Founding father. Author of the Declaration of Independence and the
Virginia statute for religious freedom, member of the Continental
Congress, statesman, diplomat, Secretary of State, Vice-President, 3rd
President of the United States, founder of the University of Virginia.|
Thomas Jefferson was born April 2d, 1743,
on the farm called Shadwell, adjoining Monticello, in the county of
The date of his nativity was unknown
until his decease. It had been a subject of speculation and eager
scrutiny among the votaries of liberty, for a long series of years,
with a view to its special commemoration. Repeated attempts had been
made to ascertain it, by formal applications to him personally, on
various occasions, by individuals and public bodies, but from scruples
of a patriotic nature, he always declined revealing it, and enjoined
the same privacy upon his family.
His father, Peter Jefferson, was born
February 29th, 1707-8; and intermarried in 1739, with Jane Randolph,
of the age of 19, daughter of Isham Randolph, one of the seven sons of
that name and family, settled at Dungeoness, in Goochland county, who
trace their pedigree far back in England and Scotland; "to
which," says Mr. Jefferson, "let everyone ascribe the faith
and merit he chooses."
He was a self-educated man; but endowed
by nature, with strong intellectual powers, and a constant thirst for
information, he rose steadily by his own exertions, and acquired
considerable distinction in the Colony. He was commissioned, jointly
with Joshua Fry, professor of mathematics in William and Mary College,
to designate the boundary line between Virginia and North-Carolina;
and was afterwards employed, with the same gentleman, to construct the
first regular map of Virginia.
He died August 17, 1757, leaving a
widow, with six daughters, and two sons, of whom Thomas was the elder.
To both the sons he left large estates; to Thomas the Shadwell lands,
where he was born, and which included Monticello; to his brother the
estate on James river, called Snowden, after the reputed birth-place
of the family. The mother of Mr. Jefferson survived to the fortunate
year of 1776, the most memorable epoch, alike in the annals of her
country, and the life of her son.
At the age of five, Thomas was placed by
his father at the English school, where he continued four years; at
the expiration of which, he was transferred to the Latin, where he
remained five years, under the tuition of Mr. Douglass, a clergyman
from Scotland. With the rudiments of the Latin and Greek languages, he
acquired, at the same time, a knowledge of the French. At this period
his father died, leaving him an orphan, only fourteen years of age,
and without a relative or friend competent to direct or advise him.
On the death of his father, Mr.
Jefferson was placed under the instruction of the Rev. Mr. Maury,
father of the late Consul at Liverpool, with a view to complete the
necessary classical preparation for college. The charms of ancient
learning seized with a quick and powerful fascination upon his heart;
they were remarkably congenial to his contemplative spirit, and
touched the finest and the sweetest susceptibilities of his nature.
With Mr. Maury he continued two years; and then, (1760,) at the age of
seventeen, he entered the college of William and Mary, at which he was
graduated , two years after, with the highest honors of the
While in college he was more remarked
for solidity than sprightliness of intellect. His faculties were so
even and well balanced, that no particular endowment appeared
pre-eminent. His course was not marked by any of those eccentricities
which often presage the rise of extraordinary genius; but by that
constancy of pursuit, that inflexibility of purpose, that bold spirit
of inquiry, and thirst for knowledge, which are the surer prognostics
of future greatness. His habits were those of patience and sever
application, which, aided by a quick and vigorous apprehension, a
talent of close and logical combination, and a retentive memory, laid
the foundation sufficiently broad and strong for those extensive
acquisitions which he subsequently made.
Mathematics was his favorite study, and
in that science he particularly excelled; he nevertheless
distinguished himself in all the branches of education embraced in the
established course of his Alma Mater. To his devotion to Philosophy
and Science, he united an exquisite taste for the Fine Arts. In those
of Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture, he made himself such an
adept as to be afterwards accounted one of the best critics of the
age. For Music he had an uncommon passion; and his hours of relaxation
were passed in exercising his skill upon the Violin, for which he
evinced and early and extravagant predilection.
His fondness for the Ancient Classics
strengthened continually with his strength, insomuch that it is said
he scarcely passed a day, in all after life, without reading a portion
of them. The same remark is applicable, in a more emphatic sense, to
his passion for the Mathematics. He became so well acquainted with
both the great languages of antiquity as to read them with ease; and
so far perfected himself in the French as to become familiar with it,
which was of essential service to him on entering the diplomatic
field, subsequently assigned to him.
He could also read and speak the Italian
language, and had a competent knowledge of the Spanish. Such too, was
his early propensity of prying to the bottom of every thing, that he
made himself master of the Anglo-Saxon, as a root of the English, and
"an element in legal Philology."
But it was the acquaintances which he
had the good fortune to form, while in college, which probably
determined the particular cast and direction of his ambition. These
were the first characters in the society of Williamsburg, and in the
whole Province; among whom he has placed on record, the names of three
individuals who were particularly instrumental in fixing his future
destinies, distinguishing each according to his appropriate merit in
the work: viz. Dr. Small, one of the professors in college, 'who made
him his daily companion; Gov. Fauquier, 'the ablest man who had ever
filled that office, to whose acquaintance and familiar table,' he was
admitted; and George Wythe, 'his faithful and beloved Mentor in youth,
and his most affectionate friend through life.'
To Governor Fauquier, with whom he was
in habits of intimacy, is also ascribed a high character. "With
him," continues Mr. Jefferson, "and at his table, Dr. Small
and Mr. Wythe, his amici omnium horarum, and myself, formed a partie
quarree, and to the habitual conversations on these occasions, I owed
George Wythe, whose name will occur
frequently in these sketches, was emphatically a second father to the
young and aspiring Jefferson. He was born about the year 1727, of
respectable parentage, on the shores of the Chesapeake. His education
had been neglected by his parents; and himself had led an idle and
voluptuous life until the age of thirty; but by an extraordinary
effort of self-recovery, at that point of time, he overcame both the
wants and the waste of early advantages, insomuch as to become the
best Latin and Greek scholar in the State.
Immediately on leaving college, Mr.
Jefferson engaged in the study of the Law, under the direction of Mr.
Wythe. Here, it is said, fired by the example of his master, he
performed the whole circuit of the Civil and Common Law; exploring
every topic with precision, and fathoming every principle to the
bottom. Here, also, he is said to have acquired that unrivaled
facility, neatness, and order in business, which gave him, in effect,
in every office that he filled, "the hundred hands of Briareus."
With such a guide, in a school of such exalted and searching
discipline as that of the Law, all the rudiments of intellectual
greatness, could not fail of being stirred into action.
At this decisive moment an incident
occurred, which riveted them (Jefferson's talents) to their meditated
sphere, and kindled the native ardour of his genius into a flame of
It was the celebrated speech of Patrick
Henry, on the memorable resolutions of 1765, against the Stamp-Act.
Young Jefferson was present and listened to the "bold, grand, and
overwhelming eloquence" of the orator of nature; the effect of
which seems never to have lost its sorcery over his mind.
The grandeur of that scene, and the
triumphant eclat of Henry, made the heart of young Jefferson ache for
the propitious moment which should enrol him among the champions of
persecuted humanity. Then was realized that burning vision of his
fancy, which, at the age of fourteen, amidst the crowning hilarities
of the chase, had pointed his aspirations to the more solid and
rational exultation which awaits "the honest advocate of his
country's rights." The tone and strength of the master sentiment
of his mind, at this early period, are clearly indicated by those
emphatic mottoes which he selected for his seals: "Ab eo libertas,
a quo spiritus," and "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to
God." These mottoes attracted great attention among his
contemporaries, and were regarded as prophetic of his destiny. The
seals themselves are preserved, as sacred relics, by the family of Mr.
Jefferson; and accurate impressions of them in wax, have been obtained
by his particular friends, in various parts of the country, by whom
they are cherished with religious regard.
In 1767, Mr. Jefferson was inducted into
the practice of the Law, at the bar of the General Court, under the
auspices of his learned preceptor and friend, Mr. Wythe. He brought
with him into practice, the whole body of ancient and modern
jurisprudence, text and commentary, from its rudest monuments in
Anglo-Saxon, to its latest depositories in polished vernacular, well
systematized in his mind, and ready for use at a moments warning. But
his professional career was brief, and unfavored with any occasion
adequate to disclose the immensity of his technical preparation, or
the extent of his abilities as an advocate. The outbreak of the
Revolution, which was followed by a general occlusion of the Courts of
Justice, trod close upon his introduction to the bar; and while it
closed one important avenue to distinction, ushered him upon a broader
and more diversified theatre of action.
During the short interval which he spent
in his profession, he acquired considerable celebrity; but his
forensic reputation is so disproportioned to his unusually versatile
pre-eminence, as to have occasioned the general impression that he was
deficient in the requisite qualifications for a successful
practitioner at the bar. That this was not the case, however, we have
the authority of a gentleman, whose opportunities of information are a
guaranty of the literal accuracy of his statement.
"It is true," continues the
writer,"he was not distinguished in popular debate; why he was
not so, has often been matter of surprise to those who have seen his
eloquence on paper, and heard it in conversation. He had all the
attributes of the mind, and the heart, and the soul, which are
essential to eloquence of the highest order. The only defect was a
physical one: he wanted volume and compass of voice for a large
deliberative assembly; and his voice, from the excess of his
sensibility, instead of rising with his feelings and conceptions, sunk
under their pressure, and became gutteral and inarticulate.
The consciousness of this infirmity
repressed any attempt in a large body, in which he knew he must fail.
But his voice was all sufficient for the purposes of judicial debate;
and there is no reason to doubt, that if the services of his country
had not called him away so soon from his profession, his fame as a
lawyer, would now have stood upon the same distinguished ground which
he confessedly occupies as a statesman, an author and a scholar."
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