The New Student's Reference Work/Jefferson, Thomas

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Jefferson, Thomas. The author of the Declaration of Independence was the most conspicuous and consistent apostle of democracy in America. When he asserted in that immortal document that “all men are created free and equal,” it to him was no high-sounding phrase of political philosophy, but a literal expression of the principle upon which he ordered his own life and his relations with men. “Jeffersonian simplicity” has for more than a century been the main timber supporting the platform of the party he founded. His forty years of distinguished public service were marked by such an entire absence of ostentation as to be felt as a rebuke by many of his associates. But his sincerity in this attitude was never questioned.

Thomas Jefferson

Yet Jefferson was the last man in whom such characteristics might have been expected. In birth, fortune, intellect and physique he essentially was an aristocrat. Born in Albemarle County, Virginia, April 2, 1743, the son of a well-to-do planter, his family and associations were of the leisure class, identical with the country gentry of England. His father’s land was tilled by slaves. Until he was twenty his time was employed in acquiring a gentleman’s education in England and in William and Mary College; and in riding, hunting and social pleasures. His superior mind easily gave him rank as a scholar in the languages, mathematics and natural sciences. In person he was over six feet in height, slenderly built but very erect. His features were delicately fashioned, his eyes a bright hazel-brown, his hair a sandy red and waving, his complexion clear and bright. He had an air of distinction but a manner of extreme simplicity that gave him popularity among all classes. He seemed designed by nature for public service. Inheriting his father’s plantation, with an assured income sufficient for a gentleman’s needs, his practice of the law was unusual for a man of his class. His talents secured him a place in the office of George Wythe of Williamsburg, then at the head of the Virginian bar. Jefferson’s success was immediate. In the fourth year of his practice he appeared in nearly 500 cases. In 1774 he had added to his estate until he owned 5,000 acres of tobacco-land. In 1772 he added to his fortune by his marriage to Mrs. Martha Skelton for whom he built the splendid mansion of Monticello, which for half a century was the most distinguished center of private hospitality in America. Much of his land remained uncultivated, however, for he was opposed to the institution of slavery. He would buy no new slaves, and tried to have a law passed by which he could free those he had.

From the time Jefferson was 25 years old until the opening of the Revolution he was a member of the House of Burgesses, and thus was officially connected with all the events which led up to the war. His writing of the pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of America, placed him among the leaders of the Revolutionary party. In the first continental congress he was appointed on a committee with Adams, Franklin, Sherman and Livingston to draft the Declaration of Independence. The document, as written by Jefferson, was a transcript of his famous pamphlet issued two years before. It was destined to dismember an empire, found a new nation on new principles of liberty and equality, and furnish a model for numerous nations that were to assert their right to self-government.

The years of the Revolution he devoted mainly to governing Virginia, declining more conspicuous office, and to working out a practicable form of republican government. Most of his ideas found place in the Constitution. After the war he returned to Congress. He secured the adoption of our system of coinage and the prohibition of slavery north of the Ohio River. He succeeded Franklin as Minister to France, returning in 1789 to become secretary of state in Washington’s first cabinet. Here the beginnings were made in the formation of two great political parties — the Democratic (first called Republican) with Jefferson as the leader, the Whig (originally the Federalist) with Alexander Hamilton. The former stood for states rights, the latter for a strong centralized Federal government — issues that dominated the country until they were fought out in the Civil War. Jefferson’s ideas prevailed in the election of 1800 when he was chosen president. “Jeffersonian simplicity” came in on inauguration-day when the new executive rode to the capital on horseback, unattended, dressed in plain cloth, and tied his horse to a fence-post. Court etiquette was abolished and titles of honor dispensed with. “His excellency” was plain Mr. Jefferson.

Jefferson’s administrations (1801–9) were marked by constructive work. He stopped the preying of Algerian pirates on commerce; negotiated the purchase of Louisiana and followed it with the Lewis and Clarke expedition to the Pacific; maintained, without war, the rights of neutrals on the high seas; prosecuted his own vice-president, Aaron Burr, for suspected treasonable projects in the southwest. He reduced the public debt, fortified our seaports, diminished public taxes, and refused a third term. On March 4, 1809, he retired to private life, after forty years of continuous public service. Madison and Monroe, who succeeded him for sixteen years, were his political pupils and personal friends and, before he died, July 4, 1826, he was assured of the coming leadership of a forceful disciple from the west — Andrew Jackson.

To the last day of his life he was the most distinguished man in America — “the sage of Monticello.” His hospitality was so large and free that his estate was literally eaten up, and he died poor. He passed away on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, and was buried in the heart of a forest on the estate. A plain granite shaft which marks the spot is inscribed: “Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.” See Memoir by T. J. Randolph, Jefferson’s son-in-law, and James Parton’s Life.