Founding Fathers Friday: Thomas Jefferson

by Derrick G. Jeter

He was the most enigmatic and accomplished of all the Founders. Only Benjamin Franklin comes close, and even then not close enough. Historian Joseph Ellis called him the “American Sphinx.” To John Adams: “His talents were of the highest order, his ambition transcendent, and his disposition to intrigue irrepressible.”

Thomas Jefferson was a rolling mass of contradiction and achievement. He was:

  • A slave owner who worked to abolish slavery in Virginia and who laid the blame for colonial slavery at the feet of the British Crown in the draft version of the Declaration of Independence . . . yet never freed all of his slaves
  • A man who believed that blacks were inferior to whites . . . yet fathered at least one child, if not more, by his slave-mistress Sally Hemings
  • A politician who feared public debt would ruin the republic . . . yet left personal debts so staggering his family had to auction off slaves and property to settle them after his death
  • A lover of agriculture and simplicity, a farmer at heart . . . yet enthralled by all thing mechanical , complex, and Parisian
  • A small government philosopher . . . yet a large government practitioner (Louisiana Purchase)
  • A man painfully shy . . . yet publicly ambitious
  • A gifted penman . . . yet an ungifted orator
  • A peaceful and retiring man . . . yet a revolutionary

Jefferson was an inventor (the first swivel chair, a multi-book carousel for reading, and a duplicating machine for writing), a scientist (experimenting in agriculture and meteorology), an entrepreneur (a nail production business), a musician (played the violin), a political philosopher (author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Notes on the State of Virginia), a diplomat (an ambassador to France and the first Secretary of State), a practical politician (a representative in the House of Burgesses, Congressman, Governor, Vice President, and President), and an educator (the father of the University of Virginia). And these are just a few of Jefferson’s achievements. In short, he was a visionary thinker, builder, and leader.

Because Jefferson’s contradictions are so striking and his accomplishments so vast, we’ll focus on what he considered his greatest achievement: drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson was born and raised on his father’s plantation, Shadwell, in what is now Albemarle County, Virginia. When his father died, in Jefferson’s teen years, the young man inherited a sizable estate and numerous slaves. He received an excellent education at the College of William and Mary and was tutored in the law by George Wythe, to whom Jefferson praised: “No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe.”

In 1768, when Jefferson was twenty-five years old, he began construction on his mountaintop home, Monticello, not far from his boyhood home. He wouldn’t finish the design, building, and rebuilding of the home until after his presidency in 1809. In 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a young widow of twenty-three, who brought a dowry of additional wealth and slaves. Jefferson and Martha lived a life of bliss for ten years, until her death in 1782. They had six children, but only two lived passed infancy: Martha and Mary, whom they called “Polly.”

Jefferson was thin, tall, athletic, red-headed, and intelligent. Elected to the Continental Congress in 1775 and arriving in May 1776, he was immediately recognized as a powerful and fluid penman. As the debate over independence heated, Jefferson was selected as a member of the Committee of Five, along with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The committee’s charge was the creation of a declaration of independence. Livingston, a New Yorker was on the committee to calm the jitters of the New York fence-sitters; he and Sherman contributed little to the document. Richard Henry Lee, who presented the resolution of independence and a fine penman in his own right, wasn’t selected as a committee member or draftsman of the declaration because he had too many political enemies in Congress; Jefferson had few enemies and was Lee’s superior in wielding the pen. So Lee was out and Jefferson was in.

Jefferson was thirty-three years old when he retired to his second floor boarding room on Market Street in Philadelphia and began sharpening and dipping his quills. But Jefferson believed he was the wrong man for the task—John Adams should write the document. Adams was, in his own words to Benjamin Rush, “at least ten years older than [Jefferson] in age and more than twenty years older than him in politics.” Jefferson “was but a boy to me,” Adams confided. Adams, however, knew Jefferson was the right man. In a letter to Thomas Pickering, written a few years before his death, Adams recounted the exchange with Jefferson about who should author the Declaration:

The committee met, discussed the subject and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draught, I suppose because we were the two first on the list. The subcommittee met, Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught.

Adams: I will not.

Jefferson: You should do it.

Adams: Oh! no.

Jefferson: Why will you not? You ought to do it.

Adams: I will not.

Jefferson: Why?

Adams: Reasons enough.

Jefferson: What can be your reasons?

Adams: Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business [as the largest and most influential colony]. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.

Jefferson: Well if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.

Adams: Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.

Jefferson indeed gave his best. The Declaration Jefferson penned was, in the words of John Quincy Adams, a document that “stands for ever, a light of admonition to the rulers of men, a light of salvation and redemption to the oppressed . . . [the delineation of] the boundaries of their respective rights and duties, founded in the laws of nature, and of nature’s God.”

Jefferson knew the Declaration would be read aloud in public squares, in homes, and in front of the American troops, so he crafted more than a piece of statecraft—he fashioned an oration, paying special attention to the cadence and sound of the words. (In one early surviving draft Jefferson placed markers above the words to analyze the rhythm of his sentences.)

Jefferson never claimed the Declaration was original; it wasn’t an expression of his mind. Rather, it was an “expression of the American mind.” British philosopher John Locke and Virginia’s own George Mason served as Jefferson’s inspiration. In fact, the famous phrase “all men are created equal” was a paraphrase of Mason’s phrasing in the Virginia Declaration of Rights: “all men are born equally free and independent.” But as with any public statement coming from the pen of a politician, it was edited and debated over. Adams and Franklin made the most significant edits, and Franklin most of all. Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin edited this sentence into the punchy one we know today: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Once Franklin and Adams were done, the Declaration was presented to Congress on June 28, 1776, just days before the scheduled vote.

Once independence was declared on July 2, Congress laid into Jefferson’s Declaration. For two hot, humid, and horsefly infested days—Jefferson said “the horseflies were dexterous in finding necks, and the silk of stocking was as nothing to them”—Congress debated and argued over every sentence, phrase, and word. For Jefferson, it was torture. On July 4, after some eighty-six changes to Jefferson’s and the committee’s edited document, Congress agreed on the language. President John Hancock and Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson signed the final draft. Then off to the printer the Declaration went. Legend says Jefferson accompanied the document and proofed every copy as it came off the press.

After the triumph of composing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson went on to serve America as ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President of the United States. He retired to Monticello in 1809, designed the buildings and campus of and founded the University of Virginia, and renewed his strained friendship with John Adams, who wrote Jefferson in 1813: “You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.”

The Adams–Jefferson correspondence lasted until their deaths on July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

In his bedroom at Monticello, Jefferson lay dying. On the third of July, 1826, he inquired as to the day of the month. When told, he expressed his desire to survive until the next day, “to breathe the air of the fiftieth anniversary of his country’s independence” as one biographer put it. On the fourth, after having expressed his gratitude to his friends and servants for their care, he said: “I resign myself to my God, and my child [Martha Randolph] to my country.” And the voice and pen of Thomas Jefferson was silent.

Just before he died, Jefferson handed Martha a morocco case, with a request that she not open it until his passing. The case contained a poetical tribute to her virtues and an epitaph for his tomb. He wanted a simple and small granite obelisk with this inscription:

Here was buried

THOMAS JEFFERSON,

Author of the Declaration of Independence,

Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom,

And Father of the University of Virginia.

The presidency to Jefferson, as he explained to John Dickinson in 1807, “brings nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends” and he didn’t want his memory tied to it.

Thomas Jefferson, in the words of an 1848 biography of the signers, was “In religion a freethinking; in morals, pure and unspotted; in politics, patriotic, honest, ardent and benevolent. . . . His life was devoted to his country; the result of his acts whatever it may be, is a legacy to mankind.”

And no greater legacy could be claimed by any American than that of author of the Declaration of Independence. That one achievement is an “everlasting monument to his memory, and gives, by far, a wider range to the fame of his talents and patriotism, than eloquent panegyric or sculptured epitaph.”

Though he be dead, he still speaks.

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