Thomas Jefferson was 33 years old when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, so it is probably too late for you and me to achieve such a notable level of fame. He also attempted, in his draft, to blast the British for bringing slavery to America, but the Southern delegates insisted on excising that language from our most important founding document.
Seven years later in the Northwest Ordinance Jefferson successfully barred slavery from what was then called the Northwest Territories, what we know now as the stretch of states north of the Ohio River from Ohio to Minnesota. That was a time when there was still slavery in northern states like New York and New Jersey. Jefferson also tried to permanently ban slavery in any states that emerged from territories west of the Mississippi, but lost by one vote. It was the attempted expansion of slavery into the western territories in the 1850s that was the proximate cause of our Civil War.
As a child Abraham Lincoln moved from just south of the Ohio River in Kentucky to the free northern state of Indiana. He settled in the free state of Illinois as an adult, but was able to peer across the Ohio River at slave-holding territory.
In Lincoln’s bloody, eleven year battle with slavery after the repeal of the Missouri Compromise he always hung his political and legal hat on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and on the Northwest Ordinance’s restriction of slavery. “All honor to Jefferson” Lincoln said in his speeches and debates. What foresight Jefferson had to insert the revolutionary creed that “all men are created equal” into the founding document of a new nation.
As a presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson engineered the first ever peaceful transfer of power between one political party and another. As president he doubled the size of our country, cut taxes, fought the Barbary pirates, and demolished the monarchial Federalist Party. But Thomas Jefferson’s epochal work came before winning the presidency in 1801, and we Americans salute him again today on this most important of political holidays.
This post was originally published in 2015 here.
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