In April 1962, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed a White House Dinner, to a group of Nobel prize winners. Some of the greatest intellects of the era were assembled in that room. The President began:
“Ladies and gentlemen“, he said, “I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone“.
Jefferson himself knew how he wished to be remembered. He left specific instructions. Three accomplishments the founding father himself saw as his own legacy, inscribed on the stone which marks his grave:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia
Thomas Jefferson served two terms as President of the United States, but didn’t put it among his top three accomplishments. That’s how much he couldn’t stand politics.
The public life of Thomas Jefferson reads like a timeline for the founding of this nation.
In a time when colonists considered themselves to be Englishmen, Jefferson sought to disestablish the Anglican communion of the Church of England, seeking from the earliest days of his public career to establish a freedom from state-sponsored religion.
The preamble to the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom written in the man’s own hand, states “that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry“.
Jefferson expanded on the principle decades later, in a letter to the Baptist church of Danbury, Connecticut. Referring to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State“.
Jefferson drafted no fewer than 126 bills in three years as Virginia state legislator and later governor, introducing measures for public education and religious freedom. Alarmed at the growing power of the landed aristocracy, Jefferson took aim at laws of entail and primogeniture, that permanent, hereditary and near-feudal system of increasingly large plantations worked by white tenant farmers and African slaves.
Assigned to a committee of five to write the Declaration of Independence, it is Jefferson’s hand we see on our national birth certificate.
Jefferson fled when the Patriot turned traitor Benedict Arnold burned the city of Richmond at the head of a British Army, and narrowly escaped a cavalry force under “Bloody Banastre Tarleton”, sent for his capture.
Martha Skelton, née Wayles, became Mrs. Jefferson in 1772, following the death of her first husband. The marriage lasted ten years until her death in 1782 and produced six children, two of whom lived, to adulthood.
Jefferson was inconsolable on the death of his wife and withdrew for weeks, from the public eye. He later burned their correspondence, leading some commentators to describe the relationship as “enigmatic’.
I don’t think so. On his death some forty years later, Thomas Jefferson still wore a locket about his neck, containing a lock of Martha’s brown hair.
Jefferson was minister to France in the early days of the French Revolution, and witnessed the storming of the Bastille. He was a regular companion of the Marquis de Lafayette and contributor to Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It’s here in 1787, that Jefferson is believed to have begun a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, sixteen-year-old Sally Hemings. Modern DNA analysis has demonstrated a connection along the male Jefferson line, with at least one of Hemings’ children.
Thomas Jefferson became the nation’s 1st Secretary of State on this day in 1790, serving the first administration of President George Washington.
As President of the United States, Jefferson personally tutored Corps of Discovery Meriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the sciences of mapping, botany, natural history, mineralogy, and astronomy and navigation, and gave the man unlimited access to his library at Monticello, at that time the largest collection of geography and natural history books in the world.
In 1819, the 76-year-old Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, personally organizing its state charter and planning for the course curriculum, while designing the architecture for ten Roman and Greek pavilions forming a quadrangle connected by colonnades and surrounded by serpentine walls.
As if that wasn’t enough, the man cut 791 verses from the King James bible with a razor, and rearranged them into the 46-page volume The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly known as the Jefferson Bible. He then translated the thing into French, Greek, Latin and back to English. It interested him to do so.
On the subject of slavery, the man remains an enigma. Jefferson referred to the “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors” while he himself owned slaves. As many as 600, over the course of his life.
In an ending no fiction writer would dare to contemplate, Jefferson and fellow founder John Adams died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic they had helped create.
It is fashionable today, to judge the past by the standards of our day. As if the present were somehow exempt from the just scorn of future generations.
The founder’s ideal of freedom Of religion has somehow morphed into an imagined freedom From religion. Candidates argue for abolishing the Electoral College, transforming this self-governing Republic to a Democracy. Somehow the image of five wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, comes to mind.
A week ago, a member of the United States House of Representatives criticized the third President, for believing African slaves to be 3/5ths of a person.
I would not condone the odious practice of one human being “owning” another, any more than I’d endorse those places where the practice continues, to this day. I don’t know anyone who does. It’s worth mentioning though, Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the first African slaves to the new world, 275 years before the “Shot Heard ’round the World“. Every New World economy from Canada to Argentina was engaged in slavery. The first English colony to legally adopt the practice was Massachusetts, with the ironically named “Massachusetts Body of Liberties,” of 1641.
The 3/5ths compromise of the United States Constitution was a political concession. The young nation was broke in the wake of the late Revolution, in need of new forms of taxation. Southern states argued that slaves should be counted as persons for purposes of apportionment. More seats meant more votes in Congress, more electors in the Electoral College.
The more industrialized states to the north saw such a measure as placing a disproportionate burden of taxation, on themselves. The 3/5ths compromise kicked the can down the road, passing the Gordian knot to be settled by another generation, in rivers of blood.
The connection between Jefferson and the 3/5ths compromise stems from the election of 1800. Jefferson defeated Aaron Burr through disproportionate electoral support from the southern states, though it took 36 ballots, to do so. The Congressman’s claim seems a bit of a stretch: the third President was away in France while the Constitution was being written.
In a perfect world, our self-appointed ruling class would have cracked a book. Candidates for political office would better understand our shared history. The real thing is so much more interesting than the pop culture and political varieties.