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Thomas Jefferson wished to be remembered for three achievements in his public life. He had served as governor of Virginia, as U.S. minister to France, as secretary of state under George Washington, as vice-president in the administration of John Adams, and as president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. On his tombstone, however, which he designed and for which he wrote the inscription, there is no mention of these offices. Rather, it reads that Thomas Jefferson was "author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia" and, as he requested, "not a word more." Historians might want to add other accomplishments--for example, his distinction as an architect, naturalist, and linguist--but in the main they would concur with his own assessment.
Jefferson was born at Shadwell in what is now Albemarle County, Va., on Apr. 13, 1743. He treated his pedigree lightly, but his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, came from one of the first families of Virginia; his father, Peter Jefferson, was a well-to-do landowner, although not in the class of the wealthiest planters. Jefferson attended (1760-62) the College of William and Mary and then studied law with George WYTHE. In 1769 he began six years of service as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses. The following year he began building Monticello on land inherited from his father. The mansion, which he designed in every detail, took years to complete, but part of it was ready for occupancy when he married Martha Wayles Skelton on Jan. 1, 1772. They had six children, two of whom survived into adulthood:
Martha Washington Jefferson (1772-1836); Jane Randolph Jefferson (1774-75); infant son (1777); Mary Jefferson (1778-1804); Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1780-81); Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1782-84)
Jefferson's reputation began to reach beyond Virginia in 1774, when he wrote a political pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Arguing on the basis of natural rights theory, Jefferson claimed that colonial allegiance to the king was voluntary. "The God who gave us life," he wrote, "gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them."
Declaration of Independence
Elected to the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, Jefferson was appointed on June 11, 1776, to head a committee of five in preparing the Declaration of Independence. He was its primary author, although his initial draft was amended after consultation with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and altered both stylistically and substantively by Congress. Jefferson's reference to the voluntary allegiance of colonists to the crown was struck; also deleted was a clause that censured the monarchy for imposing slavery upon America.
Based upon the same natural rights theory contained in A Summary View, to which it bears a strong resemblance, the Declaration of Independence made Jefferson internationally famous. Years later that fame evoked the jealousy of John Adams, who complained that the declaration's ideas were "hackneyed." Jefferson agreed; he wrote of the declaration, "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind."
Returning to Virginia late in 1776, Jefferson served until 1779 in the House of Delegates, one of the two houses of the General Assembly of Virginia--established in 1776 by the state's new constitution. While the American Revolution continued, Jefferson sought to liberalize Virginia's laws. Joined by his old law teacher, George Wythe, and by James Madison and George Mason, Jefferson introduced a number of bills that were resisted fiercely by those representing the conservative planter class. In 1776 he succeeded in obtaining the abolition of entail; his proposal to abolish primogeniture became law in 1785. Jefferson proudly noted that "these laws, drawn by myself, laid the ax to the foot of pseudoaristocracy."
Jefferson was also instrumental in devising a major revision of the criminal code, although it was not enacted until 1796. His bill to create a free system of tax-supported elementary education for all except slaves was defeated as were his bills to create a public library and to modernize the curriculum of the College of William and Mary.
In June 1779 the introduction of Jefferson's bill on religious liberty touched off a quarrel that caused turmoil in Virginia for 8 years. The bill was significant as no other state--indeed, no other nation--provided for complete religious liberty at that time. Jefferson's
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Randolph family of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, United States Declaration of Independence, James Madison, Monticello, Martha Jefferson Randolph, 1776, Jane Randolph Jefferson, Land Ordinance, Peter Jefferson, Early life and career of Thomas Jefferson, martha wayles skelton, virginia house of burgesses, george wythe, political pamphlet, declaration of american independence, lucy elizabeth, house of burgesses, jane randolph, martha washington, first families, college of william and mary, mother jane, religious freedom, governor of virginia, william and mary, ameri, linguist, albemarle, john adams, naturalist
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