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Thomas Jefferson's World

Modern map of Virginia with hotspots leading to other pages also linked below

Image hotspots: Natural Bridge | Monticello | Washington, D.C.

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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.