. As the sheet suggests, one might use these questions to probe one's own commitment to the principles Jefferson articulated, for although none of us faces so stark a dilemma as Jefferson, we all to some degree accept social inequality, economic exploitation and political powerlessness as unfortunate but ineradicable facts of life as we pursue our personal happiness. It is in this context that the quotation Ken Burns has chosen as a kind of motto for his film biography of Jefferson becomes especially revealing, and the questions it raises may offer students the most promising avenue for coming to terms with the Thomas Jefferson's paradoxical nature.
Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, The Library of America 17 (1984).
Andrew Burstein, The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist (1995).
Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Times, 6 vols. (1948-81).
John C. Miller, The Wolf by the Ears (1980).
Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (1970).
Using the Supreme Court Cases in the Classroom
Since the founding documents of the United States were penned, there have been conflicts over how these documents should be interpreted in everyday life. Three Supreme Court cases are presented here to illustrate how judicial review serves to clarify issues in such disputes:
Engel v. Vitale - Prayer in the Public Schools
United States v. Eichman - Burning the American Flag
Brown v. Board of Education - Racial Segregation in Public Schools
The cases have been summarized to highlight key concepts, and links have been provided to relevant Web sites for supporting material and transcripts of the court opinions. The material presented online can serve as a reference for the educator or as an exploration activity for students. The cases can also be used with discussions introduced in the Student Study Sheets. At the end of Engel V. Vitale and United States v. Eichman, students can share their opinions online by indicating whether or not they agree with the Supreme Court's ruling in each of these cases.