Thomas Jefferson

Third President

Born: April 13, 1743 in Albemarle County, Virginia

Died: July 4, 1826 in Monticello in Virginia

The following essay on Jefferson is by G. Mercer Adam:

JEFFERSON, when he penned the famous Declaration of Independence, which broke all hope of reconciliation with the motherland and showed England what the deeply-wronged Colonies of the New World unitedly desired and would in the last resort fight for, had then just passed his thirty-third birthday.  Who was the man, and what were his upbringings and status in the then young community, that inspired the writing of this great historic document— a document that on its adoption gave these United States an ever-memorable national birthday, and seven years later, by the Peace of Versailles, wrung from Britain recognition of the independence of the country and ushered it into the great sisterhood of Nations?  To his contemporaries and a later political age, Jefferson, in spite of his culture and the aristocratic strain in his blood, is known as the advocate of popular sovereignty and the champion of democracy in matters governmental, as United States minister to France between the years 1784-89, as Secretary of State under Washington, and as U. S. President from 1801 to 1809.  By education and bent of mind, he was, however, an idealist in politics, a thinker and writer, rather than a debater and speaker, and one who in his private letters, State papers, and public documents did much to throw light, in his era, on the origin and development of American political thought.  A man of fine education and of noble, elevated character, he earned distinction among his fellows, and though opposed politically by many prominent statesmen of the day, who, like Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, were in favor of a strong centralized government, while Jefferson, in the interests of the masses, feared encroachments on State and individual liberty, he was nevertheless paid the respect, consideration, and regard of his generation, as his services have earned the gratitude and his memory the endearing commendation of posterity.

The illustrious statesman was born April 13, 1743, at “Shadwell,” his father’s home in the hill country of central Virginia, about 150 miles from Williamsburg, once the capital of the State, and the seat of William and Mary college, where Jefferson received his higher education.  His father, Peter Jefferson, was a planter, owning an estate of about 2,000 acres, cultivated, as was usual in Virginia, by slave labor.  His mother was a Miss Randolph, and well connected; to her the future President owed his aristocratic blood and refined tastes, and with good looks a fine, manly presence.  By her, Thomas, who was the third of nine children, was in his childhood’s days gently nurtured, though himself fond of outdoor life and invigorating physical exercise.  His father died when his son was but fourteen, and to him he bequeathed the Roanoke River estate, afterwards rebuilt and christened “Monticello.”  His studies at the time were pursued under a fairly good classical scholar; and on passing to college he there made diligent use of his time in the study of history, literature, the sciences, and mathematics.

When he left college Jefferson took up the study of law under the direction of George Wythe, afterwards Chancellor, then a rising professional man of high attainments, to whom the youth seems to have been greatly indebted as mentor and warm, abiding friend.  He was also fortunate in the acquaintance he was able to make among many of the best people of Virginia, including some historic names, such as Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, and Francis Fauquier, the lieutenant-governor of the province, a gentleman with strong French proclivities, and a devoted student of the destructive writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, that had much to do in bringing on the French Revolution.  By his father’s death, he acquired a modest income, besides his little estate, and the former he added to by his legal practice when, in 1767, he obtained his diploma as a lawyer.  In 1769, he became a member of the House of Burgesses along with Washington and other prominent Virginians, and with the exception of brief intervals he served with distinction until the outbreak of the Revolution.  In 1772, he married a young widow in good circumstances, and this enabled him to add alike to his income and to his patrimony.  About the time of the meeting of the Colonial Convention, called in 1775, to choose delegates for the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, at which Patrick Henry was present, the youthful Jefferson, now known as an able political writer, wrote his “Summary View of the Rights of British America”—a trenchant protest against English taxation of the Colonies, which had considerable influence in creating public feeling favorable to American Independence.

The effect of this notable utterance was, later on, vastly increased by the draft he prepared of the Declaration of Independence, the latter immortal document being somewhat of a transcript of views set forth by Jefferson in his former paper, as well as of ideas expressed by the English philosopher, John Locke, in his “Theory of Government,” and by Rosseau, in his “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men;” though the circumstances of the Colonies at this time were of course different; while to England and the European nations the Declaration was a startling revelation of the attitude now assumed by the great leaders of the movement for separation as well as for freedom and independence.  In the passing of this great national charter John Adams, as all know, was of much service to Jefferson in the debate over it in committee, as well as in the subsequent ratification of it by the House.  Franklin was also of assistance in its revision in draft form; and most happy was the result, not only in the ultimate passing of the great historic document, but in its affirmation of the intelligent stand taken by the Colonies against England and her monarch, and in its pointed definition of the theory of democratic government on which the new fabric of popular rule in the New World was founded and raised.

In the autumn of 1776, Jefferson resigned his seat in Congress, or rather declined re-election to the Third Continental Congress, and retired for a time to his Virginia home.  He also, at this period, declined appointment to France on the mission on which Franklin had set out; nevertheless, we presently find him a member of the legislature of his own State, taking part in passing measures in which he was particularly interested.  Many of these measures are indicative of the breadth of mind and large, tolerant views for which Jefferson was noted, viz.: the repeal in Virginia of the laws of entail; the abolition of primogeniture and the substitution of equal partition of inheritance; the affirmation of the rights of conscience and the relief of the people from taxation for the support of a religion not their own; and the introduction of a general system of education, so that the people, as the author of these beneficent acts himself expressed it, “would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government.” Other measures included the abolition of capital punishment, save for murder and treason, and an embargo placed on the importation of slaves, though Jefferson failed in his larger design of freeing all slaves, as he desired, hoping that this would be done throughout the entire country, while also beneficently extending to them white aid and protection.

In 1779, Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry in the governorship of Virginia.  This was the period when the English were prosecuting their campaigns in the South, checked by General Nathaniel Greene—when South Carolina was being overrun by Cornwallis, and Virginia itself was invaded by expeditions from New York under Philips and Arnold.  As Jefferson had no military abilities, indeed, was a recluse rather than a man of action, the administration of his native Province, while able and efficient, was lacking in the notable incident which the then crisis of affairs would naturally call forth.  Even his own Virginia homestead was at this time raided by the English cavalry officer, Colonel Tarleton, and much of his property was either desolated or stolen.  This occasioned bitter resentment against the English in Jefferson’s mind; while the serious illness and early death of his loved wife, which occurred just then, led him to surrender office and return for a time to the seclusion of his home.

Meanwhile, thrice was the offer made to the fast-budding statesman to proceed to France as ambassador; and only on the post being pressed upon him for the fourth time did he accept its duties and responsibilities and set out, accompanied by a daughter whom he wished to have educated abroad, for Paris in the summer of 1784.

In the post now vacated by Franklin, Jefferson remained for five years, until the meeting of the French Estates-General and the outbreak of the Revolution against absolute monarchy and the theory of the State in France upon which it rested.  With French society, Jefferson, even more than his predecessor, was greatly enamored, and was on intimate terms with the savants of the era, including those who by their writings had precipitated the French Revolution, with all its excesses and horrors.  The latter, it is true, filled Jefferson with dismay on his return to America, though dear to him were the principles which the apostles of revolution advocated and the wellbeing of the people, in spite of the anarchy that ensued.  What diplomatic business was called for during his holding the post of minister, Jefferson efficiently conducted, and with the courtesy as well as sagacity which marked all his relations as a publicist and man of the world.  Unlike John Adams, who with Franklin had been his predecessor as American envoy to France, he was on good terms with the French minister, Count Vergennes; while he shut his eyes, which Adams could not do, to the lack of disinterestedness in French friendliness toward the Colonies and remembered only the practical and timely service the nation had rendered to his country.  Jefferson added to his services at this era by his efforts to suppress piracy in the Mediterranean, on the part of corsairs belonging to the Barbary States, which he further checked, later on, by the bombardment of Tripoli and the punishment administered to Algiers during the Tripolitan war (1801-05), for her piratical attacks on neutral commerce.

After traveling considerably through Europe and informing himself as to the character and condition of the people in the several countries visited, Jefferson returned to America just at the time when Washington was elected to the Presidency.  In his absence, the Federal Convention had met at Philadelphia, the Constitution of the United States had been adopted and ratified, and the government had been organized with its executive departments, then limited to five, viz.: The State Department, the Treasury, the War Department, the Department of Justice, and the Post-office.  The Judiciary had also been organized and the Supreme Court founded.  With these organizations of the machinery of government came presently the founding of parties, especially the rise of the Republican or Democratic party, as it was subsequently called, in opposition to the Federalist party, then led by Hamilton, Jay, and Morris.  At this juncture, on the return of Jefferson from the French mission, and after a visit to his home in Virginia, Washington offered him the post of Secretary of State, which he accepted, and entered upon the duties of that office in New York in March, 1791.  His chief colleague in the Cabinet, soon now to become his political opponent, was Alexander Hamilton, who had charge of the finances, as head of the Treasury department.  Between these two men, as chiefs of the principal departments of government, President Washington had an anxious time of it in keeping the peace, for each was insistently arrayed against the other, not only in their respective attitudes toward England and in the policy of the administration in the then threatening war with France, but also as to the powers the National Government should be entrusted with in relation to the legislatures of the separate states.  What Jefferson specially feared, with his firmly held views as to the independence of public opinion, and especially his hatred of monarchy and all its ways, was that the conservative and aristocratic influences of the environment of New York, hardly as yet escaped from the era of royal and Tory dominion and submission to the English Crown, might fashion the newly federated nation upon English models and give it a complexion far removed, socially as well as politically, from Republican simplicity, coupled with a disposition to aggress upon and dictate to the individual states of the Union, to their nullification and practical effacement.

For this apparent tendency, Jefferson specially blamed Hamilton, since his tastes as well as his sympathies were known to be aristocratic, as indeed were Washington’s, in his fondness for courtly dignity and the trappings and ceremonies of high office.  But his antagonism to Hamilton was specially called forth by the latter’s creation of a National Bank, with its tendency to aggrandize power and coerce or control votes at the expense of the separate States.  He further was opposed to the great financier and aristocrat for his leanings toward England and against France, in the war that had then broken out between these nations, and for his sharp criticism of the draft of the message to Congress on the relations of France and England, which Jefferson had penned, and which was afterwards to influence Washington in issuing the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793.  In this attitude toward Hamilton and the administration, of which both men were members, Jefferson was neither selfish nor scheming, but, on the contrary, was discreet and patriotic, as well as just and high-minded.  “What he desired supremely,” as has been well stated by a writer, “was the triumph of democratic principles, since he saw in this triumph the welfare of the country—the interests of the many against the ascendancy of the few—the real reign of the people, instead of the reign of an aristocracy of money or birth.”  In this opposition to his chief and able colleague, and feeling strongly on the matters which constantly brought him into collision with the centralizing designs of the President and the preponderating influence in the Cabinet hostile to his views, Jefferson resigned his post in December, 1793, and retired for a time to his estate at Monticello.

Jefferson always relished the period of his brief retirements to his Virginia home, where he could enjoy his library, entertain his friends, and overlook his estates.  There, too, he took a lively interest in popular and higher education, varied by outlooks on the National situation, not always pleasing to him, as in the case of Jay’s treaty with England (1794-95), which shortly afterwards proved fatal to that statesman’s candidature for the Presidential office.  Meanwhile, the contentions and rivalries of the political parties grew apace; and in 1797, just before the retirement of Washington at the close of his second administration, the struggle between Democrats and Federalists became focussed on the prize of the Presidency—the “Father of his Country” having declined to stand for a third term.  The candidates, we need hardly say, were John Adams, who had been Vice President in Washington’s administration, and Thomas Jefferson, the former being the standard-bearer of the Federalists, and the latter the candidate of the anti-Federal Republicans.  The contest ended by Adams securing the Presidency by three votes (71 to 68) over Jefferson, who thus, acording to the usage of the time, became Vice-President.

The Adams’ Administration, though checkered by divided counsels and by the machinations of party, was on the whole beneficial to the country.  It had, however, to face new complications with France, then under the Directory.  These complications arose, in part, from soreness over the passing of the Jay treaty with England, and in part because America could not be bled for money through its envoys, at the bidding of unscrupulous members of the Directory.  The situation was for a time so grave as to incite to war preparations in the United States, and to threatened naval demonstrations against France.  Nor were matters improved by the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), directed against those deemed dangerous to the peace and safety of the country, or who, like the more violent members of the Press, published libels on the Government.  The storm which these obnoxious Acts evoked led to their speedy repeal, though not before Jefferson and Madison had denounced them as fetters on the freedom of public speech and infringements of the rights of the people.  They were moreover resented as not being in harmony with the Constitution, as a compact to which the individual States of the Union were parties, and which Jefferson especially deemed to be in jeopardy from Federalist legislation.

The result of these agitations of the period, and of breaches, which had now come about, between the Adams and Hamilton wings of the Federalist party, showed itself in the Presidential campaign of 1800.  Washington, by this time, had passed from earthly scenes, and the coming nineteenth century was to bring such changes and developments in the young nation as few then foresaw or even dreamed of.  At this era, when the Adams Administration was about to close, Jefferson, in spite of his known liberal, democratic views, was one of the most popular of political leaders, save with the Federalists, now dwindling in numbers and influence.  He it was who was put forward on the Republican side for the Presidency, while Adams, still favored by the Federalists and himself desiring a second term of office, became the Federalist candidate.  Associated with the latter in the contest was Charles C. Pinckney, of South Carolina, who was named for the Vice-Presidency; while the Republican candidate for the minor post was Aaron Burr, an able but unscrupulous politician of New York.  When the electoral votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr, it was found, had each received seventy-three votes; while Adams secured sixty-five and Pinckney sixty-four votes.  The tie between Jefferson and Burr caused the election to be thrown into the House of Representatives, where the Federalists were still strong, and who, in their dislike of Jefferson, reckoned on finally giving the Presidency to Burr.  To this, Hamilton, however, magnanimously objected, and in the end Jefferson secured the Presidential prize, while to Burr fell the Vice-Presidency.

For the next eight years, until the coming of Madison’s Administration, Jefferson was at the helm of national affairs, assisted by an able Cabinet, the chief members of which were James Madison, Secretary of State, and the Swiss financier, Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury.  Aaron Burr, as we have recorded, was Vice-President, though the relations of Jefferson with him were far from cordial, owing to his political intrigues, which led the President ultimately to eschew him and distrust his character.  Jefferson’s attitude toward the man was later on shown to be well iustified, as the result of Burr’s hateful quarrel with Alexander Hamilton, and his mortally wounding that eminent statesman in a duel, which doomed him to political and social ostracism.  It was still further intensified by Burr’s treasonable attempt to seduce the West out of the Union and to found with it and Mexico a rival Republic, with the looked-for aid of Britain.  These unscrupulous acts occurred in Jefferson’s second term; and, failing in his conspiracy, Burr deservedly brought upon himself national obloquy, as well as prosecution for treason, though nothing came of the latter.

Some two years after Jefferson’s assumption of office, Ohio was admitted as a State into the Union.  The next year (1803) saw, however, an enormous extension of the national domain, thanks to the President’s far-seeing, if at the time unconstitutional, policy.  This was the purchase from France, at the cost of $15,000,000, of Louisiana, a vast territory lying between the Mississippi, the Rocky Mountains, and the Rio Grande, which had been originally settled by the French, and by their government ceded in 1763 to Spain as a set-off for Florida, while the French King at the same time ceded his other possessions on this continent to England.  In 1800, Napoleon had forced Spain to re-cede Louisiana to France, as the price of the First Consul’s uncertain goodwill and other intangible or elusive favors.  At this period, France desired to occupy the country, or at least to form a great seaport at New Orleans, the entrepot of the Mississippi, that might be of use to her against English warships in the region of the West Indies.  When news of the transfer of Louisiana to France reached this side of the water, Jefferson was greatly exercised over it, and had notions of off-setting it by some joint action with Great Britain.  His inducement to this unwonted course, considering his hatred of England and love for France, was his knowledge of the fact that French occupation of Louisiana meant the closing of the Mississippi to American commerce.

The purchase of Louisiana, which at one stroke more than doubled the existing area of the nation, was at first hotly opposed, especially by the Federalists.  It was deemed by them an unwarrantable stretch of the Constitution on Jefferson’s part, both in negotiating for it as a then foreign possession without authority from Congress, and in pledging the country’s resources in its acquisition.  The President was, however, sustained in his act, not only by the Senate, which ratified the purchase, but by the hearty approval and acclaim of the people.  Happily at this time the nation was ready for the acquisition and in good shape financially to pay for it, since the country was prospering, and its finances, thanks to the President’s policy of economy and retrenchment, were adequate to assume the burden involved in the purchase.  The national debt at this period was being materially reduced, and with its reduction came, of course, the saving on the interest charge; while the national income and credit were encouragingly rising.  Though the economical condition of the United States was thus favorable at this era, the state of trade, hampered by the policy of commercial restriction against foreign commerce, then prevailing, was not as satisfactory as the shippers of the East and the commercial classes desired.  The reason of this was the unsettled relations of the United States with foreign countries, and especially with England, whose policy had been and still was to thwart the New World republic and harass its commerce and trade.  To this England was incited by the bitter memories of the Revolutionary war and her opposition to rivalry as mistress of the seas.  Hence followed, on the part of the United States, the non-Importation Act, the Embargo Act of 1807-08, and other retaliatory measures of Jefferson’s administration, coupled with reprisals at sea and other expedients to offset British empressment of American sailors and the right of search, so ruthlessly and annoyingly put in force against the newborn nation and her maritime people.  The English people themselves, or a large proportion of them at least, were as strongly opposed to these aggressions of their government as were Americans, and while their voice effected little in the way of amelioration, it brought the two peoples once more distinctly nearer to the resort to war.  Meanwhile, the Embargo Act had become so irritating to our own people that the Jefferson administration was compelled to repeal it, though saving its face, for the time being, by the enforcement of the non-intercourse law, which imposed stringent restrictions upon British and French ships entering American harbors.

Such are the principal features of the Jefferson administration and the more important questions with which it had to deal.  Among other matters which we have not noted were the organization of the United States Courts; the removal of the seat of government from Philadelphia to Washington; the party complexion of Jefferson’s appointments to the civil service, in spite of his expressed design to be non-partisan in the selection to office; and the naming of men for the foreign embassies, such as James Monroe as plenipotentiary to France, assisted at the French Court by Robert R.  Livingstone, and at the Spanish Court by Charles C. Pinckney.  Other matters to which Jefferson gave interested attention include the dispatch of the explorers, Lewis and Clarke, to report on the features of the Far Western country, then in reality a wilderness, and to reclaim the vast unknown region for civilization.  The details of this notable expedition up the Missouri to its source, then on through the Indian country across the Rockies to the Pacific, need not detain us, since the story is familiar to all.  With the Louisiana purchase, it opened up great tracts of the continent, later on to become habitable and settled areas, and make a great and important addition to the public domain.  In the appointment of the expedition and the interest taken in it, Jefferson showed his intelligent appreciation of what was to become of high value to the country, and ere long result in a land of beautiful homes to future generations of its hardy people.

At the close of his second term in the Presidential chair (1809) Jefferson retired once more, and finally, to “Monticello,” after over forty years of almost continuous public service.  His career in this high office was entirely worthy of the man, being that of an honorable and public-spirited, as well as an able and patriotic, statesman.  If not so astute and sagacious as some who have held the presidency, especially in failing to see where his political principles, if carried out to their logical conclusions, would lead, his conscientiousness and liberality of mind prevented him from falling gravely into error or making any very fatal mistakes.  Though far from orthodox,—indeed, a freethinker he may be termed, in matters of religious belief, his personal life was most exemplary, and his relations with his fellowmen were ever just, honorable, and upright.  He had no gifts as a speaker, but was endowed highly as a writer and thinker; and, generally, was a man of broad intelligence, unusual culture for his time, and possessed a most alert and enlightened mind.  His interest in education and the liberal arts was great, and with his consideration for the deserving poor and those in class servitude, was indulged in at no inconsiderable cost to his pocket.  His hospitality was almost a reproach to him, as his impoverished estates and diminished fortunes in the latter part of his life attest.  His faith in democracy as a form of government was unbounded, as was his loyalty to that beneficent political creed summed up in the motto—

“Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”  “As a president,” writes the lecturer, Dr. John Lord, “he is not to be compared with Washington for dignity, for wisdom, for consistency, or executive ability.  Yet, on the whole, he has left a great name for giving shape to the institutions of his country, and for intense patriotism.”

“Jefferson’s manners,” records the same entertaining writer, “were simple, his dress was plain, he was accessible to everybody, he was boundless in his hospitalities, he cared little for money, his opinions were liberal and progressive, he avoided quarrels, he had but few prejudices, he was kind and generous to the poor and unfortunate, he exalted agricultural life, he hated artificial splendor, and all shams and lies.  In his morals he was irreproachable, unlike Hamilton and Burr; he never made himself ridiculous, like John Adams, by egotism, vanity, and jealousy; he was the most domestic of men, worshipped by his family and admired by his guests; always ready to communicate knowledge, strong in his convictions, perpetually writing his sincere sentiments and beliefs in letters to his friends,—as upright and honest a man as ever filled a public station, and finally retiring to private life with the respect of the whole nation, over which he continued to exercise influence after he had parted with power.  And when he found himself poor and embarrassed in consequence of his unwise hospitality, he sold his library, the best in the country, to pay his debts, as well as the most valuable part of his estate, yet keeping up his cheerfulness and serenity of temper, and rejoicing in the general prosperity,—which was produced by the ever-expanding energies and resources of a great country, rather than by the political theories which he advocated with so much ability.”

In Jefferson’s own mind, just what was the essence of his political gospel we ascertain from a succinct yet comprehensive passage in his able First Inaugural Address.  In that address President Jefferson sets forth instructively what he terms the essential principles of government, and those upon which, as he conceives, his own administration was founded and by which it was guided.  The governing principles it affirms are:—

“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns, and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies; the preservation of the general government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet-anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people; a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution, where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority — economy in the public expenditure, that labor may be lightly burdened; the honest payment of our debts, and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaiden; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of person, under the protection of the Habeas Corpus; and trial by juries impartially selected.  These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us, and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation.  The wisdom of our sages and the blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment; they should be the creed of our political faith; the text of civic instruction; the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

Jefferson had completed his sixty-sixth year when he relinquished the presidency to his friend and pupil, James Madison, and retired to his loved Virginia home.  There he lived on for seventeen years, enjoying the esteem and respect of the nation, and taking active interest in his favorite schemes on behalf of education in his native state and his helpful work in founding the college which was afterwards expanded into the University of Virginia.  His interest in national affairs, up to the last, remained keen and fervid, as the vast collection of his published correspondence show, as well as his many visiting contemporaries attest.  In the winter of 1825-6, his health began to fail, and in the following spring he made his will and prepared for posterity the original draft of his great historic achievement as a writer and patriot—the Declaration of Independence.  As the year (1826) wore on, he expressed a wish to live until the fiftieth anniversary of the nation’s independence, a wish that, as in the case of his distinguished contemporary, John Adams, was granted by the favor of Heaven, and he died on the 4th of July, mourned by the whole country.  In numberless quarters, funeral honors were paid to his memory, the more memorable orations being that of Daniel Webster, delivered in Boston.  To his tomb still come annually many reverent worshippers; while, among the historic shrines of the nation, his home at Monticello attracts ever-increasing hosts of loving and admiring pilgrims.


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