Thomas JeffersonAuthor of America
All Politics Is Local:
Virginia to Philadelphia
Born on April 13, 1743 (April 2 until the adoption of the Gregoriancalendar in 1758), Thomas Jefferson was the offspring of stable planter stock in the native aristocracy of Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a surveyor and cartographer whose immigrant parents were said to have come from the Snowdonia district of northern Wales. Peter's marriage to Jane Randolph, whose own family was one of the "names" of traditional Virginia society, can only have improved his standing. Perhaps it was young Jefferson's evident contempt and dislike for his mother — to whom he almost never alluded— or his apparent indifference to aristocracy, but when he came to write his own very brief Autobiography in 1821, he spoke of these matters of bloodline and provenance and "pedigree," especially in his mother's case, with an affected indifference. "Let everyone," hewrote, "ascribe the faith and merit he chooses," to such trifling questions. Since Jefferson always founded American claims of right uponthe ancient Saxon autonomy supposedly established by the nearmythicalEnglish kings Hengist and Horsa, who had left Saxony andestablished a form of self-rule in southern England (he even wishedto see their imagined likeness on the first Great Seal of the UnitedStates), we are confronted at once with his fondness for, if not indeedhis need for, the negation of one of his positions by another.
We cannot hope to peer very far past the opaque curtain that isalways in evidence (and also not in evidence) when a young manseemingly reveres his father and is indifferent to his mother. However,the nature of individual humans is not radically different andit's no great surprise to discover that the adolescent Thomas felthimself liable at one point to go to seed and to waste his time onloose company. We find, also, an excruciating account of a "bad date"at the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern when, nerving himself tomake advances to the much sought-after Rebecca Burwell, he madean utter hash of the approach and a more or less complete fool ofhimself. ("Good God!" he wrote to a friend the following morning.Later, news that Miss Burwell — the sister of a classmate and thedaughter of a family estate in York County — was betrothed to anotherman was to give young Thomas the first of the many migraineattacks that plagued him intermittently through life.) That this initialreverse was a sting is not to be doubted. Nor is it to be doubtedthat it was followed by still another fiasco, when he made a crass andunsuccessful attempt to seduce the wife of his friend John Walker. Imention this because it demonstrates that Jefferson was ardent by nature when it came to females, and also made reticent and cautiousby experience. This is worth knowing from the start, and wouldscarcely need to be observed at all if it were not for the generationsof historians who have written, until the present day, as if he were nota male mammal at all.
He recovered from his early instability in three principal ways: byadopting the study of the classics, by pursuing the practice of law,and by making an excellent marriage. These avenues converged ona single spot, still revered by Americans and also made part of thesmall change of their experience by featuring in image on the reverseof the humble nickel, or five-cent coin. A Palladian house namedMonticello, on a mountaintop in the Virginia wilderness (and builtwith its front facing the untamed West), emerged as the centerpieceof a life which could well, were it not for some accidents of history,have been devoted to uxoriousness, agricultural husbandry, hunting,bibliophilia, and the ingenious prolongation of chattel slavery.
The difference was made by Jefferson's attendance, between 1760and 1762, at William and Mary College in Williamsburg. Here, hehad the best luck that a young man can have, in that he was fortunatewith his tutors. In particular, he fell in with Dr.William Small,a Scots-born teacher of the scientific method, and with the greatGeorge Wythe, who taught the law as an aspect of history and logicand humanism and who seems to have adopted the young man as apersonal protégé. Once aroused, the thirst for learning was unslakeablein Jefferson for the rest of his life; as unappeasable, in fact, as hislonging for the possession of books and the acquisition of their contents. Among the authors whose work he assimilated at this time wasLord Bolingbroke, a pioneer critic of organized Christianity. Foranyone even reasonably attuned, the air was full of Enlightenmentthinking at the time, and blowing from England and Scotland aswell as from France. (It was to waft Thomas Paine across the Atlantic,among other things, bearing a letter of introduction from thelearned Dr. Benjamin Franklin.) Private in this as in so many things,Jefferson never made any ostentatious renunciation of religion, buthis early detachment from its mystical or "revealed" elements was tomanifest itself throughout his mature life.
To have a proper photograph of Shakespeare, Susan Sontag oncewrote, would be the modern equivalent of possessing a splinter fromthe True Cross. We naturally do not possess a photograph ofThomas Jefferson, but we have a number of portraits of him at numerousstages of his life, and a wealth of eyewitness descriptions. Bythe time he came to Williamsburg, he was very tall for his age andindeed very tall for his times, standing two inches above six feet. Hewas neither clumsy nor particularly graceful, having long but somewhatloose limbs. Reddish of hair and freckled of complexion, hepossessed hazel eyes, thin lips, and a rather prominent nose and chin.If one plays the parlor game — "If he were to be an animal, whichanimal would he be?" — we are almost compelled to think of a largeand rather resourceful fox.Continues...