THOMAS JEFFERSON Written by, Dr. Joseph John Ellis
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
The third president of the United States was Thomas Jefferson. He had been the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In an age of great men Jefferson was remarkable for his wide-ranging curiosity on many subjects. He helped the United States get started, and his plans for the future helped it grow. Many of the good things Americans enjoy today have come from Jefferson's devotion to human rights.
The Man and His Ideas
Jefferson was a tall, straight-bodied, loose-jointed man. He stood and walked straight and his shoulders were always square. He was hazel-eyed and freckle-faced; he had a long, high nose; and no one ever thought of him as handsome. His hair was reddish, becoming sandy as he grew older. Even when he was an old man his hair was plentiful. Unlike other gentlemen of his day, he never wore a wig.
In the fashion of his time, Jefferson dressed in a long, dark coat (usually blue, and in the summer generally of silk), a ruffled stock, or cravat (in place of the modern necktie), a red waistcoat, short knee breeches, and shoes with bright buckles. Except in his days of courtship and married life, he paid little attention to clothes. When he was president of the United States he made a habit of plainness, both in dress and in matters of ceremony.
He was a courteous person, bowing to everyone he met. He was reserved, and no one ever called him by his first name. He was a very poor public speaker in a day of great orators. He talked in a thin, fine voice, and with his arms folded. He loved music, played the violin well, liked to sing, and usually hummed or sang as he walked or rode. A good horseback rider, he often rode for pleasure in a day when men generally rode only as a means of travel.
Jefferson is often called the founder of the Democratic party. Many other groups also claim to follow his principles. He developed the theory of states' rights, which was against giving much authority to the federal government. He is known to everyone as the author of the ringing statement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, that among their inalienable rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. His writings have stood as a torch to the defenders of individual freedom, in spiritual as well as in worldly affairs.
Jefferson was the chief thinker and writer among a group of men who risked their lives, their fortunes, and their honor in fighting against a tradition. This tradition was that people need to be protected against themselves by the rich, the wellborn, the educated, or the powerful. Jefferson was foremost among the influential men who believed that laws should be made by those who are to obey them.
About 37 years after Jefferson's death Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, described the American government as "of the people, by the people, for the people." He was defining the kind of government that Jefferson, more than any other man, made possible. Even Jefferson's closest co-workers thought of human rights as including the protection of life and liberty and, above all, of private property. Their use of the words "all men are created equal" left out racial minorities. There is much evidence that Jefferson did not exclude them.
Give the people light, said Jefferson, and they will find their own way. He meant all the people.
Boyhood in Virginia
Jefferson's father, Peter Jefferson, was a land surveyor of Welsh ancestry who moved west from the Virginia tidewater settlements toward the frontier. His mother, Jane Randolph, was of the old Virginia aristocracy. Jefferson was the third child and eldest son in a family of four sons and six daughters. Most of his brothers and sisters died early in life. He was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, in the red western hills of what is now Albemarle County, Va., near the mountain on which he later built his home, Monticello. Seven of his first nine years were spent at Tuckahoe, the Randolph estate on the James River near Richmond. He remembered, as a two-year-old, being handed up to a slave on horseback, who carried him on a pillow as they rode down the river road.
When Jefferson was nine, his family moved back to Shadwell. From his father and in the English school at Tuckahoe he had already learned to read and write. By this time he could ride a horse. He learned to become a strong swimmer and to shoot straight. When not at school, he went with his father to hunt the plentiful deer and wild turkeys along the Rivanna River. He was first permitted to hunt by himself with a gun when he was ten, but before this he had been out alone at night hunting 'possum with his dogs.
Jefferson had started school when he was five, and at nine he entered a boarding school. This was conducted by the Rev. William Douglas, a Scottish clergyman, whose pies he remembered as moldy and whose teaching (except in the classics) he remembered as excellent. When he was 14, his father died. He was then sent to the classical school of the able and learned Rev. James Maury. There he studied until he was ready for college.
At this time his outdoor sports were long walks in the mountains, hunting, riding, and swimming. He played the violin, danced, and very early formed the habit of reading for his own amusement. He learned classical and modern languages as a child.
At 17 he entered William and Mary College (at Williamsburg, colonial capital of Virginia). For two years he studied mathematics, literature, and philosophy under Dr. William Small, a stimulating Scotsman. Small then arranged for him to study law privately under George Wythe. Wythe, later one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, led Jefferson into law practice. He continued this work until the Revolution. Then the demands of public service interfered, and he never resumed regular private practice.
While Jefferson was studying law at Williamsburg, the 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act were proposed. From the door of the Virginia House of Burgesses the young law student heard Patrick Henry make his "If this be treason" speech. Jefferson later said that "Mr. Henry ... appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote."
Pre-Revolutionary War Offices and Marriage
Elected to the Virginia legislature in May 1769, Jefferson served in it until the Revolution. There he was recognized as one of the outstanding young revolutionists. He was a member of the 1774 Virginia convention. Although he was unable to attend because of illness, his resolutions written for this convention resulted in the publication of his first work, 'A Summary View of the Rights of British America'. He did attend the Virginia Convention of 1775, and he was a delegate to the Continental Congress in both 1775 and 1776. It was this Congress that declared the independence of America in Jefferson's undying words (see Declaration of Independence).
When Jefferson was 28 he married a 23-year-old widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, on New Year's Day, 1772. During their 11 years of happy married life, his wife bore six children. Only two of them, Martha (nicknamed Patsy) and Maria (baptized Mary, but called Polly by her father), lived through the rigors of 18th-century childhood. Patsy, tall like her father, married and had 11 children. During the winter of 1805-6 the young family stayed with the president, and Patsy's second son was the first baby to be born in the White House. Polly was small and pretty like her mother. She died in her mid-20s after the birth of her second child.
Martha Jefferson had never recovered from the birth of her sixth child. She died on Sept. 6, 1782, and Jefferson inscribed on her tombstone (in the Greek original) two lines from the 'Iliad':
If in the house of Hades, men forget their dead, Yet will I even there remember my dear companion.
He never remarried.
State Government and First Retirement
In September 1776 Jefferson left the Continental Congress and at once reentered the Virginia House of Delegates. He served until he was elected governor of Virginia in June 1779. As a lawmaker he started with a broad program of reform. He had served only five days in the legislature when he moved for a complete revision of the laws. He was immediately elected to the Board of Revisors. For the next two years he helped to build a set of laws in which he hoped "every fiber of ancient or future aristocracy" would be erased and a foundation laid for a government of the people.
Jefferson proposed many bills that struck at the old aristocracy of wealth and family in favor of government by what he would later call an aristocracy of talent and virtue. They included:
The bill abolishing entails-- that is, repealing laws permitting land and other wealth to be set aside for the benefit of one line of descendants, who might enjoy the profits as they so chose but who could never sell or divide the estate. Jefferson considered that this bill saved the land of his country from the dead hand of the past.
The bill abolishing primogeniture-- that is, repealing laws giving an eldest son all his father's property and leaving nothing to the other children.
The statute for religious freedom, separating church and state and removing the private right of religious belief from control by public law. This statute has come down to present generations as one of the timeless declarations of intellectual freedom.
The bill for general education, allowing everyone, without regard to birth or wealth, to have as much free education as each person was fitted for.
All these bills were not immediately passed, and Jefferson's general plan for education has not yet been completely put into action. However, elements of the plan are at the root of all the public school and free library systems in the United States.
As governor of Virginia during the Revolution, Jefferson was unable to use his talents as well as he could as a legislator. He took formal possession of the vast Northwest Territory won by George Rogers Clark. He did his best to raise supplies and men for the army. He moved the capital of Virginia from Williamsburg to Richmond, but he could not defend the state from British invasion.
His hesitancy in taking unconstitutional steps in a time of crisis cost him popular support. However, his influence remained strong enough to overcome the movement by Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee to appoint a dictator. In 1781 Jefferson retired to his home, his books, and his family, intending never to reenter public life. It was in this period that he began writing his only full-length book, 'Notes on the State of Virginia'.
Congress Again--and France
This first retirement was brief. In a year his wife died. Jefferson reentered Congress, throwing himself into the work of lawmaking, this time for the national government. Within two years he wrote some of the most meaningful state papers of the Continental Congress. Three reports were especially good:
1. On Government for the Western Territory, the basic document for the growth of the United States, in which Jefferson's effort to abolish slavery failed by one vote.
2. The provision in the 1784 Instructions to the Ministers, in which he proposed that new treaties specify that in wartime unfortified towns remain unmolested by enemy armed forces.
3. The Notes on the Establishment of the Money Unit, which led to the adoption of our present decimal system of copper pennies, silver dimes, and dollars. Neither the 2-dollar bill nor the common 5-cent piece, both of which carried pictures of Jefferson and of his home, was among the money units he proposed.
In 1784 Jefferson sailed for Europe with his daughter Patsy. Polly joined them later. With Franklin and John Adams he was one of the ministers who were to make treaties of commerce. In 1785 he was appointed to succeed Franklin as minister to France. Jefferson stayed in Europe until the fall of 1789, skillfully practicing the diplomatic arts of peace.
He worked out a plan for collective action against the Barbary states, whose piracies in the Mediterranean were threatening the peace. This plan was adopted by Congress but was doomed to failure because Europe would not co-operate. He smuggled rice seed out of Italy for planting in South Carolina and Georgia. He drew an architectural plan based on the Maison Carree at Nimes for the new State Capitol at Richmond. He conspired with Lafayette to introduce republican government into France. Finally, with his usual zeal and foresight, he notified Congress of the French invention of a stamping press that could mass-produce machine parts.
Secretary of State and Vice-President
Jefferson returned to Monticello just before Christmas 1789. He brought Patsy and Polly home and saw Patsy married soon after their homecoming. The slaves at Monticello gave the travelers a rousing welcome.
The Federal Constitution had been adopted in Jefferson's absence. Upon his return he was offered a post in Washington's Cabinet. Jefferson accepted with great hesitancy. He became the first secretary of state under the new constitution. From then until his final retirement, with only one intermission, Jefferson was at the center of a whirlwind of complex and bitter politics.
During his stay in Europe, the reaction from revolutionary liberalism had been severe. Jefferson viewed the rising power of the conservatives, especially as represented first by Alexander Hamilton and later by John Adams, with dread. To him this mounting power meant overthrow of republican government in favor of rule by an upper class. He always believed that the defeat of the Federalists (as the conservatives were called) saved the United States from a rule by monarchy.
In spite of his open and growing hostility to Hamilton, his loyalty to George Washington persuaded him to stay in the Cabinet until the end of 1793. In his 51st year he again retired to his home, his farm, and his debts.
Although Jefferson thought of this retirement as final, it actually lasted less than three years. In 1796 he was elected vice-president when John Adams was elected president. As presiding officer of the Senate he wrote the 'Manual of Parliamentary Practice', still used in modified form by Congress today.
While vice-president he secretly helped draft the Resolutions of 1798 for the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures against the Alien and Sedition Acts. These Kentucky Resolutions claimed the right of the states to nullify acts of the Federal Constitution believed to be unconstitutional. They were especially remembered during the Civil War for their advocacy of states' rights principles; but their central purpose--as Jefferson saw it--was the defense of personal liberty and individual freedom.
By 1800 Jefferson's break with the Federalists was final. He and Aaron Burr both ran for president against John Adams, once his old friend but now his political opponent. Jefferson's new Republican (or Democratic-Republican) party, as the Liberals were then called, won the election; but under the original system of electoral votes both the party's candidates were considered to be running for president. The one who won the most votes became president; the other candidate became vice-president. There was a tie between Jefferson and Burr for the presidency. The tie was resolved in Jefferson's favor by vote in the House of Representatives after more than 30 ballots. Jefferson's election to a second term in 1804 was virtually without opposition.
Jefferson was the first American president to be elected in a two-party campaign, the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C.; and the first to start his term in the new White House. He had much to do with the design of the capital. Jefferson's presidency helped shape the destinies of the nation for more than a century, guaranteeing not only its greatness, but also some of its disasters.
In an effort to restore a balance of Republicans in government office, Jefferson started what came to be known as the "spoils system." He tried in vain to control the Supreme Court in the interests of the will of the people. He negotiated the purchase of the vast Louisiana territory on doubtful constitutional grounds
Jefferson also launched the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He was responsible for the fighting of our first war as a nation, on the shores of Tripoli against the Barbary pirates. His efforts to prevent a second war with England only postponed it until 1812
Jefferson was slow but successful in meeting the first real threat to the new American union. Aaron Burr was accused of making a treasonable effort to set up an independent government in the Southwest. This was halted when it had scarcely begun. However, in the trial that followed the suppression of this Burr conspiracy, Jefferson's personal animosity toward Burr and toward Chief Justice John Marshall did him little credit
His Embargo Act was a daring and original, but eventually unsuccessful, means of keeping the peace. However, it may have been one of the most successful and inspired diplomatic moves of the young republic. In effect it applied economic pressures against Britain and France, who were at war with each other. It was Jefferson's answer to the British Orders in Council and the Impressments Acts, directed against neutral (in this case, mainly American) shipping. The Embargo Act stopped American shipping, thus in intent depriving European nations (particularly Britain) of some of the raw materials needed for war.
The act also had the effect of destroying the Southern economy, thus alienating Jefferson's chief supporters. It also forced his political enemies in New England into substituting--against their will--a manufacturing economy for their shipping trade. Thus one far-reaching effect of the Embargo Act was to give New England an economic supremacy which it enjoyed for more than a century. From this economic power came money to establish political power and to build the great universities which made New England a center of intellectual activity.
Jefferson was unwavering in his insistence on the freedom of the press. He stood firm in this even when he himself was the object of the most slanderous and malicious succession of personal libels ever unleashed by irresponsible newspapers.
With the failure of the Embargo Act, Jefferson finally and permanently retired from public life to his home at Monticello. There he spent the last 15 years of his life, devoting himself to his lands, his friends, his correspondence, his books, and his financial problems. He also devoted himself to the establishment of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, which opened in 1825. Jefferson died July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and on the same day as his old friend and political rival, John Adams.
In his long lifetime of public service, Jefferson played the major part in planning the principles of American democracy. He laid the cornerstone of the expansion of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, and so he has become the hero of many states outside the original 13. His support of individual rights, of religious freedom, of freedom of speech, and of free intellectual inquiry has made him much more than a national hero. With Washington, he is one of the great figures of the American Revolution whose fame has spread around the world.
Most people tend to think of Jefferson as a statesman only. Actually he was one of the most versatile and accomplished men in American history. As an agriculturist, he invented a moldboard plow that was widely used for many years. He introduced the threshing machine into the United States, and he encouraged Robert Mills in the development of his mechanical reaper. He was one of the first Americans to employ crop rotation and contour plowing.
As a scientist Jefferson suggested the invention of the stopwatch, in which he was interested not for timing races but for making astronomical observations. He was one of the earliest believers in the possibility of creating a submarine, and he was one of the first prominent men in the United States to submit to inoculation for smallpox. He had his children inoculated as well.
As an architect, Jefferson designed the 35-room Monticello, one of the most beautiful historic homes in America. He also designed the capitol at Richmond and the original buildings for the University of Virginia. He used elevators and conveyors in his own flour mill and nail factory. Among the mechanical contrivances at Monticello were dumbwaiters, hidden staircases, and an interior weather vane connected with one on the roof. In Monticello's 13 bedrooms, all the beds were simply mattress supports hung on wall hooks. He is said to have invented the lever-operated double door opener, still often seen today on trains and buses, and the folding chair both of the common type and of the shooting-stick type, now used by sports spectators. Even in his own day he was credited with the invention of the swivel chair. He is often called the Father of the Patent Office, because the nation's first patent laws were administered by him as secretary of state. One of his official acts was to grant Eli Whitney a patent for the cotton gin.
Jefferson was an able linguist. In addition to mastering Greek and Latin at school, he learned several modern languages. He made pioneer studies of Native American languages. Late in life Jefferson sold his cherished library of 10,000 volumes to the United States government. His books replaced the government collection which was destroyed during the War of 1812. The collection became the nucleus of the vast modern Library of Congress.
No one with a knowledge of only a few aspects of Jefferson's life can grasp the depth and complexity of his character. Jefferson was at the same time one of the simplest and one of the most complicated men in United States history. It is completely characteristic that a man who had held the highest offices in his state and nation should ask that his tombstone be inscribed with these simple words:
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