On the anniversary of our country’s Declaration of Independence, what’s a more fitting way to celebrate than to honor our country’s greatest founder and third president, Thomas Jefferson?
For most, becoming president would mark the pinnacle of any career, and comprise the focal point of any lifetime. Not so for Jefferson. The man was so talented, hard-working, and naturally gifted, the fact that he was president seems like an ordinary checkpoint to a life teeming with dozens of milestones.
1. Thomas Jefferson Was a Prolific Writer and Philosopher
Jefferson was such a prolific political thinker and writer that this point shouldn’t be taken for granted. He, along with a handful of other visionaries, dreamt of a form of government that had never before been implemented. Influenced by John Locke, Francis Bacon, Voltaire, and other political philosophers, Jefferson became the primary author of what’s arguably our nation’s most important document, the Declaration of Independence, as it declared the United States an independent nation.
With the form of an artist and the mind of a political prodigy, Jefferson gave us one of the most unique and successful forms of government in the preamble alone. Shackled under British rule, enduring taxation without representation, never were these words more powerful: “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.”
Without the Declaration of Independence, there would be no United States of America.
That’s not the only thing he wrote. In addition to political documents, Jefferson kept in touch with friends, family members, and diplomats, penning over 17,000 (some sources say upwards of 27,000) letters during his lifetime, many of which we can still read today.
2. Thomas Jefferson Was a True Renaissance Man
At six feet tall and with a handsome appearance, Jefferson was somewhat of a stud. He was an accomplished architect who designed the Virginia State Capitol, the rotunda at the University of Virginia, and of course his own beautiful Monticello. He was a dedicated farmer and horticulturalist, experimenting with crop rotation and redesigning the plow.
Jefferson was also a foodie with a European flair well before hipsters decided that was cool: “Then he had lived abroad and he had introduced into his own household many of what were called foreign ways. He ate with a silver fork when other people used steel. He would have his plate changed several times during dinner, a habit not observed, in those days, by country gentlemen generally.”
He had one of the largest wine collections in the United States, preferring to brew his own beer and make his own wine. “My measure is a perfectly sober one of 3. or 4. glasses at dinner, & not a drop at any other time. But in as to these 3. or 4. glasses Je suis bien friend,” he wrote. Some theorize he helped popularize what have become American “classics” like French toast, French fries, and mac ‘n cheese.
Jefferson also loved books and was an avid book collector. Later in life, he sold his library of 6,500 volumes to the Library of Congress after the British destroyed what was there. “I cannot live without books,” he told John Adams.
3. Thomas Jefferson Valued Friendship
If anybody embodied the eighteenth-century version of “bros before hoes,” it was Thomas Jefferson. He had many close male companions, including the indomitable John Adams. They first met at the Continental Congress in 1775. In 1776, they worked together on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, and in 1784, Jefferson joined Adams in France on diplomatic service. The two often sparred intellectually, engaging in rigorous debate.
Through work and play, Jefferson and the Adamses became close friends. Jefferson revealed his affection to James Madison, writing that Adams “is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him.” Abigail Adams once called Jefferson “one of the choice ones of the earth,” and John wrote Jefferson that “intimate Correspondence with you . . . is one of the most agreable Events in my Life.”
Despite their close friendship, Jefferson wrote that he and Adams were often separated by “different conclusions we had drawn from our political reading.” The two maintained their friendship despite their political differences until 1801, the year that Jefferson became president. They ceased writing for some time but eventually made up. The story is told that as Adams lay dying on July 4, 1826, he whispered to his bedside mourners, “At least Jefferson survives,” not knowing his kindred spirit had died hours earlier. Brothers to the end.
4. Jefferson Was a Prominent Advocate of Religious Liberty
Often advocates of religious freedom tend to be devoutly religious. It just fits their personal interests. Not so with Jefferson. While he was baptized and grew up attending church, his faith was complicated and evolved over time. He once said, “I am Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished anyone to be.”
Known for being a Deist and even a theist, Jefferson carefully crafted his own version of the Bible, omitting miraculous or supernatural references. He believed religion was a private matter between “Man and his god,” and this is reflected in his political views on religion.
Yet he was such an avid advocate of religious freedom, it’s one of the three accomplishments he chose to have written on his epitaph (the others are “Author of the Declaration of Independence” and “Father of the University of Virginia”). In 1777, he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which when ratified declared that men “shall be free to profess … their opinions in matters of religion.” It was Jefferson who interpreted the First Amendment as having built “a wall of separation between Church and State,” one of the most notorious legal phrases of our time cited often in relation to the Establishment Clause.
5. Thomas Jefferson Was Flawed Yet Still a Great Man
Like the rest of us, Jefferson wasn’t perfect. Despite all his accomplishments, including architecture, religious freedom, and drafting the Declaration of Independence, he had struggles. Jefferson wasn’t adept at handling his finances and died in debt, unable to even pass on his marvelous estate to his heirs, much less free his slaves as he had desired.
Jefferson was an outspoken abolitionist. He believed in the immorality of slavery, calling it a “hideous blot” and a “moral depravity,” and participated in legislation he hoped would help end slavery. However, he also owned more than 600 slaves and is rumored to have fathered several children with one, Sally Hemings. As disappointing as this dichotomy is, it shows even great men are still just men like us all, with flaws and contradictions we must accept and acknowledge along with their achievements.