In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson penned the most recognizable political words in the history of mankind. As he put it, his intent was to write "an expression of the American mind". These words not only captured the spirit of the American people, who would go to war with the most powerful military in the world for sake of individual rights, but words that continue to be the rallying cry of countless revolutions across the world.
He was a staunch, unapologetic advocate of small, local government, and the champion of both man's rights and responsibilities to check government's natural inclination to enslave, yet he owned over 600 slaves. He was a scientist, a farmer, a philosopher, a linguist, an architect, a violinist, governor of Virginia, twice President of the United States, and a Great American Patriot.
But, he was also an enigma.
Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Albermarle County, Virginia, to an aristocratic mother and a self-made father. As a boy, his father took him into the wilderness and introduced him to Indians. When he was 14, his father died, leaving him without guidance. Two years later, he was accepted to the College of William and Mary where he became a student of the Enlightenment, learning the classics in both Latin and Greek. He was soon recognized as a prodigy, studying 14 hours a day, and enjoyed regular invitations to the table of the Governor where he said his "real university" was.
When he was 25 in 1768, he began building his home, Monticello, on a mountain that he and his best friend called "Tom's Mountain". It was also the start of financial problems that would plague him for the rest of his life. He married a 23-year old widow named Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772. They had six children, all but one of whom died before him. In 1773, his best friend died. Two weeks later his father-in-law died, leaving him many more slaves and further debt. Before the end of his 83 year life, Jefferson would spend years in debt and lose almost everyone close to him. But, he was said to have been eternally optimistic.
In 1774, as an attorney, Jefferson wrote a widely read essay entitled Summary View of the Rights of British America where he said, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time". Two years later in 1775, he was chosen by Virginia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He was a silent member of Congress and was said to have had a weak voice. But he was known as an extremely hard worker and served on 34 committees.
In 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution declaring America's independence. Of the five-man committee including Benjamin Franklin, John Livingston, Roger Sherman, John Adams, and Jefferson, Franklin was asked to write the draft, but refused saying he made it a point never to write anything subject to the editing of a committee. It was considered a minor responsibility, and because Jefferson was known for his writing ability, he was assigned the task.
The committee made some final revisions and presented it to Congress on June 28th, 1776. Congress made further revisions, removing roughly a quarter, including an entire section Jefferson had written condemning slavery and blaming the King of England for its existence in America.
It's preamble is recognized around the world as an eloquent declaration of individual rights.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
The Declaration of Independence
Jefferson returned to Virginia at the end of 1776 and served in Virginia's House of Delegates where he introduced 126 bills, many of which were considered radical at the time. Among his accomplishments was the removal of primogeniture laws (where the first-born son inherits the entire estate), and the introduction of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which established complete religious liberty.
From 1779-1781, he served as Governor of Virginia during the Revolution and was only minutes away from being captured by the British when they entered the capital. They also briefly occupied his home. He was later accused of cowardice for having fled, but later acquitted, leaving a life-long sensitivity to criticism. Shortly afterward, in 1782, his wife died, leaving him extremely depressed.
A year later, he was back in Congress proposing more contentious legislation including a proposal that the Western Territories be self-governing and admitted to the Republic as new States. He also proposed that slavery be banned from all new territories after 1800. Unfortunately, the bill was defeated by one vote because one supporting Representative was sick in bed. He said of this defeat, "we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment."
In 1774, Jefferson was sent to Paris as a commissioner to negotiate trade treaties. In 1785, he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as Minister to France. He was both enamored and disgusted by his experiences of Aristocracy in Europe, witnessing the beginning of the French Revolution. Though he sided with the revolutionaries (as always), he doubted that France could duplicate America's Republic, insisting that liberty required constant learning, hard work, discipline, and above all, self-restraint. Upon his return to the United States in 1789, and unbeknownst to him, he was nominated and confirmed as George Washington's Secretary of State. But the position would be one of complete frustration.
Though he completely trusted Washington's character, his first concern was the pomp and increasing ceremonies surrounding the Presidency. Washington's Secretary of the Treasury however, was a completely different matter. Alexander Hamilton was a man for whom Jefferson had little admiration or trust.
Their opposing views regarding the size, scope, and power the Republic should assume eventually lead to the first political parties (Federalists vs. anti-Federalists, the latter of which later became the Democratic Republicans). The disagreements turned to regular arguments and finally Jefferson's resignation in 1793.
Jefferson briefly retired back at Monticello, immersing himself in farming. He grew 250 different kinds of vegetables and had over 1200 fruit trees. He rebuilt his home a total of no less than 6 times, and plunged himself even deeper into debt. In 1796, Washington set the precedent of not serving a third term, and Jefferson reluctantly agreed to run against his old friend, John Adams. Jefferson lost by three Electoral votes and became Adams' Vice President in accordance with the rules at the time. Differences in their political beliefs quickly turned the old friends into enemies. When Adams' administration passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which allowed foreigners to be deported and those who criticized the government to be imprisoned, Jefferson stated openly that another revolution might be necessary.
In 1800, Jefferson again ran for President in the dirtiest campaign in American history. Both he, and Aaron Burr were tied in Electoral votes, bringing the decision to the House of Representatives. For six days the House was deadlocked with several States even threatening to send their militias if Jefferson were elected. Jefferson's arch-enemy Alexander Hamilton surprisingly came to the rescue by convincing the Federalists to throw their support to him rather than his arch-enemy Aaron Burr. Unfortunately, Adams had filled the courts in the last few days of his office with judges who agreed to block many of Jefferson's proposed changes.
Despite this, Jefferson's first term was widely seen as a success. He pardoned all those imprisoned under the Alien and Sedition Acts and allowed the law to sunset. He eliminated much of the pomp and ceremony associated with the presidency, balanced the budget, and significantly reduced the size of the government. He banned the celebration of his birthday as well as the use of his image on coins, and was said to have often answered
the White House door himself wearing his robe and slippers. He said, "If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretext of taking care of them, they must be happy".
The two most significant achievements of his presidency were Louis' and Clark's famous expedition and the Louisiana Purchase. As a scientist, he was fascinated by the details of the long trip as well as their many discoveries, studying maps and samples on the floor of the Oval Office.
The Louisiana Purchase made all of the territory from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains part of the Republic, doubling the size of the nation, and effectively eliminating any European presence in America. Jefferson was elected to a second term in 1804 which was generally seen as a failure for his embargo on all exports to, and most imports from the British and French.
|When Jefferson had run against John Adams in 1796, he had
acquiesced when a writer he had often helped, named James Thomson
Callendar, wrote personal attacks on the Federalists, including
Adams. In 1802, the tables turned when Callendar published a series
of pieces claiming that Jefferson had fathered children with his
slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson never responded to the accusation,
but a genetic study done in 1998 concluded that one of his slaves
was a descendant of a Jefferson male. The debate continues. Some
claim it was Thomas Jefferson while others believe it was more
likely his younger brother Randolph. We may never know.
For the remaining 17 years of his life, Jefferson founded the
University of Virginia at Charlottesville, involving himself in
every detail, and creating the first in the world without religious
affiliation. His debt increased, which forced him to sell his
treasured library. It was purchased by the United States Government
and became the core of the Library of Congress. Shortly
afterwards, he bought more books, putting himself deeper in debt.
During these last years, he rekindled in friendship with John Adams
in a long series of letters that are among America's most important
Matt Fitzgibbons sitting next to Thomas Jefferson's statute (Williamsburg, VA)
Thomas Jefferson's grave site at Monticello reads,
"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"
Both he and Adams, the last remaining Founding Fathers, died on the 4th of July, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
John Adam's final words were, "Jefferson still survives."
He still does.
Written by Matthew Fitzgibbons
USA Patriotism! sincerely thanks Matthew Fitzgibbons for
his dedication and time involved in the research and composition
associated with the recognition of Thomas Jefferson as a Great
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation
The Library of Congress
Thomas Jefferson - A Film by Ken Burns
A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus's Great Discovery to the War on Terror
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