Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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THOMAS JEFFERSON: America’s Renaissance Man

Thomas Jefferson’s parents, Peter and Jane Jefferson raised their family of ten children on their Colonial Virginia farm called Shadwell.  Jane Jefferson tended to their 9 children while also overseeing the activities on their farm.  While Peter Jefferson did not have the advantages of a formal education, he was a successful farmer, surveyor, and mapmaker.  He was also a captain in the Virginia militia, served as a justice of the peace and sheriff, and was a member of the Virginia Legislature.

In 1749, Peter Jefferson led a team of surveyors on a 320-mile journey through the yet-to-be-explored territory of the Blue Ridge Mountains in order to establish the border between Virginia and North Carolina.  As a result of Jefferson’s careful note-taking and sketches of the landscape and rivers, the Governor of Virginia commissioned Jefferson to produce the first map of the Virginia Colony.

Born on April 13, 1742, Thomas was the first son born to Peter and Jane Jefferson.  Not only did young Thomas bear a close physical resemblance to his father, but he was also influenced by his father’s love of reading.  By age 5 Thomas’ parents began his formal education.  From ages 9 through 15, his studies included Latin, Greek, and French.

In his youth, Thomas was fascinated by his father’s collection of map-making and surveying instruments, as well as listening to his father’s accounts of exploring the uncharted west.  In later years, Thomas described his father as a man of “remarkable powers of endurance, untiring energy, and indomitable courage.”  Peter Jefferson died when Thomas was 14 years old.  Being too young to assume control of his 5,000-acre inheritance, his mother managed his estate so that Thomas could continue with his education.

After two years of disciplined study at the College of William and Mary, Thomas graduated at age 17.  At that time, there were no official law schools in Virginia so, for five years, Jefferson became a “student of law,” and protégé of, George Wyeth, Attorney of the Law.  Their friendship continued, and as future Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress, in 1776, both added their signatures to the Declaration of Independence.

By the age of 22, Jefferson’s political career began when he was elected to the Virginia Assembly.  During an Assembly meeting, he heard Patrick Henry speak against the British Stamp Act, where he stated that only the Colony of Virginia had the right to levy or appropriate taxes on its citizens.  Jefferson agreed with Henry’s sentiments and from that time forward he became a champion for American independence.  Jefferson was also present at the Second Virginia Convention when, on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry stirred the passion for freedom among the Virginia delegates.  His sentiments spread throughout the thirteen colonies, and many were inspired by his famous statement, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

At the age of 25, Jefferson had chosen a small hill on his inherited property as the site for his future home.  He undertook an in-depth study of architectural principles in preparation for, and throughout the building of his beloved Monticello.  At age 29, he met and married 23-year-old Martha Wales Skelton and together they created a gracious home for family and friends.  The couple shared many interests including literature, horseback riding, and especially music.

Jefferson started playing the violin at an early age and played throughout his life.  During his college years, his musical ability brought him regular invitations to perform at the royal governor’s palace.  Martha, an accomplished pianist, joined her husband in performing duets for family and guests.  Jefferson’s catalog of musical compositions included ballad operas, classical orchestral pieces, and Scottish folk tunes for violin, harpsichord, and flute.  He also became proficient in playing Benjamin Franklin’s invention, the glass harmonica.  Jefferson regarded music as “a delightful recreation through life” and a “favorite passion of my soul.”

Their lives were taken up with family and the active management of the Monticello estate.  Like all of the Founding Fathers, as well as other unpaid public servants, they needed to be self-supporting.  Jefferson’s commitment to the affairs of Virginia, as well as the very survival of the 13 colonies against the tyranny of the British monarchy, demanded more and more of his time away from Martha and their children.

This was a difficult and even dangerous time in the colonies.  Harsh British governance of their colonial subjects created the need for the formation of a Continental Congress. The First Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774, was comprised of leaders from their respective colonies, men like John Adams of Massachusetts, John Jay of New York, and George Washington of Virginia. Their objectives were to confirm their loyalty to King George while making their case that the colonies were being taxed without proper representation in the British Parliament.  The king ignored all of Congress’ attempts at reconciliation.  Consequently, Congress passed the Articles of Association which stated that if Parliament refused to address their grievances, all importing and exporting of goods between the colonies and Britain would be halted by the spring of the following year.

Having no response from Parliament, the Second Continental Congress met again in May of 1775 to deliberate on their options with an unresponsive British government.  However, the more immediate focus for Congress was that in April, British troops had advanced on colonists in Massachusetts firing shots at the local Minutemen at Lexington and Concord.  It was clear that if the colonies were to escape British tyranny, Congress needed to prepare for a possible war with Britain.  They proceeded with the establishment of the Continental Army and elected George Washington as the Commander-in-Chief.  Even as the Congress was deliberating on the best path forward, on June 17th, British troops engaged in open combat with American Patriots on Bunker Hill.

Thomas Jefferson had just been elected as a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress.   At age 33, and one of the youngest delegates, he was recognized by his peers for his intelligence and reserved manner.  In June of 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee proposed a resolution that the united colonies “…ought to be free and independent states…”

A committee, consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Roger Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson was assigned to write an outline of essential features describing Lee’s proposal.  It was assumed that Adams, who had long been an advocate for independence from Britain, would write the first draft.  Or, Franklin, the senior diplomat of the Congress, would write the draft.  However, they chose Jefferson for the task because he was known for his eloquent writing skills.

Concerned about his wife, Martha, who was unwell at home in Virginia, Jefferson sat in his rented Philadelphia boarding room with full recognition of the significance of his task at hand.  There were colonists and even delegates in the Congress who were opposed to promoting such a bold separation from the British crown.  Using some of the ideas and writings from such luminaries as John Adams and George Mason, Jefferson began writing what he called a “common sense” treatise in “terms so plain and firm, as to command [the] assent of mankind.”  According to documents from his Monticello papers, Jefferson’s ultimate goal was to express the unity of Americans – what he called an “expression of the [A]merican mind” against the tyranny of Britain.   (www.monticello.org/site/jefferson-and-declaration).

Jefferson submitted his composition to the drafting committee on June 28th which made minor changes to his stirring document.  However, Jefferson was disappointed, when the consensus of the Congress elected to eliminate the section where he excoriated the king regarding slavery.  This portion of Jefferson’s draft read:

“[The king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce…”    Congress knew that by confronting England with their Declaration of Independence the colonies would be facing war with the most militarily powerful country in the world at that time.  The delegates believed that “all men are created equal,” and were willing to put their lives on the line for that principle.  However, it was crucial that the thirteen colonies provide a united front when they presented their declaration to England.  Consequently, even though most of the Founding Fathers were opposed to slavery they recognized that some of the southern colonies would withhold their support if Jefferson’s passage about slavery was left in the document.

The discussions and debates in Congress on the future of the country had concluded.  The Declaration of Independence was finalized and adopted on July 4, 1776.  Copies of the Declaration were carried on horseback throughout the colonies, reprinted in newspapers, and read aloud to troops in the Continental Army.

It is noteworthy that news had reached Philadelphia that on July 1st, General William Howe had arrived off the New York shores with 48 British warships carrying 10,000 troops which he disembarked on Staten Island.  In less than two weeks, he was joined by his brother, Lord Richard Howe, with an additional 82 warships with an additional 32,000 British and Hessian troops.

On July 4, 1776, the discussions and debates on the future of the country came to a close and Congress formally announced its separation from the British government.

Three years into the tumultuous years of the Revolutionary War Jefferson was elected as Virginia’s governor (1780-1781).  Britain had conducted several attacks on Virginia, some led by the turncoat, Benedict Arnold.  On January 2, 1781, a British naval fleet used the James River to gain access to Richmond and Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia.  Jefferson evacuated the capital and moved his family to safety.  Then, in an effort to protect Virginia’s vital records from being taken by the British, he returned to the capital and collected the documents and, after riding on horseback for two days, he successfully escaped from his pursuers.

Prior to, and even during the war, the Jeffersons and their daughters, Martha and Maria, were a close-knit family.  Along with a keen focus on education and music, their evenings were spent playing parlor games and reading for relaxation.  At age 34, his wife, Martha once again fell seriously ill.  After devotedly caring for his her, Jefferson wrote that on September 6, 1782, “My dear wife died this day at 11:45 A.M.”  After his beloved wife passed away, his relationship with his daughters and their extended families remained close.

After winning their independence from Britain, George Washington was unanimously elected as the first President of the United States.  He named John Adams as his Vice President, and Jefferson as his Secretary of State.  During these early days of determining how to conduct the affairs of the new Republic, there were healthy debates and even strong disagreements among Washington’s cabinet members.

The formative intellects of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were instrumental in the founding of the United States.  However, as political misunderstandings and disagreements over the role of the new federal government became public, a schism developed between these former friends.   When Adams sought a second Presidential term in 1801, Jefferson opposed him and this time won the election, with Aaron Burr serving as Vice President.

Jefferson was also successful in his bid for a second term as President and succeeded in making his own choice for Vice President, his friend, James Madison.  It is notable that Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th U.S. Presidents, each served two terms in office.  The three men were good friends and lived within 30 miles of one another in Virginia.  They were also closely aligned philosophically and politically which helped create national stability during their collective 24 years in the White House.

As President, Thomas Jefferson’s father’s interests in exploring unsettled western territories no doubt played a role in his son’s desire to expand the boundaries of the country.  Understanding that the French government was experiencing financial shortages, President Jefferson sent emissaries, including James Madison, to negotiate with Emperor Napoleon over the purchase of their French-owned territories.  This great tract of land from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains in the west, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border.  In 1803, Jefferson was successful in the historic Louisiana Purchase, which nearly doubled the size of the Republic, and ultimately created all or part of 15 new states.

The following year, Jefferson commissioned the Corp of Discovery, also known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Starting with the newly purchased Louisiana territory, their mission was to chart wilderness passages, collect animal and horticultural species, and initiate peaceful relations with native American tribes.  The expedition eventually forged ahead into the westernmost territories, finally arriving at the Pacific Ocean’s boundary of the North American continent.

Thomas Jefferson was a visionary during his presidency, and in retirement, he became an advocate for education.  According to the records from Monticello’s library, by the age of 76, Jefferson “spearheaded the legislative campaign for the [University of Virginia] charter, secured its location, designed its buildings, planned its curriculum, and served as its first rector.

In 1776, Jefferson and Adams had been among the members of the Continental Congress who, literally put “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors” at risk as they courageously opposed the oppressive British Monarchy.  Along with Benjamin Franklin, and other members of the Continental Congress, they created the Declaration of Independence and held fast to the principles of freedom throughout the War of Independence.  Regrettably, their political and personal disagreements caused a decade-long rift between these two indispensable Founding Fathers.

The estrangement between these two elderly statesmen came to an end when Adams, living on his farm in Braintree, Massachusetts, wrote a letter to Jefferson, now retired and living at his home, Monticello, in Virginia.  Adams noted that he and Jefferson were the surviving Founding Fathers, and as such, were the last of the living witnesses to the incredible history which led to the birth of the United States of America.  Jefferson immediately responded, and thus began a thirteen-year stream of correspondence, renewing their shared history, as well as sage commentary about current events at home and abroad.  In a truly unique turn of Providence, as the country celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, two of its principal authors passed away on July 4, 1826; Thomas Jefferson was 83, and John Adams was 91.

During his long and fruitful life, it seems like Jefferson must have found a way to increase the hours of the day when one considers the many interests and hobbies he pursued, even outside of the many civic responsibilities he assumed.  Here is an abbreviated list of his activities:

Jefferson’s Library – 9,000 books, of which 6,487 volumes were used to restock the Library of Congress after it was torched by the British army.  In one of his letters to John Adams, Jefferson wrote, “I cannot live without books.”  He preferred the classics and read in seven languages,” making it a rule, “never to read translations where I can read the original…”

Architecture – Jefferson’s self-directed study of European architecture helped him design Monticello; the Virginia State Capital; and the University of Virginia, which he founded.  He also invented practical items, such as creating innovative farming equipment and techniques, as well as his hinged portable writing desk, and his copying apparatus, which automatically produced a second copy of his prolific hand-written letters and documents;

Science – Jefferson said that science was his “Supreme delight.”  He read books and papers on a wide variety of scientific subjects, from astronomy to farming, and shared his thoughts with research enthusiasts from around the world.  He admired Sir Isaac Newton’s construct that a rational system of order governed the natural world and that by these rules of science, the condition of man could be improved.  The Monticello gardens included over 300 types of vegetables and 170 species of fruit, some new to America;

Physical Fitness – Jefferson felt that, along with maintaining mental acuity, he was a devotee of daily exercise.  He wrote, “Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded.”  He felt that one’s diet played an important role in one’s health and stamina.  As Jefferson’s friend, Daniel Webster (author of Webster’s Dictionary) noted, Jefferson “enjoys his meal well, taking with his meat a large portion of his vegetables.”

Additionally, among Jefferson’s hobbies were wine-making, gourmet cooking, bird-watching, and fossil-hunting.  The latter two activities likely took place during his daily two-hour walks.We can be grateful for the Founding Fathers’ brilliant and courageous stance against the ravages of tyranny while also creating the framework for a free and sovereign nation.  In addition to his civic duties, Jefferson, like his friend Benjamin Franklin, was an inveterate man of science and invention, which earned him the moniker of being America’s Renaissance man.