Thomas Jefferson is widely known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, extensively admired as the architect of Monticello and the University of Virginia, and surrounded by questionable controversies.
Thomas Jefferson’s Formative Years
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at the family’s Shadwell plantation located outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Thomas Jefferson was the third born of ten children. The family’s estate, Shadwell plantation, came through inheritance after several family members died which included personal hardships for the Jefferson family. His father purchased land and sought to be a good steward of it through development, cultivation of agriculture, and building a watermill on the Rivanna River. His stewardship provided employment and important services for the neighboring community.
Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson (alongside Joshua Fry) was known for producing the first map of Virginia in 1751. This map sparked an interest in eight-year-old Thomas in the unexplored land west of the colonies which would lead the future President to send Lewis & Clark to explore and map the western land fifty years later in 1804.
Peter Jefferson died when Thomas was fourteen years old, leaving him 2,700 acres and sixty slaves at the time of his father’s death.1 His mother continued to live in his boyhood home, Shadwell plantation. After Shadwell burned to the ground, Jefferson built his home, Monticello, on the hill behind Shadwell as it was the highest point on his property.
Inherited Land and Slaves
After studying law, Jefferson turned his time and attention to taking care of the family farm. Soon after marrying his wife, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law died, leaving 11,000 acres and 135 slaves. Though Thomas did not agree with slavery, upon inheriting slaves, he did not want to sell the slaves and break up their families. He sought to be a good steward of the land and the people he inherited.2
Thomas’s father-in-law’s inheritance came with much property and with a large amount of debt. The debt was larger than the value of the inherited land. I have wondered many times why he didn’t sell some of the land to pay off the incurred debts, but from my research of the period, many people were land-rich, and cash-poor. It is unfortunate as his father-in-law’s debts plagued Jefferson for the remainder of his life.
Thomas Jefferson had his essay for the First Continental Congress delegates published as a pamphlet without his consent. This publication threw him into the spotlight. He was asked to draft the Declaration of Independence from Britain and wrote it in seventeen days. The remaining four people on the drafting committee approved the document and then presented it before Congress. The Congress made a few revisions to the ending of the document (which Thomas disapproved) and adopted it on July 4, 1776.
The declaration was for each of the thirteen colonies to be recognized as independent states and to conduct commerce with Britain and France from their recognized statehood.
Thomas Jefferson became a member of the new state of Virginia’s House of Delegates and assisted in revising the state’s laws. Afterward, he was elected Governor of Virginia.
After thirteen years of public service, Thomas retired to steward his neglected farmland. Unfortunately, Thomas’s wife died, and he returned to public service to fill the void from the loss of her presence.
Thomas Jefferson served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and then as an ambassador to France. He was in France when the Constitution of 1787 was written, but he contributed much to the Constitutional document through his correspondence with James Madison. Upon his return in 1789, Thomas served as the newly elected President George Washington’s Secretary of State.
After Washington served two terms, the congress voted for a new president, and Jefferson received the second highest votes, making him the vice-president to John Adams. The following election found him as President of the United States.
One of his greatest achievements as president was the Louisiana Purchase which doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark to explore and map the new territory.
Thomas Jefferson asked Congress to pass the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves (which stopped the international slave trade), then signed the legislation into law. Jefferson despised the trade of human beings but did not know how to resolve the issue of slaves already owned as the present slaves had no means to provide for themselves.
Monticello and Poplar Forest
Jefferson designed Monticello with various architectural styles and features which was uniquely American and incorporated elements from French Neoclassical, classical Greek, and classical Roman architecture, including the signature octagon dome. His daughter and nine children lived in the second-story dome room.
His alcove beds saved space as he could exit the bed in his bedroom or his study. His study had a writing desk he invented which would make three copies of his correspondence as he wrote it with his quill pen.
Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect who borrowed from various architectural styles from Rome, Renaissance Palladian, 18th Century French, British, and Virginia designs to build the octagonal-shaped private retreat in Poplar Forest, Virginia.
Jefferson’s mathematical mind led him to create something original from other prototypes. The octagonal building created light-filled interior spaces.
Monticello was the property he inherited from his father while Poplar Forest was the land inherited from his father-in-law, and the property was plagued with many debts.
Twenty-seven years later, Thomas Jefferson returned to his neglected home. He enlarged the original house from seven to twenty-three rooms, adding a dome. The entryway had a museum-like appearance with the artifacts from the Lewis & Clark expedition on display. He spent the next 17 years improving Monticello’s home, gardens, and trees; propagating new seedlings.
“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth and no culture comparable to that of the garden…though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” ~Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson had willed his library to become public property upon his death; however, upon hearing that the British had burned down the capitol building with its 3,000-volume library in the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell the bulk of his library to Congress.
The Georgetown bookseller, Joseph Milligan, counted 6,487 books with a value of $23,950 which Congress agreed to purchase. Jefferson later discovered there were 6,707 books shipped in ten wagons. Jefferson chose not to ask for the $1,172.50 due to him for the uncounted 220 books shipped. This collection became the foundation for the Library of Congress.3
Jefferson used $10,500 to pay a debt to William Short, and $4,870 to pay a debt to John Barnes, but he struggled the rest of his life with the debts he incurred from his father-in-law, and the running of vast lands with the care of 200 inherited slaves. Jefferson never resolved how to deal with the quandary of him despising slavery with the fact he inherited 200 souls that needed to be cared for and could not provide for themselves if freed.
Jefferson died July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence which he authored.
Remembrance Clouded in Controversy
Thomas Jefferson was married to Martha Wayles for ten years. They had six children, but only two would survive to adulthood, Martha and Mary.
Martha lived at Monticello until Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, when the maintenance for the buildings and land proved too much for Martha to maintain, she sold the property and 100 slaves at auction in 1827. The house and property sold for $7,500 in 1831.
Rumors abound that Thomas Jefferson fathered multiple children with his slave, Sally Hemings. However, DNA testing results exonerated Thomas Jefferson and proved that Randolph Jefferson (Thomas’s younger brother) fathered a child by Sally the two times he visited Monticello.
The Jefferson Bible
Thomas Jefferson is also accused of rewriting the Bible, leaving only the parts he agreed with. The “Jefferson Bible,” is a collection of Jesus words from the four Gospels for the use of outreach to the Indians. Jefferson called his book, the Philosophy of Jesus and was an active participant of the Virginia Bible Society. Jefferson desired to teach Christianity to the Indians by using only the words of Jesus to communicate Jesus’ teachings, thus avoiding the controversial doctrines of different denominations, and delivering the simplest version of the Gospels to the Indians.
Jefferson consistently donated money to missionary efforts among the Indians. And he contributed to the distribution of Bibles to both the Americans and the Indians.
Upon his death, it was discovered that Jefferson’s personal copy of the Philosophy of Jesus had four columns: English, Greek, Latin, and French. He read from the Gospels each night before bed. [Jefferson spoke seven languages, the ones named above, plus: Italian, Spanish, and German.]
Thomas Jefferson is remembered and honored at his beloved Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Poplar Forest, in Forest which is located outside of Lynchburg, Virginia.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin in Washington, DC.
Natural Bridge in Natural Bridge, Virginia which he purchased from King George III in 1774, to keep it open to the public. His family passed it to others in 1833. It was listed in the ‘Seven Natural Wonders of the World’ in the 19th and 20th centuries. It became a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s state park system in 2014.
University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia was founded by Jefferson. The early buildings and curriculum were also designed by him.
There are Thomas Jefferson statutes at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Louisville, Kentucky, and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
His face is enshrined on Mount Rushmore. Mt. Rushmore represents 150 years of American history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt joining Thomas Jefferson on the granite face of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills near Keystone, South Dakota.
1 Peter Jefferson. Published by Monticello. Retrieved October 3, 2023, from Peter Jefferson | Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
2 Kostyal, K.M. Founding Fathers – The Fight for Freedom and the Birth of American Liberty. Published by National Geographic on October 28, 2014.
3 Sale of Books to the Library of Congress (1815). Published by Monticello. Retrieved October 4, 2023, from Sale of Books to the Library of Congress (1815) | Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
4 Sale of Monticello. Retrieved October 4, 2023, from Sale of Monticello | Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello