This illustrious statesman was born April 13, 1743, at "Shadwell," his father's home, among the mountains of Central Virginia, about one hundred and fifty miles from Williamsburg. His father, Peter Jefferson, did not belong to the patrician class, as the great planters called themselves, but he owned a farm of nineteen hundred acres, cultivated by thirty slaves, and raised wheat. What aristocratic blood flowed in young Jefferson's veins came from his mother, who was a Randolph, of fine presence and noble character.
At seventeen, the youth entered the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, after having been imperfectly fitted at a school kept by a Mr. Maury, an Episcopal clergyman. He was a fine-looking boy, ruddy and healthy, with no bad habits, disposed to improve his mind, which was naturally inquisitive, and having the _entrÃ©e_ into the good society of the college town. Williamsburg was also the seat of government for the province, where were collected for a few months in the year the prominent men of Virginia, as members of the House of Burgesses. In this attractive town Jefferson spent seven years,--two in the college, studying the classics, history, and mathematics (for which he had an aptitude), and five in the law-office of George Wythe,--thus obtaining as good an education as was possible in those times. He amused himself by playing on a violin, dancing in gay society, riding fiery horses, and going to the races. Although he was far from rich, he had as much money as was good for him, and he turned it to good advantage,--laying the foundation of an admirable library. He cultivated the society of the brightest people. Among these were, John Page, afterwards governor of Virginia; Dr. Small, the professor of mathematics at the college, afterwards the friend of Darwin at Birmingham; Edmund Randolph, an historic Virginian; Francis Fauquier, the lieutenant-governor of the province, said to be a fine scholar and elegant gentleman of the French school, who introduced into Virginia the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot--as well as high play at cards; George Wythe, a rising lawyer of great abilities; John Burk,--the historian of Virginia; and lastly, Patrick Henry,--rough, jolly, and lazy. From such associates, all distinguished sooner or later, Jefferson learned much of society, of life, and literature. At college, as in after-life, his forte was writing. Jefferson never, to his dying day, could make a speech. He could talk well in a small circle of admirers and friends, and he held the readiest pen in America, but he had no eloquence as a speaker, which, I think, is a gift like poetry, seldom to be acquired; and yet he was a great admirer of eloquence, without envy and without any attempts at imitation. A constant reader, studious, reflective, inquisitive, liberal-minded, slightly visionary, in love with novelties and theories, the young man grew up,--a universal favorite, both for his accomplishments, and his almost feminine gentleness of temper, which made him averse to anything like personal quarrels. I do not read that he ever persistently and cordially hated and abused but one man,--the greatest political genius this country has ever known,--and hated even him rather from divergence of political views than from personal resentment.
As Jefferson had no landed property sufficiently large to warrant his leading the life of a leisurely country gentleman,--the highest aspiration of a Virginian aristocrat in the period of entailed estates,--it was necessary for him to choose a profession, and only that of a lawyer could be thought of by a free-thinking politician,--for such he was from first to last. Indeed, politics ever have been the native air which Southern gentlemen have breathed for more than a century. Since political power, amid such social distinctions and inequalities as have existed in the Southern States, necessarily has been confined to the small class, the Southern people have always been ruled by a few political leaders,--more influential and perhaps more accomplished than any corresponding class at the North. Certainly they have made more pretensions, being more independent in their circumstances, and many of them educated abroad, as are the leaders in South American States at the present day. The heir to ten thousand or twenty thousand acres, with two hundred negroes, in the last century, naturally cultivated those sentiments which were common to great landed proprietors in England, especially pride of birth.
It is remarkable that Jefferson, with his surroundings, should have been so early and so far advanced in his opinions about the rights of man and political equality; but then he was by birth only halfway between the poor whites and the patrician planters; moreover, he was steeped in the philosophy of Rousseau, having sentimental proclivities, and a leaning to humanitarian theories, both political and social.
Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767, after five years in Wythe's office. He commenced his practice at a favorable time for a lawyer, in a period of great financial embarrassments on the part of the planters, arising from their extravagant and ostentatious way of living. They lived on their capital rather than on their earnings, and even their broad domains were nearly exhausted by the culture of tobacco,--the chief staple of Virginia, which also had declined in value. It was almost impossible for an ordinary planter to make two ends meet, no matter how many acres he cultivated and how many slaves he possessed; for he had inherited expensive tastes, a liking for big houses and costly furniture and blooded horses, and he knew not where to retrench. His pride prevented him from economy, since he was socially compelled to keep tavern for visitors and poor relations, without compensation. Hence, nearly all the plantations were heavily encumbered, whether great or small. The planter disdained manual labor, however poor he might be, and every year added to his debts. He lived in comparative idleness, amusing himself with horse-races, hunting, and other "manly sports," such as became country gentlemen in the "olden time." The real poverty of Virginia was seen in the extreme difficulty of raising troops for State or national defence in times of greatest peril. The calls of patriotism were not unheeded by the "chivalry" of the South; but what could patriotic gentlemen do when their estates were wasting away by litigation and unsuccessful farming?
It was amid such surroundings that Jefferson began his career. Although he could not make a speech, could hardly address a jury, he had sixty-eight cases the first year of his practice, one hundred and fifteen the second, one hundred and ninety-eight the third. He was, doubtless, a good lawyer, but not a remarkable one, law business not being to his taste. When he had practised seven years in the general court his cases had dropped to twenty-nine, but his office business had increased so as to give him an income of Â£400 from his profession, and he received as much more from his estate, which had swelled to nearly two thousand acres. His industry, his temperance, his methodical ways, his frugality, and his legal research, had been well rewarded. While not a great lawyer, he must have been a studious one, for his legal learning was a large element in his future success. At the age of thirty-one he was a prominent citizen, a good office lawyer, and a rising man, with the confidence and respect of every one who knew him,--and withal, exceedingly popular from his plain manners, his modest pretensions, and patriotic zeal. He was not then a particularly marked man, but was on the road to distinction, since a new field was open to him,--that of politics, for which he had undoubted genius. The distracted state of the country, on the verge of war with Great Britain, called out his best energies. While yet but a boy in college he became deeply interested in the murmurings of Virginia gentlemen against English misgovernment in the Colonies, and early became known as a vigorous thinker and writer with republican tendencies. William Wirt wrote of him that "he was a republican and a philanthropist from the earliest dawn of his character." He entered upon the stormy scene of politics with remarkable zeal, and his great abilities for this arena were rapidly developed.
Jefferson's political career really dates from 1769, when he entered the House of Burgesses as member for Albermarle County in the second year of his practice as a lawyer, after a personal canvass of nearly every voter in the county, and supplying to the voters, as was the custom, an unlimited quantity of punch and lunch for three days. The Assembly was composed of about one hundred members, "gentlemen" of course, among whom was Colonel George Washington. The Speaker was Peyton Randolph, a most courteous aristocrat, with great ability for the duties of a presiding officer. Among other prominent members were Mr. Pendleton, Colonel Bland, and Mr. Nicholas, leading lawyers of the province. Mr. Jefferson, though still a young man, was put upon important committees, for he had a good business head, and was ready with his pen.
In 1772 Mr. Jefferson married a rich widow, who brought him forty thousand acres and one hundred and thirty-five slaves, so that he now took his place among the wealthy planters, although, like Washington, he was only a yeoman by birth. With increase of fortune he built "Monticello," on the site of "Shadwell," which had been burned. It was on the summit of a hill five hundred feet high, about three miles from Charlottesville; but it was only by twenty-five years' ceaseless nursing and improvement that this mansion became the finest residence in Virginia, with its lawns, its flower-beds, its walks, and its groves, adorned with perhaps the finest private library in America. No wonder he loved this enchanting abode, where he led the life of a philosopher.
But stirring events soon called him from this retreat. A British war vessel, in Narragansett Bay, in pursuit of a packet which had left Newport for Providence without permission, ran aground about seventeen miles from the latter town, and was burned by disguised Yankee citizens, indignant at the outrages which had been perpetrated by this armed schooner on American commerce. A reward of Â£500 was offered for the discovery of the perpetrators; and the English government, pronouncing this to be an act of high treason, passed an ordinance that the persons implicated in the act should be transported to England for trial. This decree struck at the root of American liberties, and aroused an indignation which reached the Virginian legislature, then assembled at Williamsburg. A committee was appointed to investigate the affair, composed of Peyton Randolph, R.C. Nicholas, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson,--all now historic names,--mostly lawyers, but representatives of the prominent families of Virginia and leaders of the Assembly. Indignant Resolutions were offered, and copies were sent to the various Colonial legislatures. This is the first notice of Jefferson in his political career.
In 1773, with Patrick Henry and some others, Jefferson originated the Committee of Correspondence, which was the beginning of the intimate relations in common political interest among the Colonies. In 1774 the House of Burgesses was twice dissolved by the royal governor, and Jefferson was a member of the convention to choose delegates to the first Continental Congress; while in the same year he published a "Summary View of the Rights of British America,"--a strong plea for the right to resist English taxation.
In 1775 we find Jefferson a member of the Colonial Convention at which Patrick Henry, also a member, made the renowned war speech: "Give me liberty, or give me death." Those burning words of the Virginia orator penetrated the heart of every farmer in Massachusetts, as they did the souls of the Southern planters. In a few months the royal government ceased to exist in Virginia, the governor, Dunmore, having retreated to a man-of-war, and Jefferson had become a member of the Continental Congress at its second session in Philadelphia, with the reputation of being one of the best political writers of the day, and an ardent patriot with very radical opinions.
Even then hopes had not entirely vanished of a reconciliation with Great Britain, but before the close of the year the introduction of German mercenaries to put down the growing insurrection satisfied everybody that there was nothing left to the Colonies but to fight, or tamely submit to royal tyranny. Preparations for military resistance were now made everywhere, especially in Massachusetts, and in Virginia, where Jefferson, who had been obliged by domestic afflictions to leave Congress in December, was most active in raising money for defence, and in inspiring the legislature to set up a State government. When Jefferson again took his seat in Congress, May 13, 1776, he was put upon the committee to draft a Declaration of Independence, composed, as already noted, of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, besides himself. To him, however, was intrusted by the committee the labor and the honor of penning the draft, which was adopted with trifling revision. He was always very proud of this famous document, and it was certainly effective. Among the ordinary people of America he is, perhaps, better known for this rather rhetorical piece of composition than for all his other writings put together. It was one of those happy hits of genius which make a man immortal,--owing, however, no small measure of its fame to the historic importance of the occasion that called it forth. It was publicly read on every Fourth-of-July celebration for a hundred years. It embodied the sentiments of a great people not disposed to criticism, but ready to interpret in a generous spirit; it had, at the time, a most stimulating effect at home, and in Europe was a revelation of the truth about the feeling in America.