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Thomas Jefferson, a Brief Biography

Thomas Jefferson(Born April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, Virginia; died July 4, 1826, Monticello)

Thomas Jefferson wrote his own epitaph and designed the obelisk grave marker that was to bear three of his accomplishments and “not a word more:”

HERE WAS BURIED
THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE
DECLARATION
OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE
STATUTE OF VIRGINIA
FOR
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826

He could have filled several markers had he chosen to list his other public offices: third president of the new United States, vice president, secretary of state, diplomatic minister, and congressman. For his home state of Virginia he served as governor and member of the House of Delegates and the House of Burgesses as well as filling various local offices — all tallied into almost five decades of public service. He also omitted his work as a lawyer, architect, writer, farmer, gentleman scientist, and life as patriarch of an extended family at Monticello, both white and black. He offered no particular explanation as to why only these three accomplishments should be recorded, but they were unique to Jefferson.

Other men would serve as U.S. president and hold the public offices he had filled, but only he was the primary draftsman of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, nor could others claim the position as the Father of the University of Virginia. More importantly, through these three accomplishments he had made an enormous contribution to the aspirations of a new America and to the dawning hopes of repressed people around the world. He had dedicated his life to meeting the challenges of his age: political freedom, religious freedom, and educational opportunity. While he knew that we would continue to face these challenges through time, he believed that America’s democratic values would become a beacon for the rest of the world. He never wavered from his belief in the American experiment.

I have no fear that the result of our experiment will be that men may be trusted to govern themselves. . . .
Thomas Jefferson, 2 July 1787

He spent much of his life laying the groundwork to insure that the great experiment would continue.

Early Life and Monticello

Jefferson was born April 13, 1743, on his father’s plantation of Shadwell located along the Rivanna River in the Piedmont region of central Virginia at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.1 His father Peter Jefferson was a successful planter and surveyor and his mother Jane Randolph a member of one of Virginia’s most distinguished families. When Jefferson was fourteen, his father died, and he inherited a sizeable estate of approximately 5,000 acres. That inheritance included the house at Shadwell, but Jefferson dreamed of living on a mountain.2

In 1768 he contracted for the clearing of a 250 feet square site on the topmost point of the 868-foot mountain that rose above Shadwell and where he played as a boy.3 He would name this mountain Monticello, and the house that he would build and rebuild over a forty-year period took on this name as well. He would later refer to this ongoing project, the home that he loved, as my “essay in Architecture.”4 The following year, after preparing the site, he began construction of a small brick structure that would consist of a single room with a walk-out basement kitchen and workroom below. This would eventually be referred to as the South Pavilion and was where he lived first alone and then with his bride, Martha Wayles Skelton, following their marriage in January 1772.

Unfortunately, Martha would never see the completion of Monticello; she died in the tenth year of their marriage, and Jefferson lost “the cherished companion of my life.” Their marriage produced six children but only two survived into adulthood, Martha (known as Patsy) and Mary (known as Maria or Polly).5

Monticello's West Front (Nickel Side)

Along with the land Jefferson inherited slaves from his father and even more slaves from his father-in-law, John Wayles; he also bought and sold enslaved people. In a typical year, he owned about 200, almost half of them under the age of sixteen. About eighty of these lived at Monticello; the others lived on his adjacent Albemarle County farms, and on his Poplar Forest estate in Bedford County, Virginia. Over the course of his life, he owned over 600 enslaved people. These men, women and children were integral to the running of his farms and building and maintaining his home at Monticello. Some were given training in various trades, others worked the fields, and some worked inside the main house.

Many of the enslaved house servants were members of the Hemings family. Elizabeth Hemings and her children were a part of the Wayles estate and tradition says that John Wayles was the father of six of Hemings’s children and, thus, they were the half-brothers and sisters of Jefferson’s wife Martha. Jefferson gave the Hemingses special positions, and the only slaves Jefferson freed in his lifetime and in his will were all Hemingses, giving credence to the oral history. Years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six of Sally Hemings’s children. Four survived to adulthood and are mentioned in Jefferson’s plantation records. Their daughter Harriet and eldest son Beverly were allowed to leave Monticello during Jefferson’s lifetime and the two youngest sons, Madison and Eston, were freed in Jefferson’s will.

Education and Professional Life

After a two-year course of study at the College of William and Mary that he began at age seventeen, Jefferson read the law for five years with Virginia’s prominent jurist, George Wythe, and recorded his first legal case in 1767. In two years he was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses (the legislature in colonial Virginia).

Rough Draft of the Declaration of IndependenceHis first political work to gain broad acclaim was a 1774 draft of directions for Virginia’s delegation to the First Continental Congress, reprinted as a “Summary View of the Rights of British America.” Here he boldly reminded George III that, “he is no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government. . . .”  Nevertheless, in his “Summary View” he maintained that it was not the wish of Virginia to separate from the mother country.6 But two years later as a member of the Second Continental Congress and chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence, he put forward the colonies’ arguments for declaring themselves free and independent states. The Declaration has been regarded as a charter of American and universal liberties. The document proclaims that all men are equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status; that those rights are inherent in each human, a gift of the creator, not a gift of government, and that government is the servant and not the master of the people.

Jefferson recognized that the principles he included in the Declaration had not been fully realized and would remain a challenge across time, but his poetic vision continues to have a profound influence in the United States and around the world. Abraham Lincoln made just this point when he declared:

All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, and so to embalm it there, that to-day and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.7

After Jefferson left Congress in 1776, he returned to Virginia and served in the legislature. In late 1776, as a member of the new House of Delegates of Virginia, he worked closely with James Madison. Their first collaboration, to end the religious establishment in Virginia, became a legislative battle which would culminate with the passage of Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

Elected governor from 1779 to 1781, he suffered an inquiry into his conduct during the British invasion of Virginia in his last year in office that, although the investigation was finally repudiated by the General Assembly, left him with a life-long pricklishness in the face of criticism and generated a life-long enmity toward Patrick Henry whom Jefferson blamed for the investigation. The investigation “inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave” Jefferson told James Monroe.8

During the brief private interval in his life following his governorship, Jefferson completed the one book which he authored, Notes on the State of Virginia.  Several aspects of this work were highly controversial. With respect to slavery, in Notes Jefferson recognized the gross injustice of the institution – warning that because of slavery “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his Justice cannot sleep for ever.” But he also expressed racist views of blacks’ abilities; albeit he recognized that his views of their limitations might result from the degrading conditions to which they had been subjected for many years. With respect to religion, Jefferson’s Notes emphatically supported a broad religious freedom and opposed any establishment or linkage between church and state, famously insisting that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”9

A Nation Divided: The Election of 1800 - Online ExhibitionIn 1784, he entered public service again, in France, first as trade commissioner and then as Benjamin Franklin's successor as U.S. minister. During this period, he avidly studied European culture, sending home to Monticello, books, seeds and plants, along with architectural drawings, artwork, furniture, scientific instruments, and information.

In 1790 he agreed to be the first secretary of state under the new Constitution in the administration of the first president, George Washington. His tenure was marked by his opposition to the policies of Alexander Hamilton which Jefferson believed both encouraged a larger and more powerful national government and were too pro-British. In 1796, as the presidential candidate of the nascent Democratic-Republican Party, he became vice-president after losing to John Adams by three electoral votes. Four years later, he defeated Adams in another hotly contested election and became president, the first peaceful transfer of authority from one party to another in the history of the young nation.

Thomas Jefferson's First Year as President - Online ExhibtionPerhaps the most notable achievements of his first term were the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and his support of the Lewis and Clark expedition. His second term, a time when he encountered more difficulties on both the domestic and foreign fronts, is most remembered for his efforts to maintain neutrality in the midst of the conflict between Britain and France. Unfortunately, his efforts did not avert a war with Britain in 1812 after he had left office and his friend and colleague, James Madison, had assumed the presidency.

Retirement

During the last seventeen years of his life, Jefferson generally remained at Monticello, welcoming the many visitors who came to call upon the Sage. During this period, he sold his collection of books (almost 6500 volumes) to the government to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress before promptly beginning to purchase more volumes for his final library. Noting the irony, Jefferson famously told John Adams that “I cannot live without books.”10

Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert StuartJefferson embarked on his last great public service at the age of seventy-six with the founding of the University of Virginia. He spearheaded the legislative campaign for its charter, secured its location, designed its buildings, planned its curriculum, and served as the first rector.

Unfortunately, Jefferson’s retirement was clouded by debt. Like so many Virginia planters, he had contended with debts most of his adult life, but along with the constant fluctuations in the agricultural markets, he was never able to totally liquidate the sizeable debt attached to the inheritance from his father-in-law John Wayles. His finances worsened in retirement with the War of 1812 and the subsequent recession, headed by the Panic of 1819. He had felt compelled to sign on notes for a friend in 1818, who died insolvent two years later, leaving Jefferson with two $10,000 notes. This he labeled his coup de grâce, as his extensive land holdings in Virginia, with the deflated land prices, could no longer cover what he owed. He complained to James Madison that the economic crisis had “peopled the Western States” and “drew off bidders” for lands in Virginia and along the Atlantic seaboard.11  Ironically, Jefferson’s greatest accomplishment during his presidency, the purchase of the port of New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory that opened the western migration, would contribute to his financial discomfort in his final years.12

Despite his debts, when he died just a few hours before his friend John Adams on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826, he was optimistic as to the future of the republican experiment. Just ten days before his death, he had declined an invitation to the planned celebration in Washington but offered his assurance, “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.”13

  • 1. He was born April 2nd according to the Julian calendar then in use (“old style”), but when the Georgian calendar was adopted in 1752, his birthday became April 13th (“new style”).
  • 2. Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, 6 vols. (Boston: 1948-77). I:3-33; Appendix I, I:435-46.
  • 3. Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, James A. Bear and Lucia Stanton, eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). I: 76.
  • 4. TJ to Benjamin Latrobe, 10 Oct. 1809, PTJR:RS, 1:595.
  • 5. “Autobiography” in Jefferson’s Writings, PTJ 6:210.
  • 6. PTJ 1:121.
  • 7. Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry L. Pierce, et al., April 6, 1859, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, eds., Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works (New York: Century Co., 1894): 533.
  • 8. Jefferson to James Monroe, May 20, 1782, PTJ 6:185 (ftnt omitted).
  • 9. Notes on the State of Virginia. Ed. by William Peden. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
  • 10. Jefferson to John Adams, 15 June 1815, PTJR 8:522.
  • 11. For coup de grâce and following quote, see TJ to James Madison 17 February 1826, Jefferson Writing, Merrill Peterson, ed. (Library of America, 1984), 1512-15.
  • 12. For Jefferson’s retirement debt see, Herbert Sloan, Principle & Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995), 202-237; for notes signed in 1818, see p. 219.
  • 13. TJ to Roger Weightman, 24 June 1826, Jefferson Writings, 1516-17.
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