Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He was a man of great intelligence yet he also embodied contradictions, speaking against slavery despite owning hundreds.
On April 29, 1962, at a White House dinner honouring Nobel Prize winners, John F. Kennedy said: “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.”
Here are 10 facts about Thomas Jefferson.
1. His achievements are hard to overstate
This testament to the astounding scope and resonance of Jefferson’s achievements is not especially over-stated. To list just the public offices he held: he was a founding father, third President of the United States, Governor of Virginia, US diplomat in Paris and Minister to France, first US Secretary of State under George Washington and Vice President in 1796.
2. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence
He also authored several iconic documents. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. After Independence was won he returned to Virginia and authored the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.
3. He created the Jefferson Bible
In an example of his intense anti-clericalism he also created the Jefferson Bible. This consisted of taking a bible in one hand, a razor blade in the other, and proceeding to cut out all the bits he considered fantastical or immoral.
4. He oversaw the Louisiana Purchase
As President he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase (1803) which ‘doubled the size of the USA at 10 cents an acre.’ Napoleon sold Louisiana to USA at a knockdown price to keep it out of British hands.
5. He was President when Lewis and Clark began their expedition
He dispatched Lewis and Clark (1804-6) on their famous cross-country expedition. He also crushed the Barbary Corsairs, a North African pirate community that had plagued American merchant shipping.
6. He spoke five languages
Jefferson spoke five languages, learning Spanish on a single 19-day voyage. He was a pioneer in the fields of zoology and botany – mainly in his role as President of American Philosophical Society – and once, when whaling became a minor political issue, composed an entire treatise on the issue.
He was a remarkable librarian; he offered to sell his collection to the Library of Congress after the British burned it down in 1814. He once said “I cannot live without books.”
7. He founded the University of Virginia
One of his proudest achievements was founding the University of Virginia. In 1768 he personally designed Monticello (his own 5,000-acre estate) and the university buildings (he was a superb architect) and in doing so enshrined his belief that educating people was a good way to establish an organised society. He believed such schools should be paid for by the general public, so less wealthy people could be educated as students
Admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1767, Jefferson could have become the greatest lawyer of his day. He took on a number of freedom suits for slaves, often without charging a fee. In the case of Sam Howell he expounded the principle of natural law for the first time, the principle that would become the basis for the Declaration of Independence.
8. He was a prolific innovator
Finally, he was a prolific innovator. He improved the mouldboard plough and the polygraph, invented the pedometer, swivel chair, and created his own enciphering device (the Wheel Cipher) after discovering that his correspondence was being monitored. Another was the ‘Great Clock’, powered by the Earth’s gravitational pull on Revolutionary War cannonballs.
9. He codified the philosophical basis for American identity
Beyond these achievements, however, was codifying the philosophical basis for the American identity. “I have sworn upon the altar of God,’ he said, “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Jefferson believed each man has “certain inalienable rights” and that “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others…”
10. He owned slaves
Jefferson embodied contradiction. He owned slaves and indeed fathered children with one, Sally Hemings. He spoke out against slavery but owned hundreds.
In his book, Notes on the State of Virginia he wrote extensively about slavery, miscegenation, and his belief that blacks and whites could not live together as free people in one society because of lingering resentments over slavery, fearing that it would lead to the ‘extermination of the one or the other race.’
He ordered that the Santo Domingo revolt be brutally crushed, exhibiting a counterrevolutionary streak. He also had a punitive, hard-line approach to Native Americans, enacting a policy of Indian removal.