In popular understandings of the three Atlantic Revolutions of late eighteenth century, the American Revolution (1765-1783) is often regarded as the least radical and transformative. If the American Revolution was, as Carl Becker put it in 1909, just as much about “who should rule at home,” as it was “home rule,” observers were quick to note that it was not until the 1820s that the people involved in colonial governance lost their stranglehold, a development which horrified the colonial elites who had orchestrated the Revolution. While arguably true in practice, the theory of the American Revolution was, in fact, uniquely ambitious and sophisticated. Many of the American revolutionaries saw their project in global and historical terms from the very beginning. They called not just for separation from the British Empire and the creation of a republican government but also the far more transformative re-ordering of society along republican lines that would provide a model for the rest of the world.
No one was more invested in this conception of the American project than Thomas Jefferson. Particularly as time progressed, Jefferson understood the Revolution as primarily a social project, the logical culmination of the Enlightenment, that had more to do with a refashioning of society along new republican axes and axioms – for example, facilitating the transfer of cultural and intellectual power to the new world – than enshrining political rights and republican government. Furthermore, Jefferson’s contributions to the Revolution, while often caricatured as advocating for locally and agrarian oriented democratic populism, were, in fact, often directed by his international ambitions for American republicanism and a belief in an enlightened natural aristocracy, that is to say people like him, as its proper leaders. Critics have often rebuked this understanding of the Revolution, and Jefferson’s contributions to the project, as quixotic and contradictory, or, alternatively, charged him with only advocating for change that was more apparent than real. Nevertheless, he believed that his contributions to the Revolution, education and agrarian reform in particular, were the essential components needed to create the virtuous and economically independent citizenry, and as a result the proper mores, morals and social hierarchy, required for a lasting republic to flourish. Regardless of the criticisms leveled against him, Jefferson, by melding classical republican theory, historical conceptions of British liberty, and Enlightenment principles, created a uniquely American conception of an ideal republican society that remained influential well into the nineteenth century.
Jefferson’s understanding of the American Revolution as a project for social reformation, which was of global importance, had foundations even in his earliest contributions. In his 1774 pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British North America, initially written as a proposed message to King George III for the First Continental Congress, Jefferson contextualized the ongoing transatlantic debate over the British constitution in a far more ancient discourse about the basis of social and economic organization. Much of his argument appealed to the British constitution and natural law; however, much more importantly, he portrayed the very essence of American society as fundamentally distinct from Britain or anywhere else in Europe. As he explained in detail, unlike Britain, “America was not conquered by William the Norman, nor its lands surrendered to him, or any of his successors [thus feudal law was never established]. Possessions there are undoubtedly of the allodial nature. Our ancestors … who migrated hither, were farmers, not lawyers.”
While Jefferson’s distinction between Saxon and Norman landholdings, and lawyer and farmer, may seem to be superficially arcane and technical points, it is revealing that he afforded such great emphasis to fundamental dissimilarities between the societies of the colonies and the metropole. The Americans are associated with the free Saxons, and the British, with the oppressive Normans, who, in Jefferson’s view, had profoundly corrupted the purity of Anglo-Saxon law. The distinctions Jefferson made were distinctly British, but this dichotomy provides a clear precursor to the emphasis Jefferson would later place on knowledge and enlightenment as essential parts of the Revolution.
Furthermore, as typified much of his later thought on the purpose of the Revolution, A Summary View implicitly argued that the future success of the American project, which Jefferson imagined would define the progression towards enlightened modernity, paradoxically required a return to the simple purity of the past. Regardless, while Jefferson claimed, “it is neither our wish, nor our interest, to separate,” A Summary View suggested that even at this very early stage of the Revolution he conceived of the American project as fundamentally and irrevocably distinct from that of the mother country. It is thus unsurprising that once the Revolution transformed from a debate over the British constitution to an opportunity to fashion new republics, Jefferson immediately sought to cleanse society of its metropolitan “corruptions” in favor of creating a new and enlightened world that would provide a novel model for the construction of free societies everywhere.
Jefferson’s finished Declaration of Independence (1776), and the republic building that followed, reveals that independence was the crucial turning point in his thinking about the purpose of the burgeoning Revolution. He cast off any remaining pretensions of being a part of a uniquely British debate, one which he had albeit reluctantly upheld in the Summary View, and put the new American project in distinctly global and broad historical terms. Jefferson placed the Declaration’s sweeping discussion of the natural rights of all men and the purpose of all government as a product not of the Magna Charta (1215) or the ancient British constitution, but of the “course of human events,” and submitted the facts of British tyranny not to the people of the metropole, but to a “candid world.” While his appeal to the world and history had an obvious practical purpose, to declare independence and attract potential allies in the struggle against Britain, it represented a substantial change in the scale and scope of American ambitions and self-importance, which Jefferson took to heart while drafting laws for the newly declared Commonwealth of Virginia.
Once the American colonies abandoned the confines of the British Empire, Jefferson saw the Revolution as a globally important opportunity to completely refashion American society by throwing off the ancient and irrational shackles of British law and customs, and in its place, positioning the new republics as the natural leaders of a worldwide and irresistible trend towards enlightenment. Jefferson’s A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, presented to the Virginian House of Delegates in 1778, captures the centrality of enlightenment and America’s potential global importance in shaping his understanding of the Revolution. The bill laid out a sophisticated and multi-tiered educational plan that emphasized a curriculum clearly influenced by the Enlightenment, calling for education in math, ancient, American, and European history, and Latin and Greek language.
As he described in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson believed that such an education would create ideal republicans by “provid[ing] [Virginians] an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness,” as the people would become the “safe depositories” of free government “without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.” Consequently, he saw the education of the populace as so fundamental to the purpose of the Revolution that in his 1786 letter to George Wythe he called his education law “the most important bill in our whole code.” Furthermore, he claimed that it made America so distinctly free and enlightened in comparison to the rest of the world, particularly England and France, that “a thousand years would not place them on the high ground on which our common people are now setting out.”
Even by 1810, Jefferson maintained and expanded upon the this view telling John Tyler that education was one of the “great measures” at the heart of any republic and that the administrative districts created by his plan would result in “little republics [which] would be the main strength of the great one.” Clearly, Jefferson thought an educated populace to be essential to any republic and, even more importantly, that it was what made the new-founded United States distinctly more free, progressive, and enlightened than any other nation on earth both present and past.
Consequently, by Jefferson’s logic it was only natural the United States and its leaders, like Jefferson himself, would become the leaders of an increasingly rational and cooperative world once other nations followed their example. This interpretation of Jefferson’s intentions for the American Revolution helps to explain many of his opinions regarding foreign policy, for example, the promotion of American support for the French Revolution even when it descended into anarchy and violence. In Jefferson’s mind, if the French Republic succeeded, especially with the help of American patronage, it would be a powerful vindication of his belief that the American Revolution was the first step in inaugurating the rise of the United States as a global intellectual and political leader and its new republican society as a successful model for the rest of the world to emulate.
Jefferson believed that the cultivation of the ideal republican mind and social order could only fully succeed if the land was properly cultivated as well. Consequently, tightly connected to Jefferson’s education plans were his agrarian reforms, meant to ensure that citizens remained virtuous and economically independent. While, as his August 13, 1776 letter to Edmund Pendleton suggests, his calls for land reform had roots in the very British distinction between Saxon and Norman landholdings that he made in A Summary View, they took on new life with independence that had far more to do with creating a new republican society than restoring ancient British freedoms. For example, his well-known advocacy for the abolition of primogeniture and entail primarily sought to address a much broader problem than purifying or dismantling British legal infrastructure. Instead, it also sought to remove what Jefferson believed to be a critical force for unnatural despotism and ignorance. As he put it in his autobiography, “the abolition of primogeniture, and equal partition of inheritances removed the feudal and unnatural distinctions which made one member of every family rich, and all the rest poor, substituting equal partition, the best of all the Agrarian laws.” Once again, Jefferson made a point of arguing that this reform was not only a necessity for creating a new society independent of Britain, but also something that made the United States far closer to the ideals of the Enlightenment and republicanism than European states and people. Echoing the French philosophe Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), his 1785 letter to James Madison depicted the French populace as oppressed and subjected to ignorance as the French state denied their “natural right [to land holdings] … [as] the earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.” In light of this broad statement that connected land holding to natural rights, rather than just classical republican theory, Jefferson’s justifications for agrarian reform then become far more interesting and speak to the heart of how he understood the purpose of the American Revolution.
When he exclaimed in the Notes that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of god … whose breasts he made his peculiar deposit for the substantial and genuine virtue … [as the] corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example,” Jefferson was justifying the progress of the American Revolution on two separate fronts. First, he was making a classical republican argument. Unlike the people of the manufacturing-oriented and crowded cities of Europe, independent agrarian landholders could avoid the “dependence [which] begets subservience and venality, suffocating the germ of virtue,” a necessity for maintaining a republic as it prevented the “degeneracy [that] is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”
Far more intriguing however, is Jefferson’s second point that is implicit in calling agrarian farmers the “chosen people of god,” that went beyond merely describing what was required of a republican state and, instead, grounded the American project firmly within the framework of Enlightenment thought. A proponent of stadial theory, a product of the Scottish Enlightenment and French phsyiocrats which proposed a deterministic model of socioeconomic development in a series of stages from hunting-gathering to commerce, Jefferson believed that Europeans had in a sense become too refined and developed within the “commercial stage.” For Jefferson this dilemma was unsurprising, as he believed that all human societies, as Algernon Sidney explained in his highly influential Discourse Concerning Government (1698), “are subject to corruption and must perish unless they are timely renewed and reduced to first principles.” However, in contrast to Europeans, agrarian Americans were uniquely well situated to use the opportunity provided by the Revolution to restore society to the freedom and equality that characterized the Rousseauian conception of the state of nature, or “first principles” as Sidney put it, by eliminating the corruptive influences of millennia of social development.
Jefferson saw the upheaval of the American Revolution as creating the conditions necessary for a republic by allowing for the great social reform project of the Rousseauian Enlightenment, as the French philosophe described it, “to disentangle what is original [within society] from what is artificial in man’s present nature.” It was these “unnatural” influences, embodied by institutions like primogeniture and entail, which had always made establishing a republic so difficult and its institutions perpetually fragile. Jefferson believed that once these corruptions ceased to exist, an educated and virtuous citizenry, a development already assured by his education bill, could recreate society along lines favorable for the lasting success of a republic and provide a model for other countries to eventually do the same. Paradoxically, like in A Summary View, true progress towards enlightened republicanism required society to return to the literally prehistoric first principles of the state of nature. This belief in a need to fundamentally reconstitute the foundations of society, rather than simply create a republican government, clearly played a central role in how Jefferson imagined the purpose of, and designed his contributions to, the Revolution.
With these considerations in mind it is easy to understand why Jefferson has often been caricaturized as a nigh utopian, democratic populist with a naïve faith in the masses to become virtuous republicans. However, this oversimplifies what Jefferson believed to be the purpose of the Revolution and how he thought he was contributing. Jefferson’s faith in the potential of the common people was tightly connected to his deterministic understanding of socioeconomic development and a hierarchical conception of how “enlightened” societies should and would operate. While it is appealing to see his proposed measures as the actions of a great democratic leveler, Jefferson clearly designed them with a set of hierarchical assumptions in mind, particularly, his belief that in a meritocratic society such as a republic, a small number of elites, what he called the natural aristocracy, would inevitably emerge as its leaders. It is for this reason that his education plan sought to educate fully only a small number of those “whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue,” and partially educated the rest so that they became “guardians of their own liberty,” because, as Jefferson imagined, they could recognize the benefits of being governed by their intellectual and cultural superiors. As he described in an 1813 letter to John Adams, education enables the mass of the people to rise “to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety and to orderly government … qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi.” Importantly, the kind of education, qualifications, and interests that Jefferson associates with the naturally endowed geniuses unmistakably mirror his own, thus positioning him and people like him as the new republic’s ideal leaders if the Revolution was to fulfill its purpose. Similarly, when Jefferson abolished primogeniture and entail, his purpose was not to replace unnatural distinctions with perfect equality, which he believed to be both impossible and undesirable but, instead, through the creation of independent landholders, to provide the foundations which would enable the right kind of hierarchy for a republican and enlightened society to flourish.
Jefferson’s support for a natural republican hierarchy within the United States mirrors the role he envisioned for the American project internationally. Far from emphasizing populist leveling, Jefferson thought that it was only through the establishment of a natural aristocracy that the Revolution could truly fulfill its purpose, not only to refashion society but also to eventually spread American republicanism beyond the United States. He developed this idea furthest in his famous 1813 letter to Adams, describing the establishment of a republican American society as starting a much broader and important development in world history that was still ongoing well into the nineteenth century:
With respect to Aristocracy, we should further consider that before the establishment of the American states, nothing was known to History but the Man of the old world … steeped in the vices which that situation generates … But [after the American Revolution] … a change has sensibly taken place in the mind of Man. Science had liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example had kindled feelings of right in the people. An insurrection has consequently begun, of science, talents and courage against rank and birth, which have fallen into contempt.
This excerpt celebrating the novelty of what American founders had accomplished reveals the considerable extent to which Jefferson believed the Revolution’s primary purpose to be the creation of an entirely new society with no precedent in all of history, governed by the natural, rather than long dominant unnatural, aristocracy, and based on republican and Enlightenment principles. Even more importantly, it suggests that Jefferson believed that the Revolution, particularly his own contributions, was inaugurating what he hoped would become a long lasting and worldwide movement of social and intellectual reform with the natural aristocracy of the United States as its vanguard, culminating in transfer of global leadership to the new world.
Few individuals, if any, played as vital a role in shaping the American Revolution as Thomas Jefferson. Yet, the ambitious scope and scale of how he imagined the Revolution’s purpose is often obscured. While it arguably never resulted in transformative change once put into practice, the theory behind Jefferson’s contributions to the American project were undeniably radical. The establishment of republican institutions of governance was just one small part of what he hoped Americans could accomplish following independence. Rather than solely advocating for the establishment of new government and enhanced political rights, Jefferson, influenced by Enlightenment thinkers like Sidney and Rousseau, imagined the Revolution as an opportunity to completely reorganize the very foundations of society by purging it of corruptive elements, which had for centuries enabled the triumph of unnatural despotisms where republics could otherwise succeed. Furthermore, Jefferson believed that the Revolution should not only create an unprecedented model of republicanism for the rest of the world but also that an enlightened social, intellectual and political hierarchy ought to be encouraged to underpin this new republican society with a natural aristocracy at its top. This conception of the American Revolution heavily influenced Jefferson’s actions and beliefs throughout his life and, through his influence, played a critical role in shaping the development of the United States throughout the antebellum period.
 Carl L. Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1909), 22.
 Thomas Jefferson, “A Summary View of the Rights of British North America,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 119.
 Ibid., 121.
 “The Declaration of Independence as Adopted by Congress,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. James P. McClure and J. Jefferson Looney (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008–2017).
 Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia: Query XIV,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 272, 274. Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” in ibid., 365.
 Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, August 13, 1786, in ibid., 858-859.
 Jefferson to John Tyler, May 26, 1810, in ibid., 1226-1227.
 “Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, August 13, 1776,” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0205; Thomas Jefferson, “The Autobiography,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 44.
 Importantly, it is unclear if Jefferson had in fact read Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, but his language and logic suggests some influence even if this is only through an intermediary source. In a 1771 letter to Robert Skipwith he does claim to have a copy of Rousseau’s novel Eloisa, suggesting that he was likely familiar with the French philosophe’s more famous works.
 Jefferson to James Madison, October 28, 1785, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, in ibid., 842.
 Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia: Query XIX,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, in ibid., 290.
 Ibid., 291.
 Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (London: Printed for A. Millar, 1751), 117.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau: “The Discourses” and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 125.
 To further support this interpretation of Rousseau’s influence on Jefferson’s thought, it is worth noting that he, particularly to differentiate himself from Europeans while in France, occasionally refers to himself affectionately in correspondence as a “savage” (e.g. Jefferson’s September 30, 1785 letter to Charles Bellini), a trope often associated with Rousseau’s optimistic portrayal of humans in the state of nature. While this could merely be a coincidence, it seems to suggest that Rousseau’s depiction of the state of nature, even if encountered by Jefferson indirectly, was an important force shaping his conception of republican identity especially in contrast to European societies. Additionally, it would be hard to imagine a more fervent critic of primogeniture and entail than Rousseau who wrote sardonically, “the first person who, having enclosed a plot of land took it upon himself to say this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (New York: Dover Publications, 2012), 27.
 Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 365. Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia: Query XIV,” in ibid., 274.
 Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813, in ibid., 1305-1306.
 Ibid., 1309.