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Monday, 7 September 2015

Thomas Jefferson


The third of ten children, most of whom died early in life, Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 at the family home, a one and a half story farmhouse in Shadwell, Albermarle County, Virginia.

Jefferson's father, Colonel Peter Jefferson, was a land surveyor who was one of the surveyors who laid out the virginal North Carolina border.

When not at school, young Thomas went with his father to hunt deer and turkeys along the Rivanna River. He also liked to go for long walks in the mountains. Colonel Jefferson died when Thomas was 14.

Jefferson's mother, Jane Randolph, was of old Virginian aristocracy. She was the daughter of Isham Randolph, a ship's captain and sometime planter.

Jefferson and his mother did not have a close relationship. When her house burnt down, his first question was "what about my books?” It never occurred to him to invite his homeless mother into his home.

Jefferson began his childhood education under the direction of tutors at the Randolph Tuckahoe estate along with the Randolph children.

In 1752, Thomas began attending the Reverend William Douglas school, which was run by a Scottish Presbyterian minister. He began at the age of nine, to study Latin, Greek, and French; Thomas also learned to ride horses, and began to appreciate the study of nature.

At the age of 14 in 1760, Thomas was sent to the classical school of the Reverend James Maury, near Gordonsville, Virginia. While boarding with Maury's family, he studied history, science, and the classics.

At age 16, Jefferson entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg and studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy under Professor William Small. He left two years later without taking his degree.


Jefferson studied law in colonial Virginia from 1768 to 1773 with his friend and mentor, George Wythe. Jefferson's client list featured members of Virginia's elite families, including members of his mother's family, the Randolphs.

Following his study with George Wythe, Jefferson was admitted to the bar of the General Court of Virginia in 1767 and then lived with his mother at the Shadwell family home. His practice took him up and down the Valley from Staunton to Winchester.

Wile he was at Shadwell Jefferson lost his library, legal papers, and notes to a fire. He was desperate, even frantic, but George Wythe consoled him with a line from Virgil, "Carry on, and preserve yourselves for better times."


Besides practicing law, Jefferson represented Albemarle County in the Virginia House of Burgesses beginning on May 11, 1769 and ending June 20, 1775.

Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia between 1779-81.

In 1782 Jefferson was appointed a peace commissioner to assist Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in the peace negotiations but his ship was ice bound in Chesapeake Bay and his appointment was withdrawn.

In 1783 as chairman of the Currency Committee, Jefferson devised the dollar and cents system that is still used to this day.

Jefferson was sent by the Confederation Congress to Europe in 1784  to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as ministers for purposes of negotiating commercial trade agreements with England, Spain, and France. Taking his young daughter Patsy and two servants, they departed from Boston on July 5, 1784.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson while in London in 1786, by Mather Brown

In September 1789, Jefferson returned to the US from France. Immediately upon his return, President Washington wrote to him asking him to accept a seat in his Cabinet as his first Secretary of State. Jefferson accepted the appointment.

Between 1791-93, Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party with his friend James Madison. It was organized by the pair to oppose the Federalist Party run by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The Democratic-Republican Party came to power in 1800, and dominated national and state affairs until the 1820s, when it faded away.

In 1793, Jefferson resigned in protest at Alexander Hamilton's attempts to centralize government and his financial impropriety. He retired to his Virginian farm for the next four years.

As the Democratic-Republican presidential candidate in 1796, Jefferson came in second to Federalist John Adams, making him Adams's successor as Vice President. He served as Vice President to John Adams for the next four years.

Jefferson and George Washington had a poor relationship, their enmity stemmed from the last year of Washington's second term as US President, when he suspected Jefferson of being responsible for scurrilous attacks in the press on him. Jefferson denied responsibility and Washington accepted his word but there was a chill between them thereafter. Jefferson chose not to attend ceremonies marking the death of America's first President in 1799, nor did he write a note of condolence to Washington's widow.

Jefferson was a poor public speaker with a thin, fine voice. He talked with his arms folded.


After Thomas Jefferson tied with Aaron Burr in the 1800 presidential elections, with 73 votes each, the House of Representatives were balloted. Over the course of seven days, from February 11 to 17, 1801 the House cast a total of 35 ballots in which neither Jefferson nor Burr obtained a majority. Finally, on the 36th ballot on February 17, Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States.

For his presidential inauguration, Thomas Jefferson walked from his boarding house to the Capitol to demonstrate "Republican simplicity."

As president, Jefferson was involved in the Louisiana purchase by which the US gained extensive territories ceded by Spain to France for fifty million francs ($11,250,000) and a cancellation of debts worth eighteen million francs ($3,750,000 . It averaged to less than three cents per acre and was the largest land sale in history. As a result the USA doubled in size.

In 1803, President Jefferson initiated a process of Indian tribal removal to the Louisiana Territory.

Jefferson drafted and signed into law the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves that banned slave importation into the United States.

Jefferson hated public speaking so much that he only gave two speeches in his presidency, one per term.

He had one clerk and one messenger assisting him and Jefferson paid them out of his own pocket. There were no funds for “presidential staffers” until 1857.

Jefferson's presidency was dogged by persistent allegations that he slept with black slave girls.

Thomas Jefferson refused to recognize Haiti after the Haitian Revolution and imposed a trade embargo on them to ensure their economic failure, for fear that a successful slave revolt in the West Indies would inspire slaves in the US.


Thomas Jefferson married a young widow, 23 year old small and pretty Martha Skelton (1748-82) on New Year's Day 1772, at the Forest Charles City County.

They had six children, Martha Jane, an unnamed son, Mary (called Polly by Jefferson) and two Lucys.

Four of their children died in infancy. After the death of the fourth in 1782, Martha succumbed to grief and prolonged illness. When she died later that year on September 6th, Jefferson vowed never to remarry.

Mary died in 1804. Jefferson had inscribed on her tombstone two lines from the Iliad :“If in the house of Hades, men forget their dead, yet will I even there remember my dear companion”.

Only Martha, his first born child outlived him.

Jefferson had at least one child, a light skinned boy called “yellow Tom” by his teenage black chambermaid, “dusky” Sarah "Sally" Hemings.

On October 19,  1796 the Gazette published an article accusing Thomas Jefferson of carrying on an affair with Sarah “Sally” Hemings. They wrote they'd "heard the same subject freely spoken of in Virginia, and by Virginia Gentlemen." Jefferson himself never publicly denied this allegation.

Sally Hemings was the daughter of widowed planter John Wayles and a mixed-race woman he kept as a slave, Betty Hemings; Sally and her siblings were three-quarters European and half-siblings of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. She had olive skin and long straight auburn hair. As an infant Sally came to Monticello as part of Martha's inheritance of her father's slave holdings.


Jefferson was six feet, two-and-one-half inches in height, large-boned, slim, erect and sinewy. He was nicknamed because of his tall figure and spindly limbs.

He had a very ruddy complexion, red hair, which became sandy when older and hazel-flecked, grey eyes and a long, high nose.

Jefferson had big feet, wearing size 12 1/2 shoes.

"For those who believe the old saw that an honest man must have a direct gaze. I refer them to a contemporary’s report that the shiftiest eyed man he had ever met was Thomas Jefferson." Gore Vidal.

Jefferson stood and walked straight and due to his plentiful hair, never wore a wig.

In the fashion of his time, Jefferson dressed in a long, dark coat (usually blue, and in the summer generally of silk), a ruffled stock, or cravat (in place of the modern necktie), a red waistcoat, short knee breeches, and shoes with bright buckles.

Except in his days of courtship and married life, Jefferson paid little attention to clothes. Never a fan of formal affairs, he was often reported to have worn his pajamas while meeting with foreign dignitaries.

When he was President of the United States. Jefferson made a habit of plainness, both in dress and in matters of ceremony.

In his later years Jefferson was negligent in dress and loose in bearing.

Urban and cultivated, Jefferson was courteous, bowing to everyone he met. There was grace in his manners; and his frank and earnest address, quick sympathy and  vivacious, informing talk gave him an engaging charm.

On the debit side, Jefferson was chilly, impenetrable and seemed cold to strangers.

Though it is a biographical tradition that he lacked wit, Molière and Don Quixote seem to have been among Jefferson's favorites;


Seven of his first nine years were spent at Tuckahoe, the Randolph estate on the James river near Richmond. When Jefferson was none his family moved back to their Shadwell family home.

In February 1770, his family house at Shadwell, Virginia burnt down.  A skilled architect, interior designer, builder and furniture maker, Jefferson designed his 35 roomed replacement home in Monticello (see below).

Monticello had only two very narrow staircases as Jefferson considered them a waste of space.

Among the mechanical contrivances at Monticello were an interior weather vane connected with one on the roof.

In Monticello's 13 bedrooms, all the beds were simply mattress supports hung on wall hooks.

In his study Jefferson had a revolving chair that enabled him to reach both a desk and a reading stand. He also had a chaise lounge which was fitted with candlestick holders in both arms to provide light for reading.

Jefferson experimented with new varieties of grain at Monticello and introduced the threshing machine into the USA. He was one of the first Americans to employ crop rotation.

On March 17, 1801 Thomas Jefferson moved to the White House as the third American president. He expanded the building outward, creating two colonnades that were meant to conceal stables and storage. Today, Jefferson's colonnades link the residence with the East and West Wings. Jefferson also permitted public tours of his house, which have continued ever since, except during wartime.

By Zach Rudisin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,Wikipedia Commons


Thomas Jefferson was a freethinker, influenced by Rousseau and a champion of religious freedom. Despite this he once snatched his daughter, Patsy, from a convent when she threatened to convert to Catholicism and become a nun, claiming "independence is not a plaything to be given to a child."

Like many other intellectuals of his era, Jefferson was a deist, which replaced revelation and tradition with reason. He cut out of his Bible all the supernatural elements, including the Resurrection and Virgin Birth, because he didn't go along with them, though he approved of Jesus' moral philosophy. The closing words of the Gospels in Jefferson's Bible read: "There they laid Jesus and rolled a great stone to the mouth of the sepulchre and departed."

Jefferson was raised Episcopalian at a time when the Episcopal Church was the state religion in Virginia. Before the American Revolution, when the Episcopal Church was the American branch of the Anglican Church of England, Jefferson was a vestryman in his local church, a lay position that was part of political office at the time. He later removed his name from those available to become godparents, because his Deist beliefs opposed Trinitarian theology.

Convinced of the need to keep church and state separate, he believed unwaveringly in the freedom of people from government coercion in religious matters. Jefferson refused to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation and gave an injunction that there should be a wall of separation between church and state. "Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites," Jefferson wrote in his Notes on Virginia.


After serving as ambassador in Paris, Thomas Jefferson brought back with him to America ice cream which he delighted in serving to his guests.

Jefferson also introduced to the Americans the joys of fried potatoes after sampling them in Paris. He described them as "potatoes, fried in the French manner" with beefsteak.

He returned from France with a waffle iron, a long-handled patterned griddle that encloses the batter and gives the waffle its characteristic crispness and shape.

Jefferson brought a pasta making machine back with him when he returned to America after serving as ambassador to France. He used it to serve macaroni or spaghetti made by cutting rolled dough into strips, which were then rolled by hand into noodles.

Thomas Jefferson helped to popularize "Mac 'n Cheese" by serving it to dinner guests during his presidency.

Thomas Jefferson planted some of the first Brussels sprouts in America. A remarkably progressive Virginia farmer as well as statesman, Jefferson also grew tomatoes at his Monticello home, not to eat but as a curiosity. Not many colonists at the time realized tomatoes were edible, indeed many Americans feared tomatoes to be poisonous.

Jefferson was an enthusiastic wine connoisseur. During his ambassadorship to France in the 1780s, he made several tours of the European wine regions and sent bottles of the finest back to his homeland. However following his return to America Jefferson was unable to replicate the choice European wine he encountered. The main reason for his failure was that despite planting extended vineyards at his Monticello estate, a significant portion were destroyed by the many vine diseases native to the Americas.

Jefferson installed in his Monticello home a small, innovative shelved elevator to carry wine from his wine cellar to his dining room.


A naturally succinct writer, Jefferson claimed "the most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do”.

He generally wrote with his "Polygraph", a machine in which an automatic pen inscribed a facsimile of a manuscript.

Jefferson liked to invent words. "Belittle" was one of his most famous. He wrote in his 1780 book Notes on the State of Virginia. "So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side of the Atlantic."

Surprisingly, Notes on the State of Virginia was the only book that Jefferson published in his life. It answered various questions about the American continent.

Jefferson was largely responsible for drafting the 1776 Declaration of Independence. (He was regarded as the strongest and most eloquent writer,)

Jefferson could read and write in six different languages: English, Spanish, French, Latin, Italian and Ancient Greek. he was fluent in more languages than any other American president to date.

In January 1915, Congress purchased Jefferson's library for $23,950. The 6,500 volumes in it became the nucleus of the Library of Congress.


Jefferson invented many small practical devices  He is said to have invented the lever-operated double door opener, still often seen today on trains and buses, and the folding chair both of the common type and of the shooting-stick type, now used by sports spectators.

Jefferson is also credited with the invention of the swivel chair,  the first of which he created and used to write much of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson liked to sing, he tended to hum or sing as he walked or rode and he enjoyed attending operas.

Jefferson played the violin, sung pleasantly and amassed over 500 pieces of music, including violin works by Corelli, Handel and Vivaldi.

Christmas celebrations at the White House and in his home, Monticello, included Jefferson playing the violin for family and guests.

He supervised his daughter's music education, hiring Frances Alberti, an Italian immigrant, as a music tutor.  In addition to violins, Jefferson's oldest daughter, Martha, played harpsichord, and his other daughter, Maria, played guitar.

Jefferson was an avid collector of and player of marbles.

A good horseback rider, Jefferson often rode for pleasure.

The dome on his Monticello home concealed a billiard room. In Jefferson’s day billiards was illegal in Virginia.

Jefferson's interests included archaeology, a discipline then in its infancy. When exploring an native American burial mound on his Virginia estate in 1784, Jefferson avoided the common practice of simply digging downwards until something turned up. Instead, he cut a wedge out of the mound so that he could walk into it, look at the layers of occupation, and draw conclusions from them.

Jefferson's 1799 report on these Indian burial mound excavations were one of the earliest significant archaeology works.

He studied and classified fossils at a time when the investigations of these objects was in it's infancy.

When he was Secretary of State, Jefferson has had a plant named after him, "the Jefferson Diphylla", because "in botany and zoology, the information of this gentleman is equaled by few persons in the United States."

Thomas Jefferson kept a Shetland sheep with about 40 other sheep on President's Square in front of the White House.  In the spring of 1808 it attacked several people, killed a small boy, and was referred to Jefferson as "this abominable animal".  After been moved to Jefferson's Monticello estate, the ram was eventually killed after having killed several other rams.

Jefferson had little tolerance for dogs that brought harm to his sheep, and he once ordered one of his sheepdogs to be hung for mauling livestock.

Jefferson once had a mockingbird that he taught to peck food from his lips and to hop up the stairs after him.


Jefferson was a chronic migraine sufferer. They lasted about a month at a time and he had an attack every seven years or so. Each time he carried on working through the pain.

Jefferson co-founded the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He was appointed to the building committee to supervise the construction and insisted on the use of classical forms to evoke the spirit of ancient republics and to teach proper taste to the students. The university's first classes met on March 7, 1825.

The Rotunda at the Lawn of the University of Virginia (UVa), view from the south east. By terren in Virginia - flickr

In 1819, Jefferson's close friend, Wilson Cary Nicholas carelessly defaulted on a $20,000 bank loan and then died shortly afterwards. Jefferson had co-signed for the loan and was now liable for the debts. Upset and embarrassed he suffered from gross indigestion for several days. At the age of 83 he was completely broke and in debt.

Jefferson was allowed to sell lottery tickets, the winner getting the former president's land. The lottery was not a success and he died in debt.


Thomas Jefferson took the time before he died to write out the inscription on his tombstone. A rather lengthy memorial, the missive listed Jefferson's many great accomplishments, from "author of the Declaration of Independence" to "founder of the University of Virginia." However, he did leave out one achievement. The tombstone failed to mention that Jefferson was once president of the United States.

Jefferson's health began to deteriorate in July 1825, from a combination of various illnesses and conditions probably including toxemia, uremia, and pneumonia. By the June of the following year, he was confined to bed.

On his death bed, Jefferson was determined to last until the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. At 12.45 pm on July 4, 1826, Jefferson mumbled "This is the fourth"? When he realized it was he mumbled "I resign my spirit to God, my daughter to my country" and died peacefully.

The second President John Adams died a few hours later on the same day. Jefferson's remains were buried at Monticello.

Jefferson's gravesite

Jefferson's all round genius was summed up by John F Kennedy who once said to his Nobel Prize- winning guests " I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Sources Food For Thought by Ed Pearce, Comptons Encyclopedia

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