Thomas Jefferson


Michael Benton, Contributor

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thomas jeffersonThe author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was one of the most influential politicians in the founding of the nation. Besides his political achievements, Jefferson was a renowned polymath who published works in numerous fields including botany, philosophy, and theology as well as designing a number of buildings in the neo-Palladian architectural style such as his mansion at Monticello and the Academical Gardens on the campus of the University of Virginia which he founded in 1819. Although the ideals espoused by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence would inspire millions of people, the man was himself incapable of living up to them. As a wealthy planter in the commonwealth of Virginia, Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves who lived in tucked away quarters among the hills of Monticello and his other properties. After the death of his wife, Jefferson is alleged to have started a long term affair with a slave named Sally Hemings who was Thomas Jefferson 's late wife's half-sister. On the issue of abolition, Jefferson was only in favor of such legislation if it included mass deportation of free African Americans as he did not believe that races could co-exist in a harmonious society.

Knowing all about Thomas Jefferson, founding father and influential Enlightenment philosopher, is extremely relevant in understanding the formation of a republican democracy in America and the virtues on which it was based. Born in 1743 on his father's plantation in Shadwell, VA, Jefferson was raised in the hilly frontier region of Piedmont where he developed an early sense of natural science and aristocratic politics. When he attended the College of William and Mary beginning at the age of 16, the young Thomas Jefferson's curiosity and ability in a wide variety of subjects made him stand out among his peers. Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767 after five years studying law under the eminent attorney George Wythe. Following in the footsteps of his father and forefathers, Jefferson entered the realm of politics and was soon elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses as the representative of Albemarle County. It was there that the future President first made a name for himself as a proponent of American self-governance with the publication of several resolutions protesting against the Intolerable Acts passed by British Parliament.

When another leading Virginia politician was called back from the Second Constitutional Convention to head the House of Burgesses, Jefferson took his place in Philadelphia. There he met a lifelong friend and future rival, John Adams, who nominated the brilliant young polymath to take the lead in drafting the resolution for a War of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, father of the Declaration of Independence, became an instant hero for liberals around the world. When modern politicians recite the phrases of Jefferson's democratic vision, they usually figure that citizens will acknowledge his virtues and forgive what was Thomas Jefferson and other slave-owning Founders greatest hypocrisy.