Thomas Jefferson, painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1800 | Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Most people remember Thomas Jefferson as the writer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the First Congress, and as a President of the United States. Jefferson was so much more than that and had so many accomplishments that may not be remembered. So allow me to remove a bit of the dust from these faint memories.
In the year 1743, Peter and Jane Jefferson smiled down at their squirmy little newborn baby Thomas, and in that moment they knew he would grow to be someone great.
At a young age, Thomas showed a love for reading and learning. He was always interested in learning new things like science, invention, architecture, religion, philosophy, and languages, five of which he learned fluently. As well as traditional schooling in the classics, he took up violin. When he was old enough, his mother sent him to William and Mary’s College for boys.
Thomas Jefferson excelled there. He loved everything they taught him, but especial enjoyed politics. He soon went on to law school, and planned to become a lawyer.
After he had been practicing law for a while, he met a beautiful widow by the name of Martha Wales Skelton. In less than a year, she became Martha Wales Skelton Jefferson. At his father’s death, Thomas inherited Monticello, his lifelong home, and 22 slaves. When Martha’s father died, they inherited 11,000 acres and 135 slaves as well as a lot of debt. This started a downhill slide in his financial situation.
Martha was married to Thomas for ten years and gave birth to six children, only two of whom made it to adulthood. Weakened by the frequent child-bearing,ill health, and diabetes, Martha died in 1782. Thomas Jefferson was distraught and nearly drove himself to exhaustion from grief. He promised her he would never marry again.
The Silent Member of Congress
1. A popular and enduring tale is that while writing the famous lines of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson would take breaks to play his violin to help him think.
2. “I cannot live without books.” He wrote in a letter to John Adams, and he had an impressive collection of over 6,000! He sold many of these to the Library of Congress after it had been burned in the War of 1812 … and then he promptly began buying more.
3. Jefferson designed the blueprints for his home Monticello by himself, which was then built by local masons and carpenters assisted by his own slaves.
4. It was Jefferson, as governor of Virginia, who made Richmond the Capital of Virginia instead of Williamsburg.
5. Jefferson disliked and did not trust banks and bankers, in part because he hated Alexander Hamilton who designed the entire system, and in part because he felt it created too much debt and led people to speculation instead of actual productive labor.
Only a year later, talk of separation from England began. Jefferson was elected the delegate of Virginia for the Continental Congress. When the congress assembled, he wrote his protests, for he was no public speaker. He was known as the “silent member of Congress.”
After much time of protest and anguish between Britain and the Colonies, it was time for something to be done. So Thomas Jefferson was called upon, regardless of his protests, to draft the Declaration of Independence. It was in this that he, for the first time, perfectly put to word the feelings of anguish, sorrow, suffering, anger, and other offenses the colonies had against the king who was deaf to their pleas.
The Declaration of Independence had to go through many drafts and editing sessions, and during that time he spent many days and nights with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, who helped him choose with precision the language that best gave the feeling and message he wished to portray. John Adams and Ben Franklin were the two that were most supportive of this young 33-year-old while under the great pressure of writing this monumental document.
Through all the late nights they stayed up editing copies, through all the picky words and slight adjustments of sentences, through the agonies of handwritten rewrite after rewrite, a friendship was born that would never die. Benjamin became like a father to Jefferson, and John like a brother. The three of them came very close through it all, and none ever regretted those days they spent modifying this country’s most important document.
Shortly after, war broke out, and Jefferson was back in Congress. The war brought great devastation for many; they were greatly outnumbered, but they knew there was no turning back. After they had spat in the face of their king, they could not go and just crawl back under his cruel hand. The tyranny and injustice was too much for them to bear, and each knew that they must prevail, and they must do it together.
Thomas Jefferson loved his home, Virginia, so very much that he wanted to do all for it that he could. He served in the House of Burgesses, and he was elected as governor of Virginia at the tender age of 36.
After the War
Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale in 1805 | Public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When the war was over and they had their freedom, instead of retiring to his home Monticello, which he longed to do, Thomas Jefferson continued to serve his country. He succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister of France. When he had fulfilled his time, George Washington offered him a position as the national Secretary of State, which he accepted.
The turmoil in the country was deep, though. The entire country was splitting into two political groups: the Federalists and Republicans. It wasn’t long before Jefferson became the leader of the Republican party, strongly opposing Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Federalists. The two became bitter rivals.
Following America’s revolution, France’s populace was in turmoil, and there was an impending French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, having spent much time with the French, had a lot of compassion for them, and because of the American success, he completely supported the war. This brought great conflict between him and Alexander Hamilton, who, as Secretary of the Treasury, was in a position directly above Jefferson. Due to this conflict, Thomas Jefferson resigned. That was the year 1793.
Vice-Presidency and Presidency
In 1796, Thomas Jefferson became a candidate for president, against John Adams. Adams did not want to run against Jefferson, but Jefferson was determined. When the polls were counted, Jefferson was behind by three votes. This immediately put a hedge between Jefferson and Adams, a scar that would take a long time to fade.
Because the polls were so close, and the Constitution had no specifics about how to deal with this, Thomas Jefferson was named vice president under Adams, but this did not heal the conflict between them. Worse yet, John Adams was against the revolution in France. This difference as well as the fact that John Adams had the executive power over what to do in this matter, infuriated Jefferson. He could not stand his current position.
After Adams’ term was up, Jefferson ran again. This time he succeeded and assumed his place as president of the United States with Aaron Burr as his Vice President. Jefferson became one of the best presidents America has ever had. By then, the war in France was over, so that issue did not come up, but many others did. He brought Ohio into the Union, a huge accomplishment, and he headed up the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the United States.
He sent the now famous Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore this new territory and map it, even spending time personally with Lewis to teach him about science and biology in his personal library at Monticello. Jefferson reduced our debt by 1/3, he eradicated the tax on liquor, addressed the issue of people with poor income and substandard living conditions being taxed too high, and most of all he loved the people who loved him back. When he left his presidency, he returned to his home and family, pleased by the knowledge that he had served his country well.
He was under constant attack from all sides as president. He had a turbulent relationship with Britain’s Ambassador, and Hamilton and his supporters gave him no rest. Thomas Jefferson’s vice-president, Aaron Burr, was charged with murder in two states after fatally shooting Hamilton in a duel. Although though those charges died out, Burr was charged with treason for plotting to levy a war against the United States and seize the recently acquired Western territory.
In his later years, he reconciled with John Adams and the two became closer than they had ever been before.
On July 4, 1826 Thomas Jefferson died at the age of 83, only 4 hours after his good friend John.
Adams’ last words were, “Jefferson still lives.”
He had wanted to outlive Thomas Jefferson.