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Thomas Jefferson


I need not ask you if you have ever heard of the "Declaration of Independence." The American who does not know about that great paper, whether he be man or boy, ought to go right back to school, for he has something still to learn. But it is not enough to know about the Declaration; he should know also about the man who wrote it, the famous Thomas Jefferson.

Nearly two hundred years ago a man named Peter Jefferson married a wife and brought her to live on his plantation, which was in Virginia, near where the town of Charlottesville now stands. He named his place Shadwell, because his wife was born in a place of that name in England. A great, sturdy fellow was Peter Jefferson as strong as three common men. And he was as sensible he was strong, which is not always the case. 

It was a fine old mansion in which the Jefferson and in which Thomas Jefferson, the oldest son, was born in the year 1743. It stood near the Blue Ridge Mountains, and from its windows one could have a fine view over mountains and forests for miles. Here the children played and studied and grew. There was quite a little flock of them, boys and girls. But, by bad fortune, their father died when Thomas was only fourteen years old, and left the mother and children to make their way alone.

The poor mother had them all to take care of now. She thought ever so much of Thomas, and let him do much as he pleased. It was well he was a good boy, and did not please to do anything that was wrong. He learned to ride, and swim, and shoot, and he was a great reader besides.

The boy began to study when he was only five years old, and he kept at it as he grew older, for he was fond of reading and thinking. After his father died he was sent to a very good school, fourteen miles from his home, and two years afterward he was sent to William and Mary College, at Williamsburg, which was then the capital of Virginia. The boy had never seen even a village of twenty houses, and this little place of a thousand people must have seemed like a large city to him.

A tall, straight, slender lad was Thomas, with large hands and feet, a freckled face, and reddish hair. He was no beauty, but he had bright eyes and a very pleasant way, and he soon made friends. He studied long and hard, but when he had a holiday: he spent it in hunting, and was so swift of foot that the deer had to run fast to escape him. Every night he would run a mile out of town and back again for exercise. He liked to dance, too, and did not forget his violin, and was so cheerful and genial that everybody liked him. 

After he left college he studied law. And all the time he was doing this he was also taking care of his mother's large plantation, riding about the place, hunting in the woods, and keeping as busy as a bee. After he became a lawyer he had plenty to do in the courts, and he was soon elected to the Virginia legislature, where he was not long in showing how sturdy a patriot he was. Those were the days of the Stamp Act and the Tea Tax, and the other things that made Americans wish for liberty. Among the lovers of liberty there were none who went ahead of Thomas Jefferson.

In 1770 his old home at Shadwell took fire and burned to the ground when he and his mother were away. When he heard of it he was much troubled about his books, and asked the messenger who bright the news if any had been saved.

The fire was a serious loss. A new home had to be built, and this was a home which became famous in later years. Like Washington's home at Mount Vernon, it is a place of pilgrimage for good Americans to-day. Let us tell the story of this historic mansion, for it has a romance of its own. 

In the summer of 1765 Martha Jefferson, a sister of Thomas, and a beautiful girl of nineteen, was married to Dabney Carr, the best loved of Jefferson's college classmates.   Young Carr had a charming and lovable nature, and he and Jefferson were very intimate, studying law together. Even before they became brothers-in-law they were constantly in  company. They had a favorite resort two miles from Shadwell, on a lonely mountain, five hundred and eighty feet in height. This was covered with trees. Some distance up its side grew a great oak under whose shade the young men made a rustic scat. Here they sat amid the green stillness, and had long and confidential talks.

What delightful chats those must have been, with nobody to hear them but the singing-birds and the squirrels. It was these hours which afterward made that spot famous in history. The two friends decided that he who died first should be buried under the favorite oak. Jefferson kept his word. His friend Carr died a few years afterward and was buried in the chosen spot. In Iater years it became the burial plot of the family, and when Jefferson died, full of years and honors, he was laid by the side of his friend, beneath the very soil on which they had sat and studied, and had held the long and earnest talks of their youth.

The hill was given the name of Monticello, or " Little Mountain." It had a broad, flat top which Jefferson had leveled off and here he built a handsome manor-house which has ever since been known as Monticello. It is a charming old place, with its dome and its pillared porticos, and the clock and weather dial on its front porch, and with its large and beautiful rooms, and its magnificent views.

It was built of brick made on the place, and all the timber was cut and shaped from trees on the ground. Jefferson planned the house himself, and much of the furniture was made on the place, from designs of his own. Near by Monticello is the University of Virginia, which was built after his plans, and a little farther away is the old Virginian town of Charlottesville. Beside the carriage road, leading up to the hill-top and the mansion, visitors may see the grave of Jefferson, with its modest monument. 

The young planter had need of a home, for he was going to be married. He had been deeply in love with a pretty girl when he was a boy at college; but she married some one else, and left him to get over his love. This time, like Washington, he fell in love with a widow, and, like Washington's wife, she was named Martha. She was beautiful, she was young, and she was wealthy, for she owned forty thousand acres of land.  So by marrying Jefferson became one of the great land-holders of Virginia. 

There is quite an interesting story told about how he brought his wife home. They were married on New Year's day, 1772, and set out for their home, more than a hundred miles away, in a carriage drawn by two horses. There was no better way of traveling in those days,—except by putting more horses to their carriage.

It was the middle of the winter. As they drove along it began to snow, and long before they got to their distant home the road was covered with a thick white carpet. Night came on, and it was late when they reached the "little mountain and began to climb up the steep road to the house on the summit. When they came near there was not a light to be seen and darkness lay all around. 

What a chilly homecoming was that to the young wife ! They had to go straight to bed to keep from freezing. But the next day the fires were set blazing and all was warm and cheerful, and that one gloomy night was to be followed by many happy days in the house to which they had come in the darkness and the snow.

After that Thomas Jefferson became one of the best men of the country, and I must now tell about his public life. But first, you will want to know a little about his family. There were six children, though all but one died young. Only Martha, the oldest, lived to see her father die. But he had a large family for all that, for his dear friend, Dabney Carr, who had married his sister Martha, died about this time, leaving six children--three boys and three girls. He left his wife poor, and Jefferson took her and all her children home, and brought them up as tenderly as if they had been his own. So Monticello was not wanting in young faces and young voices, and no doubt it saw plenty of the jolly pranks of boys and girls.

But while abundant life and happiness were to be seen in the mansion on the hill-top, war and ruin were fast coming on in the country. The stupid English king was driving the people wild by his foolish ways. Jefferson was one of the leading rebels of Virginia, and when the Continental Congress was elected in 1775 he was one of the members whom Virginia sent. Only one man in Congress was as young as he, but he was known to be an able writer, and the other members looked up to him as one of their best thinkers. 

It was a long journey in those days from Monticello to Philadelphia, where the Congress was held. Part of the road ran through the wilderness, and it took more than a week to get there. The day he took his scat was the day news came of the battle of Bunker Hill, and of the splendid way the "rebels" had fought. Washington was then on his way to Boston to take command of the army, and the whole country was getting ready to fight for liberty.

Congress, you may be sure, had plenty to do in those days, and Jefferson was kept busy enough. His great work was the "Declaration of Independence." No doubt all of you have read this famous document, which told England and the world that America was determined to be free. When the time came for writing this great paper, five men, three of whom were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, were chosen to do it. But it was Jefferson that wrote it, and it was John Adams that presented it to Congress in a splendid speech. Ever since that day Jefferson has been of world-wide fame as the author of the "Declaration." You must go back in spirit to the times in which it was written to know how great a paper it was. One writer truly says, It is the most famous state-paper in the world."

After that, Jefferson was looked upon as one of the greatest statesmen of America. Congress wished to send him to France with Dr. Franklin, but his wife was too weak to go with him, and he would not go so far away from her. He was too good a lover for that. And there was plenty for him to do at home, for Virginia had bad old laws which had come over from England, and which he set himself to have repealed. And he did, too. He fought them till they were all gone.

The people of Virginia honored him for what he had done, and chose him for their governor in 1779. I do not know if Jefferson thought this so great an honor, for Virginia was then in a sad strait. The British had got tired of fighting in the North, and were now coming South. They would soon be in Virginia, and most of its fighting men had been sent away. The Governor had great trouble to raise a few soldiers to defend the State.

Let us look at Virginia in the year 1781. In the first days of that year Benedict Arnold, the traitor, sailed up the James River with a large fleet. Jefferson was at Richmond, which had been made the capital of the new State. He hurried his family away to a place of safety, and then rode back with full speed toward the capital. On the way his horse broke down, and he had to borrow a wild colt from a farmer. Before he got to Richmond Arnold held the town.

Jefferson raised the militia for miles around, and they swarmed like hornets on Arnold's track. The traitor hurried back to his vessels and sailed away down the river after doing a great deal of damage to the capital city—though it was a very small city then.

Now I have to tell you one of the famous adventures in Jefferson's life. There was a bold cavalry leader in the British army named Colonel Tarleton. He had long been in South Carolina fighting with Marion and Morgan and other heroes of the South. Now he was in Virginia, and thought he saw the chance for a fine piece of work. Jefferson was then at his home in Monticello, and the legislature of Virginia was at Charlottesville, three miles away. Tarleton said to himself "Here is a good chance to take the whole nest of rebels at once."

One morning before breakfast the family at Monticello saw a horseman spurring his horse wildly up the hill-side. The poor animal was white with foam. They ran to the door to hear him shout out, The British are coming! Tarleton is coming with his dragoons! You must fly for your lives!

Jefferson questioned the messenger, and learned that Tarleton, with two hundred and fifty men, had galloped at midnight into Louisa, a town twenty miles away. They were now coming at full speed for Monticello. The news threw the family into a panic. Jefferson was the only cool one among them. He told them there was time enough, and made them eat their breakfast. Then he sent them away to a place of safety. He stayed behind, for there were precious papers which he wanted to save.

While he was getting these another messenger came rushing in, calling out that the British were coming up the mountain. Jefferson listened. There was no sound of troops to be heard. He sprang on his horse and rode to a point where he could look down on Charlottesville All was quiet and peaceful there. It seemed like a false alarm, and he turned back homeward, hoping to get more of his papers.

A mere chance now saved Jefferson from being made a prisoner by the British. Looking down at his side, he saw that his sword was missing. It had fallen from the scabbard. He turned to search for it, and as he did so, looked back again at Charlottesville. There was a marvelous change. The little place, just before so quiet, was now in a bustle. Armed horsemen filled its streets, and some of them were galloping along the road to Monticello. Jefferson put spurs to his horse and rode away. He was barely in time. In little more than five minutes Tarleton's men were in his house. The lost sword had saved him from capture, perhaps from death.

There is one good thing to be said in favor of Tarleton. He left Jefferson's house without doing it any great harm. That was not the case with another of Jefferson's plantations on the James River, to which a party of soldiers were sent. Here the barns and fences were burned, the crops destroyed, the cattle and horses carried off and the place left a smoking waste.  Now we must hurry on with our story. The next year was a sad one to Jefferson, for his beloved wife died. Before she died she made him promise never to marry again. He kept his word. He loved her too dearly to want another wife.

Soon public duties called Jefferson from home. He was sent to Congress again in 1783, and in 1784 was chosen as Minister to France, with his old friends, Dr. Franklin and John Adams. These were three of the old committee on the Declaration, now sent abroad to make treaties with foreign nations.

Jefferson remained five years abroad. They were stirring years. The great French Revolution was coming on, and everybody in France was talking about liberty and the rights of man. What he saw and heard in France made him a greater lover of human rights than ever. While he was in Paris he never forgot his country. He was always sending home seeds, plants, roots, everything which he thought would be of use to grow in American soil.

It was 1789 when Jefferson came home. Washington had just been made President and had appointed him Secretary of State. It was an honor he did not want. He tried hard to beg off, but Washington wanted the best men of the country in his Cabinet, and persuaded him to accept.

Jefferson spent five years in Washington's Cabinet, but those were not happy years. There were men at that time who would have liked to have a king over this country.  Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, was one of these. Jefferson was a strong democrat, and he and Hamilton did not get on well together. There were quarrels in the Cabinet, and in January, 1784, Jefferson gave up his office and went home to Monticello.

Jefferson was like Washington in one thing; he was fond of home life and of farming. He had a great taste for landscape gardening and for architecture, and was never more happy than when he was improving and beautifying his grounds. And he had abundance of company, for many guests were glad to visit and talk with the great statesman, and every hour brought him pleasant occupation.

He would have liked to spend his life at Monticello, busily and happily engaged, but his country wanted him again, and he felt it his duty to obey. He was elected Vice-President, with John Adams as President, and for four years he spent his time again in public affairs. I doubt if he enjoyed them much, for the times were stormy and the old bad feeling between him and Hamilton kept up.

In 1800 came another change. The Democratic party, of which Jefferson was the head, had grown to be the great party of the country, and he was elected President. The country was filled with joy when the news of his election were received, for he had friends and followers in every part of the land, and the old Federal party, of which Hamilton was the head, was fast going down. The people did not want a king, nor a President with kingly power. 

How would the great Democrat act? people asked. Would he go to be inaugurated in grand state and ceremony, like Washington and Adams—perhaps drawn by six cream-colored horses like Washington? Those who went to Washington to see the inauguration on March 4, 1801, must have been much surprised when, instead of a grand parade, they saw a plainly-dressed man ride up to the Capitol, without guard or servant, spring from his horse, and fasten its bridle to the fence. Then he walked to the Capitol to be inaugurated, for this was Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States. He wanted to let the people see that there was no royal pride about him. He loved simple ways and hated pomp and display. For eight years Jefferson was President. 

They were years full of excitement, for a great war between France and England was going on, and there was so much meddling with American ships and sailors that it was hard to keep our country from going to war, too. Yet this war did one splendid thing for America. France then held the vast country west of the Mississippi River called Louisiana. Napoleon was afraid the British would take it from him, so he sold it for a small price to the United States. That was a hundred years ago. To-day this great domain has many millions of people and great cities, and St. Louis, the greatest of its cities, is about to celebrate President Jefferson's grand work by a magnificent World's Fair.

Never was there a happier man in this country than Thomas Jefferson in 1809, when he got rid of the cares of office, and went home to his family, his books and his farm. One great pleasure of his life was his guests. He was the most hospitable of men. People came to Monticello in a steady stream, and his house was always full. Whole families would come, and stay for months. One family of six persons came from Europe and stayed ten months. Then they went away for a time, but came back and stayed six months more. All were welcomed by the genial host, though no doubt he was often tired enough of them.

They did not only tire him, they almost beggared him. Large as was his estate, he found himself in poverty in the last year of his life. He was forced to sell his precious library, and there was danger of his losing his home. Fortunately some of his admirers came to his aid, and money was sent him to pay his debts.

The veteran had not much longer to live. He failed fast as the summer of 1826 came on. At last he had but one wish, to live until the 4th of July. This wish was granted him. About noon of July 4th the great statesman and patriot breathed his last—exactly fifty years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and on the same day with John Adams, who was with him on the committee that made it.

Source:  "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House"   by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.

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