Monday, February 28, 2011

Thomas Jefferson

Monticello, Virginia – Visited July 2006

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, primary author of the Declaration of Independence, patriot, statesman, inventor. It is not hard to put TJ in the top tier of American icons. But Jefferson is also one of the most enigmatic figures in U. S. history – great statesman who was a poor public communicator; revolutionary war hero who never fought a battle, aristocratic owner of a huge estate yet virtually broke at the time of his death, eloquent spokesman for human freedoms, yet owner and exploiter of slaves.

Thomas Jefferson was born in April 1743 in the Virginia Colony to a successful planter with aristocratic status. He inherited the estate of his father in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and renamed it Monticello, which in Italian means ‘little mountain’. The great house of Monticello was Jefferson’s design, lifelong home, and the great passion of his life. Jefferson married in his late 20’s, and he and his wife had six children before her untimely death ten years later. Jefferson never remarried.

The Jefferson Memorial

Jefferson’s career as a lawyer began with graduation from William and Mary College, followed by a law practice and various local government positions; ultimately serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was sent as a Virginia representative to the Continental Congress and in 1776 was chosen to be principle drafter of the Declaration of Independence. After independence Jefferson returned to Virginia to serve as state legislator and governor. He resumed national politics as part of the Congress of the Confederation, where he was selected to the key political ambassadorship to France. He returned from France to serve as the first Secretary of State under Washington.

Thomas Jefferson became vice president under John Adams and was reluctantly nominated for the presidency to succeed Adams and became the third President of the United States. Jefferson served two terms which included the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Following his presidency Jefferson returned to Monticello, where he busied himself with developing his property, scientific experimentation and founding the University of Virginia. Jefferson sold his library to the U. S. Government, which became the formative collection of the Library of Congress. In one of the great ironies of American history, both Jefferson and John Adams died on the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826. He was buried in the family graveyard at Monticello.

Me and Melissa at Jefferson's grave

I’m not a big Jefferson fan. His Sally Hemmings scandal certainly cuts against the image of him as champion of equality. On the ‘American Patriots – Christian or deist’ scale, Jefferson’s a pretty solid ‘2’ (1 being ‘Humanist to the Max’ and 10 being ‘Evangelical and Vocal About it'). He’s the guy who cut the supernatural stuff out of the Bible to make his own humanist version.  But he did support separation of church and state, which has generally benefitted the cause of the Gospel over the large sweep U. S. history.  For a nice brief dramatization of Jefferson's humanistic perspective check out Jefferson and Adams debate from David McCullough's "John Adams"

Farmer gang loitering in front of TJ's crib

 My visit to Monticello occurred during a very hot summer vacation with the Farmer clan 180 years after his death. The day after we took a memorable and enlightening tour of Jefferson’s remarkable homestead, we played miniature golf. Only in America. Thanks Tom, for helping to make the ‘pursuit of happiness’ part of my cultural experience.

Jefferson in Paris - a statue along the Seine honoring the ambassador.
Jill and I came across it in a visit in May 2009



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