Letter on the Virginia Constitution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“You have lived longer than I have and perhaps may have formed a different judgment on better grounds; but my observations do not enable me to say think integrity the characteristic of wealth.”

Summary Overview

Thomas Jefferson’s August 26, 1776, letter to Edmund Pendleton was an important vehicle by which the Founding Father and future president offered his input and perspective on the creation of a new American government. As Virginia drafted its own constitution, Jefferson (who at the time was in Philadelphia drafting the Declaration of Independence during the Second Continental Congress) offered his thoughts on that draft document, particularly with regard to legislative organization and criminal justice. Jefferson’s proposed changes to the Virginia Constitution were not adopted, but the letter nevertheless provides insight into the form of government that its author felt would best suit the new nation.

Defining Moment

By 1776, the American colonies had reached an impasse with regard to reconciliation with Great Britain. Parliament’s sole policy with regard to colonial indignation over taxation without representation, laws that invaded their privacy and basic rights, and violent confrontations was the further application of such oppressive measures. After repeated appeals to King George III and Parliament went unanswered, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to discuss independence. One of the main topics of discussion during this meeting was the development of a declaration of independence and the congress turned to delegate Thomas Jefferson of Virginia to draft the document.

As the Continental Congress convened, Jefferson’s home colony had already taken the initiative of developing its own constitution. Jefferson, burdened with the declaration and plans to create a new nation, was not present for Virginia’s Constitutional Convention in Williamsburg. As a highly respected member of the Virginia legislative assembly, though, Jefferson was given a copy of the draft for perusal. The Virginia Constitution, as drafted, included a listing of the basic rights afforded to the citizens. It also featured a framework for the establishment of central government. The Virginia Constitutional Convention resolved to sign and enact the constitution upon the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

Upon his review of the draft, however, Jefferson took issue with a number of key aspects of the Virginia Constitution. For example, Jefferson advocated for a system in which the senate was given distance from the direct influence of the people, as opposed to the system of direct public elections proposed in the draft. Additionally, Jefferson opposed the application of a death penalty, except in cases of murder and treason, and supported the proportional and evenhanded application of criminal justice in non-capital offenses. Although Jefferson was highly influential in Virginia government, his proposed amendments, included in the letter to Pendleton, were not adopted in the final draft of the Virginia Constitution. Jefferson later reflected on the Virginia’s Constitutional Convention’s decision, believing that the mistakes he sought to correct in his letter were indicative of a group of leaders who were inexperienced in government.

Although not as well known as the Declaration of Independence and his other publications, Jefferson’s Letter on the Virginia Constitution provides a clear insight into his views on how both the state and national government should be shaped. His amendments would later appear in the modified Virginia Constitution as well as the United States Constitution.

Author Biography

Thomas Jefferson was born near Charlottesville, Virginia, in the town of Shadwell on April 13, 1743. His mother came from a prominent Virginia family, and his father was a successful planter and surveyor. Jefferson was educated in the classical languages and mathematics at a prestigious private school near his home before enrolling in the College of William and Mary in 1760.

Although there were no formal law schools in America at the time, Jefferson studied under the mentorship of an established lawyer, George Wythe, and worked as a successful attorney from 1764 to 1774. During this period, Jefferson met his wife, Martha Skelton, with whom he had six children. He also spent a great deal of his time at Monticello, his plantation and childhood home. He inherited two hundred slaves from both his father and father in-law; he freed two of them during his lifetime and allowed five more to be freed in accordance with his will.

Thomas Jefferson’s political career coincided with the increasing revolutionary fervor of the period. In addition to his tenures as a magistrate and county lieutenant, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1774, he wrote his first major political document—”A Summary View of the Rights of British America”—which cemented his reputation as an individual who could eloquently present colonials issues and agendas.

In 1775, Jefferson attended the Second Continental Congress, which appointed his colleague, George Washington, as the commander in chief of the newly established Continental Army. A year later, in light of the reception of “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” the Continental Congress asked Jefferson to work with John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston to draft the Declaration of Independence.

After his turn in Congress, Thomas Jefferson returned to Virginia as a member of its House of Delegates and held office from 1776 to 1779. From 1779 until 1781, Jefferson served as Virginia’s governor. After his tenure as governor, he desired to return to Monticello for good, but his wife’s death in 1782 drew him back into public service. Jefferson returned to the congress in 1783 and was made the American minister to France in 1785. Upon returning to the United States in 1789, he was appointed George Washington’s secretary of state, a post he held until 1794. He was defeated by John Adams to succeed President Washington but ran again in 1800 and succeeded in becoming the nation’s third president. In 1809, Jefferson returned to Monticello and founded the University of Virginia. He died in 1826.

Document Analysis

Thomas Jefferson was considered a highly influential figure in Virginia’s colonial government in addition to his stature as a key figure in the American Revolution and as a Founding Father. In 1776, he was in Philadelphia participating in the Second Continental Congress at the time of the Virginia Constitutional Convention, but Virginians still looked to him to contribute to the drafting of their constitution, which would be signed once the Continental Congress approved a declaration on American independence. Jefferson was involved in some of the initial discussions on the Virginia Constitution before he departed but, according to his letter, the Virginia Constitutional Convention either erred or misinterpreted his preferences in a number of key areas. The two main areas in which Jefferson offers amendments to address these issues are the establishment of the legislature through a system of suffrage and the application of punishments for convicted criminals.

Jefferson begins his letter to Edmund Pendleton—a participant in the Continental Congress, a member of the Virginia legislature, and the president of the Virginia Constitutional Convention—by stating that, although Jefferson and the Virginia Constitutional Convention are of the same mind that a legislative body should be formed, they are in disagreement regarding the nature of that body. First, he clarifies his belief that the senate in particular should consist of the wisest and most independent-minded individuals in the body politic. Unfortunately, he says, the public was not known to elect the most intelligent and experienced people to office. Rather, Jefferson suggests, people tend to vote for those candidates with whom they share a common position on a given issue (implying that the issues in question are usually local in nature).

It is Jefferson’s view that those politicians who were themselves directly chosen by the people to serve in government (namely the members of the House of Representatives), regardless of their socioeconomic status or affinity toward a specific local issue, would demonstrate a degree of humility after their respective elections. Because of this restored respect for the electoral process, representatives elected by the general population should be given a chance to elect the nation’s leaders. In other words, Jefferson says, the representatives so elected by their constituents should be afforded the ability to vote for the most qualified and wisest people to serve in the legislature’s upper chamber, the senate.

Jefferson’s point is that if the people were incapable of selecting wise and experienced representatives to serve in the legislature, then the senators who take office should be independent of the people. The House of Representatives (the lower legislative chamber, consisting of leaders elected directly by the people) would, under Jefferson’s proposed amendments, be charged with the responsibility of carrying out this election.

In his mind, however, Jefferson is willing to accept the convention’s proposal that in each county of the state, the people could choose a group of twelve electors who would, in turn, meet with the electors from other counties in order to choose a senator collectively. Jefferson also expresses support for this proposal because it creates a heterogeneous group of congressional leaders who could find consensus regarding the affairs of the entire state instead of focusing solely on local issues.

Senate independence would also be strengthened, Jefferson adds, by the establishment of lengthy terms and one-term limits. Jefferson advocates for a considerably long term of nine years, suggesting that establishing such a lengthy term for senators would significantly affect their public policy agendas and perspectives. Jefferson also believes that, with longer terms, senators would be less concerned with linking with interest groups and other parties to prepare for upcoming elections and would instead serve the people’s interests independently. Additionally, Jefferson proposes that a senator who completes that nine-year term would not be allowed to seek reelection to that post again. This idea, he held, prevented a senator from leaving office and aligning with certain factions to curry favor among certain voting blocs. Jefferson also hopes that senators would be cognizant of the fact that, after their long term of governing came to an end, they would return to the ranks of the governed once again. It is his hope that senators would therefore develop an appreciation for their public service and the responsibilities they had thereto.

Jefferson expresses concern that the inequities in Virginia’s demographics would contribute to the problem of undesirable individuals gaining seats in the Senate. He objects to the proposed electoral system because, within that framework, larger counties (with greater populations) were likely to send candidates that might be less fit to serve than more enlightened candidates preferred by smaller, less populated counties. Furthermore, although he believes that neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives established under the Virginia Constitution would give preference to legislators who were wealthier than their rivals, he is concerned that this framework is incomplete. Jefferson expresses his hope to Pendleton that the Virginia Constitution would be modified to avoid giving preference to congressional candidates whose personal property holdings (as opposed to financial wealth) were greater than those of other candidates. In this regard, Jefferson believes that, in the eyes of voters, personal wealth should not be considered a gauge of an individual’s integrity.

Jefferson next turns his attention to the lower chamber, the House of Representatives. It is his view that the House should consist of individuals elected directly by the people. Additionally, Jefferson advocates for universal suffrage for white men. He feels that any man desiring to live in the country on a permanent basis should be allowed to vote, regardless of his sociopolitical or economic status. Jefferson defers to Pendleton and his fellow delegates to determine the criteria by which they feel this suffrage might be granted; such qualifications could include whether the voters had a family or property, if they had lived in the country for a certain period of time, or if they demonstrated all of these qualities. In fact, Jefferson suggests, anyone interested in residing in a country would likely be likely to wish it well and be inclined to participate in efforts to preserve that nation. He therefore suggests that the Virginia Constitutional Convention consider ownership of fixed property a lower priority than other criteria—after all, he argues, there is no need to differentiate between property ownership and residence in a given voting district. It is Jefferson’s belief that this aspect of suffrage was both “capital and fundamental,” warranting an amendment in the Virginia Constitution.

Jefferson next focuses on criminal justice, another arena in which he believes Pendleton and others have misunderstood his own positions. Although Pendleton and his colleagues believe that Jefferson stands in favor of a penal code based on the public good and virtue, Jefferson’s position is actually different. This misunderstanding was particularly evident with regard to the application of punishments for severe crimes. Jefferson maintains his view that any crime committed in Virginia should be punished in strict and inflexible manner. The criminal justice system would in essence become a machine, with a well-defined set of laws that identifies crimes and an equally clear list of relevant punishments for those who commit those crimes.

Jefferson adds, however, that the punishment must be proportionate to the offense. The death penalty, for example, should, in Jefferson’s estimation, be applied only to murder and treason (with the latter given clear definition from other crimes against the state). Sexual crimes, on the other hand, would be punished by castration. Other crimes, such as those committed in the streets or on ships, would be punished based on the severity of the act.

Jefferson further clarifies his position with regard to the punishment of slaves for severe criminal behavior. Beyond death and castration for the aforementioned crimes, Jefferson says that slaves might not consider a proportional crime to be severe at all. Placing a slave in a jail cell, publicly whipping him, or otherwise applying a criminal punishment might not mean much to a slave—the living conditions of slaves would likely not change significantly, considering they already lived in squalid environments and were subject to frequent abuse. His suggestion for the punishment of slaves is to simply remove them from the country and send them to another nation for further punishment. Such a policy would remove those dangerous slaves from American society, sending them to a location from which they could not return.

The criminal justice system Jefferson envisions would operate with little room for mercy or compromise. The sentencing guidelines for any type of crime, no matter how mild or severe, he believes, should be clear and applied consistently. He reiterates his point that the application of laws with regard to punishing criminals should be strict and proportionate to the crime. He adds that even the mildest punishment, fitted to the crime, should not be ignored, or else the society itself would focus on inflicting vengeance on those the government fails to prosecute.

To help ensure that the law and punishment for breaking those laws were in accordance, Jefferson affirms that judges should be nothing but machines of the law. Whereas lawmakers could show mercy in the establishment of statutes, judges would simply render decisions based on those statutes. By establishing such an environment, Jefferson asserts that Virginia would be able to dispense its laws equally and impartially to every resident, regardless of socioeconomic status. If judges or executives demonstrate the same sort of mercy enjoyed by lawmakers, Jefferson warns, they would administer the law in whimsical and capricious fashion.

Jefferson next thanks Pendleton for standing with him on a proposal by the Pennsylvania delegation. This group of representatives proposed a boundary line, similar to that of the Mason–Dixon Line that divides the American North from the South, along its southern border with what became the state of Delaware. Jefferson and Pendleton were able to negotiate an extension of the Mason–Dixon Line to accommodate the Pennsylvania pursuit of this border. Unfortunately for Jefferson, the convention ultimately did not adopt Jefferson and Pendleton’s proposal. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s approach to building a diplomatic response to this border issue underscored his ability to build coalitions and strategic partnerships, skills that would later serve him well as ambassador to France and as president.

After providing his proposed amendments to the Virginia Constitution, Jefferson provides a report on the ongoing pro-independence effort at the national level. He relates that the Americans received official word from French forces in the West Indies to provide them with supplies. Furthermore, Jefferson reports that the French are willing to provide protection to American trade ships as well as military craft. The French had already come close to engaging the British during a confrontation Jefferson describes in the letter; the British commander present at that incident at sea opted to disengage, however.

Jefferson’s report provides an important view of the growing military campaign in the earliest days of the Revolutionary War and, in particular, the details behind what would later be known as the Battle of Long Island. This campaign involved a number of skirmishes and confrontations between American militias and British troops in New York. Jefferson felt it important to report these events to his colleagues, in part to remind them of the war that was coming to America and in part to remind them of the role Virginians already played in that conflict.

Jefferson informs his colleague that the British had landed eight thousand troops on Long Island in New York. Members of the American militia, which included troops from Virginia, repelled a small party of those soldiers who had stolen cattle, supplies, and property in that region. Jefferson describes the militia’s efforts against the British regulars as successful, as those troops were driven back quickly. Later, a larger number of British troops attempted to march into the New York town of Bedford, when another complement of American militiamen, notably several hundred Pennsylvania troops, launched an ambush against them.

Jefferson’s account also documents the introduction of Hessian mercenaries into the burgeoning war. He notes that, during the Bedford skirmish, there appeared to be a contingent of Hessian sharpshooters among the British regulars. General John Sullivan, who stepped into command when General Nathaniel Green fell ill, sent troops to confront the British regulars and Hessian mercenaries. That British force was, according to the accounts given to Jefferson, driven back at least half a mile. Meanwhile, General George Washington sent additional troops to the region, further cordoning off the British advance. The British, whom Jefferson and others believed totaled nearly twenty thousand, continued to show signs of a desire to move westward toward New York’s mainland. They were stymied, however, by the coordinated efforts of Sullivan, Washington, and Virginian colonel William Aylett, who reportedly commanded twenty-five thousand men (although that number was not confirmed). The British, unable to move without engaging with these militiamen, opted to hastily evacuate the region.

During his account of the Battle of Long Island, Jefferson offers his perspectives on General Washington in particular. He writes that Washington exuded confidence, exhibiting great faith in his troops. The troops responded positively to Washington’s attitude, demonstrating consistently high morale while waiting for action in eastern New York and Long Island.

Jefferson adds that Washington’s attitude was especially welcome in light of the American militia’s status. These troops were ordered to the region (many of them stationed on Staten Island) to await the next move from the British. As they waited, provisions began to dwindle, and new provisions purchased locally were extremely expensive (Jefferson says that the price for a whole cow or sheep on Staten Island at the time was about ten pounds), forcing the Americans to stockpile meat from horses. Nevertheless, Jefferson reports, morale among the young troops was very positive. These young men arrived at Long Island ready to engage the British, regardless of their limited training in comparison to the experience of the British army on the other side of the island. Jefferson reports that these young men, who were excited to gain combat experience (even in limited skirmishes), demonstrated “the eagerness of young men going to a dance.”

In reporting on the apparent success of the Battle of Long Island, Jefferson is giving hope to his fellow revolutionaries. Had the increasing troop presence in the American colonies proven too daunting a number, those engaged in the Second Continental Congress, as well as the Virginia Constitutional Convention, might have become disheartened and wary of signing Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Constitution. Instead, the report demonstrated to the Americans that their chances against British military forces were indeed positive and the goal of independence was not out of the realm of possibility.

Jefferson concludes his letter to Pendleton by expressing regret that he is unable to attend the Virginia Constitutional Convention in Williamsburg. He notes that he will remain in Philadelphia, performing the tasks of a delegate and drafting the Declaration of Independence until his replacement, Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, arrives. He promises, however, that he will soon see Pendleton and his fellow assemblymen in Williamsburg as soon as he is able.

Essential Themes

Thomas Jefferson was not present at the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776 and, as a result, was unable to play a role in its initial drafting. Regardless of his absence, Jefferson’s critical role in the adoption of that document is unquestionable. After all, the Virginia Convention’s work was based on the success of the Second Continental Congress and its adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which was written by Jefferson.

In reviewing the draft of the Virginia Constitution Jefferson believed there were valid tenets in the document, but he also strongly advocated for a number of amendments. He recommended changes that he felt would improve the quality of the new government’s leadership, increase participation in the electoral process, and strengthen the rule of law with regard to criminal justice.

First, Jefferson proposes that the Senate consist of leaders who are both highly qualified for their jobs and free from the influences of local interests. To facilitate this, Jefferson proposes votes by proxy rather than direct public elections, suffrage for all citizens (a designation then restricted to white men), and single, albeit long, terms for senators. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, would represent the diversity of the people, as citizens would be free to vote directly for their representatives.

Second, he advocates for a strict rule of law with regard to punishing criminals, limiting the application of the death penalty to those who commit murder or treason. However, he also stresses the proportional application of penalties for other crimes. In Jefferson’s mind, the criminal justice system should be but a simple machine, assigning punishments to criminals in strict accordance with the law without exception. Only lawmakers could show flexibility with regard to the law; officers of the court, on the other hand, would dispense the law without bias or reconsideration. Jefferson’s proposals in these areas were not adopted by the Virginia convention but were influential in the United States Constitution, drafted in 1787.

Jefferson’s letter to Pendleton also includes a report on the oncoming war against the British. The British, having been forced from Boston, had set their sights on New York, but leaders such as Sullivan and Washington were able to deter them from succeeding. Jefferson reminds Pendleton and his colleagues that war was indeed on America’s doorstep and that Virginia had a major role to play in the defense of the burgeoning American nation.

  • “The Battle of Long Island.” American Revolutionary War. N. p, n. d. Web. 28 June 2012.
  • “Brief Biography of Thomas Jefferson.” The Jefferson Monticello. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2012. Web. 28 June 2012.
  • “The Founding of Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2012. Web. 28 June 2012.
  • “Thomas Jefferson Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks, 2012. Web. 28 June 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Belknap, 1992. Print.
  • Bernstein, R. B. Thomas Jefferson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • Petersen, Eric, ed. Light and Liberty: Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness. By Thomas Jefferson. New York: Modern Lib., 2005. Print.
  • “The Virginia Declaration of Rights.” Charters of Freedom. US National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 29 June 2012.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998. Print.

Categories: History