Thomas Jefferson and the Rights of Citizens

Wed, Sep 17, 2008, 4:30 pm
Speaker(s): 
Sponsor(s): 
Program in American Studies

Princeton University Constitution Day Lecture

“Every man has a right to live somewhere on the earth…the only rightful line is between transient persons & bona fide citizens.”

— Thomas Jefferson

This year’s Constitution Day lecture will focus on Thomas Jefferson’s personal and political struggle during his first term as president to define the rights of “bonafide citizens.” For more than a quarter of a century, from his preparation of a constitution for Virginia, to his proposal to establish a government for the Northwest Territory, through his draft of the Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson grappled with constitutions and the rights of citizens. Between 1801 and 1803, as the nation’s third president, he wrestled with the twin problems of the restriction by the Alien Friends Act and the Sedition Act of the rights of those who were already citizens and the expansion of citizenship through a wise and fair policy of naturalization as new territories were acquired. What did it mean to expand boundaries through the incorporation of new territories into the nation, not from lands already “belonging” to the states but from lands acquired from foreign governments (the Louisiana Purchase, or West Florida, for example)? And, even more perplexing, what did it mean to expand the community of the nation’s citizens and possibly to reformulate the principles of citizenship? Jefferson’s correspondence, his draft of a bill to establish a government for the District of Columbia, and his first Annual Message to Congress provide some answers to these questions.

With comments by:
  • Christina Burnett, Associate Professor of Law, Columbia University;
  • Stephen Macedo, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics and Director of the University Center for Human Values;
  • Sean Wilentz, Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era.

Supported by the Office of the Provost. Cosponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and the Program in Law and Public Affairs.