THOMAS JEFFERSON, author of the Declaration of Independence, was born on April 13, 1743 and grew up on the family plantation at Shadwell in Albermarle County, Virginia. His father was Peter Jefferson, who, with the aid of thirty slaves, tilled a tobacco and wheat farm of 1,900 acres and like his fathers before him, was a justice of the peace, a vestryman of his parish and a member of the colonial legislature. The first of the Virginia Jefferson’s of Welsh extraction, Peter in 1738 married Jane Randolph. Of their ten children, Thomas was the third. Thomas inherited a full measure of his father’s bodily strength and stature, both having been esteemed in their prime as the strongest men of their county. He also inherited his father’s inclination to liberal politics, his taste for literature and his aptitude for mathematics. The Jefferson’s were a musical family; the girls sang the songs of the time, and Thomas, practicing the violin assiduously from boyhood, became an excellent performer.
In 1757, when Thomas was only fourteen, his father died, leaving him heir to an enormous estate. On his deathbed, his father left an order that his son’s education, already well advanced in a preparatory school, should be completed at the College of William and Mary, a circumstance which Thomas always remembered with gratitude, saying that if he had to choose between the education and the estate his father left him, he would choose the education.
At seventeen, when young Jefferson entered the College of William and Mary he was tall, raw-boned, freckled, and sandy haired, with large feet and hands, thick wrists, and prominent cheekbones and chin. His classmates described him as far from handsome, a fresh, healthy looking youth, very erect, agile and strong, with something of rusticity in his air and demeanor. The college at that time had one truly outstanding educator, Dr. William Small of Scotland, professor of mathematics. Jefferson said in his autobiography that his coming under the influence of Dr. Small “probably fixed the destinies of my life”. Dr. Small gave Jefferson the views of the connection of the sciences and of the system of things of which man is a part, which then prevailed in the advanced scientific circles of Europe. As a student, Jefferson attended the musical parties that the lieutenant governor, Francis Fauquier hosted. Jefferson was always present with his violin and participated in the concert, the governor himself also was a performer. From Fauquier, a man of the world of the period, Jefferson learned much of the social, political, and parliamentary life of the Old World. George Wythe, who was then a young lawyer of Williamsburg, often frequented the governor’s table, and contributed immensely to the forming of Jefferson’s mind.
Upon his graduation in 1762, Jefferson took up the study of law, under the guidance of George Wythe. While he was a student, he was an eyewitness of those memorable scenes in the Virginia legislature, which followed the passage of The Stamp Act. He was present as a spectator in the house when Patrick Henry read his five resolutions, enunciating the principal that Englishmen living in America had all the rights of Englishmen living in England, the chief of which was that they could only be taxed by their own representatives. On coming of age in April 1764, Jefferson assumed the management of his father’s estate and was appointed to two of his father’s officesjustice of the peace and vestryman. He gave much attention to the cultivation of his lands, and remained always an attentive, zealous and improving farmer. Early in 1767, Jefferson was admitted to the bar of Virginia, and entered at once the practice of his profession. Jefferson was an accurate, painstaking and laborious lawyer and his business blossomed. He practiced law for nearly eight years, until the Revolutionary contest summoned him.
His public life began on May 11, 1769, when Jefferson took his seat as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, George Washington also being a member. Jefferson was then twenty-six years old. On becoming a public man he made a resolution “never to engage, while in public office, in any kind of enterprise for the improvement of my fortune, nor to wear any other character than that of a farmer.” On the close of his public career of nearly half a century, he could say that he had kept this resolution.
On January 1, 1772 Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton, who was the daughter of John Wayles, a wealthy Williamsburg lawyer, from whom she inherited a large property. Her first husband, Bathurst Skelton died before she was twenty years of age, and Jefferson was one of her many suitors. A few days after their marriage, he took her to live in his partly constructed mountaintop home, Monticello. The next year, the death of Martha’s father brought them a great increase of fortune, doubling Jefferson’s estate.
In March 1775, Jefferson was in Richmond as a member of the convention, which assembled in the church of St. John to consider what course Virginia should take in the crisis. The last act of this convention was to appoint a replacement in the case of a vacancy in the delegation of Virginia to congress. That replacement was Thomas Jefferson and on June 21, 1775, Jefferson took his seat as a substitute for Peyton Randolph, who had been called home.
Jefferson was an earnest, diligent, and useful member of the congress. His readiness in composition, his profound knowledge of British law and his innate love of freedom and justice, gave him solid standing in the body. In May 1776, the news reached congress that the Virginia convention had unanimously voted for independence. On June 10, 1776, a committee of five was appointed to prepare a draft of the DeclarationJefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson, being the chairman of the committee, was naturally asked to write the document. Congress subjected his draft to a severe and prolonged revision, making many changes, most of which were improvements. The document was debated in congress on July 2, 3 and 4. Thursday, the 4th was a warm day, and the members in the afternoon became weary and impatient with the long strain upon their nerves. Jefferson used to relate with much merriment that the final vote upon the Declaration was hastened by swarms of flies, which came from a neighboring stable, and added to the discomfort of the members. A few days afterward, Jefferson was one of a committee to devise a seal for the newborn country. Among their suggestions (and this was the only one accepted by congress) was the best legend ever appropriated, E pluribus unum, a phrase that had served as a motto on the cover of the “Gentleman’s Magazine” for many years.
In the fall of 1776, Jefferson resigned his seat in congress on the grounds that the health of his wife and the condition of his household made his presence in Virginia indispensable. He had again been elected a member of the Virginia legislature, and his heart was set upon the work of purging the statute books of unsuitable laws, and bringing the laws of Virginia up to the level of the Declaration. For the next three years, Jefferson procured the abolition of entails, led the fight for the disestablishment of the Church, and as a member of the Committee on Revisors, recommended far reaching reforms in the legal code of the state.
In January 1779, the Virginia legislature elected Jefferson governor of the state, to succeed Patrick Henry, whose third term ended on June 1. His governorship of two years, during a time of British invasion, ended unhappily, largely through fault of circumstances. He declined re-election to a third term, and induced his friends to support General Thomas Nelson, commander-in-chief of the militia, who was elected.
On September 6, 1782, Jefferson’s wife died. Jefferson had retained a romantic devotion to her throughout his life, and because of her failing health refused foreign appointments in 1776 and again in 1781, having promised that he would accept no public office that would involve their separation. For four months prior to her death, he was never out of calling, and he was insensible for several hours after her death. On her death, Martha left three daughters, the youngest four months old.
Returning to public life to assuage his grief, Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister to France in 1785. His sympathy for the French Revolution led him into conflict with Alexander Hamilton when Jefferson was Secretary of State in President Washington’s Cabinet. He retired from that office after three years. As a reluctant candidate for President in 1796, Jefferson came within three votes of election. Through a flaw in the Constitution, he became Vice President, although an opponent of just elected President Adams.
In 1800 Jefferson ran for president, won and served two distinguished terms. Jefferson’s career during his presidency is so integral a part of the history of the country, that it cannot be described here. The freedom of the individual human being was always his main concern, and it was his faith in men that made him a prophet of progress. In his old age, he fathered the University of Virginia, and he valued public enlightenment next after private freedom.
Jefferson retained his health nearly to his last days, and had the happiness of living to the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He died at twenty minutes to one p.m. on July 4, 1826.
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