Founders and the Constitution

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Clock One 45-minute class period.

In this lesson, students will study the life of Thomas Jefferson. Students will learn about his efforts to protect individual rights and human liberty, his views on the Founding, and the contradictions between his words and his actions.

Founding Principles

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Freedom of Religion image

Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


May it [the Declaration of Independence] be to the world what I believe it will be, . . . the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self government. . . . All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. - Thomas Jefferson (1826)


Thomas Jefferson hoped that he would be remembered for three accomplishments: his founding of the University of Virginia, his crafting of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. It is for the last that he has most endeared himself to succeeding generations as a champion of liberty and equality.

Jefferson indeed believed that these achievements were the high points of a life dedicated to the promotion of human freedom. Education, he held, freed the mind from ignorance. Tolerance freed the will from coercion. And the assertion of human liberty and equality freed the body from the chains of tyranny.

But Jefferson’s actions sometimes contradicted his words. An opponent of centralized power, as president he completed the Louisiana Purchase and unhesitatingly employed the resources of the federal government to enforce the harsh and unpopular Embargo Act. A proponent of individual rights, he excused the atrocities committed by the French Revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror. A critic of slavery who outlawed the slave trade as president, he was the owner of more than 200 African Americans. The key to understanding Jefferson lies in the difficult task of reconciling these inconsistencies.


In this lesson, students will learn about Thomas Jefferson. They should first read as background homework Handout A—Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Thomas Jefferson on the Constitution, in which Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, gives his opinion of the newly written Constitution. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.

Next, the students will complete Handout D— Thomas Jefferson on the Constitution which asks them to imagine Jefferson’s reaction to certain sections of the final version of the Constitution. There are Homework Options that ask the students to reflect on the classroom discussions and group activity. Extensions provide opportunity for thought as students are asked to consider Jefferson’s ideas about the nature of law as expressed in a letter written to James Madison after the Constitution had gone into effect.


Students will:

  • appreciate Jefferson’s efforts to protect individual rights and human liberty
  • evaluate the importance of Jefferson’s contributions to the Founding
  • understand Jefferson’s views on the Constitution and a bill of rights
  • explain the apparent contradictions between Jefferson’s words and actions


Student Handouts

  • Handout A—Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
  • Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
  • Handout C—In His Own Words: Thomas Jefferson on the Constitution (Letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787)
  • Handout D—Analysis: Thomas Jefferson on the Constitution

Additional Teacher Resource

  • Answer Key


CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

Ask students to read Handout A—Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Thomas Jefferson.

    Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, served as governor of Virginia, as the first U.S. secretary of state, and as the third president of the United States. He also founded the University of Virginia. Jefferson was known as a champion of American and individual liberty. He took a leading role in opposing British policy toward the colonies in the 1760s and 1770s. After independence, he pushed for the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution. As a member of the Republican opposition in 1798, he wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, which declared that states had the right to disregard federal laws they found unconstitutional. As president, he purchased in 1803 the Louisiana Territory, which he believed would provide enough space so that Americans could live in liberty for “a thousand generations.”

Context 5 min.

  1. Briefly review with students the concept of natural rights and representative government. Write the following excerpt from the Declaration of Independence on the board or overhead:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,— That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.

  2. Help the students (as a large group) paraphrase the above excerpt. Answers will vary, but the paraphrasing should be similar to the following:

    God gave all people the same rights. These rights cannot be taken away. The duty of government is to protect these rights. When the government fails to protect their rights, the people may change or get rid of the government.

    Explain to the students that they will read and analyze Jefferson’s thoughts on how well the finished Constitution protected the rights of the people.

In His Own Words 20 min.

  1. Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions.
  2. Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: Thomas Jefferson on the Constitution. Be sure that the students understand the vocabulary and the “who, what, where, and when” of the document. Have the students read the document together as a class.
  3. Give the students Handout D—Analysis: Thomas Jefferson on the Constitution. Have the students fill in the chart, describing Jefferson’s reaction to specific sections of the Constitution. Advanced students may dispense with Handout D and instead locate the clauses in the Constitution that are relevant to Jefferson’s comments in his letter to Madison.

Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.

Have the students share their answers to Handout D. Ask them to consider whether Jefferson’s disapproval of certain clauses of the Constitution is justified.
Answers will vary.

Follow-Up Homework Options

  1. Have the students compose a bill of rights based on Jefferson’s wishes as expressed in the letter to Madison.
  2. Have the students assume the role of Jefferson. Tell them Madison has responded to his letter. Congress is willing to incorporate all but one of his suggestions into the Constitution, and they want him to choose which one to disregard. Have the students explain in a short essay which suggestion they believe Jefferson would be willing to give up and why.


On September 6, 1789, six months after the new government of the Constitution had been instituted, Jefferson, who was still in France, wrote again to James Madison, reflecting on the idea of constitutions and laws as follows:

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this side or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. . . . I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by any individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. . . .

What is true of every member of the society individually, is true of them collectively. . . . No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. . . . The constitution and the laws of their predecessors [are] extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. . . . Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years [Jefferson’s calculation of a generation]. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.

Source: Jefferson to Madison, September 6, 1789, in Merrill D. Peterson, ed. Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), 444–451.


  1. Students could make a list of what might happen if Jefferson’s proposal to have laws expire every nineteen years were adopted in the present-day United States.
  2. Students could make a list of what would happen if their school adopted Jefferson’s policy and re-wrote school rules every two years.


Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Levy, Leonard. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989.
Matthews, Richard K. The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1984.
Mayer, David. The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
Yarbrough, Jean. American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People. Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1998.

“Jefferson’s Story of the Declaration.” U.S. <>.
“Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists: The Draft and Recently Discovered Text.” The Library of Congress. <>.
Monticello, the Home of Thomas Jefferson. <>.
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. The Avalon Project at Yale University Law School. <>.
The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress. <>.

Selected Works

By Thomas Jefferson

  • A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774)
  • The Declaration of Independence (1776)
  • Draft Constitution for Virginia (1776)
  • Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1777)
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (1781)
  • The Kentucky Resolutions (1798)
  • First Inaugural Address (1801)

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