Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden
"Well, Jefferson, the House of Burgesses is waiting to know your decision," said Mr. Wythe, as he sat down, "Governor Henry was telling me he thought you had made it to-day? Is that so?"
Jefferson, who had been standing by the window of his chambers in Williamsburg, bowed his head.
"I have just sent the answer to Congress. It was hard to refuse, Wythe," he went on, a tone of regret in his voice. "To think of being appointed to go to Paris—and with men like Dr. Franklin and Silas Deane—and to represent the country there!"
He walked thought fully up and down the room. Mr. Wythe nodded sympathetically.
"I know—I know," he murmured. "But Mrs. Jefferson's state of health, I believe—and the cares of your estate—"
"Yes, yes." Mr. Jefferson passed his hand across his eyes. "Her health is such—I cannot leave her and she could not live through the journey with me. No, Mr. Wythe. Much as I should love to hear the music and see the beauties of the Old World, I have had to give up the appointment. The messenger is galloping along the road just there, now!"
He pointed and the two watched the distant horseman a moment in silence.
"Well, my friend," said Wythe, at length, "Virginia needs all the wisdom and learning of the best of us. Perhaps she needs you more than the country does. There is much to be done right here in Williamsburg. The laws of Virginia are in a confusion that is little less than barbarous. They must be made over, and there's no one who can help better to do it than you. I know that."
Jefferson's face lighted.
"That's the comfort I'm laying to my soul," he confessed. "I hope I can help here. There are many things I'd like to talk over with you. For instance, the laws of primogeniture and entail, by which a man may leave all of his estate to his eldest son, entirely leaving out his daughters and other sons from a share, and whereby the whole property must be kept together—none of it sold. Those laws are in crying need of being wiped off the books, it seems to me."
"You are right," agreed Wythe, nodding emphatically. "Why not propose to the House of Burgesses that a committee of five be appointed to go over the old English laws, throw out some like the one about ducking a woman for talking slander, for example, put the rest into just and sensible form, and make new laws of them?"
The speaker leaned his elbow on the table and watched his friend. Jefferson threw himself into a chair and crossed his long legs comfortably.
"A good idea," he granted. "We'll do it. There must be new laws—different laws, too. Virginia is supposed to hold four hundred thousand people, half slaves, to be sure, and many of them very ignorant. It seems to me some school system should be brought about. Then, too, now we've cast England off, we must form our own courts; make laws permitting foreigners to become voters, and so on. There's work for us all for years to come, here!"
Wythe laughed. "My dear Jefferson, you've spoken the solemn truth. There's work to arrange them, and there's fighting to get them passed, in spite of those who are always against anything new. What other ideas have you been brooding on?"
"Well, for one thing, why shouldn't the capital of Virginia be removed to Richmond?" asked Jefferson. "But the most important matter of all—the one that sits nearest my heart and conscience—is that all men should be allowed to worship God in the way that seems best to them."
Wythe straightened in his chair.
"What! You mean, you are against the government's establishing the religion of the state?"
"I am. Everyone should settle his religion for himself, I believe, and if I live, I mean to draw up an act that I shall call 'An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.'"
His visitor arose and took his hand in a firm grasp.
"Jefferson!" he exclaimed, earnestly. "If you will do that—and I know Patrick Henry—Mason—young James Madison, and others will help us put it through—I say if you will do that, you will be the greatest man in Virginia!"
"A great man!" cried Jefferson, putting back his head and laughing heartily. "But, Wythe," he went on, "seriously, if I can be the one who shall father a law to give to the people of Virginia religious freedom, I shall feel I've at least won something worthy to be put on my tombstone."
At his last words his laughter came back again.
The two friends stood a moment, each with a hand on the other's shoulder.
"There's one subject you haven't mentioned," suggested Wythe. "What do you think we ought to do about the slaves? Free them?"
"I do—after a certain date. And we ought to forbid the bringing of other slaves into the state."
"Right!" Wythe moved toward the door. "Well, I must leave you. I'll stop and tell Governor Henry about your decision not to go to Paris, shall I?"
"I wish you would. Tell him I've given up everything but Virginia."
Wythe waved his hat, smiling, and closed the door behind him.
The ideas the two had talked of, became the new work of Thomas Jefferson. He was made the head of the committee, of which George Wythe was one, to collect the old English laws that had governed the colony, select all that was best in them, and bring it before the legislatures from time to time to be passed as the laws of the new state.
It was a labor not only of months but of years of patient study; of many journeys to and from Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Monticello to do this. But to the person whose heart is in the serving of his country, as Thomas Jefferson's was, wearisome journeys and hard study are welcome.
While thus at work, Jefferson was made happy by the birth of a baby boy, but this joy was not to last. The little son, who saw the light in May, 1777, soon left those who had learned so soon to love him. His life summed up but seventeen brief days.
The disappointment at this loss—for Jefferson had no son and heir—only nerved him to renewed labors for the state.
"I have given up everything for Virginia," he repeated.