3rd President of the United States
Served: March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809
Born: April 13, 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia
Died: July 4, 1826 in Monticello, Virginia
Buried: Monticello Estate in Charlottesville, Virginia
My wife, Debbie, and I took a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia back in 1998 before we were married. We had a great time. Williamsburg is an excellent place to visit for the historical significance it has. It was the first capitol of the Colony of Virginia before it was moved to Richmond. It is the site of William and Mary University. It is near historic Jamestown (the first permanent colony in America) and Yorktown (where General Cornwallis surrendered to end the American Revolution). Of course, August is not a great time of the year to visit Virginia. The weather was hot (around 95 every day) and very humid. All of the buildings are air-conditioned, so you can get rests from the heat when you need them. During our vacation, Hurricane Bonnie came up the East coast, and stalled over Eastern Virginia.
Not to waste a day sitting in our hotel room while the hurricane raged outside, we decided to drive inland to Monticello. We took I64 through Richmond to Charlottesville. It took us a little over two hours. Keep in mind; we were driving out of the hurricane. Charlottesville is a very pleasant city. We walked around the pedestrian mall and had lunch in an outdoor cafe. After lunch, we drove out of the city toward Monticello. We first stopped in the Visitor Center for some background information and souvenirs. Then we drove up the mountain toward his home. We parked in the lot and walked the rest of the way. There was a wait in line to get in.
His home is phenomenal. Jefferson was a very inventive man with everything he did. His home is proof of it. You enter through the main door into the Entrance Hall where there is a large clock that he designed. You move from room to room, from his library to a greenhouse to his office to his bedroom. The most interesting thing here is that his bed is in the wall between his office and his bedroom. So when he wakes up he can go into either room. The back of the house has the parlor, which opens up into the back porch. You continue through the dining room and tea room.
After touring his house, we toured the grounds. Monticello was a working plantation when Jefferson lived there. They still plant fruits, vegetables are flowers in the original places. We continued our walk back to the cemetery where Jefferson is buried. It is a large area that is fenced off. Jefferson, and his wife Martha, are off to the right as you approach it from the house. Jefferson, with a boyhood friend and future brother-in-law, had picked out the spot himself. They made a pact that the survivor of the two would bury the other beneath a large oak tree below the summit of the mountain. Jefferson's friend, Dabney Carr, was buried there first. On Jefferson's obelisk are three accomplishments he wanted inscribed there. Mentioned are the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the founding of the University of Virginia. No mention of being president or vice-president is on the stone.
HERE WAS BURIED
AUTHOR OF THE
OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
STATUTE OF VIRGINIA
AND FATHER OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826
Jefferson was born in 1743, the third of ten children, at the family home in Shadwell in Goochland County (now part of Albemarle County), during the reign of King George II. His father Peter Jefferson was a successful planter and surveyor and his mother Jane Randolph a member of one of Virginia's most distinguished families. At age 16, he entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg and met the law professor George Wythe who became his influential mentor. He graduated in 1762, completing his studies in only two years. He then worked as a law clerk for Wythe in Williamsburg. During these years in Williamsburg, Jefferson read the writing of people like John Locke. Besides practicing law, Jefferson represented Albemarle County in the Virginia House of Burgesses beginning from 1769 to June of 1775. Following the passage of the Intolerable Acts by the British Parliament in 1774, Jefferson wrote a set of resolutions against the acts. These were later expanded into A Summary View of the Rights of British America, in which he expressed his belief that people had the right to govern themselves.
Having inherited a considerable amount of land from his father, Jefferson began building Monticello when he was twenty-six years old. Three years later on News Year Day in 1772, he married 23-year-old widow Martha Wayles Skelton, with whom he lived happily for ten years until her death. Jefferson played the violin and Martha was an accomplished piano player. Their marriage produced six children, but only two (Martha and Mary) survived to adulthood.
Jefferson’s views on the institution of slavery and African slaves are complex. He opposed slavery yet was an owner of slaves. He inherited slaves from both his father and father-in-law. In a typical year, he owned about 200, almost half of them under the age of sixteen. About eighty of these lived at Monticello; the others lived on other land he owned. Jefferson freed two slaves in his lifetime and five in his will and chose not to pursue two others who ran away. All were members of the Hemings family; the seven he eventually freed were skilled tradesmen. He always claimed he wanted to free his slaves but his personal debts prevented it.
In June of 1775, while a member of the House of Burgesses, Jefferson was chosen to represent Virginia in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. While there, he made friends with the more radical members of the congress like John Adams. When Congress began considering a resolution of independence in June of 1776, Jefferson was appointed to the five-man committee, which included Adams and Benjamin Franklin, to write a declaration in support of the resolution. Adams got the other members to have Jefferson write the declaration. It took him 17 days to write it. The other members made some changes. Franklin changed "We hold these truths to be sacred and un-deniable... to "We hold these truths to be self-evident." The final draft was presented to the Congress on June 28. On July 2, Congress adopted a resolution on independence and then spent three days debating Jefferson’s document. Congress made changes and deleted nearly a fourth of the text, most notably a passage critical of the slave trade. Jefferson was not happy about it but remained quiet. On July 4, 1776, the Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson left the Congress after this and returned to Virginia. In 1779, he was elected governor of Virginia and led the state through the Revolution. As governor, he moved the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond to keep it further from the British Army. In 1781, during British general Charles Cornwallis march north towards Virginia, a cavalry force led by Banastre Tarleton almost captured Governor Jefferson at Monticello. Jefferson, warned at the last minute, managed to escape west. He suffered an inquiry into his conduct during this last year in office that, although finally fully repudiated, left him with a life-long adverse reaction in the face of criticism.
On September 6, 1782, his wife Martha, who may have suffered from diabetes, died. Jefferson took her death very hard. He did not remarry and remained a widower for the rest of his life. Later, when Jefferson was serving in Paris, it is reported that he began a relationship with one of his female slaves, Sally Hemings (Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles was also Sally’s father making her Martha’s half-sister.) DNA testing has confirmed that Jefferson was the father of Sally’s children.
During the brief private interval in his life following his governorship, Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia. In 1784, he entered public service again, in France, first as trade commissioner and then as Benjamin Franklin's successor as minister. During this period, he avidly studied European culture, sending home to Monticello, books, seeds and plants, statues and architectural drawings, scientific instruments and information.
In 1783, a new United States Constitution created a new government. George Washington, hero of the Revolution, became the first president. Washington asked Jefferson to be his Secretary of State and a member of his four-man cabinet. Jefferson had a vision for the country that was pro-agrarian and against banks and monetary interest. This ran contrary to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton plan for the country. Jefferson and Hamilton’s different visions became the basis for a two-party political system. Jefferson and his followers became known as Democratic-Republicans who opposed Hamilton and his Federalist supporters. The two fought over almost every major issue that occurred during Washington’s Administration. The biggest division came over who the country should support in the war between Great Britain and France. Jefferson, who supported the French Revolution, as an extension of the American one, wanted the country to support France who had supported America during the Revolution. Washington and Hamilton were more pragmatic and saw the problems the British Navy could have on American shipping supported Great Britain.
After Washington decided not to run for a third term in 1796, the country faced its first contested presidential election. Washington’s vice president and Federalist supporter John Adams ran for president. Jefferson decided to oppose him. At the time, presidential elections were decided in the electoral college not by popular vote. Jefferson, who had the support of most of the southern states, lost a close election to Adams (71 to 68 electoral votes). Technically, since Jefferson came in second, he became vice president (the Constitution would be changed so this didn’t happen again.) Hamilton remained as Secretary of the Treasury so the political feud between Hamilton and Jefferson continued. Adams, who was opposed by Jefferson and disliked by Hamilton, was caught in the middle. When the Federalist controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Act in 1797, Jefferson and his friend James Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions advocating the concept of nullification – that is a state nullifying and federal law they thought was unconstitutional.
In 1800, Jefferson again ran against Adams. Again he was supported with the southern states, whose electoral votes were enhanced due to their slave population due to the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution, and defeated Adams 73 to 65 electoral votes. Despite defeating Adams, he had to endure another election since Aaron Burr, who was the Democratic-Republican choice for vice president ended with 73 electoral votes also. This sent the election into the House of Representatives where Jefferson ultimately prevailed – ironically with the help of Hamilton.
Perhaps the most notable, and controversial, achievements of his first term was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803. It doubled the size of the country but Jefferson, who was a strict constructionist, was troubled by the fact that the Constitution did not give the president the authority to make the purchase. He later sent the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the land. In June of 1804, Jefferson’s political opponent Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey by his former vice president Aaron Burr. With one shot, Jefferson was rid of two political enemies.
In 1804, Jefferson successfully ran for re-election against Federalist Charles C. Pinckney carrying 15 of the 17 states. Jefferson would suffer what historians would call second-term let-down – which would plague future presidents. Jefferson encouraged passage of the Embargo Act in 1807 to maintain American neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars. It caused major economic problems in the country and in the end did not avoid war as the country would eventually be involved in the War of 1812. The Embargo made Jefferson very unpopular and he was happy when his term came to an end in 1809 and he could return to Monticello. Before leaving, he helped his friend James Madison secede him as president.
Jefferson spent the last seventeen years of his life at Monticello. Despite being a genius with words, architecture, engineering, botany, etc., he was not good financially. He went into debt a number of times. Jefferson even had to sell his personal book collection to the Library of Congress (to replace the books that were destroyed when the British burned the Capitol Building during the War of 1812.) Jefferson embarked on his last great public service at the age of 76, with the founding of the University of Virginia. He spearheaded the legislative campaign for its charter, secured its location, designed its buildings, planned its curriculum, and served as the first rector. In his last years, he renewed his friendship with John Adams, exchanging letters.
In July of 1825 his health started to deteriorate. He suffered from a combination of various illnesses and conditions probably including toxemia, uremia and pneumonia. As the 50th Anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence approached, it was hoped that he would be able to attend the celebrations in Washington D.C. Jefferson, along with Adams and Charles Carroll, were the only signers still living. Jefferson was 83 years old and not feeling well and was forced to decline the invitation. He was determined to hang on until the 4th of July. At a little before one in the afternoon, on July 4, 1826, he died in his bedroom at Monticello. John Adams would follow him six hours later. Jefferson's funeral was held July 5 and was a simple and quiet affair, by his own request. No invitations were sent, but some friends and visitors came to the ceremony and burial. He is buried on the grounds of Monticello next to his wife, Martha.
Jefferson has been portrayed in a number of movies. Ken Howard played him in one of my favorite, if somewhat inaccurate, movies 1776. Among his other portrayals are; Montaguu Love (Alexander Hamilton in 1931), Nick Nolte (Jefferson in Paris in 1995), Sam Neill (Sally Hemings: An American Scandal in 2000), Sam Waterson (Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery in 1997 and Thomas Jefferson in 1997) and Stephen Dillane (the HBO series John Adams in 2008). He even has appeared in episodes of South Park and The Simpsons.
We returned to Monticello in August of 2003. My wife Debbie, our nephew Damian and I spent a weekend in Lexington, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. On our way home, we stopped at Monticello and toured the mansion again. This was Damian's first time here. After visiting with Tom at the cemetery, we drove on to Montpelier and visited James Madison. We also visited the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. back in 1996.
White House Biography of Thomas Jefferson
The Internet Public Library Biography
The American President Biography
Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson's Academic Village at the University of Virginia
Thomas Jefferson Memorial (NPS)