Thomas Jefferson was born on 13 April 1743 at his father Peter's plantation, Shadwell, in Albemarle County, Virginia, on the western edge of settlement. His mother, Jane, was a Randolph, one of the top half-dozen aristocratic families in colonial Virginia. The elder Jefferson, who died when Thomas was fourteen, was a prominent local officeholder. Jefferson had all the proper credentials for upward mobility in the Virginia plantocracy. Something of a prodigy, he studied Latin and Greek before entering, in 1760, the College of William and Mary.
Two years at Williamsburg, then propounding the tenets of Scottish Enlightenment humanitarianism, opened him to politics, science, and society. Always a bookworm, he studied law (to make a living) and political theory (to argue against Britain). Both subjects served him well in the Virginia House of Burgesses (1769-1775), where his Summary View anticipated the Declaration of Independence by blaming the King for America's problems. His colleagues in the second Continental Congress (1775-1776) recognized his literary talents; although a committee of five undertook the Declaration, the first draft, with its stirring revolutionary rhetoric, was his.
In the Virginia House of Delegates (1776-1779) Jefferson sought quite successfully to reduce his revolutionary ideology to practice. His bills abolished primogeniture and entail, the traditional English legal supports of landed aristocracy. He helped revise the colonial code of laws. His defense of religious freedom, of liberty of conscience without state regulation, alone elevates him to the highest pantheon of American libertarianism.
Jefferson's brief tenure as Governor of Virginia (1779-1781) marked the nadir of his public career. His state was unprepared for war, and he was unwilling to stretch its constitution with strong executive leadership. When British Colonel Banastre Tarleton raided Charlottesville, where Jefferson had summoned the legislature, he and it fled ignominiously into the hills. He then resigned his office before his successor was properly chosen. Even his supporters used the term "abdication." The Virginia Assembly later investigated and vindicated his conduct, but his opponents never let him forget it.
Jefferson recovered from this obloquy, and from the death of his wife Martha, by responding to a French questionnaire seeking information about the American states. His material appeared in English in 1787 as Notes on the State of Virginia, a brilliant combination of statistical analysis and philosophical inquiry. It remains the starting point for any investigation of Jeffersonian ideology.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.
The Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852
Frederick Edwin Church (1826–1901)
Oil on canvas, 28 x 23 inches
Gift of Thomas Fortune Ryan, 1912.1
Courtesy Bayley Art Museum, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
George Washington had surveyed it and the surrounding land in 1750, and left his initials carved in its stone. In 1774, Thomas Jefferson bought 157 acres of that land, including the geological formation he called "the most sublime of nature's works,"1 from King George III of England, and here built a two-room cabin for his own use as a private retreat.
Frederick Church was one of the foremost exponents of the Hudson River School of nineteenth-century American artists, who built their reputations on grand landscape paintings such as this one, his equally famous Niagara (1857) and Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), or the stupendous mountain scenes by Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902). Collectively, their works gave the world a highly romanticized impression of the Western United States.
1. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query V, The Natural Bridge. Merrill D. Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson (New York Penguin Books, 1975), 54.
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Monticello—Italian for "Little Mountain"—crowned by Jefferson's remarkable home and his beloved gardens.
The President's House, 1801
The President's House in 1801
by William Birch
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The men at lower left are making furniture for the still-unfinished dwelling. It was initially referred to as the "President's Palace" or the "Presidential Mansion." But they sounded too regal for Thomas Jefferson, who considered himself a man of the people. He preferred to think of it as simply "the President's House". It was first referred to publicly as the "White House" in 1811, but it didn't officially acquire that name until 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt had it engraved on his stationery.1
1. William Seale, The President's House, A History, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 1986), 1:23, 35.