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thomas jefferson
Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence

April 13, 2010
by Shannon Firth
Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States of America, was an architect, a philosopher, a Deist and an impeccable prose stylist. His passionate appeal to dissolve ties with England—the Declaration of Independence—led the early colonies to war and ultimately freedom. As president, he earned respect for his sound principles and industrious nature, though his private life has been subjected to intense scrutiny.

Thomas Jefferson’s Early Days

Thomas Jefferson was born into a privileged family in Albemarle County, Va., on April 13, 1743. His father, Peter, was a plantation owner, and his mother Jane was a daughter in the aristocratic Randolph clan.

At the college of William & Mary, Jefferson studied the Scottish Enlightenment, blending his passions for law, philosophy and science. He would draw from his lessons in later years in his “task of nation-building,” The History Channel reports. Much later he founded a college of his own, The University of Virginia.

After graduation he pursued law, and in his 20s began building his home Monticello—Italian for “little mountain”—in Charlottesville, Va., in the Palladian style he’d adopted from the French.

In 1772 he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a 23-year-old widow, who doubled his land holdings. She died 10 years later in childbirth. According to the American Memory Project, only two of his six children with Martha lived to adulthood.

Jefferson’s Notable Accomplishments

In 1774, Jefferson authored his “Summary View of the Rights of British America,” a precursor to his legendary declaration. Though the delegates of the First Continental Congress chose a separate essay to represent their claims, his writing gave him authority and influence in the political sphere.

Jefferson served as President George Washington’s minister to France, and then as vice president under John Adams, in spite of their conflicting views on states’ rights. In 1800 he was elected president of the United States over Aaron Burr. A tie vote by the electoral committee forced the decision upon the House of Representative, and Alexander Hamilton, who supported neither candidate but disliked Burr more, persuaded the House to choose Jefferson.

During his presidency, Jefferson reduced the national debt by a third, abrogated the whiskey tax, secured the Louisiana Purchase, and fought off the Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean. While attempting to remain neutral during the Napoleonic wars, Jefferson imposed a U.S. embargo, however this was poorly received.

The Rest of the Story

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the same day as his rival John Adams, and exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

In a memorial speech, Daniel Webster perfectly rendered the weight of Jefferson’s formidable declaration, recalling John Hancock’s initial hesitation: “While these cities burn, these pleasant fields whiten and bleach with the bones of their owners, and these streams run blood. It will be upon us … if, failing to maintain this unseasonable and ill-judged declaration.”

Time magazine’s Lance Morrow notes that history has rewritten Jefferson’s biography, branding him “a slave-owning hypocrite and racist; a political extremist; an apologist for the vicious, botched French Revolution; and in general, somewhat less the genius remembered in our folklore.”

The Library of Congress addresses some of the criticism leveled at Jefferson. In 1873 Madison Hemings wrote in the Pike County Republican that Jefferson fathered all five of Sally Hemings’ children. Sally Hemings was one of Jefferson’s slaves, and incidentally, was half-sister to Martha Jefferson. In 2000, DNA results from the Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation confirmed “the strong likelihood” that Jefferson fathered “one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings.”

Reference: Thomas Jefferson Papers

The 36-volume Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the definitive source for Jefferson documents, is available on a subscription basis from Princeton University and the University of Virginia.

The Family Letters Digital Archive contains letters written by Jefferson and members of his extended family, as well as various extracts from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. It is a companion to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s Retirement Series of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, covering Jefferson’s life from 1809 to 1826.

The Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Papers contains about 83,000 images of Jefferson manuscripts.

UVA provides several free online databases of Jefferson’s writing.

The Massachusetts Historical Society features pages from Jefferson’s catalog of books and architectural sketches of Jefferson’s homes and various other buildings.

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