“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.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.
I’m sure I’ve been smitten with Thomas Jefferson ever since my parents first took me as an infant to the Jefferson Memorial, where the great man’s statue towered over me the way he does over United States history. We also visited Mount Rushmore many times in the Black Hills, where my father’s family lived, and Jefferson’s sculpture there loomed even larger.
Jefferson’s birthday on April 13th is a holiday for me. Happy Birthday, Tom! Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have welcomed any attention to his birthday, however.
“In 1803, citizens of Boston wrote a letter to President Thomas Jefferson asking to make April 13, his birthday, a holiday. Jefferson courteously turned them down, saying he disapproved of ‘transferring the honors and veneration for the great birthday or our Republic to any individual.’ For the rest of his life, he refused to reveal to the public the day he was born,” wrote Peter Gibbon in an article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007.
Among his many political offices, Jefferson was the third U.S. President, second vice president, first Secretary of State, Ambassador to France and Virginia’s second governor. Jefferson was cofounder and leader of the Democratic-Republican party, which favored states’ rights, while the Federalists favored a strong national government. These differences continue in some form in the U.S. political parties today.
Accomplished in many fields, Jefferson was a horticulturist, political leader, diplomat, attorney, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, inventor, and founder of the University of Virginia. He played the violin and was a dedicated diarist of his daily life. He was a brilliant writer. He invented many conveniences and devices, such as the swivel chair. The entry hall of Monticello contained a natural history display of items collected by Lewis and Clark on their expedition, and which are now re-created in a display for visitors to see.
In 1962, when President John F. Kennedy welcomed 49 Nobel Prize winners to the White House, Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Scholars rank Jefferson as one of the greatest of U.S. presidents.
How did Jefferson view his own accomplishments? It was Jefferson’s wish that his tomb stone reflect the things that he had given the people, not the things that the people had given to him, so his epitaph at his burial place 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 VIRGINA.
However, not everyone appreciated Jefferson’s many gifts, talents and contributions. In his own time, members of the rival Federalist Party called Jefferson the Antichrist. Though he was a brilliant writer, he was a poor public speaker and had a lisp. His estate at Monticello never earned enough to pay his expenses, and he was forced to pay the debts of others, as well. At his death, his estate and its belongings were sold. Jefferson liked to live well, introducing exotic foods such as olives and capers and serving French wine nearly every night. He introduced many new crops and tried to grow grapes for wine, but they didn’t prosper. There were plenty of political guests to be entertained, which caused him to go deeper and deeper into debt each year because his salary didn’t cover the bills. He agonized over both personal and public debt. These days, our top leaders jet around and entertain at public expense.
His beloved home Monticello was designed on neoclassical principles. Jefferson constantly worked to improve it over the more than forty years he lived there. After his return from France, he added the dome. It looks much larger than it actually is, perhaps because of its stately lines. A private non-profit organization, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, operates the houses as a museum. Monticello is the only private home in the United States that is designated as World Heritage Site.
Even today, Jefferson catches flak even from people who might otherwise admire his devotion to the Constitution. According to the New York Times, in a recent fight over what would be included in Texas textbooks, “Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond (Texas) who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation between church and state.”)
“The Enlightenment was not the only philosophy on which these revolutions were based,” Ms. Dunbar said.
Jefferson loved books. After the British burned Washington, D.C. and the Library of Congress in August 1814, Jefferson offered his own fifty-year collection of books to the nation to rebuild the Library of Congress. Congress accepted his offer, appropriating $23,950 for his 6, 487 books. After watching the carts haul away the books, Jefferson wrote to his old friend and one-time adversary John Adams, “I cannot live without books.” He immediately began to buy more. I know how he feels. I can’t imagine life without them and am now sure that I’d feel the same way about books on electronic devices. I need the smell, the feel, the bulk of them lined up on my shelves. Jefferson was widely knowledgeable about a great deal of topics and liked to expound on them. A recent book has even suggested that Jefferson had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. I doubt it, but the author, who lived in my area, made an interesting case for it.
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” Jefferson wrote, but he had his differences and fallings out with friends over politics, including John Adams.
Years later, mellowed with age, Jefferson and Adams resumed their friendship by letter. On July 4, 1826, at about the time Jefferson died, Adams whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams died later that same day, the Fourth of July. The spirit of Jefferson does survive.
Some of Jefferson’s opponents accused him in print of being an alcoholic and of other moral weakness, which may explain Jefferson’s ambivalence about newspapers. He also used them against others, as well.
“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers,” he said. Another famous quote of his: “Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper. ”
Yet he also said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
He was a strong advocate of educating the public, saying “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” and “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” I wonder what he would make of today’s endless noise on the internet.
According to Willard Stern Randall, “No presidential election since 1800 has taken place without an attempt to damage at least one candidate’s reputation by innuendo, rumor, and ridicule in order to make him appear unworthy of the nation’s highest office, but none has more brutally combined these tactics than the 1800 campaign, which left Jefferson stunned and the country deeply divided for years.”
The political parties were bitter foes, and violence wasn’t unusual. While Jefferson’s vice president, Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist, in a duel. (See link below.)
Accusations against Jefferson about his alleged sexual liaisons were widely publicized as a way to discredit him. He denied them or ignored them, but some, such as his relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, were very likely true. DNA analysis of Sally’s descendants show that they are related to at least some member of Jefferson’s family. Jefferson’s granddaughter pointed the finger at another family member as the father of Sally’s children. Even if the rumors had not been true, Jefferson, the fervent writer of documents on freedom, was a slave owner. He was troubled by slavery but only freed seven of his slaves, two during his lifetime, all probably related to him. Although Jefferson was an outspoken abolitionist, biographers have pointed out that his slaves were encumbered by debt and mortgages, which Jefferson never overcame.
Further ickiness: Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha. Three-quarters white, Sally was said to look very much like Martha, who was long dead before Sally entered the Jefferson household. While a Virginia legislator, Jefferson succeeded in passing an act prohibiting the importation of slaves but not slavery itself. On March 3, 1807, Jefferson as president signed a bill making slave importation illegal in the United States.
Jefferson favored states’ rights and a strictly limited federal government, yet one of his most significant acts as president was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 of 828,800 square miles of territory from Napoleon Bonaparte. This purchase now comprises 23 percent of the current United States. Many Americans opposed the purchase as being possibly unconstitutional. Jefferson himself thought that the U.S. Constitution did not contain any provisions for acquiring territory, but he decided to purchase Louisiana to prevent France and Spain from having the power to block American trade access to the port of New Orleans. Jefferson believed that a U.S. President did not have the Constitutional authority to make such a deal. He also thought that to do so would erode states’ rights by increasing federal executive power. But the potential French threat outweighed his constitutional queasiness. Additionally, Jefferson had always been fascinated by the west and its people and animals and began drafting plans for a western exploration as early as 1793. Immediately after his election, he began to plan for an expedition to explore as far as the Pacific, so the prospect of buying the land from the French must have been irresistable. In 1803, Jefferson sponsored the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore this newly purchased land.
It’s probably obvious that I have a crush on Thomas Jefferson. I’m a Tom Girl. Though very cerebral and devoted to reason, Jefferson was also passionate. While in France, he became smitten with Maria Cosway, an Italian artist married to a much older man, a celebrated miniature artist. William Sterne Randall writes in his biography of Jefferson: ” Thomas Jefferson fell in love with Maria Cosway the moment he met her. For four years he had been faithful to the vow he had made to his wife on her deathbed. There is no hint that he had made even the briefest liaison with any of the many Frenchwomen he had met in Paris. But no sooner was Jefferson introduced to the Cosways than he began to devise how he could spend every possible moment with this lively, languid, beautiful Maria, with her musical, slightly Italian accent.”
Maria and Jefferson spent almost every day together for weeks in Paris, which could partly explain Jefferson’s love of that country, if not its government. Once while dashing to his carriage to meet Maria, Jefferson fell and broke his right wrist, which made playing the violin very difficult after that. He wrapped his wrist and went ahead to meet her, despite the agony. Later, struggling to write with his left hand, he penned his now famous “My Head and My Heart” letter to Maria in which reason battled emotion.
Jefferson, at 29, married the 23-year-old widow Martha Wayles Skelton. During their ten years of marriage, they had six children, but only two survived to adulthood, including the oldest, Martha Jefferson Randolph. Jefferson’s wife Martha died on September 6, 1782, after the birth of her last child. Jefferson never remarried, honoring his wife’s deathbed wish. He destroyed all correspondence between them. After his wife’s funeral, Jefferson refused to leave his room for three weeks. Then he spent endless hours riding horseback alone around Monticello. He didn’t resume a normal life until mid-October, but suffered from depression for years afterward.
Martha Randolph, who had twelve children, was considered the third First Lady, acting as hostess to her father, because her father was a widower.
It’s impossible to do Jefferson’s life justice in this post. I recommend reading Willard Sterne Randall’s “Thomas Jefferson – A Life.” I also read Fawn M. Brodie’s “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History.”
For more information here are some Wikipedia links are Thomas Jefferson Monticello Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party The Federalist Party Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton Duel The University of Virginia
A great website is Monticello — The Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Additionally, I’ve selected many of Jefferson’s quotes, all of which I think ring true today.
- It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.
- We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country.
- It is more dangerous that even a guilty person should be punished without the forms of law than that he should escape.
- To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.
- A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.
- A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned-this is the sum of good government.
- All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.
- Conquest is not in our principles. It is inconsistent with our government.
- Delay is preferable to error.
- He who knows best knows how little he knows.
- I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.
- I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
- I have come to a resolution myself, as I hope every good citizen will, never again to purchase any article of foreign manufacture which can be had of American make, be the difference of price what it may.
- I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.
- General Washington set the example of voluntary retirement after eight years. I shall follow it. And a few more precedents will oppose the obstacle of habit to any one who after a while shall endeavor to extend his term.
- I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I have ever judged of others’ religion by their lives…for it is from our lives and not from our words, that our religion must be read.
- The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family.
- Were it made a question whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last; and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under the care of wolves.
- Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government. I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the later.
- When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.
- I have ever deemed it fundamental for the United States never to take active part in the quarrels of Europe. Their political interests are entirely distinct from ours…They are nations of eternal war. All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property and lives of their people.
- We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather bed.
- I own that I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.
- I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.
- No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.
- My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.
- No man will ever carry out of the Presidency the reputation which carried him into it.
- No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden
- None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army. To keep ours armed and disciplined is therefore at all times important.
- Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.
- Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.
- Nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.
- One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.
- Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy, and I wish we may be permitted to pursue it.
- Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.
- Politics is such a torment that I advise everyone I love not to mix with it.
- Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.
- Speeches that are measured by the hour will die with the hour.
- Taste cannot be controlled by law.
- That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.
- The advertisement is the most truthful part of a newspaper
- The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave
- When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.
- When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.
- Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.
14 responses to “Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson”
Great article. 🙂
I love the photos of you with Jefferson! I’m a fan too. When I lived in D.C. one of the first trips my friends and I made was to Monticello and it was brilliant. I’m finally catching up on your blog (shame on me). I missed it!
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Nice work. And, thanks for the reminder!
This piece is a wonderful tribute. I have to admit I only have a superficial knowledge of the man so this post is really informative. Your writing is more in depth than anything I ever received in history class!
Many things in this piece really leap out at me. Tom and I seemingly have a lot in common.
Not allowing religion, politics and philosophy to influence my choice of friends is one of my core beliefs. (I tend to rely on other more important criteria.)
His quote about newspapers implies that transparency was extremely important to him. I couldn’t agree more. It is one of the building blocks of good governance and one of my core beliefs as well.
He didn’t jet around and entertain? I bet he still traveled in Horse-drawn Carriage One. 🙂
Some of this was very thought provoking to say the least. I am guilty of often referring to the politics of the “present” as too acrimonious, too bitter, too partisan and somehow unique in our nation’s history. That “anti-Christ” nonsense, however, is a reminder that maybe things aren’t so unique today as I might have guessed.
Very very interesting stuff and very well done! I for one will be quite pleased to lift up a glass of Samuel Adams beer and toast the President of the United States, Mr. Thomas Jefferson, on his birthday! Hear, hear!
It’s nice to know that someone as brilliant as Jefferson was the Antichrist before Obama. As I write this, I sit in my swivel chair – who would have known! I just finished my law class for my master’s. I now have a much greater appreciation for the law than before. Come to think of it, I’m going to have my Third Graders learn to recite, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” It’s better than poetry! It still gives me goosebumps whenever I hear it. Thanks for the great post!
Thanks for this impressive write-up on Thomas Jefferson. As a Canadian, I’m afraid most of my knowledge of US history is from films and movies. A recent issue of TIME magazine acknowledged another Tom as the chronicler of US history through his films (that’s Hanks). I had the chance to watch the DVD’s of the whole series on John Adams (produced by Tom the filmmaker), wherein I got a glimpse of Tom the future president, but nothing like the informative details you’ve posted here. Thanks for this interesting chronicle with an added personal touch!
Very comprehensive post on Jefferson! I believe I may be a better person for having read this – certainly a more informed one. I loved the long list of quotes and especially this: Taste cannot be controlled by law. Thanks so much.
Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this article about Jefferson! My area of interest in Lewis & Clark, and people often ask me where the Lewis & Clark Expedition began. I also say, “In the mind of Thomas Jefferson,” who conceived and dreamed of exploring this country before Lewis & Clark were even born. Thanks for a great post about a visionary leader.
Glad I could play a small role in your appreciation of Jefferson. What a great article. I’m a Jefferson fan too, but sadly knew much less than I thought. Thanks for sharing all the interesting details of the life of this remarkable man.
Your baby photo looks like it belongs in a museum-so nice!
Randall Kent “Randy” Burris is a hero, gaving his life saving others is the distant cousin of Thomas Jefferson!
Henry Randolph I-(siblings)-Richard Randolph
Henry Randolph II-(1st cousin)-William Randolph
Henry Randolph III-(2nd cousin)-Isham Randolph
Sarah RANDOLPH-(3rd cousin)-Jane Randolph
Nathan BARKSDALE-(4th cousin)-Thomas Jefferson
Mary BARKSDALE-(4th cousin once removed)-Thomas Jefferson
Nathaniel Barksdale PRIMM-(4th cousin twice removed)-Thomas Jefferson
Sarah Jane PRIMM-(4th cousin thrice removed)-Thomas Jefferson
Calvin Monroe Burris-(4th cousin 4x removed)-Thomas Jefferson
Marvin Monroe Burris-(4th cousin 5x removed)-Thomas Jefferson
Ernest Gene Burris-(4th cousin 6x removed)-Thomas Jefferson
Randall Kent Burris-(4th cousin 7x removed)-Thomas Jefferson
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Writings about Jefferson?
I’ve not read Randall’s book. I read Brodie’s, and though I don’t think she’s quite the devil incarnate as some Mormons used to claim after her Joseph Smith bio, No Man Knows My History, I felt her book was loaded with what we’d call snark, these days.
Dumas Malone won a Pulitzer for one of his six volumes on Jefferson. I like ’em all, but the one focusing on the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and worked to create a blueprint for an American republic, is most informative. (I think it’s volume I)
I learned a lot from Joseph Ellis’s American Sphinx, too. In one volume, that’s probably the one I’d pick (some of my colleagues differ greatly with me on that — hey, they’re allowed to err sometimes).
Those volumes don’t do Jefferson justice, though, I think. One really should go see Monticello, and spend a great deal of time studying the gardens, and read (in other books) Jefferson’s agricultural experimenting and championing. Jefferson was a great champion of things America, like the paw-paw, a fruit which has fallen out of favor over the decades — and deserves to be brought back. (Kayakers know about the paw-paw. Tom would be amused that paddlers know something others don’t.)