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Thomas Jefferson: Life and Works Essay (Biography)

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2022

Two things that cannot fail to strike any student of the life of Thomas Jefferson are his unwavering allegiance to the ideal of liberty (especially that of the mind) and his coincidental death on a day of particular importance to him (the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence which he had authored). A deist who approved of the morality of the philosophy of Christianity even if he did not accept the divinity of Jesus Christ, it might be said that he was perhaps granted his spiritual independence by the God he believed in, on the fiftieth anniversary of the day his nation had been guided into political independence by him. If intellectual discourse and dispute survive the death of the body, Jefferson, no doubt, still keeps his mind as active and as free as he had been accustomed to while he breathed the air of the earth.

He first breathed that air on 13 April 1743, but he would have allowed anyone the latitude of suggesting that he had actually been born on 2 April 1743 (as is inscribed on the panel below the epitaph on his grave). The reason for this is that the calendar in general use changed from the Julian style to the Gregorian during his lifetime, in fact, seven years after he was born. Had he been anything like the children of today, he would perhaps have insisted on celebrating his birthday twice a year! However, it is unlikely that even a ten-year-old Tom Jefferson would have put forward such a suggestion, except in jest.

Quite apart from the ‘triple crown’ of Secretary of State, Vice-President and President of the United States that had adorned his extraordinary head at different times, Thomas Jefferson was a man of varied interests. He has left his mark on architecture and horticulture, literature and politics, religion and philosophy, various languages, and the relatively young sciences of archaeology and paleontology. One of the most well-known facts of his life is that he helped to found and mould the University of Virginia. The phrase “Jeffersonian” is now widely accepted as an adjective that stands for the best practices and traditions of democracy. His idealization of the individual agriculturist is as much in keeping with his character as is his distrust of large corporations and financiers. Jefferson’s enlightened views ensured his popularity among the political and intellectual leaders on the Continent, particularly in France and Britain.

The young Jefferson was born into one of the most prominent families in Virginia and his parents were planters who owned considerable property in the form of land and money and slaves. He came into all this wealth when his father passed away, at a time when the son was barely in his teenage years. In his hands, the home that he built on the property came to be called “Monticello”—perhaps his favorite haunt of all time (its grounds are his final resting place). It is one of the contradictions of his rich personality that he kept all the slaves that he inherited, and for all his professed loyalty to the ideal of liberty is not known to have freed even one of the slaves on his estate. Always dedicated to the notion of keeping private things private, he was perhaps never asked to divulge the reasons that impelled him to keep his slaves rather than set them free. It may safely be conjectured that the reasons, whatever they may have been, would have been formulated out of judicious contemplation, and they would have passed any test of unselfishness and lack of prejudice.

After his father’s death he boarded at the house of a reverend gentleman, James Maury, where he studied the classics before joining the College of William and Mary, where he acquired a lifelong admiration for Bacon, Locke and Newton under the guidance of William Small, and from where he graduated with the highest honors. He later studied and practiced law. He married in 1772 and had six children by his one and only wife Martha Skelton who had been a widow when she married him and who died ten years after the marriage.

As Representative for Albemarle County, Jefferson wrote a series of resolutions against the British Parliament and these formed the basis of his first published work—A Summary View of the Rights of British America—which argued that the colonies should have the right to govern themselves. It is proof of the popularity of this work among his countrymen that the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence fell to him, and the Declaration that he drafted, which was accepted with very few changes and finally adopted on 4 July 1776 stands as proof of the wisdom of those who entrusted the task to him. Jefferson is best known for his hand in the Declaration and even those who may not know that he was the third President of the United States know him as the author of that affirmation of the rights of human beings everywhere.

As state legislator for Virginia he is best known for bills that he helped to draft and pass into law, such as the bill to abolish the system of primogeniture by which the eldest male child inherited all the property, and bills to ensure freedom of religion and reforms in the judicial and academic fields. He became Governor of Virginia, and, later Secretary of State under George Washington. In 1796 he contested the election to the Presidency, lost to John Adams, but gained the votes required to become Vice President. While officiating as Vice-President he formulated a manual of parliamentary procedure. He ran for President again in 1800 and was declared elected to that office in February 1801. Aaron Burr, and later, George Clinton served as Vice-Presidents during his Presidency.

After leaving office, he immersed himself in activities that culminated in the founding of the University of Virginia in 1819. The architecture of the buildings and the general lay-out of the design reflected some of Jefferson’s deeply felt ideas and ideals. He was very closely involved with the affairs of the University, and with the activities of the students and the faculty, till he died. The University of Missouri, which was established in 1839, was modeled in part, on Jefferson’s designs for the University of Virginia.

Jefferson died on 4 July 1826, the very same day on which John Adams, too died, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. He was buried in the grounds of his beloved Monticello estate—which he left to the nation in his will. He did not have very much of anything else to bequeath because most of his property had to be sold in auction to pay off his debts. His epitaph was written by himself:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
And Father of the University of Virginia.

The dates of his birth and death are mentioned on another panel, below the epitaph. When President John F. Kennedy feted around half a hundred Nobel laureates in the White House in 1962, he is said to have paid an incomparable tribute to his predecessor Thomas Jefferson—suggesting that only Jefferson could equal the combined intellect of all the laureates there assembled. This might appear tantamount to attributing wisdom of almost Aristotelian proportions to the third President of the United States of America. However, just as ‘great Homer’ is said to have nodded off at times, Aristotle is supposed to have pronounced with the finality of one who knew he would not be questioned the ‘fact’ that women had fewer teeth than men—perhaps a reflection of the limits of his physical explorations into the female anatomy. He might have had some reason for thinking that women could do with fewer teeth than men and some experience of women without much wisdom or without many wisdom teeth. If great Aristotle could fall into that error, one such as Jefferson could make the mistake of saying that the black races were “inferior” to the white. Well, no one ever said that Thomas Jefferson was marked by divinity rather than humanity—he is respected and discussed and studied today because he was an extraordinary human being. To adapt the words of William Shakespeare on Julius Caesar, “Here was a man! When comes such another!”

Works Consulted

University of Virginia. The Jefferson Papers. Electronic Resource. 2008. Web.

Jefferson, Thomas:

  • Autobiography.
  • Letters.
  • Notes on the State of Virginia.
  • A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. III. 2. 256.

”. Electronic Resource. 2008. Web.

The White House. Biography of Thomas Jefferson. Electronic Resource. 2008. Web.

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