Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was born at Shadwell, his father's home in Albemarle county, Va., on April 13, 1743. His father, Peter Jefferson, a man of legendary strength, was a successful planter and surveyor who gained minor title to fame as an explorer and mapmaker. His prominence in his own locality is attested by the fact that he served as a burgess and as county lieutenant. Jefferson later held the same offices. Through his mother, Jane Randolph, a member of one of the most famous Virginia families, Thomas was related to many of the most prominent people in Virginia.

Besides being well born, Thomas Jefferson was well educated. In small private schools, notably that of James Maury, he was thoroughly grounded in the classics. He attended the College of William and Mary--completing the course in 1762--where Dr. William Small taught him mathematics and introduced him to science. He associated intimately with the liberal-minded Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier, and read law (1762-1767) with George Wythe, the greatest law teacher of his generation in Virginia.

Jefferson became unusually good at law. He was admitted to the bar in 1767 and practiced until 1774, when the courts were closed by the American Revolution. He was a successful lawyer, though professional income was only a supplement. He had inherited a considerable landed estate from his father, and doubled it by a happy marriage on Jan. 1, 1772, to Martha Wayles Skelton However, his father-in-law's estate imposed a burdensome debt on Jefferson. He began building Monticello before his marriage, but his mansion was not completed in its present form until a generation later.

Jefferson's lifelong emphasis on local government grew directly from his own experience. He served as magistrate and as county lieutenant of Albemarle county. Elected to the House of Burgesses when he was 25, he served there from 1769 to 1774, showing himself to be an effective committeeman and skillful draftsman, though not an able speaker.

The Revolutionary Era

From the beginning of the struggle with the mother country, Jefferson stood with the more advanced Patriots, grounding his position on a wide knowledge of English history and political philosophy. His most notable early contribution to the cause of the Patriots was his powerful pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America (made in 1774), originally written for presentation to the Virginia convention of that year. In this he emphasized natural rights, including that of emigration, and denied parliamentary authority over the colonies, recognizing no tie with the mother country except the king.

As a member of the Continental Congress (1775-1776), Jefferson was chosen in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence. He summarized current revolutionary philosophy in a brief paragraph that has been regarded ever since as a charter of American and universal liberties. He presented to the world the case of the Patriots in a series of burning charges against the king. In the light of

modern scholarship some of the charges require modification. But there is a timeless quality in the philosophical section of the Declaration, which proclaims that all men are equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that government is the servant, not the master, of human beings. The Declaration alone would entitle Jefferson to enduring fame.

Desiring to be closer to his family and also hoping to translate his philosophy of human rights into legal institutions in his own state, Jefferson left Congress in the autumn of 1776 and served in the Virginia legislature until his election as governor in 1779. This was the most creative period of his revolutionary statesmanship. His earlier proposals for broadening the electorate and making the system of representation more equitable had failed, and the times permitted no action against slavery except that of shutting off the foreign slave trade. But he succeeded in ridding the land system of feudal vestiges, such as entail and primogeniture, and he was the moving spirit in the disestablishment of the church. In 1779, with George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton, he drew a highly significant report on the revising of the laws. His most famous single bill is the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (adopted in 1786). His fundamental purposes were to destroy artificial privilege of every sort, to promote social mobility, and to make way for the natural aristocracy of talent and virtue, which should provide leadership for a free society.

As governor from 1779 to 1781, Jefferson had little power,