By Jeff Olson
During the course of America’s history, there have been a number of great men and women who have played important roles. One such man was Thomas Jefferson. Two hundred seventy six years ago this week, April 13, 1743, Jefferson was born at Shadwell, the family farm in Goochland (now Abermarle) County, Virginia. He was the third born of ten children. At age 16, he entered the College of William and Mary where he graduated in 1762. After studying law and being admitted to the bar in 1767, Jefferson successfully practiced law until his public service began in 1769 when he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
As tensions mounted between the American colonies and Great Britain, Jefferson was quite articulate in his opposition to the British Parliament. More so with his exceptional writing skills than his speaking ability. This was first seen in a pamphlet called “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774). Jefferson was a careful reader of the Greek and Roman classics as well as of English philosopher John Locke, but his political philosophy was a varying combination of British liberalism, classical republicanism, Scottish moral sense philosophy, Christian ethics, and modern economic theory. He was primarily Lockean in his early revolutionary writings and an ardent opponent of the established Church of England, strong centralized government, and federal government intrusion into matters concerning religion. He was also a champion of religious freedom and a strong proponent of the Bible as a source of ethics and moral principles for application in both personal and public life and as an essential for the health of the American republic.
Thomas Jefferson was a very complex man. Much has been written about him as a lawyer, architect, educator, musician, scientist, artist, military strategist, party leader, agriculturist, and bibliophile. He could easily be considered the intellectual father of our country. Unfortunately many contemporary writers have disparaged Jefferson with historical inaccuracies. Many of these inaccuracies are rooted in failures to reference original source materials, quoting his writings divorced from their meaning and/or context, measuring Jefferson by today’s culture, modes of thinking and customs rather than by those of his own times, or else to advance preconceived narratives aimed at misportraying American history, or perhaps all of the above.
Among the historical inaccuracies which abound are – Thomas Jefferson: Fathered Sally Heming’s children; Wrote his own Bible and removed what he didn’t agree with; Was a racist who opposed equality for Black Americans; Advocated a secular public square through the separation of church and state; Detested the clergy; Was an atheist or deist and not a Christian. These accusations have been discredited through thorough research, but nevertheless are widely considered to be facts of history.
Thomas Jefferson’s fifty years of public service included the offices of: Delegate in the Virginia House of Burgesses, Delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Colonel/Commander of the Abermarle County Militia, Delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates, Governor of Virginia, Virginia Delegate to Congress of the Confederation, Minister (Ambassador) to France, Secretary of State, and Vice President and President of the United States. What he considered his most important contributions, however, is evident in the inscription he wrote for his grave marker. It reads: ” Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia.”
On April 29, 1962 at a dinner honoring Noble prize winners of the western hemisphere, President John F. Kennedy remarked, “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.” Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.
Seventy-six years ago this week, April 13, 1943, the Jefferson Memorial was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in Washington D.C… Included in this dedication were some of Jefferson’s most notable and noble beliefs: that men are capable of their own government, and that no king, no tyrant, no dictator can govern for them as well as they can govern for themselves; that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights; and “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”