What are five interesting facts about Thomas Jefferson?

Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, an official presidential portrait

Jefferson is so well known and recognized, it is difficult to tell anything of him that is unusual. Of the many signers, he and Benjamin Franklin probably wrote the most and left the most public record of their lives. Jefferson ever wrote an autobiography. He omitted some areas of his life, such as his relationship with Sally Hemings, and having children by her.

  • He was an architect – he designed Monticello, the rotunda at the University of Virginia, and the state capitol building
  • He loved wine and is regarded as one of the great wine experts of the 18th century. He had two wine vineyards at Monticello
  • Food also dominated his interests, and he is credited with popularizing ice cream, macaroni and cheese, and french fries in the Colonies
  • Jefferson adored books – his personal library was huge, having inherited George Wythe’s library. After the British burned the Library of Congress in the War of 1812, Jefferson donated his personal collection to form the basis of a new national library, with around 6,000 volumes.
  • He was an amateur archeologist, fascinated with fossils, dinosaurs, and mammoths. Part of a mastodon skeleton is on display in the entrance hall to Monticello.
  • He was an inventor – he patented the first iron plow, the pasta machine, a device to copy pen strokes (the first copier) as they were made, a wheel cipher for coded messages, and a great clock, whose stroke resounded for three miles! And a dumbwaiter, for bringing wine up from the cellar.

Well, that’s six – but to even begin to list all of Jefferson’s achievements would go on for pages.

Thomas Jefferson was born on either April 2 or April 13 (scholars differ) in 1741 at Shadwell, Albemarle County, Virginia. His forebears were among the earliest emigrants from England. His father, Peter Jefferson was a surveyor and cartographer, making the first accurate map of the Allegheny region. His mother was Jane Randolph, who was born in Shadwell near London, England, and immigrated to the colonies with her family at about age 5, in 1725. Jane’s father became a prominent Virginia planter. Peter felt deprived by his lack of formal education, and made sure that his son did not suffer the same fate – Thomas started school at five, went to Latin school, then William and Mary (where you can still see his name carved into a desk in Christopher Wren hall). He was but an indolent student his first year, but so regretted his dissipation that he worked to catch up his second year. He studied law under George Wythe, as well as learning French, Greek, and how to play tolerably well on the violin. Of his professor and mentor, Jefferson wrote, “Mr.Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life.”

As a student at William and Mary, he often listened to sessions of the House of Burgesses, which met in Williamsburg. He was present for the hot debate on the Stamp Act, and the firebrand speeches of Patrick Henry.

By 1767 Thomas was admitted to the Virginia Bar, and shortly after elected to the House of Burgesses. Patrick Henry said of him, ” It has been thought that Mr. Jefferson made no figure at the bar, but the case was far otherwise. There are still extant, in his own fair and neat hand, in the manner of his master, a number of arguments, which were delivered by him at the bar, upon some of the most intricate questions of the law; which, if they shall ever see the light, will vindicate his claim to the first honours of the profession. “

Thomas states that early in his time in the Burgesses, he made one attempt toward the emancipation of slaves, but it was rejected, and “indeed, nothing was possible during the regal government.”

On January 1, 1772, Thomas wed Martha Skelton, then twenty-three, a widow and daughter of attorney John Wales. Thomas was thirty-one. Martha and Thomas had six children, but only two lived to adulthood. Only their first child, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson even made it to twenty-six years old. She died from health complications of childbirth shortly after their sixth child in 1782. At her death, Thomas burned all correspondence between them and rarely spoke of her. Martha exacted a promise that Jefferson would never remarry, which he honored legally, if not in spirit. In 1787, while Minister to France, Jefferson carried on a secret liaison with his slave, Sally Hemings. Sally had come to him as an infant, part of Martha’s inheritance from her father in 1773. Martha inherited 135 slaves from her father, along with many debts. Sally may have been a half-sister to Martha by their father, John Wayles. Thomas and Sally began a sexual relationship when she was sixteen. She asked Thomas to promise he would set her children free. Due to DNA testing, it is now widely accepted that Sally had six children by Jefferson, but she remained a slave until her death in 1835. Two sons, Eston and Madison, were set free in Thomas Jefferson’s will.

Martha Jefferson was highly educated and musical, a constant reader, with a good nature and a vivacious temper that sometimes bordered on tartness. She had great affection for her husband. She was a little over five feet tall, with a lithe figure, auburn hair, and hazel eyes. She was an accomplished seamstress. Her music book and several examples of her embroidery survive.

In 1775, Thomas Jefferson took his seat as one of the youngest delegates, thirty-three, to the Continental Congress. He became the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. He became a friend and confidante of John Adams. These two, together with Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston became the “Committee of Five” that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Interestingly, Jefferson says he went to the Congress intending an arrangement with Britain that would have looked more like the British commonwealth nations of today, but correspondence with Lord North and the parliament left independence as the only option. Many of his fellow delegates disagreed, and his first draft was discarded as too strong. It took much wrangling and persuasion to reach the final form. Richard Henry Lee caused delay by proposing that the colonies be declared free and independent – too strong a step for the stomach of many. On May 15, 1776, a resolution was adopted stating that some delegates had no authority from their constituents to declare independence – if the issue were forced, they might secede from the union of the colonies, placing the whole issue in doubt.

In a fashion not so different from the political debates of today, the wrangling and deal-making continued. Some feared British might, others economic ruin, and still others saw British tyranny and no way to make foreign alliances without a united front. There was great hope that France would oppose England, and hamper their war effort, but time was pressing to effect this alliance.

In order not to lose precious time, the Committee of Five proceeded to draw up a document of Confederation, uniting the colonies, in hopes that those dragging their feet for independence could be persuaded.

John Adams writes concerning the Declaration:

“He [Jefferson] accordingly took our minutes and in a day or two produced to me his draught. Whether I made or suggested any correction I remember not. The report was made to the Committee of Five, by them examined, but whether altered or corrected in anything, I cannot recollect. But in substance at least it was reported to the Congress, where after a severe criticism, and striking out of several of the most oratorical paragraphs, it was adopted on the fourth of July, 1776, and published to the world.”

Autobiography of John Adams

One-fourth of the document was deleted in the three-day debate, including paragraphs against King George, and concerning the slave trade. Jefferson was unhappy about the changes but held his peace.

Jefferson continued his work on founding documents of our country but was also appointed Colonel of the Albemarle County militia. When Benedict Arnold attacked Richmond after switching sides and burned it, Jefferson barely escaped in time. From 1778 to 1780, he revised Virginia’s laws, doing away with primogeniture that tended to favor the rich planters.

In his 1785 book Notes on Virginia Jefferson wrote that he did not believe black and white could live together free in the same society, due to the justifiable resentment of the black race due to past treatment. He also wrote that he considered the natives of America, the Indians,  “as equals in body and mind to European settlers”.

Jefferson unsuccessfully tried to get laws passed that displaced the Anglican church. He was a deist, who viewed Jesus as a good, moral teacher, and did not accept the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. In fact, the phrase “separation of church and state” occurs nowhere in the constitution, but rather in a letter from Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association on January 1, 1802.

He served as governor of Virginia during the war, and afterward in the United States Congress representing Virginia, then minister to France, and Secretary of State. He opposed Alexander Hamilton’s federalist ideas, particularly consolidating the national debt.

In 1796, he ran for president, losing the electoral college to his old friend, John Adams, and became Vice President. At the time, the President and Vice President did not have to be from the same party. An advocate of states rights, Jefferson warned that the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, if not heeded, might lead to civil war.

In 1800, he again ran against Adams, and a bitter feud resulted. This time, the policies of Adams’ administration made him unpopular enough for Jefferson to win. Historian Joyce Appleby said the election was “one of the most acrimonious in the annals of American history”. Jefferson served as president from 3/4/1801 -3/4/1809.

Highlights of the Jefferson administration include:

  • The war with the Barbary pirates – whence comes the phrase “the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine anthem
  • Louisiana Purchase
  • US Military Academy at West Point officially established
  • Enabling act, establishing a procedure for the adoption of new states into the country
  • Washington becomes an incorporated city
  • Marbury vs. Madison, which allows the Supreme Court to declare whether laws are constitutional, is decided
  • Initiates the Lewis and Clark Expedition
  • The Twelfth Amendment requiring separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President passes.
  • A national railroad from Cumberland Maryland to Ohio is authorized.
  • In 1806, Jefferson appeals to Congress to end the slave trade. An act to that effect is passed in 1807 and becomes effective January 1, 1808.

Adams and Jefferson had become bitter enemies, but Jefferson’s daughter, Abigail Adams, and Dr. Benjamin Rush attempted to facilitate reconciliation. In 1812, Adams wrote Jefferson a brief holiday greeting, and Jefferson responded warmly. For the next fourteen years, they carried on a friendly and lively correspondence. In the end, as Adams died, he said, “Jefferson survives,” without knowing that Thomas Jefferson had died only hours earlier.

Unlike today’s presidents, who often leave with millions, Jefferson at the end of his life was deeply in debt. On July 3, 1826, Jefferson was overcome by fever and declined an invitation to Washington to attend an anniversary celebration of the Declaration. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, at Monticello. A great light of freedom went out.

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