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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: Monticello, University of Virginia & Death

By the time he'd made it back home, Jefferson's personal life was in shambles. His fields were suffering from poor management. His finances had been destroyed by his lavish lifestyle and unpaid debts. His house was perpetually being rebuilt. And Jefferson's family was mostly dead; of the six children born him by his wife, only Patsy, his eldest daughter, survived. It could not have been an easy home to return to.

Nevertheless we know that Jefferson thrilled at returning. He finally had the opportunity to live the life he'd always wanted. And that life was a life of ideas. Ever since he had first gone off to the College of William & Mary, Jefferson thought of himself as an intellectual. He was a lover of books, an amateur naturalist, and a parlor political theorist. He loved thinking—whether about the future of the American people, the natural order of the world, or the ideal shape of government. In his rooms, he kept portraits of the "three greatest men the world has ever produced"—three thinkers, the scientist Isaac Newton, the philosopher of science Francis Bacon, and the political philosopher John Locke.7 Indeed, when Jefferson drew up the epitaph for his own tombstone, he listed the three events "by which [he] most wish[ed] to be remembered." None of them were political achievements. All concerned his relationship to the world of ideas.8

It is no surprise then that in his retirement, when his time was once again his own to dispose of, Jefferson made his final project a testament to the intellect. Jefferson had wanted to expand access to education since he'd been a representative in the Virginia legislature forty years earlier. He had always believed that an educated citizenry was a necessary concomitant to popular sovereignty. When Jefferson had proposed his educational reforms back then, he had been too young and unimportant to convince the legislature to take up his plan. But now, as a former president and already an historical icon, his voice carried far more clout. Jefferson schemed to convince his state to found a public university. In 1819, the Virginia House finally obliged, chartering what would become the University of Virginia.

The aging Jefferson dedicated his every waking moment to organizing the school. He designed its buildings, laid out its campus, hired it faculty, even wrote its curriculum. When, on 7 March 1825, the university accepted its first class of students, Jefferson was overwhelmed with pride.

It was to be his last major achievement. Although Jefferson was healthy throughout his seventies—he went for a daily horseback ride well past his eightieth birthday—his health started to turn for the worse at the age of eighty-three. By 1826, Jefferson could no longer travel, and was suffering from all the ailments of old age. He turned down an invitation to a fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence, sending a letter of apology that has come to be read as Jefferson's final statement. In it, he recalled one last time the story of the spread of the Rights of Man, and called for a continued struggle against the oppression of the many by the favored few.

Jefferson fell sick with a fever on 3 July 1826. He tumbled in and out of delirium through most of the night, asking family members if it was yet the Fourth of July. At ten minutes to one o'clock in the afternoon, exactly fifty years to the day after the publication of the Declaration of Independence—and, bizarrely, five hours before the death of John Adams, his longtime friend and rival—Thomas Jefferson died in his bed at Monticello. His possessions, including most of his slaves, were sold at auction to pay for his debts.

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