On This Day: April 13, 1743

Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia.


James Parton:

A gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.

From David McCullough’s John Adams:

[Thomas] Jefferson was devoted to the ideal of improving mankind but had comparatively little interest in people in particular. [John] Adams was not inclined to believe mankind improvable, but was certain it was important that human nature be understood.

Thomas Jefferson, 1787:

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it – The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances – if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is to be born to live and labor for another – or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him – Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.

The Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia

Excerpt from Paul Johnson’s magnificent History of the American People:

In terms of all-round learning, gifts, sensibilities, and accomplishments, there has never been an American like him, and generations of educated Americans have rated him higher even than Washington and Lincoln…

We know a great deal about this remarkable man, or think we do. His Writings, on a bewildering variety of subjects, have been published in twenty volumes. In addition, twenty-five volumes of his papers have appeared so far, plus various collections of his correspondence, including three thick volumes of his letters to his follower and successor James Madison alone. In some ways he was a mass of contradictions. He thought slavery an evil institution, which corrupted the master even more than it oppressed the chattel. But he owned, bought, sold, and bred slaves all his adult life. He was a deist, possibly even a skeptic; yet he was also a ‘closet theologian,’ who read daily from a multilingual edition of the New Testament. He was an elitist in education – ‘By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually’ – but he also complained bitterly of elites, ‘those who, rising above the swinish multitude, always contrive to nestle themselves into places of power and profit’. He was a democrat, who said he would ‘always have a jealous care of the right of election by the people.’ Yet he opposed direct election of the Senate on the ground that ‘a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom’. He could be an extremist, glorying in the violence of revolution: ‘What country before ever existed a century and a half without rebellion?…The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’ Yet he said of Washington: ‘The moderation and virtue of a single character has probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.’

No one did more than he did to create the United States of America. Yet he referred to Virginia as ‘my country’ and to the Congress as ‘a foreign legislature’. His favorite books were Don Quixote and Tristam Shandy. Yet he lacked a sense of humor. After the early death of his wife, he kept – it was alleged – a black mistress. Yet he was priggish, censorious of bawdy jokes and bad language, and cultivated a we-are-not-amused expression. He could use the most inflammatory language. Yet he always spoke with a quiet, low voice and despised oratory as such. His lifelong passion was books. He collected them in enormous quantity, beyond his means, and then had to sell them all to the Congress to raise money. He kept as detailed daily accounts as it is possible to conceive but failed to realize that he was running deeply and irreversibly into debt. He was a man of hyperbole. But he loved exactitude – he noted all figures, weights, distances, and quantities in minute detail; his carriage had a device to record the revolutions of its wheels; his house was crowded with barometers, rain-gauges, thermometers and anemometers. The motto of his seal-ring, chosen by himself, was ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.’ Yet he shrank from violence and did not believe God existed.

Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres at fourteen from his father. He married a wealthy widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, and when her father died he acquired a further 11,000 acres. It was natural for this young patrician to enter Virginia’s House of Burgesses, which he did in 1769, meeting Washington there. He had an extraordinarily godlike impact on the assembly from the start, by virtue of his presence, not his speeches. Abigail Adams later remarked that his appearance was ‘not unworthy of a God’. A British officer said that ‘if he was put besides any king in Europe, that king would appear to be his laquey.’ His first hero was his fellow-Virginian Patrick Henry (1736-99), who seemed to be everything Jefferson was not: a firebrand, a man of extremes, a rabble-rouser, and an unreflective man of action. He had been a miserable failure as a planter and storekeeper, then found his metier in the law courts and politics. Jefferson was seventeen when he met him and he was presenting 1765 when Henry acquired instant fame for his flamboyant denunciation of the Stamp Act. Jefferson admired him no doubt for possessing the one gift he himself lacked – the power to rouse men’s emotions by the spoken word.

Jefferson had a more important quality, however: the power to analyze a historic situation in depth, to propose a course of conduct, and present it in such a way as to shape the minds of a deliberative assembly. In the decade between the Stamp Act agitation and the Boston Tea Party, many able pens had set out constitutional solutions for America’s dilemma. But it was Jefferson, in 1774, who encapsulated the entire debate in one brilliant treatise – Summary View of the Rights of British America. Like the works of his predecessors in the march to independence – James Otis’ Rights of the British Colonists Asserted (1764), Richard Bland’s An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonists (1766), and Samuel Adams’ A statement on the rights of the colonies (1772) – Jefferson relied heavily on Chapter Five of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, which set out the virtues of a meritocracy, in which men rise by virtue, talent, and industry. Locke argued that the acquisition of wealth, even on a large scale, was neither unjust nor morally wrong, provided it was fairly acquired. So, he said, society is necessarily stratified, but by merit, not by birth. This doctrine of industry as opposed to idleness as the determining factoring a just society militated strongly against kings, against governments of nobles and their placement, and in favor of representative republicanism.

Jefferson’s achievement, in his tract, as to graft onto Locke’s meritocratic structure two themes which became the dominant leitmotifs of the Revolutionary struggle. The first was the primacy of individual rights: ‘The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.’ Equally important was the placing of these rights within the context of Jefferson’s deep and in a sense more fundamental commitment to popular sovereignty: ‘From the nature of things, every society must at all times possess within itself the sovereign powers of legislation.’ It was Jefferson’s linking of popular sovereignty with liberty, both rooted in a divine plan, and further legitimized by ancient practice and the English tradition, which gave the American colonists such a strong, clear, and plausible conceptual basis for their action. Neither the British government nor the American loyalists produced arguments which had a fraction of this power. They could appeal to the law as it stood, and duty as they saw it, but that was all. Just as the rebels won the media battle (in America) from the start, so they rapidly won the ideological battle too.


From David McCullough’s John Adams:

[Jefferson] worked rapidly [on writing the Declaration of Independence] and, to judge by surviving drafts, with a sure command of his material. He had none of his books with him, nor needed any, he later claimed. It was not his objective to be original, he would explain, only “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject.”

“Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”

He borrowed readily from his own previous writing, particularly from a recent draft for a new Virginia constitution, but also from a declaration of rights for Virginia, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on June 12. it had been drawn up by George Mason, who wrote that “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights – among which are enjoyment of life and liberty.” And there was a pamphlet written by the Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson, published in Philadelphia in 1774, that declared, “All men are, by nature equal and free: no one has a right to any authority over another without his consent: all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it.”
But then Mason, Wilson, and John Adams, no less than Jefferson, were, as they all appreciated, drawing on long familiarity with the seminal works of the English and Scottish writers John Locke, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and Henry St. John Bolinbroke, or such English poets as Defoe (“When kings the sword of justice first lay down,/They are no kings, though they possess the crown. / Titles are shadows, crowns are empty things, / The good of subjects is the end of kings”). Or, for that matter, Cicero (“The people’s good is the highest law.”)

Adams, in his earlier notes for an oration at Braintree, had written, “Nature throws us all into the world equal and alike – The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man to endanger public liberty.”

What made Jefferson’s work surpassing was the grace and eloquence of expression. Jefferson had done superbly and in minimum time.

“I was delighted with its high tone and flights of oratory with which it abounded [Adams would recall], especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly would never oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted, if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant – I thought the expression too passionate; and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration.”

A number of alterations were made, however, when Jefferson reviewed it with the committee, and several were by Adams. Possibly it was Franklin, or Jefferson himself, who made the small but inspired change in the second paragraph. Where, in the initial draft, certain “truths” were described as “sacred and undeniable”, a simpler stronger “self-evident” was substituted.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

It was to be the eloquent lines of the second paragraph of the Declaration that would stand down the years, affecting the human spirit as neither Jefferson nor anyone could have foreseen. And however much was owed to the writing of others, as Jefferson acknowledged, or to such editorial refinements as those contributed by Franklin or Adams, they were, when all was said and done, his lines. It was Jefferson who had written them for all time:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

John Page to Thomas Jefferson, July 20, 1776, on the signing of the Declaration of Independence:

God preserve the United States. We know the Race is not to the Swift nor the Battle to the Strong. Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm?


Abraham Lincoln, on the Declaration of Independence:

All honor to Jefferson, to the man who had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.

From Christopher Hitchens’s Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives):

It was partly as a result of a compromise that Jefferson was appointed to the committee charged with drawing up the Declaration. The author of the resolutions calling upon the thirteen colonies to announce independence, to form “a confederation and perpetual union,” and to seek overseas recognition and military alliances was Richard Henry Lee, himself a Virginian. But he was needed at home, and Congress needed a Virginian just as it needed some New Englanders and some delegates from the middle colonies. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston of New York comprised the rest of the drafting group.

There is no other example in history, apart from the composition of the King James version of the Bible, in which great words and concepts have been fused into poetic prose by the banal processes of a committee. And, as with the extraordinary convocation of religious scholars that met at Hampton Court under the direction of Lancelot Andrewes in 1604, and with the later gathering of polymaths and revolutionaries at Philadelphia in 1776, the explanation lies partly in the simultaneous emergence, under the pressure of a commonly understood moment of crisis and transition, of like-minded philosophers and men of action. Modesty deserves its tribute here, too: a determination to do the best that could be commonly wrought was a great corrective to vanity. Thomas Jefferson’s modesty was sometimes of the false kind. We have too many instances of him protesting, throughout his political ascent, that the honor is too great, the burden too heavy, the eminence too high. (Rather as the Speaker of the House of Commons is still ceremonially dragged to his chair on his inauguration, as if being compelled to assume his commanding role.) However, someone had to pull together a first draft, and we have it on the word of his longtime rival John Adams that Jefferson’s reticence in the matter was on this occasion fairly swiftly overcome. He was generally thought to be the better writer and the finer advocate: one might wish to have seen a Franklin version — which might at least have contained one joke — but it was not to be.

Several years were to elapse before Jefferson was acknowledged as the author of the Declaration, or until the words themselves had so to speak “sunk in” and begun to resonate as they still do. So it is further evidence of his amour propre, as well as of his sense of history and rhetoric, that he always resented the changes that the Congress made to his original. These are reproduced, as parallel text, in his own Autobiography, and have been as exhaustively scrutinized as the intellectual sources on which Jefferson called when he repaired to a modest boarding house for seventeen days, with only a slave valet named Jupiter, brought from Monticello, at his disposal.

The most potent works, observes the oppressed and haunted Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where he’s read the supposedly “secret” book of the forbidden opposition, are the ones that tell you what you already know. (And, in the “Dictionary of Newspeak” that closes that novel, a certain paragraph of prose is given as an example of something that could not be translated into “Newspeak” terms. The paragraph begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident …”) Jefferson and Paine had this in common in that year of revolution; they had the gift of pithily summarizing what was already understood, and then of moving an already mobilized audience to follow an inexorable logic. But they also had to overcome an insecurity and indecision that is difficult for us, employing retrospect, to comprehend. Let not, in such circumstances, the trumpet give off an uncertain sound. So, after a deceptively modest and courteous paragraph that assumes the duty of making a full explanation and of manifesting “decent respect,” the very first sentence of the actual declaration roundly states that certain truths are — crucial words — self-evident.

This style — terse and pungent, yet fringed with elegance — allied the plain language of Thomas Paine to the loftier expositions of John Locke, from whose 1690 Second Treatise on Civil Government some of the argument derived. (It is of interest that Locke, who wrote of slavery that it was “so vile and miserable an Estate of Man … that ’tis hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for it,” was also the draftsman for an absolutist slaveholding “Fundamental Constitution” of the Carolinas in 1669.) Jefferson radicalized Locke by grounding human equality on the observable facts of nature and the common human condition. Having originally written that rights are derived ‘from that equal creation,” he amended the thought to say that men were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” thus perhaps attempting to forestall any conflict between Deists and Christians. And, where Locke had spoken of “life, liberty, and property” as being natural rights, Jefferson famously wrote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We differ still on whether this means seeking happiness of rather happiness itself as a pursuit, but given the advantageous social position occupied by most of the delegates at Philadelphia, it is very striking indeed that either notion should have taken precedence over property. The clear need of the hour was for inspiration (and property rights were to be restored to their customary throne when the Constitution came to be written), but “the pursuit of happiness” belongs to that limited group of lapidary phrases that has changed history, and it seems that the delegates realized this as soon as they heard it.

Thomas Jefferson, indeed, is one of the small handful of people to have his very name associated with a form of democracy. The word was not in common use at the time, and was not always employed positively in any case. (John Adams tended to say “democratical” when he meant unsound or subversive.) But the idea that government arose from the people and was not a gift to them or an imposition upon them, was perhaps the most radical element in the Declaration. Jefferson was later to compare government with clothing as “the badge of lost innocence,” drawing from the myth of original nakedness and guilt in the Garden of Eden. Paine in his Common Sense had said, “Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness.” As a compromise between government as a necessary evil – or an inevitable one – and in the course of a bill of complaint against a hereditary monarch, the Declaration proposed the idea of “the consent of the governed” and thus launched the experiment we call American, or sometimes Jeffersonian, democracy.

From Joseph Ellis’s American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson:

Before editorial changes were made by the Continental Congress, Jefferson’s early draft made it even clearer that his intention was to express a spiritual vision: ‘ We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & unalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” These are the core articles of faith in the American Creed. Jefferson’s authorship of these words is the core of his seductive appeal across the ages, his central claim, on posterity’s affection. What, then, do they mean? How do they make magic?

Merely to ask the question is to risk being accused of some combination of treason and sacrilege, since self-evident truths are not meant to be analyzed; that is what being self-evident is all about. But when these words are stripped of the patriotic haze, read straightaway and literally, two monumental claims are being made here. The explicit claim is that the individual is the sovereign unit in society; his natural state is freedom from and equality with all other individuals; this is the natural order of things. The implicit claim is that all restrictions on this natural order are immoral transgressions, violations of what God intended; individuals liberated from such restrictions will interact with their fellows in a harmonious scheme requiring no external discipline and producing maximum human happiness.

This is a wildly idealistic message, the kind of good news simply too good to be true. It is, truth be told, a recipe for anarchy. Any national government that seriously attempted to operate in accord with these principles would be committing suicide. But, of course, the words were not intended to serve as an operational political blueprint. Jefferson was not a profound political thinker. He was, however, an utterly brilliant political rhetorician and visionary. The genius of his vision is to propose that our deepest yearnings for personal freedom are in fact attainable. The genius of his rhetoric is to articulate irreconcilable human urges at a sufficiently abstract level to mask their mutual exclusiveness. Jefferson guards the American Creed at this inspirational level, which is inherently immune to scholarly skepticism and a place where ordinary Americans can congregate to speak the magic words together. The Jeffersonian magic works because we permit it to function at a rarefied region where real-life choices do not have to be made.

Excerpt from Paul Johnson’s History of the American People:

Jefferson produced a superb draft, for which his 1774 pamphlet was a useful preparation. All kinds of philosophical and political influences went into it. They were all well-read men and Jefferson, despite his comparative youth, was the best read of all, and he made full use of the countless hours he had spent pouring over books of history, political theory, and government.

The Declaration is a powerful and wonderfully concise summary of the best Whig thought over several generations. Most of all, it has an electrifying beginning. It is hard to think of any way in which the first two paragraphs can be improved:

WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The first [paragraph], with its elegiac note of sadness at dissolving the union with Britain and its wish to show “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” by giving its reasons; the second, with its riveting first sentence, the kernel of the whole: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” After that sentence, the reader, any reader – even George III – is compelled to read on.

The Committee found it necessary to make few changes in Jefferson’s draft. Franklin, the practical man, toned down Jefferson’s grandiloquence – thus truths, from being “sacred and undeniable” became “self-evident”, a masterly improvement. But in general the four others were delighted with Jefferson’s work, as well they might be.

Congress was a different matter because at the heart of America’s claim to liberty there was a black hole. What of the slaves? How could Congress say that “all men are created equal” when there were 600,000 blacks scattered through the colonies, and concentrated in some of them in huge numbers, who were by law treated as chattels and enjoyed no rights at all? Jefferson and the other members of the Committee tried to up-end this argument – rather dishonestly, one is bound to say – by blaming American slavery on the British and King George.

The original draft charged that the King had “waged a cruel war against human nature” by attacking a “distant people” and “captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere”. But when the draft went before the full Congress, on June 28, the Southern delegates were not having this. Those from South Carolina, in particular, were not prepared to accept any admission that slavery was wrong and especially the acknowledgment that it violated the “most sacred rights of life and liberty”. If the Declaration said that, then the logical consequence was to free all the slaves forthwith. So the slavery passage was removed, the first of many compromises over the issue during the next eighty years, until it was finally resolved inn an ocean of tears and blood. However, the word “equality” remained in the text, and the fact that it did so was, as it were, a constitutional guarantee that, eventually, the glaring anomaly behind the Declaration would be rectified.

The Congress debated the draft for three days. Paradoxically, delegates spent little time going over the fundamental principles it enshrined, because the bulk of the Declaration presented the specific and detailed case against Britain, and more particularly against the King. The Revolutionaries were determined to scrap the pretense that they distinguished between evil ministers and a king who “could do no wrong”, and renounce their allegiance to the crown once and for all. So they fussed over the indictment of the King, to them the core of the document, and left its constitutional and ideological framework, apart from the slavery point, largely intact.

This was just as well. If Congress had chosen to argue over Jefferson’s sweeping assumptions and propositions, and resolve their differences with verbal compromises, the magic wrought by his pen would surely have been exorcized, and the world would have been poorer in consequence.

As it was the text was approved on July 2, and on July 4 all the colonies formally adopted what was called, to give it its correct title, “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America”. At the time, and often since, Tom Paine was credited with its authorship, which did not help to endear it to the British, where he was (and still is) regarded with abhorrence. In fact he had nothing to do with it directly, but the term “United States” is certainly his.

On July 8 it was read publicly in the State House Yard and the Liberty Bell rung. The royal coat of arms was torn down and burned. On August 2 it was engrossed on parchment and signed by all the delegates. Whereupon (according to John Hancock) Franklin remarked: “Well, Gentlemen, we must now hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately.”


Thomas Jefferson on George Washington:

The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.

Thomas Jefferson, famous letter to Abigail Adams, 1787:

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.

From David McCullough’s John Adams:

On Inauguration Day, Wednesday, March 4, 1801, John Adams made his exit from the President’s House and the capital at four in the morning, traveling by public stage under clear skies lit by a quarter moon. He departed eight hours before Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office at the Capitol, and even more inconspicuously than he had arrived, rolling through empty streets past darkened houses.

To his political rivals and enemies Adams’ predawn departure was another ill-advised act of a petulant old man. But admirers, too, expressed disappointment. A correspondent for the Massachusetts Spy observed in a letter from Washington that numbers of Adams’ friends wished he had not departed so abruptly. “Sensible, moderate men of both parties would have been pleased had he tarried until after the installation of his successor. It certainly would have had good effect.”

By his presence at the ceremony Adams could have set an example of grace in defeat, while at the same time paying homage to a system whereby power, according to a written constitution, is transferred peacefully. After so vicious a contest for the highest office, with party hatreds so near to igniting in violence, a peaceful transfer of power seemed little short of a miracle. If ever a system was proven to work under extremely adverse circumstances, it was at this inauguration of 1801, and it is regrettable that Adams was not present.

“We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” Jefferson said famously in his inaugural address before a full Senate Chamber, his voice so soft many had difficulty hearing him. A passing tribute to Washington was made before he finished, but of Adams he said nothing.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC

Thomas Jefferson to his grandson:

When I hear another express an opinion which is not mine, I say to myself, he has a right to his opinion, as I to mine. Why should I question it. His error does me no injury, and shall I become a Don Quixote, to bring all men by force of argument to one opinion? Be a listener only, keep within yourself, and endeavor to establish with yourself the habit of silence, especially in politics.

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 17, 1791:

That you and I differ in our ideas of the best form of government is well known to us both: but we have differed as friends should do, respecting the purity of each other’s motives, and confining our difference of opinion to private conversation. And I can declare with truth in the presence of the almighty that nothing was further from my intention or expectation than to have had either my own or your name brought before the public on this occasion. The friendship and confidence which has so long existed between us required this explanation from me, and I know you too well to fear any misconstruction of the motives of it. Some people here who would wish me to be, or to be thought, fuilty of impropieties have suggested that I was Agricola, that I was Brutus etc etc. [Anonymous op-ed columns, attacking John Adams, signed under these names] I never did in my life, either by myself or by any other, have a sentence of mine inserted in a newspaper without putting my name to it; and I believe I never shall.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the mayor of Washington, June 24, 1826, declining an invitation to the 4th of July celebration in Washington – (Jefferson died 10 days later):

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government – All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are the grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return to this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

And, of course, he died on July 4, 1826, the same day as his old colleague, friend, and nemesis John Adams.

Jefferson’s final words: “Is it the fourth?”


Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, who had asked for a List of Books that would make up a “gentleman’s library”, Aug. 3, 1771. I am not sure if mere words can express how much I love that list. It also points to Jefferson’s acquisitive personality, which is a polite way of saying, “Boy ran up some major debt!”

I sat down with a design of executing your request to form a catalogue of books to the amount of about 50 lib. sterl. But could by no means satisfy myself with any partial choice I could make. Thinking therefore it might be as agreeable to you I have framed such a general collection as I think you would wish and might in time find convenient to procure. Out of this you will chuse for yourself to the amount you mentioned for the present year and may hereafter as shall be convenient proceed in completing the whole. A view of the second column in this catalogue would I suppose extort a smile from the face of gravity. Peace to its wisdom! Let me not awaken it. A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it’s deformity, and conceive an abhorence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously. We never reflect whether the story we read be truth or fiction. If the painting be lively, and a tolerable picture of nature, we are thrown into a reverie, from which if we awaken it is the fault of the writer. I appeal to every reader of feeling and sentiment whether the fictitious murther of Duncan by Macbeth in Shakespeare does not excite in him as great a horror of villany, as the real one of Henry IV. by Ravaillac as related by Davila? And whether the fidelity of Nelson and generosity of Blandford in Marmontel do not dilate his breast and elevate his sentiments as much as any similar incident which real history can furnish? Does he not in fact feel himself a better man while reading them, and privately covenant to copy the fair example? We neither know nor care whether Lawrence Sterne really went to France, whether he was there accosted by the Franciscan, at first rebuked him unkindly, and then gave him a peace offering: or whether the whole be not fiction. In either case we equally are sorrowful at the rebuke, and secretly resolve we will never do so: we are pleased with the subsequent atonement, and view with emulation a soul candidly acknowleging it’s fault and making a just reparation. Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. We are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written. This is my idea of well written Romance, of Tragedy, Comedy and Epic poetry. — If you are fond of speculation the books under the head of Criticism will afford you much pleasure. Of Politics and Trade I have given you a few only of the best books, as you would probably chuse to be not unacquainted with those commercial principles which bring wealth into our country, and the constitutional security we have for the enjoiment ofthat wealth. In Law I mention a few systematical books, as a knowledge of the minutiae of that science is not neces-sary for a private gentleman. In Religion, History, Natural philosophy, I have followed the same plan in general, — But whence the necessity of this collection? Come to the new Rowanty, from which you may reach your hand to a library formed on a more extensive plan. Separated from each other but a few paces the possessions of each would be open to the other. A spring centrically situated might be the scene of every evening’s joy. There we should talk over the lessons of the day, or lose them in music, chess or the merriments of our family companions. The heart thus lightened our pillows would be soft, and health and long life would attend the happy scene. Come then and bring our dear Tibby with you, the first in your affections, and second in mine. Offer prayers for me too at that shrine to which tho’ absent I pray continual devotions. In every scheme of happiness she is placed in the foreground of the picture, as the princi-pal figure. Take that away, and it is no picture for me. Bear my affections to Wintipock clothed in the warmest expressions of sincerity; and to yourself be every human felicity.



Observations on gardening. Payne. 5/
Webb’s essay on painting. 12mo 3/
Pope’s Iliad. 18/
——- Odyssey. 15/
Dryden’s Virgil. 12mo. 12/
Milton’s works. 2 v. 8vo. Donaldson. Edinburgh 1762. 10/
Hoole’s Tasso. 12mo. 5/
Ossian with Blair’s criticisms. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Telemachus by Dodsley. 6/
Capell’s Shakespear. 12mo. 30/
Dryden’s plays. 6v. 12mo. 18/
Addison’s plays. 12mo. 3/
Otway’s plays. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Rowe’s works. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Thompson’s works. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Young’s works. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Home’s plays. 12mo. 3/
Mallet’s works. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Mason’s poetical works. 5/
Terence. Eng. 3/
Moliere. Eng. 15/
Farquhar’s plays. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Vanbrugh’s plays. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Steele’s plays. 3/
Congreve’s works. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Garric’s dramatic works. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Foote’s dramatic works. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Rousseau’s Eloisa. Eng. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
—– Emilius and Sophia. Eng. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Marmontel’s moral tales. Eng. 2 v. 12mo. 12/
Gil Blas. by Smollett. 6/
Don Quixot. by Smollett 4 v. 12mo. 12/
David Simple. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Roderic Random. 2 v. 12mo. 6/ these are written by Smollett
Peregrine Pickle. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Launcelot Graves. 6/
Adventures of a guinea. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Pamela. 4 v. 12mo. 12/ these are by Richardson.
Clarissa. 8 v. 12mo. 24/
Grandison. 7 v. 12mo. 9/
Fool of quality. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Feilding’s works. 12 v. 12mo. pound 1.16
Constantia. 2 v. 12mo. 6/ by Langhorne.
Solyman and Almena. 12mo. 3/
Belle assemblee. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Vicar of Wakefeild. 2 v. 12mo. 6/. by Dr. Goldsmith
Sidney Bidulph. 5 v. 12mo. 15/
Lady Julia Mandeville. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Almoran and Hamet. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Tristam Shandy. 9 v. 12mo. pound 1.7
Sentimental journey. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Fragments of antient poetry. Edinburgh. 2/
Percy’s Runic poems. 3/
Percy’s reliques of antient English poetry. 3 v. 12mo. 9/
Percy’s Han Kiou Chouan. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Percy’s Miscellaneous Chinese peices. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Chaucer. 10/
Spencer. 6 v. 12mo. 15/
Waller’s poems. 12mo. 3/
Dodsley’s collection of poems. 6 v. 12mo. 18/
Pearch’s collection of poems. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Gray’s works. 5/
Ogilvie’s poems. 5/
Prior’s poems. 2 v. 12mo. Foulis. 6/
Gay’s works. 12mo. Foulis. 3/
Shenstone’s works. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Dryden’s works. 4 v. 12mo. Foulis. 12/
Pope’s works. by Warburton. 12mo. pound 1.4
Churchill’s poems. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Hudibrass. 3/
Swift’s works. 21 v. small 8vo. pound 3.3
Swift’s literary correspondence. 3 v. 9/
Spectator. 9 v. 12mo. pound 1.7
Tatler. 5 v. 12mo. 15/
Guardian. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Freeholder. 12mo. 3/
Ld. Lyttleton’s Persian letters. 12mo. 3/


Ld. Kaim’s elements of criticism. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Burke on the sublime and beautiful. 8vo. 5/
Hogarth’s analysis of beauty. 4to. pound 1.1
Reid on the human mind. 8vo. 5/
Smith’s theory of moral sentiments. 8vo. 5/
Johnson’s dictionary. 2 v. fol. pound 3
Capell’s prolusions. 12mo. 3/


Montesquieu’s spirit of the laws. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Locke on government. 8vo. 5/
Sidney on government. 4to. 15/
Marmontel’s Belisarius. 12mo. Eng. 3/
Ld. Bolingbroke’s political works. 5 v. 8vo. pound 1.5
Montesquieu’s rise & fall of the Roman governmt. 12mo. 3/
Steuart’s Political oeconomy. 2 v. 4to. pound 1.10
Petty’s Political arithmetic. 8vo. 5/


Locke’s conduct of the mind in search of truth. 12mo. 3/
Xenophon’s memoirs of Socrates. by Feilding. 8vo. 5/
Epictetus. by Mrs. Carter. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Antoninus by Collins. 3/
Seneca. by L’Estrange. 8vo. 5/
Cicero’s Offices. by Guthrie. 8vo. 5/
Cicero’s Tusculan questions. Eng. 3/
Ld. Bolingbroke’s Philosophical works. 5 v. 8vo. pound 1.5
Hume’s essays. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Ld. Kaim’s Natural religion. 8vo. 6/
Philosophical survey of Nature. 3/
Oeconomy of human life. 2/
Sterne’s sermons. 7 v. 12mo. pound 1.1
Sherlock on death. 8vo. 5/
Sherlock on a future state. 5/


Ld. Kaim’s Principles of equity. fol. pound 1.1
Blackstone’s Commentaries. 4 v. 4to. pound 4.4
Cuningham’s Law dictionary. 2 v. fol. pound 3


Bible. 6/
Rollin’s Antient history. Eng. 13 v. 12mo. pound 1.19
Stanyan’s Graecian history. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Livy. (the late translation). 12/
Sallust by Gordon. 12mo. 12/
Tacitus by Gordon. 12mo. 15/
Caesar by Bladen. 8vo. 5/
Josephus. Eng. 1.0
Vertot’s Revolutions of Rome. Eng. 9/
Plutarch’s lives. by Langhorne. 6 v. 8vo. pound 1.10
Bayle’s Dictionary. 5 v. fol. pound 7.10.
Jeffery’s Historical & Chronological chart. 15/


Robertson’s History of Charles the Vth. 3 v. 4to. pound 3.3
Bossuet’s history of France. 4 v. 12mo. 12/
Davila. by Farneworth. 2 v. 4to. pound 1.10.
Hume’s history of England. 8 v. 8vo. pound 2.8.
Clarendon’s history of the rebellion. 6 v. 8vo. pound 1.10.
Robertson’s history of Scotland. 2 v. 8vo. 12/
Keith’s history of Virginia. 4to. 12/
Stith’s history of Virginia. 6/


Nature displayed. Eng. 7 v. 12mo.
Franklin on Electricity. 4to. 10/
Macqueer’s elements of Chemistry. 2 v. 8vo. 10/
Home’s principles of agriculture. 8vo. 5/
Tull’s horse-hoeing husbandry. 8vo. 5/
Duhamel’s husbandry. 4to. 15/
Millar’s Gardener’s diet. fol. pound 2.10.
Buffon’s natural history. Eng. pound 2.10.
A compendium of Physic & Surgery. Nourse. 12mo. 1765. 3/
Addison’s travels. 12mo. 3/
Anson’s voiage. 8vo. 6/
Thompson’s travels. 2 v. 12mo. 6/
Lady M. W. Montague’s letters. 3 v. 12mo. 9/


Ld. Lyttleton’s dialogues of the dead. 8vo. 5/
Fenelon’s dialogues of the dead. Eng. 12mo. 3/
Voltaire’s works. Eng. pound 4.
Locke on Education. 12mo. 3/
Owen’s Dict. of arts & sciences 4 v. 8vo. pound 2.


Thomas Jefferson to John Adams:

“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.”


Thomas Jefferson
by Lorine Niedecker

My wife is ill!
And I sit
for a quorum

Fast ride
his horse collapsed
Now he saddled walked

Borrowed a farmer’s
unbroken colt
To Richmond

Richmond How stop—
Arnold’s redcoats

Elk Hill destroyed—
carried off 30 slaves

Were it to give them freedom
he’d have done right

Latin and Greek
my tools
to understand

I rode horse
away from a monarch
to an enchanting

The South of France

Roman temple
“simple and sublime”

Maria Cosway
on his mind

white column
and arch

To daughter Patsy: Read—
read Livy

No person full of work
was ever hysterical

Know music, history

(I calculate 14 to 1
in marriage
she will draw
a blockhead)

Science also

Agreed with Adams:
send spermaceti oil to Portugal
for their church candles

(light enough to banish mysteries?:
three are one and one is three
and yet the one not three
and the three not one)

and send salt fish
U.S. salt fish preferred
above all other

Jefferson of Patrick Henry
backwoods fiddler statesman:

“He spoke as Homer wrote”
Henry eyed our minister at Paris—

the Bill of Rights hassle—
“he remembers . . .

in splendor and dissipation
he thinks yet of bills of rights”

True, French frills and lace
for Jefferson, sword and belt

but follow the Court to Fontainebleau
he could not—

house rent would have left him
nothing to eat

. . .

He bowed to everyone he met
and talked with arms folded

He could be trimmed
by a two-month migraine

and yet
stand up

Dear Polly:
I said No—no frost

in Virginia—the strawberries
were safe

I’d have heard—I’m in that kind
of correspondence

with a young daughter—
if they were not

Now I must retract
I shrink from it

Political honors
“splendid torments”
“If one could establish
an absolute power
of silence over oneself”

When I set out for Monticello
(my grandchildren
will they know me?)

How are my young
chestnut trees—

Hamilton and the bankers
would make my country Carthage

I am abandoning the rich—
their dinner parties—

I shall eat my simlins
with the class of science

or not at all
Next year the last of labors

among conflicting parties
Then my family

we shall sow our cabbages

Delicious flower
of the acacia

or rather

Mimosa Nilotica
from Mr. Lomax

Polly Jefferson, 8, had crossed
to father and sister in Paris

by way of London—Abigail
embraced her—Adams said

“in all my life I never saw
more charming child”

Death of Polly, 25,

My harpsichord
my alabaster vase
and bridle bit
bound for Alexandria

The good sea weather
of retirement
The drift and suck
and die-down of life
but there is land

These were my passions:
Monticello and the villa-temples
I passed on to carpenters
bricklayers what I knew

and to an Italian sculptor
how to turn a volute
on a pillar

You may approach the campus rotunda
from lower to upper terrace
Cicero had levels

John Adams’ eyes
Tom Jefferson’s rheumatism

Ah soon must Monticello be lost
to debts
and Jefferson himself
to death

Mind leaving, let body leave
Let dome live, spherical dome
and colonnade

Martha (Patsy) stay
“The Committee of Safety
must be warned”

Stay youth—Anne and Ellen
all my books, the bantams
and the seeds of the senega root

One of the funniest things about this man, funny meaning fascinating (and everything about Jefferson fascinates), is that his epitaph (written by him) reads:


Not a word about being President.

This entry was posted in Founding Fathers, On This Day and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On This Day: April 13, 1743

  1. Kate says:

    Oh that list – what it does to a book and list obsessed person! My heart is pounding its way out of my body. Must now research everyone I don’t know. My ancestor is John Page and we take no little pride in the fact that he brought his two friends back together till the joint end of their lives.

  2. Ken says:

    I really like that Defoe quote; I confess it’s the first time I’ve read it.

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