Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
Advertisement - Guide continues below
Anywhere you turn in colonial American history, you're probably going to bump into Thomas Jefferson. The dude had some influence.
In fact, you can read a full profile on Jefferson in the guide for a little text known as the Declaration of Independence. Maybe you've heard of that one.
Jefferson may have written the Declaration of Independence, but when it comes to Washington's farewell address, he was kind of the antagonist. Jefferson led the party that opposed Washington's administration, leading to the political division that Washington addresses directly in the speech.
Without Jefferson arguing against Washington and his buddies, the farewell address could have taken a totally different turn.
Jefferson was a Virginia boy, born and raised. He pretty much stuck with Virginia his whole life, serving in that state's government when he wasn't president or in the president's Cabinet. Even then, though, his house wasn't that far away.
The young up-and-coming politician was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence in, you know, 1776. It's the one about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and some other stuff, too. At the time, he was one of the youngest members of the Second Continental Congress at 33, and one of the tallest, at 6 feet 2-and-a-half inches (source).
After the war, he became governor of Virginia, where he helped shepherd the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom into being. That document established the little idea that the government should protect people's religious freedom.
Remember that in the 18th century, a lot of European countries combined their religious leadership with their government, and if you didn't follow that religion, things could be very bad—like, Spanish Inquisition-level bad—for you.
Jefferson spent 1785 to 1789 in France as ambassador for the United States, replacing noted kite-flyer Benjamin Franklin. He was there for the outbreak of the French Revolution.
At first, the French Revolution seemed awesome since it was somewhat inspired by the American one and had a similar down-with-the-monarchy theme. Jefferson was totally on board—until the Reign of Terror started and the murder rate went way up.
That wasn't until 1793, though, so when Jefferson came back and joined Washington's Cabinet in 1789, he was still pro-France. After living in a country that was in the process of totally dismantling the aristocracy, Jefferson was pretty concerned about Washington's centralized government. To him, it looked like people were trying to reinstate a monarchical system like the not-so-good ol' days (source).
Jefferson and Washington had been chummy at one point. The two men actually had a lot in common: both came from the planter class in Virginia, raised their fortunes by marrying wealthy widows, and served in the Continental Congresses before the American Revolution (source). But Washington's drift toward the policies of the Federalists and Alexander Hamilton turned Jefferson against him.
In Jefferson's view, Hamilton's push to centralize the government and the economy were an effort to roll back the accomplishments of the American Revolution and put power back in the hands of a small number of wealthy elites—or even just reinstate a monarchy. He saw Hamilton as clearly pro-British (source). Jefferson gathered support from other Anti-Federalists, particularly in Virginia, to oppose Washington's administration (source).
Eventually, he even got James Madison—who had become one of Washington's most trusted advisors and who wrote the first draft of the farewell address—to break with the administration and join the new Democratic-Republican party (source).
The division got so bad that Jefferson resigned from Washington's Cabinet in 1793 (source).
Once he was out of Washington's Cabinet, Jefferson went all in with his new political party. He was elected to be John Adams' vice president in 1796, and he finally became president himself in 1800.
Ironically, Alexander Hamilton helped get him the presidency. It was basically a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and Hamilton thought Burr was even worse than Jefferson, so he used his influence to push for Jefferson (source).
In office, Jefferson managed to reduce taxes and government spending (especially where the military was concerned), and he doubled the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase. (source).
He also spent a lot of time trying to keep the United States out of the Napoleonic Wars going on in Europe. British (and some French) ships kept attacking American ships and basically kidnapped their sailors, so eventually Jefferson put a total embargo on all exports and severe limits on imports.
It didn't go over well, devastating the U.S. economy (source). Madison had to deal with it during his presidency, and the United States got roped into the War of 1812 anyway. Whoops.
After his time as president, Jefferson retired to his plantation at Monticello and eventually founded (and designed) the University of Virginia. He and John Adams both died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Now that's patriotic. It makes that American flag bathing suit we all bust out on the Fourth of July look kinda weak.
Jefferson is pretty significant for a lot of reasons in early-American government, but in relation to Washington's farewell address, Jefferson represented the opposition forces that motivated Washington in a lot of his ideas.
Washington talks about not getting close to one particular foreign power over another—well, Jefferson was pro-France, while Hamilton was pro-British. Hmm, wonder why Washington was so concerned about taking sides?
Washington tries to warn people against allowing politics to become divided, and that they shouldn't form political parties. Well, Jefferson founded the first opposition party before Washington gave this speech.
Jefferson was the leader and representative of a major political idea—that the states should have more power, and the central government should be smaller—which has remained powerful in American politics ever since. It divided Washington's Cabinet and inspired a lot of his speech, and it still divides the U.S. government today.
So, basically, Jefferson is important in the history of the farewell address because he was against a lot of the policies Washington supported.
Hey, it's hard to make a passionate political speech when no one is standing in the way of you and your political goals.