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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: Childhood

The tension goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson's origins. Jefferson was born on 13 April 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, later a part of Albemarle County. His mother, Jane Randolph, was from a wealthy family that claimed descent from the kings of Scotland and England. Jane's cousin, Peyton Randolph, was the most important man in the Virginia House of Burgesses and well respected throughout the Thirteen Colonies for his oratorical and political savvy. From his mother's side, Jefferson inherited, at birth, a prominent place in the Virginia aristocracy. His radical streak came from his dad. Peter Jefferson was not a part of the Virginia gentry. He was from a modest family, and had made his fortune as a farmer and surveyor. You might say that Thomas Jefferson's life, just like his thought, took place at the intersection of equality and elitism.

Times could be rough back then, even for a wealthy Virginia family. Of Jefferson's nine siblings, only five lived past thirty. Jefferson became the head of his family when his father passed away in 1757; he was just 14 years old. Luckily, a family friend stepped in to run the household until Jefferson could finish his education, but young Tom knew he would have to grow up quickly. It seems like he fell in love with reading at about this time. In the midst of personal trouble, Jefferson did what countless youths had done before and since: he turned to his books.

Jefferson's education focused on Greek and Latin and drew heavily upon the classical ideal of the statesman. For the Greeks and the Romans, participation in politics was one of a free man's most important responsibilities. Taking part in politics was what it meant to be a free citizen. But—and this is crucial—taking part in politics was only one part of what it meant to be a free citizen. A free citizen had to take part in politics selflessly. And for that, he had to be un-coerced and independent. He had to be able to provide for his own food, run his own household, and dispose of his own time, all without being beholden to anyone else. If he wasn't independent, then he couldn't participate independently in politics, and so he wouldn't be able to assume the responsibilities of being a free citizen either. Life in public then, as a politician, was made possible by life in private. It was only because the free citizen led an independent private life that he could have a proper public life at all. The ideal statesman, then? A self-supporting independent man who participated in politics only out of duty. The Roman general Cincinnatus provided the archetype. A farmer who was elected dictator to fight a war for Rome, he raised an army and led it to victory, only to resign his commission upon the war's end to return to his farm.3

Jefferson, like most of the Founding Fathers, internalized this ancient ideal. He loved his studies, and was reputed to be very serious as a youth, even a little bookish. He left his private tutors at 17 to go study at the College of William & Mary. After finishing his degree in just two years, he decided to stay on in Williamsburg to study some more. It was among the happier times in his life.

It couldn't last, though. Jefferson was expected to finish his studies and come home to run the family estate, and he knew it. As a prominent Virginia aristocrat, that would mean not just overseeing the family's fields and slaves, but also taking a leading role in the community. Jefferson did not disappoint. He finished his schooling in 1767 and promptly moved back home. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, the local legislature, the very next year. He set up a law practice, tended to his affairs, and started looking for a wife. To any outside observer, it would have looked like Jefferson was becoming a traditional gentleman. If Jefferson had been born a hundred years earlier, that's probably what he would have become. History, however, had other things in store.

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