Thomas Jefferson

 John Ruh   Book / DVD Summaries, Professional Development


April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826

A Summary of His Life
First in a series of write ups on our first Presidents

General Information

  • Born into Virginia plantation life, father died when he was 14
  • A renaissance man/idealist who studied throughout his life (law, constitutions, languages, history science, agriculture, architecture and more. Polite, restrained and eloquent writer.
  • Sold his book collection to Library of Congress to pay off debts, however missed books so much he rebuilt it (his collection can be seen at Library of Congress building in D.C.)
  • Walked to his inauguration (wanted to be man of the people)
  • Open door policy significantly expanded publics ability to see President of United States
  • He and Washington were Virginia gentlemen and after presidency never turn away a guest at their homes
  • Served as first Secretary of State, then Vice President under Adams, became third President of United States. Served two terms and voluntarily resigned as did Washington (no two-term limit at that time)
  • Received no pension, (nor did first five presidents), when he retired. No book publishing, no promotional tours- went back to the plantation to make a living.
  • Believed in “ Life Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness”, “ All men are created equal”, American exceptionalism and individual and state rights. Hated the notion of monarchy/federalist point of view.
  • Democratic Republican essentially started two party system. Opposite of Federalists (Adams, Hamilton and to a certain extent Washington)
  • An enigma and man of many contradictions. For example, A slave holder his entire life while preaching and fighting for liberty, writing and signing the Declaration of Independence.
  • First president to suggest public works projects like national road (done after his presidency)
  • Died on July 4th, 1826, 50 years after Declaration of Independence and same day John Adams died
  • Loved the French and their ways. Felt our revolution influenced theirs and was first ambassador to France. Strongly disliked the English system of government and called Adams, Hamilton and others monocrats.
  • At age 27 moved to the hill later called Monticello, built what was a mansion in those days and worked on it his entire life. Had many unique features for its time and was never finished.
  • Influenced by John Locke (who was inspired, I believe by Roger Williams founder of Providence, RI in 1636)
  • Although opposed politically, he exchanged 158 letters with John Adams from 1812-26. Adams wrote two for each one he wrote
  • Loved walking, horseback riding and considered the farmer a real citizen
  • Celebrated both in his life and since. Venerated with a major memorial in D.C.

Highlights

  • Renaissance man of many interests and talents. Knew more than anyone in his day including Ben Franklin
  • Considered the Declaration of Independence, religious liberty for Virginia and founding the University of Virginia to be his 3 greatest accomplishments.
  • Cut federal deficit by 1/3 during his Presidency by keeping federal government small, reducing size of Navy and leaving matters up to states and individuals
  • 1803 Negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon for 15 million or $18.00/sq. mile almost doubling size of United States while preventing the French, Spanish or English from gaining a foothold here
  • Lewis and Clark discovery expedition set the stage for opening of the West
  • First Secretary of State, 2nd vice president and 3rd President of United States
  • Major innovator in many fields including agriculture, architecture, writing of Virginia constitution with Madison, and of course, The Declaration of Independence
  • Repealed Sedition Act passed by Adams
  • Can be argued he saved our Democracy as we know it today including the Bill of Rights which was under threat prior to his becoming President (Read up about Sedition Act)

Lowlights

  • Slavery contradiction given his beliefs about liberty and fighting for it. He never freed slaves even in his death. Thought blacks were inferior to whites.
  • Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, was his mistress and they had children together
  • Jefferson died insolvent,100,00 in debt. He never freed his slaves which were sold with his house and belongings upon his death to pay creditors
  • Shy quiet by nature and a poor public speaker. So much so, that many could not hear him at his inauguration
  • Had 6 children of whom two made it to adulthood, and only one survived him. His wife died shortly after childbirth in 1782 at age 33 leaving him with three young children. He burned their letters and rarely spoke about her death.
  • Never came to grips with the emotion of deep sadness/grief. Private. kept his feelings to himself.

Personal Thoughts

He was human like all of us and had his shortcomings, however these things impress me regarding Jefferson

  1. The context he created for all Americans, from his to this day, of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” feeds the idea of American exceptionalism now engrained in our collective consciousness.
  2. We would welcome another President who would lower our deficit and support liberty as he perceived it.
  3. From my perspective, he, like Lincoln, saved our democracy and our Union. Few recognize that, prior to his Presidency, one could be jailed for speaking out against the government. Jefferson’s Presidency set the stage for individual liberty as our way of life which prior to 1776 and our Declaration was unimaginable.

Sources: Jon Meacham, The Art of Power, Clay Jenkinson writings and speeches, Gordon S Wood, Ken Burns documentary and from visit to Monticello