by John De Gree, Founder of the Classical Historian
American Founding Father
Thomas Jefferson was an American Founding Father who established political and cultural traditions that Americans still enjoy today. He was born on April 13, 1743, in the English colony of Virginia, in a prominent family. His father was a surveyor and cartographer and created the first accurate map of Virginia. From what we would call a large family, Jefferson had 9 siblings: six sisters, one brother, and two who died before the age of two. Like George Washington, Thomas experienced tragedy at a young age when he lost his father.
Most likely, Jefferson learned how to read from his mom, Jane Jefferson, and his education was geared towards training him to strive for goodness and beauty and to become a leader. Before his formal education began at the age of 9, he spent his time reading, learning to play the violin, and playing in the woods. For five years thereafter, the Reverend William Douglas taught him Latin and Greek at a private school. When his father died, Jefferson continued his studies under the Reverend James Maury, who Jefferson describes as “a correct classical scholar.” This meant that Thomas Jefferson studied the great thinkers of Classical Greece and Rome, and strove for self-improvement by learning about the great ideas and lives of those in history.
At the college of William and Mary in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson initially chose not to be a man of character. He spent his first months at parties, playing cards, and betting. After coming home for a visit, a friend was disappointed that Thomas wasn’t applying himself. Thomas chose from then on to take his studies seriously. Professor William Small, Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier and lawyer George Wythe led a small group of scholars, recommending books to read and leading discussion sessions. Under this personal care, Thomas Jefferson developed into a deep thinker and leader. After college, Jefferson studied law under the private guidance of Wythe, studying five years instead of the normal two and a half. He became one of the country’s most educated lawyers.
Thomas Jefferson’s personal life was filled with much sorrow. Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton, and together they had six children. Four died before adulthood, and only one outlived Thomas. Martha died after ten years of marriage of diabetes. Thomas Jefferson shut himself in his room and paced for three weeks. He had promised his wife he would not remarry, and he did not.
Whereas George Washington was a great military man, Jefferson’s genius lay in the power of his pen, his legislative work, and his Presidential leadership. He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, which was the Virginia colony’s legislative body. Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was used as a guide for our country’s First Amendment. He wrote to A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which declared that the colonies had the right to self-govern. Jefferson was a participant in the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress, and pushed for independence from Great Britain. Jefferson served as governor of Virginia and was the Washington’s Secretary of State. He is the principal author of The Declaration of Independence, one of the most powerful and beautiful political documents of all time. Perhaps the most memorable sentence he wrote is,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
s the young nation’s third President, Jefferson doubled the size of the United States, kept the country out of war with France and Britain, and kept American shipping safe in the Mediterranean by destroying pirates. Historians call time from 1800 to about 1820 “The Age of Jefferson” because of America’s accomplishments that Jefferson started. France’s Napoleon Bonaparte eagerly sold the Louisiana Territory to Jefferson to help pay for his war against Great Britain. Curious to learn of this new land, Jefferson sent 40 men and one woman on an incredible journey. The Lewis and Clark Expedition explored and mapped this new land.
Jefferson’s foreign policy towards belligerent countries is mixed. Some have criticized Jefferson for keeping a small military and allowing Great Britain and France to harass and imprison our sailors, but Jefferson thought we would lose a war against one of these great powers and it was best to appease than to confront them. When Barbary pirates were seizing American ships and killing American sailors, Jefferson ordered an invasion of Tripoli and our military forced the pirates to stop harming Americans. Although Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican and favored states’ rights, he ordered the purchase of Louisiana without Congressional approval, a violation of the Constitution.
On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson died, a few hours before his friend and the second President John Adams. Of all his accomplishments, Jefferson was most proud of a few. He wrote his own epitaph, which reads:
HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.
- As a young person, what did Jefferson share with Washington?
- How did Jefferson change from his first year in college to his last years in school?
- What was Jefferson’s most important document he ever wrote?
- Name one positive action that Jefferson took as President.
- (Discussion) What was Jefferson’s most important contribution to the United States of America?
John De Gree is Founder of The Classical Historian, www.classicalhistorian.com. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. ©2016 John De Gree All Rights Reserved.