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Thomas Jefferson

History: Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the United States of America

Thomas Jefferson - The Birth of a Nation

A Film by Ken Burns

Thomas Jefferson's Early life and Career

Jefferson was born the third of ten children, on April 13, 1743 (April 2, 1743 OS), at the family home in Shadwell, Virginia. His father was Peter Jefferson, a planter and surveyor who died when Jefferson was fourteen. His mother was Jane Randolph, daughter of Isham Randolph, a ship's captain and planter. Jefferson showed little interest in learning about his ancestry; on his father's side he only knew of the existence of his grandfather. Jefferson's earliest memory was being handed to a slave on horseback and carried 50 miles away to their new home, which overlooked the Rivanna River in current Albemarle County. He was of English and possible Welsh descent.

Peter Jefferson's friend William Randolph died a widower in 1745, having appointed Peter as guardian to manage his Tuckahoe Plantation and care for his four children. That year the Jeffersons relocated to Tuckahoe, where they lived for the next seven years before returning to Shadwell in 1752. Peter Jefferson died in 1757, and the Jefferson estate was divided between Peter's two sons, Thomas and Randolph. Thomas inherited approximately 5,000 acres (2,000 ha; 7.8 sq mi) of land, including Monticello, and between 20 and 40 slaves, and had unfettered control of the property at age 21.

Education A university building Wren Building (rear), College of William & Mary where Jefferson studied

Jefferson began his childhood education beside the Randolph children with tutors at Tuckahoe. In 1752, he began attending a local school run by a Scottish Presbyterian minister. At age nine, he initiated his study of Latin, Greek and French; he learned to ride horses and began nature studies. He was taught from 1758 to 1760 by Reverend James Maury near Gordonsville, Virginia, while boarding with Maury's family and there studied history, science and the classics.

Jefferson entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, at age 16, and studied mathematics, metaphysics and philosophy under Professor William Small. Small introduced him to the British Empiricists including John Locke, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. He also improved his French, Greek and his skill at the violin. Jefferson graduated in 1762, completing his studies in two years. He read the law under the tutelage of professor George Wythe to obtain his law license, while working as a law clerk in Wythe's office. He also read a wide variety of English classics and political works.

Jefferson treasured his books, and in 1770 his Shadwell home, including a library of 200 volumes inherited from his father, was destroyed by fire. Nevertheless, by 1773 he replenished his library with 1,250 titles, and in 1814, his collection had grown to almost 6,500 volumes. After the British burned the Library of Congress that year, he sold more than 6,000 books to the Library for $23,950. Though he had intended to pay off some of his large debt, he resumed collecting for his personal library, writing to John Adams, "I cannot live without books".

Lawyer and House of Burgesses

Chamber of House of Burgesses

House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, Virginia, where Jefferson served 1769–1775

Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767 and then lived with his mother at Shadwell. In addition to practicing law, Jefferson represented Albemarle County as a delegate in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 until 1775. He proved more willing to reform slavery in his early career than later when he became a more substantial slaveholder. In 1769 he introduced legislation allowing masters to assume full control over the emancipation of slaves, taking the discretion away from the royal Governor and his General Court. Jefferson had persuaded his cousin Richard Bland to spearhead the legislation's passage, but the reaction in the House was strongly negative.

Jefferson litigated issues on behalf of freedom-seeking slaves. One such client, Samuel Howell, of inter-racial grandparents, claimed he should be freed before the statutory age of thirty-one required for emancipation in such a case. Jefferson, who waived his fee, invoked Natural Law and argued in court, "everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person and using it at his own will ... This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because it is necessary for his own sustenance." The judge hearing the Howell case cut him off and ruled against his client. As a consolation, Jefferson gave Howell some money, conceivably used to aid his escape shortly thereafter. Jefferson later incorporated the argument into the Declaration of Independence.

Following the passage of the Intolerable Acts by the British Parliament in 1774, Jefferson wrote a resolution against the acts, calling for a 'Day of Fasting and Prayer' in protest, as well as a boycott of all British goods. His resolution was later expanded into A Summary View of the Rights of British America, in which he expressed his belief that people had the right to govern themselves.

Monticello, marriage and family

Jefferson in 1768 began construction of his primary residence Monticello (Italian for "Little Mountain") on a hilltop overlooking a 5,000-acre plantation. Construction was done mostly by local masons and carpenters, assisted by Jefferson's slaves. He moved into the South Pavilion in 1770. Turning Monticello into a neoclassical masterpiece in the Palladian style was his perennial project.

Monticello plantation house Jefferson's home, Monticello

On January 1, 1772,

Jefferson married his third cousin Martha Wayles Skelton, the 23-year-old widow of Bathurst Skelton and she moved into the South Pavilion. She was a frequent hostess for Jefferson and managed the large household; biographer Dumas Malone described the marriage as the happiest period of Jefferson's life. Martha read widely, did fine needlework and was a skilled pianist—Jefferson often accompanied her on the violin or cello. During their ten years of marriage, Martha bore six children: Martha "Patsy" (1772–1836); Jane (1774–1775); a son who lived for only a few weeks in 1777; Mary Wayles "Polly" (1778–1804); Lucy Elizabeth (1780–1781); and another Lucy Elizabeth (1782–1785). Only Martha and Mary survived more than a few years. After her father John Wayles died in 1773, Martha and her husband inherited 135 slaves, 11,000 acres (4,500 ha; 17 sq mi) and the debts of his estate. The latter took Jefferson years to satisfy and contributed to his own financial problems.

Martha later suffered from ill health, including diabetes, and frequent childbirth further weakened her. Martha's mother had died young, and as a girl Martha lived with two stepmothers. Shortly before her death, she reportedly told Jefferson that she could not bear to have another mother raise her children, and made him promise never to marry again. A few months after the birth of her last child, she died on September 6, 1782, at the age of 33 with Jefferson at her bedside. Grief-stricken in his room, he relentlessly paced back and forth for three weeks, nearly to the point of exhaustion. He emerged, taking long rambling rides on secluded roads with daughter Martha—by her description, "a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief".

After working as Secretary of State (1790–93), he returned to Monticello and initiated a remodeling based on the concepts he had acquired in Europe. The work continued throughout most of his presidency.

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