Thomas Jefferson is such a well-known name in American history. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, was our 3rd U.S. president and is on our nickel (also the two dollar bill, but those are hardly ever used anymore). But, other than writing the Declaration, who was he as a person, and what other roles did he play in the colonies gaining their independence from Great Britain? Here is the story of one of America’s most famous, accomplished, and impressive Founding Fathers.
Born April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was the third of ten children born to Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph. Peter was a planter and surveyor, and quite wealthy for the time. In colonial Virginia, this meant he had a lot of lands. Land equaled wealth in that colony in those times. When Thomas was fourteen, Peter died and left half of his estate to Thomas, and a half to Thomas’s brother, Randall Jefferson. Thomas’s portion of the estate, which he came into full ownership of when he was twenty-one, included the land on which he would one day build the famous Monticello mansion, which is still there today and open for visitors to tour.
Thomas began his education among his Randolph cousins with private tutors. He was fluent in Latin, Greek, and French by the time he was nine, as well as an accomplished horse rider. He later boarded with the Reverend James Maury, where he learned the classics, History, and Science. At age sixteen, he enrolled at William and Mary College, where he studies math, metaphysics, and philosophy. He also became an accomplished violinist at this time. He graduated when he was eighteen, then studied for the bar exam, and was admitted to it as a lawyer. He worked as a law clerk for a while, continuing to improve his foreign language skills, and reading heavily amongst the English classics and political works.
Thomas was a definite bibliophile, loving books above most other things. He lost 2,000 books inherited from his father in a fire but soon replaced them with 1,250 books around the start of the revolution. This number grew to around 6,500 by 1814. When the British burned the Library of Congress during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold them his collection, intending to use the money to pay off some of his large debt. He soon started collecting books once more, however, writing to his friend and fellow revolutionary John Adams that he could not live without books.
During his time at the bar as a practicing lawyer, he lived with his mother. He took on a number of cases for slaves seeking their freedom, even doing so for free at least once. When one client lost his case to gain freedom before the age of 31, which was the standard age of freedom for the time for slaves with one or more white grandparents, Jefferson gave him money as consolation, and, presumably, to aid in the man’s escape.
Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Burgesses while he was practicing law, which was Virginia’s equivalent of a state legislature, and he brought up many anti-slavery issues, including a bill that demanded masters be given authority over whether to free their slaves, rather than having to get permission from the governor. Most of his bids to help slaves in Virginia failed, but he used a good deal of the language he used in defending his views of freedom for slaves in writing the Declaration of Independence.
He began building Monticello in 1768 and married Martha Wayles Skelton, his second cousin, and widow of Bathurst Skelton, on January 1, 1772. Jefferson often described his marriage to Martha as the happiest years of his life. She was a frequent hostess for him, read widely, was accomplished at fine needlework, and a skilled pianist. Jefferson often accompanied her on the violin while she played the piano.
Martha bore Jefferson six children, two of whom lived to adulthood. She suffered from diabetes and was weakened by repeated childbirths. Before she died at age 33, after ten years of marriage to Jefferson, she made him promise to never marry again. This was because she herself lost her mother at a young age, and went through two step-mothers, and could not stand the idea of another woman raising her children (three of whom were surviving at the time). Jefferson promised, and he kept that promise.
At the outset of the Revolution, Martha was still alive, and Jefferson was heavily involved in Virginia politics, being elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, being made a commander of the Albermarle County militia, and being elected governor of the colony for one-term. As war with the British grew more and more likely, he was elected as a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he penned his famous Declaration of Independence.
As a top revolutionary, Jefferson was near the top of the list of Britain’s most wanted, but he only had to actually escape them once, when Benedict Arnold led an invasion of Virginia while Jefferson was there. He had to take Martha, who had just given birth to their fifth child, and his other living children, and flee into the woods for a time. Martha begged him to get out of politics after this episode, but Jefferson felt his duty to public service was too important to ignore.
Even during the Revolution, Jefferson found time to work on scholarly things, such as his famous Notes on the State of Virginia, a large book about Virginia’s history, culture, politics, and geography. In it, he espoused the belief that blacks and whites were equal, but could never live together peaceably due to resentments over slavery. He also stated his belief that the Native Americans were equal to the white European colonists in every way. These were radical views for the time.
Most of Jefferson’s political career happened after the Revolution, and after he lost Martha. His probable affair with Sally Hemmings, Martha’s enslaved half-sister who was only one-quarter black, also occurred after the Revolution. Plenty has been written on those subjects. But, Jefferson’s contributions to the Revolution cannot be understated. He protected Virginia from the British and put into words the sentiments of all the colonists that they were, by rights, a free and independent people. Those words still echo throughout our country’s very essence today.