On the obelisk marker of Thomas Jefferson’s grave at Monticello, you will find this engraving”
A more complete epitaph could also note that Thomas Jefferson had been
- the Governor of Virginia,
- Ambassador to France,
- George Washington’s Secretary of State,
- Vice President
- and finally a two-term President of the United States.
Truly, what Shakespeare said of Julius Caesar could equally be said of Thomas Jefferson:
he “bestrode this narrow world like a colossus.”
But the intentionally few and understated words on the grave marker were chosen by Jefferson. He expressly forbade any additional titles or accolades from being added to his designated and limited list. He deliberately downplayed his achievements.
Or did he?
Obviously Jefferson himself valued the items listed on his grave marker above all the other noteworthy political achievements which could have been enumerated. And this reveals much to us about the heart of this incredible American man: above all else, he valued not titles, but liberty and independence.
Perhaps, therefore, we should follow his lead and value the items he valued more than all of his temporal political achievements.
His accomplishments and offices aside, by any standard, Jefferson led a remarkably interesting and productive life. He was at various times
- an accomplished horticulturist,
- and writer.
He had one of the finest personal libraries in all of colonial America. He wrote constantly, mainly thousands of letters, but also painstakingly detailed observations on scores of topics for his own use. The most comprehensive published collection of his writings fills twenty large volumes.
For these reasons, in 1962 President Kennedy famously welcomed forty-nine Nobel Prize winners to the White House saying,
“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Jefferson’s Early Life and Education
Jefferson was born in 1743 and died on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and just hours before John Adams died. Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, only Charles Carroll of Maryland outlived Adams and Jefferson.
He was born into a prosperous Virginia family, the third of ten children. Jefferson’s father died when he was 14 years old, leaving his eldest son 5,000 acres of land. Eventually, Jefferson would build his beloved Monticello there.
Throughout his long life, the family plantation provided Jefferson with income, stability, enjoyment, recreation, intellectual stimulation, solace.
Jefferson was a lifelong student. When he was nine years old, Jefferson began studying in earnest at home and he never really stopped learning or studying. He began by learning Latin, Greek and French. He was a true natural when it came to language.
His command of English was immediate and as we shall see, the phrases he would later compose would live on for centuries. While he was in Paris, he also published some short writings in French. Throughout his life, Jefferson maintained that his favorite language was Greek.
It has been said that Jefferson could speak five or maybe six languages and read many others.
After his father died, Jefferson began studying with the Rev. James Maury, an Irish clergyman who ran a Classical School for Boys (really a log cabin where Maury personally instructed his pupils). Maury eventually educated not only Jefferson, but also James Madison and James Monroe. Jefferson lived with Maury for two years and completed his basic education in the Latin and Greek classics before going to William and Mary, at the age of 16.
At William and Mary, Jefferson enrolled in the school of philosophy and continued his classical studies, reading Tacitus and Homer. His schoolmates would later recall that he studied fifteen hours every day and carried his Greek grammar with him at all times.
At William and Mary, Jefferson also perfected his French, mastered the violin and, most importantly, encountered the philosophical and scientific writings of men that would influence him enormously: John Locke, Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton.
In fact, in a famous episode fairly early in the Founding era, Alexander Hamilton went to Monticello and inquired as to the subjects of three paintings in Jefferson’s home. Jefferson was surprised that Hamilton had to ask, but nonetheless informed him that they were Locke, Bacon and Newton – the greatest men who ever lived, in Jefferson’s opinion.
Hamilton responded that actually the greatest man who ever lived was Julius Caesar, no doubt to Jefferson’s shock and dismay.
What was it about Bacon, Locke and Newton that so impressed Jefferson, beginning first as a student at William and Mary, but continuing throughout his entire life?
They were, above all else, men of the Enlightenment. Sir Francis Bacon (1591-1626) was first of all, like Jefferson, a lawyer and a statesman in the service of James I, the first monarch of a united England, Scotland and Ireland. But it is as a scholar and philosopher that we remember Bacon today, primarily through his groundbreaking Novum Organum (1620), in which he advances a new system of logic, in contrast with Aristotelian logic which had ruled the west for millennia.
Novum Organum ultimately gave birth to what we know today as the scientific method. The scientific method was, of course, essential for the modern technological advances that Jefferson observed first hand. In his mind, Bacon started the scientific revolution in which he was then living.
John Locke (1632 – 1704), in his groundbreaking work on epistemology, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), proposes a theory of human knowledge based on two intersecting processes, namely, sensation and reflection – omitting authority and tradition to the delight of modern thinkers like Jefferson. And Locke’s political philosophy, as known by Jefferson through Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689), is a watershed event in the development of modern, republican political theory.
In the First Treatise, Locke demolishes the divine right of kings and in the Second Treatise, he famously asserts a concept that would be picked up by Jefferson later: the purpose of government is to protect the citizens’ rights of life, liberty and property.
Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is, of course, one of the most important thinkers who has ever lived. His treatise Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), described the laws of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, thus laying the groundwork for modern physics. He also discovered calculus, simultaneously with Leibniz. Simply put, without Newton modern life would not be possible.
The 17th century, then, had been an extraordinarily fruitful period in human intellectual development and Bacon, Locke and Newton were major figures. Jefferson admired them so much, because he believed that he was standing on the shoulders of these giants and extending their work on the American continent.
Following his graduation from William and Mary, Jefferson began studying law under the “Father of American Jurisprudence,” George Wythe.
Wythe was one of the outstanding lawyers in all of colonial America, and Jefferson would eventually appoint him as the first law professor in America – not to mention a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
In that day, most legal education came in the form of an apprenticeship, with a student learning under a seasoned attorney. In that regard, Jefferson’s legal education was typical for his day. Most apprenticeships, however, lasted only a year or two and most were fairly narrowly focused on the law.
But, most law students were not Thomas Jefferson and most tutors were not George Wythe.
Wythe and Jefferson spent five years (1762-1767) together and they read not only law, but history, political philosophy, literature, ethics and still more of the ancient classics in Greek and Latin.
Both Jefferson and Wythe knew that Jefferson was destined for great things and accordingly only an extraordinary legal education would do. In that regard, Wythe and his student Jefferson were extraordinarily successful.
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