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Thomas Jefferson Biography

Lesson Plans | Quotes |

Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for three things, “drawing” the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and creating the Virginia statute for religious freedom. Though Jefferson was America’s third President, second Vice President, and first Secretary of State, he did not consider these his most significant achievements. This is telling, especially for a successful President who purchased the Louisiana Territory and initiated a Louis & Clark Expedition that was a kind of colonial Apollo Program.  Jefferson wanted to be known as a philosopher and scientist rather than a politician, because he considered these pursuits far more noble.

Thomas Jefferson is America’s foremost muse. He is remembered as much for his personal letters and writing, and his eloquent defense of freedom in them, as his political achievements. Two hundred years after his death, Jefferson is the most quoted political leader on the planet. He is probably one of the few dozen greatest writers to even live. There is nary a sentence in his thousands of letters which is not precise, eloquent, and resonant. He first attracted national political attention because of his writing skill.

It is no accident that Jefferson is most remembered for a work of writing, the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To enunciate the most basic American principles is to invoke the words of Thomas Jefferson.
Deep in his bones, Jefferson believed in human liberty, to a degree that worried even other Founding Fathers. No President has even been more fixated on minimizing government and maximizing personal freedom. Jefferson was especially adamant about religious freedom, and pathological in his desire to keep taxes low. Whether writing an opinion about a National Bank, transforming a simple declaration of independence into a liberty manifesto, his views were always colored by this idealistic predisposition. Some considered Jefferson’s steadfast belief in personal freedom naïve, but he cheerfully brushed all such criticisms aside, and remaining unfailingly optimistic, always believing that personal liberty was the core meaning of the American revolution, and that freedom was the human destiny.

Jefferson disliked conflict, and was compulsive in his desire to enforce harmony in his life. He believed in the enlightenment credo that “diffusion of knowledge” could solve most of humanity’s problems. He was a workaholic and fastidious manager of time who was always doing something. He was not nearly as attractive as paintings portray him. Jefferson was at heart an idealist with the temperament of an artist. He was fundamentally introverted, preferred writing letters to discussion, and had a meek, gentle nature. He had a quiet confidence, and was usually soft spoken, but could erupt in hyperbole when liberty was threatened. Woman found him charming, though not beguiling, and he was usually very shy around them. He had a dry, subtle wit, but was nonetheless rather funny.

Jefferson is so multifaceted that any quick summary of him is a futile endeavor. He was America’s first health food fanatic. He was a compulsive shopper. He had an obsessive-compulsive need to categorize and organize. He was a brilliant architect; his home Monticello is  considered one of the 100 greatest buildings in history, and he designed renowned buildings such as the University of Virginia Rotunda. Jefferson disliked large cities and preferred the agrarian lifestyle, in part because he foresaw many of the problems with corporations, monopoly capitalism, pollution, and crime, which prevail today. He loved gadgets. He was a lawyer, a wine connoisseur, a meteorologist, a horticulturalist, an inventor, an equestrian, a voracious reader who couldn’t live without books, and a hundred other things that there is no room to list. 

Jefferson’s posterity is perplexed by his ability to write the words, “all men are created equal,” while owning more than 200 slaves. The claim that he sired a child with his slave Sally Hemings, though widely accepted as true by the public, has not been proven, and a blue ribbon panel of respected historians considers his guilt improbable. Today Jefferson is summarily discounted as a mere hypocrite, and academia considers it en vogue to bash him, but that says more about us than him, especially when academia’s bias against Jeffersonian limited government is taken into account. Jefferson was more comfortable with slavery than his defenders are willing to admit, but he deserves better than the simplistic recriminations which are heaped upon him today. He is the greatest Avatar of human liberty in the history of the world, and all attempts to diminish him will fail because he was right about freedom.

 


     

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