#3. Jefferson, Thomas

Linda Lou Burton posting from Little Rock, Arkansas –Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) was, to put it plainly, a Wonder Man. So far I’ve only found one thing he didn’t do, and that was “sit still.” He was a statesman, diplomat, and lawyer. He was an architect, farmer, and inventor. He collected books by the thousands and spoke as many languages as he had reason to learn. He was the second vice president of the United States, and the third president. He was governor of Virginia and founder of the University of Virginia. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he sent the Barbary Pirates skedaddling, and, oh yes, don’t forget – he doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. What can explain it? I think Thomas ate his Wheaties! Would Thomas come to your party? You betcha, and he would probably bring his violin along to entertain everyone. He and Patrick Henry used to hang together In Williamsburg doing just that.

Thomas entered the College of William & Mary at age 16; he studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy under professor William Small, who held Friday “dinner parties” where politics and philosophy were discussed. Although Thomas frittered away his first year dancing and squandering his money, he vowed in his second year to study “fifteen hours a day” and graduated in two years. He obtained a law license while working as a clerk under the tutelage of George Wythe, a noted law professor; and he read – he studied not only law and philosophy, he studied history, religion, ethics, science, and agriculture. Wythe was so impressed with Thomas he later bequeathed him his entire library.

The adage “to make good old people you have to start them young” must have been in Peter Jefferson’s head when his son Thomas came into the world. Thomas was third of ten children, and the first son. Peter Jefferson had no formal education, but studied and improved himself; he inherited land, and managed plantations – his own in Eastern Virginia and that of the Shadwell family in the Piedmont (where Thomas was born). Peter and wife Jane offered a privileged life for their family; they frequently entertained, enjoyed classic books and music, and attended dances. They also hosted Native Americans who traveled through on official business in Williamsburg. Peter entered Thomas into an English school at age five; at age nine Thomas was sent to a school run by a Scottish Presbyterian minister, and began the study of Latin, Greek, and French. He also began studying the natural world, and riding horses. When Peter died in 1757, his estate was divided between his two sons Thomas and Randolph; Thomas inherited 5,000 acres of land – including Monticello – at the age of 14, and assumed full authority over his property at age 21.

When you think about “expectations and reality” in the year 2020 – imagine heading off to college at 16, a wealthy landowner; imagine laughing it up and partying and spending all your money for a year; imagine wising up and buckling down and going on to become a Wonder Man. What would YOU do? There is a key statement Thomas made that I believe is an important factor for success. Five words, on record, that Thomas wrote to John Adams:

(Cell phone scrollers, note that!) Thomas amassed three different libraries in his lifetime. Those books left to him by George Wythe and the ones he inherited from his father were destroyed in a fire in 1770. Believe it or not, he had replenished his collection with 1,250 titles by 1773! By 1814, he owned 6,500 volumnes. After the British burned the White House, which contained the Library of Congress, on August 24, 1814, Thomas sold his books to the US Government to help jumpstart their collection and started his third personal library; when he died in 1826 it had grown to almost 2,000 volumes.

His Government Positions

  • Member of Virginia House of Burgesses, 1769-74.
  • Member of Continental Congress, 1775-76.
  • Governor of Virginia, 1779-81.
  • Member of Continental Congress, 1783-85.
  • Minister to France, 1785-89.
  • Secretary of State, 1790-93 (under Washington)
  • Vice President, 1797-1801 (under J. Adams)
  • 3rd President of the United States, 1801-1809

Keep the above dates in mind as we look at Thomas’ personal life. He married Martha Wayles in 1772 – she was 24, he was 29 and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Martha’s first husband and first child had died; she brought considerable property to her marriage to Thomas, allowing him to greatly expand Monticello. The couple shared an interest in literature, horses, and music – she played the harpsichord and he the violin. Together they had six children but only two daughters lived to adulthood; and sadly, Martha died in 1882, ten years into the marriage. She did serve as First Lady of Virginia during Thomas’ governorship, but during the years he was Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President – 1783-1809 –Thomas was a widower. His relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave, has been the subject of controversy for years; in 2012, the Smithsonian Institution and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation held a major exhibit at the National Museum of American History: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty; it says that “evidence strongly supports the conclusion that [Thomas] Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ six children.” It is a certainty that Martha Jefferson made Thomas promise never to remarry after her death, and he kept that promise.

Inauguration One

Several interesting things marked Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801; the first time an inauguration was held in Washington, DC. The temperature was mild that day; an artillery company on Capitol Hill fired shots to welcome the daybreak. Thomas was staying at Conrad & McMunn’s boarding house on the south side of the Capitol. In contrast to his predecessors, he dressed plainly, arrived alone on horseback, and retired his own horse to the nearby stable. He’d given a copy of his speech to the National Intelligencer to be published right after delivery, another first; the theme was reconciliation after the bitterly partisan election. He gave his 1,721-word speech in the Capitol’s Senate chamber, and then took the oath of office, administered by Chief Justice John Marshal. In what would become standard practice, the Marine Band played for the first time at the inauguration. Outgoing President John Adams, distraught over his loss of the election as well as the death of his son Charles, was already on the morning stagecoach out of town.

Inauguration Two

Thomas Jefferson rode to the Capitol on horseback on March 4, 1805, but much of Congress had already left after the body had adjourned following Burr’s farewell address before the Senate a couple of days earlier. The inaugural ceremony was modest; Thomas spoke softly and quietly and provided copies of his inaugural address. In the speech, he addressed the recent acquisition of Louisiana, the Federalists’ diminishing influence, and the need for freedom of the press, though he also criticized recent press attacks against him. His successful first term had brought him back into office in a landslide vote of 162 to 14; achievements were a strong economy, lower taxes, and the Louisiana Purchase.

Voter participation grew during Jefferson’s presidency, increasing to “unimaginable levels” compared to the Federalist Era, with turnout of about 67,000 in 1800 rising to about 143,000 in 1804.

And Then

After retiring from public office, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. He envisioned a university free of church influences where students could specialize in many new areas not offered at other colleges. He believed that education was necessary for a stable society, and that publicly funded schools should be accessible to students from all social strata. He organized the state legislative campaign for the University’s charter and, with the assistance of Edmund Bacon, purchased the location. He was the principal designer of the buildings, planned the  curriculum, and served as the first rector. The university had a library rather than a church at its center, emphasizing its secular nature—a controversial aspect at the time. He bequeathed most of his library to the university upon his death – Independence Day, July 4, 1826.

My personal favorite of Thomas Jefferson’s thousands of accomplishments, (besides that of being such an avid book collector) is the Louisiana Purchase. I live in Arkansas, near the “Louisiana Purchase Marker” which makes me a part of “living history” in a touchable form; I also lived near the Ouachita River, where the famous Dunbar-Hunter Expedition passed through in 1804-1805. Thomas sent out four expeditions in all: the Freeman-Custis (1806) on the Red River, the Zebulon Pike Expedition (1806-1807) into the Rocky Mountains; and of course the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1803-1806) that made it to the Pacific Ocean. And there was all that tinkering he did – he invented a revolving bookstand (natural for a book lover), the swivel chair, and many other practical and useful devices. In addition to all the beautiful buildings at Monticello and the University of Virginia, he also designed one of the prettiest state capitols – Richmond, Virginia.

Like I said – the man never sat still.

Tomorrow: #4. Madison, James