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Thomas Jefferson Bio and Presidency
U.S. History Dual Credit
The third president of the United States, a diplomat, statesman, architect, scientist, and philosopher, Thomas Jefferson is one of the most eminent figures in American history. No leader in the period of the American Enlightenment was as articulate, wise, or conscious of the implications and consequences of a free society as Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was born April 13, 1743 (April 2, old style), on the farm called Shadwell, adjoining what is now Monticello, in the county of Albermarle, Virginia.
The date of his birth was unknown to the public until after his decease. Repeated
attempts had been made to ascertain it by formal applications to him on various
occasions, both by individuals and public bodies; but from scruples of a patriotic
nature, he always declined revealing it and enjoined the same privacy upon his family.
The principles which determined him on this subject were the great indelicacy and
impropriety of permitting himself to be made the recipient of a homage, so
incompatible with the true dignity and independence of the republican character, and
the still greater repugnance which he should feel at seeing the birthday honors of the Republic transferred in any degree, to any individual.
Soon after his inauguration as President in 1801, he was waited on by the Mayor and Corporation of the city of Washington, with the request that he would communicate
the anniversary of his birth, as they were desirous of commemorating an event which
had conferred such distinguished glory upon their country. He replied, "The only
birthday which I recognize is that of my country's liberties." In August, 1803, he
received a similar communication from Levi Lincoln on behalf of a certain association
in Boston, to which he replied: "Disapproving myself of transferring the honors and
veneration for the great birthday of our Republic to any individual, or of dividing them
with individuals, I have declined letting my own birthday be known, and have engaged
my family not to communicate it." (ME 10:416) This has been the uniform answer to
every application of the kind.
On the paternal side, Mr. Jefferson could number no titles to high or ancient lineage. His ancestors, however, were of solid respectability and among the first
settlers of Virginia. They emigrated to this country from Wales, and from near the mountain of Snowden. His grandfather was the first of whom we have any particular
information. He had three sons: Thomas, who died young; Field, who resided on the waters of the Roanoke and left numerous descendants; and Peter, the father of the
subject of these memoirs, who settled in Albermarle county, on the lands called Shadwell. He was the third or fourth settler in that region of the country. They were
all gentlemen of property and influence in the colony.
But the chief glory of Mr. Jefferson's genealogy was the sturdy contempt of hereditary honors and distinctions with which the whole race was imbued. It was a strong genealogical feature, pervading all the branches of the primitive stock and forming a remarkable head and concentration in the individual who was destined to confer immortality upon the name. With him, indeed, if there was any one sentiment which
predominated in early life and which lost none of its rightful ascendancy through a
long career of enlightened and philanthropic effort, it was that of the natural equality of all men in their rights and wants, and of the nothingness of those pretensions which
"are gained without merit and forfeited without crime." The boldness with which, on
his first entrance into manhood, he attacked and overthrew the deep rooted institutions
of Primogeniture and Entails forms a striking commentary upon this attribute of his character.
An anecdote is related by Mr. Madison, which is no less apposite and striking. During the infant stages of our separate sovereignty, the slowness with which the wheels of government moved and the awkwardness of its forms were everywhere the prominent topics of conversation. On one occasion at which Mr. Jefferson was present, a question being started concerning the best mode of providing the executive chief, it was among other opinions gravely advanced that an hereditary determination was preferable to any elective process that could be devised. At the close of an eloquent effusion against the agitations and animosities of a popular choice and in favor of birth as, on the whole, affording a better chance for a suitable head of the government, Mr. Jefferson with a smile remarked that he had heard of a University somewhere in which the Professorship of Mathmatics was hereditary!
His father, Peter Jefferson, was born February 29th, 1708, and in 1739 married Jane Randolph, of the age of 19, daughter of Isham Randolph, one of the seven sons of that name and family settled in Dungeoness in Goochland county, who trace their
pedigree far back in England and Scotland, "to which," says Mr. Jefferson, "let every one ascribe the faith and merit he chooses." He was a self-educated man, but rose steadily by his own exertions and acquired considerable distinction. He was commissioned jointly with Joshua Fry, professor of mathematics in William and Mary College, to designate the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina, and was afterwards employed with the same gentleman to construct the first regular map of Virginia. He died August 17, 1757, leaving a widow with six daughters and two sons, Thomas being the elder of the sons. To both the sons he left large estates; to Thomas the Shadwell lands, where he was born, and which included Monticello; and to his brother the estate on James river, called Snowden, after the reputed birthplace of the family. The mother of Mr. Jefferson survived to the fortunate year of 1776, the most memorable epoch in the annals of her country and in the life of her son.
At the age of five, Thomas was placed by his father at an English school, where he continued four years, at the expiration of which he was transferred to a Latin school, where he remained five years under the tuition of Mr. Douglass, a clergyman from
Scotland. With the rudiments of the Latin and Greek languages, he acquired at the same time a knowledge of the French. At this period, his father died, leaving him an orphan only fourteen years of age and without a relative or friend competent to direct or advise him.
An interesting reminiscence of this critical period of his boyhood and of the simple moral process by which he subdued and wrought into instruments of the greatest good the perilous circumstance of his position is contained in an affectionate letter, written more than fifty years afterwards to his grandson, then in Philadelphia. It is replete with sound admonition, applicable to every condition of youth, besides affording an insight into the juvenile mind and habits of the writer.
On the death of his father, Mr. Jefferson was placed under the instruction of the Rev. Mr. Maury, to contemplate the necessary preparation for college. He continued with Mr. Maury two years; and then, in 1760, at the age of seventeen, he entered the college of William and Mary, at which he was graduated, two years after, with the highest honors of the institution. While in college he was more remarkable for solidity than sprightliness of intellect. His faculties were so even and well-balanced, that no particular endowment appeared pre-eminent. His course was not marked by any of those eccentricities which often presage the rise of extraordinary genius, but by the constancy of pursuit, that
inflexibility of purpose, that bold spirit of inquiry and thirst for knowledge which are
the surer prognostics of future greatness. His habits were those of patience and severe
application, which, aided by a quick and vigorous apprehension, a talent of close and
logical combination, and a retentive memory, laid the foundation sufficiently broad and
strong for those extensive acquisitions which he subsequently made. The mathematics
were his favorite study, and in them he particularly excelled. Nevertheless, he
distinguished himself in all the branches of education embraced in the established
course of that college. To his devotion to philosophy and science, he united an
exquisite taste for the fine arts. In those of architecture, painting, and sculpture, he
made himself such an adept as to be afterwards accounted one of the best critics of
the age. For music he had an uncommon passion; and his hours of relaxation were
passed in exercising his skill upon the violin, for which he evinced an early and
extravagant predilection. His fondness for the ancient classics strengthened continually
with his maturity, insomuch that it is said he scarcely passed a day in after-life without
reading a portion of them. The same remark is applicable to his passion for
mathematics. He became so well acquainted with both the great languages of antiquity
as to read them with ease; and so far perfected himself in French as to become fluent
with it, which was, subsequently, of essential service to him in his diplomatic labors.
He could read and speak the Italian language and had competent knowledge of the
Spanish. He also made himself master of the Anglo-Saxon, as a root of the English,
and "an element in legal philology."
The acquaintances he happily formed in college probably determined the cast and
direction of his ambition. These were the first characters in the whole province, among
whom he has placed on record the names of three individuals who were particularly
instrumental in fixing his future destinies: viz., Dr. Small, one of the professors in
college "who made him his daily companion"; Gov. Fauquier, "the noblest man who
had ever filled that office, to whose acquaintance and familiar table" he was admitted;
and George Wythe, "his faithful and beloved mentor in youth and his most
affectionate friend through life."
To Governor Fauquier, with whom he was in habits of intimacy, is also ascribed a
high character. With the exception of an unfortunate passion for gaming, he was everything that could have been wished for by Virginia under the royal government. "With him," continues Mr. Jefferson, "and at his table, Dr. Small and Mr. Wythe, his amici omnium horarum, and myself, formed a partie quarree, and to the habitual conversations on these occasions, I owed much instruction."
George Wythe was emphatically a second father to young Jefferson. He was born about the year 1727, on the shores of the Chesapeake. His education had been
neglected by his parents, and himself had led an idle and voluptuous life until the age
of thirty; but by an extraordinary effort of self-recovery at that point of time, he
overcame both the want and the waste of early advantages. He was one of the
foremost of the Virginia patriots during the revolution; and one of the highest legal,
legislative, and judicial characters which that State has furnished. He was early elected
to the House of Delegates, then called the House of Burgesses, and continued in it
until transferred to Congress in 1775. He was one of the signers of the Declaration of
Independence, of which he had been an eminent supporter. The same year, he was
appointed by the Legislature of Virginia one of the celebrated committee to revise the
laws of the State. In 1777, he was chosen Speaker of the House of Delegates, and the
same year was appointed Chancellor of the State, an office which he held until his
death in 1806, a period of thirty years.
After graduating from William and Mary in 1762, Jefferson studied law for five years under George Wythe. In January of 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton and established a residence at Monticello. When they moved to Monticello, only a small one room building was completed. Jefferson was thirty when he began his political career. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgess in1769, where his first action was an unsuccessful bill allowing owners to free their slaves.
The impending crisis in British-Colonial relations overshadowed routine affairs of legislature. In 1774, the first of the Intolerable Acts closed the port of Boston until Massachusetts paid for the Boston Tea Party of the preceding year. Jefferson and other younger members of the Virginia Assembly ordained a day of fasting and prayer to demonstrate their sympathy with Massachusetts. Thereupon, Virginia's Royal Governor Dunmore once again dissolved the assembly (Koch and Peden 20). The members met and planned to call together an inter-colonial congress. Jefferson began writing resolutions which were radical and better written than those from other counties and colonies. Although his resolutions were considered too revolutionary and not adopted, they were printed and widely circulated and subsequently all important writing assignments were entrusted to Jefferson.
When Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia in June, 1775, as a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress, he already possessed, as John Adams remarked, "a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition" (Koch and Peden 21).
When he returned in 1776, he was appointed to the five-man committee, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, which was charged with the most momentous assignment ever given in the history of America: the drafting of a formal declaration of independence from Great Britain (Daugherty 109). Jefferson was responsible for preparing the draft. The document, was finally approved by Congress on July 4, 1776. Cut and occasionally altered by Adams, or Franklin, or the Congress itself, the Declaration is almost completely Jefferson's, and is the triumph and culminat
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