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Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12 Shackles from the Mind

THE second bill proposed on that notable day of October 12, 1776, was for a thorough revision and codification of the laws of Virginia, Inasmuch as the bill merely called for the appointment of revisors to consider the vast subject and bring in a report on which further action might be based, it had no difficulty in passing both the House and Senate.1

On November 5th, a committee of revisors was accordingly selected. It consisted of Thomas Jefferson, chairman, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee. It was a strong group, comprising some of the best and most acute minds to be found in all Virginia.

The act calling for revision alleged that the change in government required corresponding changes in the laws "heretofore in force, many of which are inapplicable to the powers of government as now organized, others are founded on principles heterogeneous to the republican spirit, others which, long before such change, had been oppressive to the people, could yet never be repealed while the regal power continued," and that new' laws, "friendly to liberty and the rights of mankind," ought to be adopted in their stead.2

It was a large order, and perhaps not all the legislators who voted for it knew exactly what it entailed. But Jefferson knew.

While sitting through the long sessions of Congress in Philadelphia, Jefferson had been giving this problem much earnest thought. He was persuaded then, he related in his Autobiography, that "our whole code must be reviewed, adapted to our republican form of government; and, now that we had no negatives of Councils, Governors, and Kings to restrain us from doing right, that it should be corrected, in all its parts, with a single eye to reason, and the good of those for whose government it was framed."3

Two leading principles governed Jefferson in rearing a new legal structure. The first was that there should be a minimum of laws, and he quoted approvingly, in support, the dictum of Tacitus that the more corrupt the commonwealth, the greater the number of its laws. The second called for terseness, simplicity and such plainness that the ordinary layman could understand and plead his own case in court without the help of any counsel.4

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