Historian Joseph Ellis called Thomas Jefferson “the American Sphinx” in his biography of the same name. Behind that subtle smile—a riddle to the rest of us—lay the intricate cloud of knowing and curiosity, and the wisdom garnered from triumphs and hardships. The author of our Declaration of Independence and the architect of our society, Jefferson remains an inspiration, and a mystery to this day.
Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia on April 13, 1743 to Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson. He was born to the Virginia planter aristocracy. His parents saw to it that Jefferson was classically educated with a round of tutors and church schools. Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, distracting himself as many young men do at college, with all manner of extra-curricular activities. After the first year in a moment of clarity, he was appalled at how much time he had wasted. From then on, he was said to be at his books 15 of the 24 hours in a day. I routinely remind my students of this Jeffersonian habit when they whine. Jefferson’s capacity to absorb and master information from a broad array of disciplines is nothing short of intimidating. Yet, he put in the time to master them, classics: romance languages, history, calculus, architecture, philosophy, politics, and the law. Jefferson eventually read the law with prominent lawyer George Wythe and became a lawyer himself.
We professors of history often speak too lightly of the influence of the classics on the Founding Fathers. It was more than mere influence—it was direction. The literature of Greeks, Romans, and Jews proved to be a marked one, and perhaps no better illustrated than in Jefferson himself, who could read both Latin and Greek. He made regular allusions to Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic, and his favorite pastime was to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey….in Greek. How many of our politicians today can say that they are read in the classics, much less have the ability to read them in the original languages? Perhaps that is part of the problem.
After college Jefferson returned to his recently acquired plantation, which included Monticello. There were scant buildings on the premises of the estate initially, but Jefferson’s vision of a grand scientific plantation slowly took shape. He practiced law and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, while he gradually expanded his classically-inspired Monitcello. In 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton. While Jefferson had a substantial number of slaves himself, he took a number of cases from slaves with the intent of acquiring their manumission. He argued again and again against it, but Jefferson—in a world of slave-owning planters—could find no traction, and when the American Independence movement became a reality, he put emancipation on the back burner (to revisit), fearing he would lose his political voice with regard to independence if he pressed the issue.
With the passage of the Intolerable Acts, Jefferson’s sympathies with the Patriotic cause became increasingly clear with the publication of his “resolution for prayer and fasting” and a call for boycotting British goods. This resolution later became known as A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In 1775 he became a Colonel and Commander of the Albemarle Country Militia, while continuing his service as a legislator. Jefferson’s writing acumen quickly became recognized and revered by all, and he soon became the articulating voice of the Patriot movement. He enumerated the sentiments of American independence from Britain in The Declaration of Independence, written by him, but with the help of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. From 1779 to 1781 he was the wartime governor of Virginia. All of Jefferson’s accomplishments must surely have been brought low when his wife of 10 years, Martha, died in September of 1782. His loyalties and sense of duty pulled him away from home so often, it must have been a difficult sacrifice, because it is clear the two loved each other. Martha, weakened by diabetes and host of other ailments, succumbed to them, and it devastated Jefferson. His headaches and grief were so bad that he locked himself away for weeks. He occasionally went for rides on the grounds, and burst into tears at the slightest thought of Martha. This era of great achievement—America’s Independence, statesmanship, militia command—must have been cruelly tempered by the loss of his wife.
With the Treaty of Paris signed, and the new United States firmly underway, its infant government would need representatives abroad. Congress chose Jefferson to be the Minister to France (and by proxy, Europe). Jefferson’s time in France benefitted the fledgling United States. He both admitted and loathed French society—though he reveled in the parlor culture, his disdain for the monarchy and gross overspending was immeasurable. Jefferson travelled, purchased books, maintained a house in Paris, and through himself into his work at this time. Jefferson was also a widower, and no doubt feeling the sting of Martha’s absence. He had promised her on her deathbed that he would never remarry. Be that as it may, when Maria Cosway entered his life, the absence was less felt. Cosway was the Italian wife of an English aristocrat, a painter, musician, wit, and regular on the Paris scene. Jefferson was helpless, and fell in love with her, though it must have been only a courtly romance. The two remained friends throughout their lives, though they never saw one another again. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Jefferson’s stay in Paris was the presence of one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. To the critics who say that she was simply his property and that he raped her, I would say the following. It was not in Jefferson’s character to force himself on any woman, even a slave. Furthermore, it was a romance of circumstance. I would add this for the critics as well: if you think Jefferson’s intimacy with Sally Hemmings in Paris and later is one of insincerity and convenience, then I would say you have never felt the desolation and loneliness that comes in the wake of being permanently removed from a spouse. I have, madams and sirs, and I can tell you from experience that melancholy hardly describes the effects. Go through that and then see if you can judge Mr. Jefferson as harshly as you do, as you falsely assume the moral high ground to further your political and personal stances. Thomas Jefferson was—thank God—a human being.
Thomas Jefferson’s return to the United States coincided with the birth of the Constitution. All his heart desired was to return to Momticello and his books, but the new Washington administration would call on his expertise, and he would serve Washington as the first Secretary of State, until 1793, when his patience thinned after year of verbal sparring with his nemesis, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson became the posterboy for the Democratic Republicans, and likewise, Hamilton that of the Federalists. It seems every time Jefferson thought he was done with politics, his country called on him again. He was John Adam’s Vice President, and in 1800, became president himself for two terms. During his time in the White House he balanced the budget (a worry since the Early Republic years), purchased Louisiana Territory, and became the first president to take on Islamic radicals—namely the Barbary Pirates of North Africa during the Barbary War.
Jefferson’s attainment of the presidency allowed him to more fully indulge his scientific curiosity. In many ways, Jefferson had been the consummate anthropologist, interested in every aspect of human life and its environments. His interest in Native culture stretches back to his childhood, and his first encounters with Cherokee as a youngster. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, whose research began in 1780, was a complete ethnological study of Virginia, its history, and people up to the point of its publication in 1787. In 1787, he also excavated an Indian mound on Monticello, keeping accurate records of strata and finds, making Jefferson the first scientific archaeologist. During the Early Republic, it had been Jefferson’s wish to send scientific expeditions into the interior of the continent, even with so many competing claims on the region. In 1803, when he was president, he bought the great expanse of Louisiana from Napoleon Bonaparte for 15 million dollars. Now Jefferson need not worry about claims, so he sent three major expeditions to explore the various reaches of the land: Lewis and Clark to survey the north (1804-06), Freeman and Custis to survey the south along Texas (1806), and Zebulon Pike to survey the middle region (1807). Each troop had the same standing orders: map the regions into which you enter, study and treat with the natives, collect biological and geological specimens, and make other significant notations and observations. Even beyond the presidency, Jefferson’s scientific curiosity was insatiable, with perhaps the most visible expression of his philosophy found in the University of Virginia.
If his scholarly zeal was much to the fore, his religious beliefs were less so. Jefferson does seem to have been more of a Deist than some of his compatriots. He maintained membership in the Anglican church, but it is clear that his ideas about Biblical theology diverged from the norm. While he still felt there was no better place to learn morality than in the church, Such exercises like The Jefferson Bible, which removed the supernatural elements of the story of Jesus and left only the moral and philosophical, give us some insight into his religious views. Although rooted firmly in the Judeo-Christian tradition, In the end, Jefferson seems to have been a man of his own spirituality, embodying the ultimate expression of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and an author of our laws and way of life. Yet for all his achievements as a polymath, he remained something of a contradiction. He articulated American sovereignty with the Declaration of Independence, yet owned human beings as property. He was fascinated by and spoke amiably to Native Americans, yet gradually created policies that would ultimately result in their removal. He was born to Virginia planter aristocracy, but devoted his politics to the common man. The easy thing to do is right him off as oppressor, racist, rapist, hypocrite, and heretic as recent critics have. The more difficult and necessary analysis involves an appreciation for context, one not obscured by forcing 21st century mores and ideas on an 18th century world. In doing so we find a Thomas Jefferson whose significant and contributions for the good are not overshadowed by any shortcomings he had as a human. And so he remained “The American Sphinx” until the day he died, July 4, 1826 (fitting), and beyond.