Thomas Jefferson: Biography
While Thomas Jefferson was a youth, he made a pact with his best friend, Dabney Carr, that in the event of the death of either of them, the survivor would bury the other under a particular oak on a small mountain, a place Jefferson called "Monticello." When Carr died at the age of 30 in 1773, he remained Jefferson's best friend, their comradeship further solidified by the fact that Carr had married Jefferson's favorite sister Martha. While slaves were preparing Carr's grave, Jefferson sat nearby, taking notes on the time required to turn the soil. Two men spent 3½ hours at this job; thus, Jefferson calculated, one man would take 7 hours and could therefore be expected to turn an acre of ground in four working days.
This somewhat strange parable shows us Thomas Jefferson at a moment when he was most vulnerable, when he internalized even his most profound grief after the death of his best friend. It is a perfect example of the way in which Jefferson hid his emotions from people in his own time, and thus from modern historians as well. Who was Thomas Jefferson? Biographers have been trying to answer that question for nearly 200 years. We know that he was a complex man, but what was Jefferson really like?
Basic facts reveal that he was tall (6'2½"), freckled, sometimes rumpled, humorless, and sensitive. His mind was luminous, his tastes extravagant. He was able to grasp and adapt new ideas instantaneously. Some called him a genius. Although not the inventor some claim him to have been (he invented only an iron moldboard for a plow), Jefferson adapted the best ideas he saw in America and Europe for use on his estate, Monticello. The house he designed there is a genuinely important (even essential) piece of world architectural heritage, and echoes of its lines can be seen in the shape of the Gateway Arch and many other monuments, homes and buildings across America.
Jefferson was not a good politician in terms of the way 20th century politicians operate. Unlike Harry Truman, Jefferson "couldn't stand the heat" of political life. Yet Jefferson (somewhat furtively) presided over the party machinery crafted as the "loyal opposition" during the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, and developed an American political philosophy which has lasted 200 years. This philosophy, of state and local government having precedence over federal power, has enjoyed more popularity during the last decade than at any time during the 20th century.
Jefferson was no businessman. The inheritor of large estates and many slaves, a studious, eager farmer, he nevertheless stayed in debt for most of his life. He extolled the virtues of the "common man," the yeoman farmer, yet loved the amenities of a decadent Europe. He was a slaveholder who favored emancipation, yet never freed a single slave during his lifetime (he freed three in his will).
As you can see, answering the seemingly simple question "who was Thomas Jefferson" is not easy. We can only relate selected facts about Jefferson's life; what he found to be important, what his likes and dislikes were. In all of his voluminous correspondence and his books, he rarely lets us see his inner feelings. These we must see through stories such as what Jefferson did as the grave of his friend Dabney Carr was being dug.
Thomas Jefferson was born April 13, 1743, the third child of ten and the first son of Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson. His father was a classic Virginia frontiersman, a self-made man and judge, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Thomas Jefferson was born at Shadwell, the family home in Virginia, built at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the fringe of what was then the British frontier. Jefferson spent most of his youth, however, on another family estate called Tuckahoe, 50 miles further east than Shadwell. Regarding his parents, we know that Jefferson loved and admired his father, but never spoke with any feeling about his mother, with whom it is believed his relationship was strained. He did not form close attachments with most of his siblings.
When Jefferson was 9, the family moved back to the Shadwell plantation, leaving him behind at Tuckahoe in the care of a tutor, the Anglican minister William Douglas. For five years Jefferson lived with Douglas, whom he found to be an indifferent teacher and a poor scholar. Jefferson may have felt abandoned at Tuckahoe. Although he visited Shadwell occasionally, Jefferson's formative years lacked parental care and affection.
In 1757, Peter Jefferson died suddenly at the age of 49. Thomas Jefferson's comment on his father's death is significant: "When I recollect that at fourteen years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely, without a relation or friend qualified to advise or guide me, and recollect various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time, I am astonished I did not turn off with some of them and become as worthless to society as they were." This passage reveals Jefferson's alienation from his family, and also his strong will to direct his own education and career.
Peter Jefferson left his son 7,500 acres of land, 21 horses and 53 slaves. He left his wife Jane the house and lands at Shadwell. After his father's death, Jefferson sought out another tutor, the Anglican minister James Maury, who taught Jefferson about the classics, science and natural history. Maury's eight children and three other scholars who boarded with him threatened to burst his house at the seams. One of the students living with Maury was Dabney Carr, destined to become Jefferson's best friend. Jefferson visited Shadwell on weekends, but it was not a cheery place for him. He became an introspective, moody young man. He learned the violin and to appreciate fine music. He became an expert rider, known throughout his life for long, solitary rides on horseback, which fed his desire to be alone.
After two years with Maury, Jefferson decided that he had absorbed all the man had to offer, and at age 16 applied for admission to William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. Jefferson was accepted, and while at college befriended a professor of Mathematics, William Small, with whom he spent time both in and out of class. Small's deistic religious views probably helped to form the young Jefferson's opinions on this subject.
Jefferson's views on religion, like everything else about him, were complex. Jefferson best fit the mold of a Deist, an 18th century form of religious thought which equated the universe to a giant clock, and portrayed God as the ultimate clockmaker, setting the universe in motion and letting it tick along on its way, undisturbed and without divine intervention. Jefferson came to believe that Jesus was an important philosopher, but did not believe him to be the son of God. In fact, Jefferson created his own Bible from the Gospels, cutting and pasting the story of Jesus' life together, emphasizing Jesus' philosophy and eliminating the miracles. (This Bible was only discovered after Jefferson's death, and was unknown during his lifetime). Jefferson's religious views were very important to us politically in the United States; Jefferson reacted strongly against the laws of Virginia Colony which allowed only Anglicans to hold public office. These laws prompted Jefferson to write the Statute of Religious Freedom for Virginia, ideas later incorporated into the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson's statute, written after the Revolutionary War as the Virginia State Constitution was being drafted, led to the religious freedoms we enjoy in America and the separation of church and state. This is one of the three things Jefferson wished to be remembered for, which are carved (at his request) on his gravestone.
Jefferson's friend Dabney Carr attended William and Mary with him. This initial two year period in Williamsburg may well have been the happiest of Jefferson's life. He ran about the town with his friends and indulged in sports. At the end of his William and Mary term Jefferson decided to stay on in Williamsburg to study law with George Wythe, who Jefferson called "my second father" and "the Cato of his country." Wythe was one of the most distinguished, brilliant and respected lawyers in the colonies, and his influence on the mind of the young Jefferson is incalculable. Jefferson was drawn into a circle of the most cultivated men in Virginia society, including the Royal Governor, Francis Fauquier. His expenses consistently outran his allowance from his father's estate, setting up a lifelong pattern of bad money management. Wythe fit a pattern as well; that of mentor to a boy who seemed to crave a strong male figure in his life. Maury, Small, and Wythe were all important tutors and father figures to the young Jefferson.
It was during this period that Jefferson fell in love with Rebecca Burwell, a charmer of the society set. He was too shy to tell her of his feelings, and escaped to Shadwell, not returning to Williamsburg for nine months. Finally he mustered up the courage to propose marriage to her, but instead of popping the question gave her a long and rambling diatribe which he understood to be a proposal and she did not. When he later learned that she had become engaged to another man, he was afflicted with a severe headache for several weeks.
Jefferson was in Williamsburg in 1765 when the colony was upset by the Stamp Act crisis. He was a spectator at Patrick Henry's defiant speech in the House of Burgesses, in which Henry declared that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies.
Jefferson studied law under George Wythe for five years, until 1767. That year Jefferson decided to take a trip to the north, traveling through Maryland to Philadelphia and New York City, then taking a coastal vessel back to Virginia. Upon his return he was admitted to the Virginia bar. Jefferson, now 24, began to ride the circuit as a lawyer, traveling from Staunton to Culpepper to Albemarle and back again. Not a good public speaker or adept at criminal law, it was said that Jefferson took only routine cases for modest fees.
Other interests began to absorb his fertile mind, including music and playing his violin, experimentation with gardening at Shadwell, and Palladio's Book of Architecture. It was this book which stirred an idea in Jefferson to build a different kind of house; a house away from the rivers and the lowlands, a house constructed on land he had inherited, a little mountain which he dubbed, in Italian, "Monticello." Jefferson's house was a 40 year project. He was never satisfied, always tearing down, improving, moving and shifting elements, adding inventions, and dreaming of still more changes. Jefferson's genius is nowhere displayed to greater effect than at Monticello; his home is an architectural masterpiece. The top of the little mountain was leveled off in 1767-68, and construction began on the south outbuilding in 1769, a building with a single room from which Jefferson could live and superintend construction of the main house.
Meanwhile, Jefferson was chosen to represent his district in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg. The resolutions passed by the House against Britain's Townshend Acts in 1767 caused Royal Governor Lord Botetourt to dissolve the House, which reconvened at Raleigh Tavern down the street. Led by George Washington, the Burgesses voted to join the Association for the Nonimportation of British Manufactures. This was one of the first instances of intercolonial solidarity, and Jefferson was a player in it. The experience caused Jefferson to begin examining the larger legal and political questions of the relationship of the American colonies to Great Britain.
Suddenly, the old family home at Shadwell burned to the ground in 1770, incinerating most of Jefferson's papers and books along with it. But Jefferson was preoccupied with other matters. In October, 1770, he visited The Forest, the plantation of a wealthy lawyer and planter named John Wayles. Wayles made his fortune primarily from the slave trade. His daughter Martha was a widow after just two years of marriage, with an infant son. She was accomplished on the spinet and harpsichord, and Jefferson became her leisurely suitor. He was primarily absorbed during this period, however, in the construction of Monticello. The pace was slow as he continued to alter his blueprints and sketches.
Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton on January 1, 1772. Over the following ten years, Martha gave birth to six children, the first just less than nine months after the wedding. Of the six, only two survived to adulthood; Martha, (called Patsy) the eldest, and Mary (or Maria, called Polly by Jefferson), born in 1778. Jefferson destroyed the letters he exchanged with Martha during their courtship, so she remains a bit of a mystery to historians. She seems to have been frail, and was nearly constantly pregnant during the marriage. In 1773, Jefferson's young stepson died, as did his father-in-law, John Wayles. Martha Jefferson was left 11,000 acres of land, 35 slaves, and innumerable debts upon her father's death. Among the slaves she inherited were slaves reputed to be her father's black mistress and several slave children who were her half-sisters and half-brothers.
In 1774, the Virginia House of Burgesses again protested British acts, this time the closing of Boston Harbor. Jefferson wrote a scholarly treatise entitled A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which "personalized" the argument between the colonies and the mother country. The colonies were organizing for resistance, and Jefferson was becoming known within his state as a leading patriot. He was selected as an alternate for Peyton Randolph, who was a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775. At the last minute, Randolph could not go, and so Jefferson went in his place, arriving in Philadelphia in June. The armed rebellion against Britain had just begun that April in Massachusetts, and George Washington was chosen to lead the American forces. Jefferson soon found a friend and ally in Congress in the Massachusetts lawyer John Adams; their somewhat opposing personalities complemented one another. Jefferson was re-elected to the Congress by the Virginia Assembly, and returned once more to Philadelphia in September 1775. Jefferson found Congress to be tedious and boring, but enjoyed associating with the many intelligent physicians and philosophers in what was then America's largest city. These included Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and the astronomer/mathematician David Rittenhouse.
Thomas Jefferson's mother died suddenly in the spring of 1776 — and that's about all we know about the event. Jefferson merely noted it in his account book, and never commented on either her or her passing. He returned to Virginia for the funeral, and was back in Philadelphia by mid-May.
Virginia joined other state representatives in pressing for the independence of the colonies from Britain, and on June 19, Congress appointed a committee of five to draw up a declaration to this effect. The committee was composed of Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, John Adams of Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who was given the actual chore of writing the document. On July 2, 1776, Congress officially passed a resolution calling for full independence from Great Britain, and was presented with Jefferson's draft. Many sections of the draft were controversial, and Congress picked apart, deleted sections, and changed the wording of several of Jefferson's key phrases. By July 4, the document was ready, was accepted by Congress, and was read to a crowd gathered outside the Pennsylvania State House, now known as "Independence Hall." The Declaration of Independence sealed the lasting fame of Thomas Jefferson. He became a national and world figure at age 33. Although he resented the changes Congress made to his draft, Jefferson took great pride in his authorship of the Declaration; it is the second of three things he most wished to be remembered for.
Jefferson left the Continental Congress for good in September 1776, returning to Monticello. Although appointed by Congress as an emissary to France along with Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson declined the appointment. During the next couple of years, Jefferson was an occasional attendee of Virginia Assembly sessions in Williamsburg, but his main absorption was Monticello, which he continued to alter and expand.
In 1779, a sudden swing of 12 votes in the Assembly gave Jefferson a majority, electing him Governor of Virginia. This was a post he neither sought nor wanted. He took office during the darkest days of the war, when rampant inflation and counterrevolution by Tories plagued Virginia. Jefferson was the last governor to occupy the old Royal Governor's Palace in Williamsburg. As governor, he encouraged the military operations of George Rogers Clark in the west. The southern military campaign went badly for the Americans, however, and in 1781 a victorious British army under Lord Charles Cornwallis entered the state. Jefferson moved slowly, too slowly, to raise militia forces to prepare to meet the threat. On June 1, 1781 he resigned his post, the end of two one-year terms as Governor. Jefferson was a controversial figure at this time, heavily criticized for inaction and failure to adequately protect the state in the face of a British invasion. Even on balance, Jefferson had been a very poor state executive, and left his successor, Thomas Nelson, Jr., to pick up the pieces. Nelson did so, personally raising militia forces to augment American armies under Lafayette and Washington, and French forces under Rochambeau, which bottled up the British in the port of Yorktown, forcing the surrender of Cornwallis and the virtual end of hostilities. In 1783, a negotiated peace gave the United States the independence it had declared in 1776. The Virginia Assembly made an investigation into Jefferson's conduct while governor, and although he was cleared of any wrongdoing, the whole affair left a stain on his reputation.
Visitors to Monticello just after the war found Jefferson to be casual and offhand with them to the point of rudeness; but when his conversational appetite was whetted he became "irresistibly animated," lively and enthusiastic. During this period Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, his only book and one of the first scholarly works produced in America. Notes on the State of Virginia was an answer to European critics of America, (specifically to questions posed by the Frenchman François Barbé Marbois, who claimed that Europe surpassed America in intellect, physical beauty, abundance of flora and fauna, and all other matters). Europeans had been saying that their continent was superior to the Americas, and Jefferson answered them in his book not only by refuting false statements, but by saying that Virginia, and thus America, surpassed Europe. (Remember that Virginia in 1783 considered itself the owner of all the land later called the Northwest Territory out to the Great Lakes, Kentucky and Tennessee). Notes on the State of Virginia reviewed the geography of the state, rivers, ports, mountains, flora, fauna, climate, American Indian people, constitution, laws, colleges, buildings, religion, manners, manufactures, commerce, weights, measures, money, and included a bibliographic section. An extremely important section on slavery was also included, in which Jefferson set forth his ambivalent ideas regarding that institution. Jefferson criticized slavery in the book, and remarked, "indeed I tremble for my countrymen when I reflect that God is just." He also concluded that it was his "suspicion" that the African Americans he observed were "inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." This unfortunate attitude remains one of the most difficult things for 20th century Americans to reconcile. Jefferson, over and above his political philosophy, architectural genius, and authorship of the Declaration of Independence, is most often recognized today as a slaveholder. His statement that "All men are created equal" seems to ring hollow in the face of his ownership of slaves.
Martha Jefferson's health declined rapidly after the birth of the Jeffersons' last child. Jefferson personally tended her through her final illness. She died September 6, 1782, and Jefferson was despondent for years afterward. Long, solitary rides over the countryside brought him some relief from his emotions. He never spoke of his wife again. The words on her tombstone were chosen by Jefferson from the Iliad:
"If in the house of Hades men forget their dead, Yet will I even there remember my dear companion."
Taking his mind from the tragedy, Jefferson re-entered public life. He returned to Philadelphia as a Congressman from his state in 1783, accompanied by his daughter Martha (Patsy), who became his constant companion, staying by his side until his death in 1826.
Early in 1784, Congress decided to send Jefferson to France to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in negotiating commercial treaties with various European powers. He sailed with Patsy, several household slaves, and William Short, a fellow Virginian for whom he had high regard. Jefferson's visit to Europe was overwhelming, as he encountered things he had only read about and seen in engravings in books. The great architecture, art, and culture of the ancient Romans and the Renaissance was his to admire in person. While in France Jefferson lived in style, bought the latest clothes, finest wines, best books, glass, china, and silverware. Patsy was educated by nuns at an expensive girls school. Jefferson loved France; it was as though he was made for that country, a Frenchman at heart. "Behold me, at length on the vaunted scheme of Europe!" he exclaimed.
Jefferson soon met and fell in love with Maria Cosway, a British painter. She was beautiful, intelligent, talented, spoke several languages - and she was married. Her husband, Richard Cosway, was also an artist - a small, foppish dandy who treated Maria badly. Jefferson was 43, Maria 27. They toured Paris together for six wonderful weeks. Jefferson somehow dislocated his right wrist during this period; it has been hypothesized that he did so by boyishly jumping over a fence, tripping in the process. Characteristically, Jefferson taught himself to write with his left hand, and remained ambidextrous for the rest of his life. Jefferson's idyll with Maria was suddenly cut short by Richard Cosway, who, having completed his artistic commission, insisted that Maria return to England with him. With Maria's departure, Jefferson's world fell apart once more. He composed his famous essay, The Dialogue of the Head vs. the Heart, which summed up his feelings regarding the practical vs. the romantic in a mock conversation between his brain and his heart. It was a love letter composed for Maria - with his left hand.
It is not known whether the Jefferson/Cosway affair went beyond romantic letters and walks in the countryside. Maria was a Roman Catholic and suffered more than her share of guilt over the relationship. She worried obsessively about pregnancy, for she didn't want to have children. Although they continued to correspond, Jefferson's head seemed to take control over his heart after Maria left for England, while Maria fell more deeply in love with him. She secretly visited Paris alone and spent more time with Jefferson, but this time he was distant and removed. Her dependency upon Jefferson made her later love letters to him sound desperate. It is through this correspondence that we know so much about Jefferson's affair; letters were saved on both sides. Whatever Jefferson felt for Maria Cosway was masked, but they continued to correspond until very late in his life. In later years, Maria left her husband, received an annulment, and founded a convent in Lodi, Italy. Richard Cosway was declared to be insane and institutionalized.
In 1785, Jefferson's daughter Lucy died of whooping cough in the United States, prompting Jefferson to send for his youngest surviving child, Polly, to join him in Paris. Polly, aged nine, was accompanied on her ocean voyage by several household slaves, including Sally Hemings. A young 14-year-old slave girl, it is believed that Hemings was the daughter of Jefferson's father-in-law, John Wayles, and a slave woman. It was said that Sally Hemings bore a strong resemblance to Jefferson's late wife Martha, (who was probably her half-sister). It was with this slave girl that Jefferson carried on a life-long affair, and with whom he fathered several children. New DNA evidence has proved with some finality that Jefferson indeed fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' sons, bearing out the truth of the old rumors and political slander that accompanied this liason. Jefferson cared for Sally's mulatto children, and he noted each of his slave's births in his farm journal.
It is important to discuss this issue in some detail. The following passage, by Douglas L. Wilson, is from an article entitled "Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue," which appeared in Atlantic Monthly in November 1992, prior to the DNA testing:
"It is a measure of the change that has occurred in the past thirty years that the one thing [people] nowadays are most likely to associate with [Jefferson], apart from his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, is a sexual liaison with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. College teachers are often dismayed to discover that many if not most of their students now regard this as an accepted fact. But this is not all. In the prevailing ethos of the sexual revolution, Jefferson's supposed liaison is widely received with equanimity and seems to earn him nothing more reproachful than a knowing smile. For most, such a liaison is apparently not objectionable, and for some, its presumed reality actually seems to work in his favor, showing him to have been not a stuffy moralist but a man who cleverly managed to appear respectable while secretly carrying on an illicit relationship. In effect, something that before the 1960s would have been universally considered a shameful blot on Jefferson's character has become almost an asset."
The difference between modern opinions on Jefferson's affair and attacks that were made on Jefferson during his lifetime is one of tone. James Callendar, who originated the attacks in 1802, was a once pro-Jefferson newspaper editor who was disappointed in not being appointed to a Federal post when Jefferson was elected to the Presidency. Callendar's attacks upon Jefferson were meant to discredit and disgrace his former benefactor. Callendar had both political and personal motives to ruin Jefferson's reputation, and cannot be considered as a reliable source, although his attacks were well-known and generally believed by Jefferson's enemies at the time. Fawn Brodie, author of the book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, on the other hand, presented her material as a love story, saying that only the conventions of the time prevented Jefferson from marrying Sally Hemings. This was a very different presentation of the same material, not written to discredit Jefferson, but rather to show him as a man trapped by the institution of slavery, which kept him from marrying his true love. More recently author Annette Gordon-Reed in her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings emphisized the lopsided and misplaced power in the relationship between these two people, one a President of the United States and the other a woman he kept as his property. Indeed, many African Americans question the disparity in age between the two and liken the teenaged Sally's liason with Jefferson to statuatory if not actual rape.
The recent DNA revelations have been disturbing to Jefferson scholars, enlightening to the public and especially welcome to African Americans as confirmation of what many had been saying for decades. Little was written, nothing was discussed by Jefferson about the Sally Hemings issue during his lifetime, and apparently his immediate family, particularly daughters Patsy and Polly, turned a blind eye. As we have seen, Jefferson was a person who was extremely protective of his personal life.
When Jefferson's daughter Polly arrived in France in 1785, she did not recognize her father or her older sister Patsy, from whom she had been separated for four years.
Jefferson witnessed the beginnings of the French Revolution in 1789, before his departure for America. He returned to the United States different in many ways - wiser, and more worldly from his European travels (he visited England, Germany and Italy as well as France).
The United States had changed as well. The Constitution had been written, an
Last updated: April 10, 2015