In honor of T.J.’s 271st birthday on April 13th, I have compiled together some of the more interesting quotes and anecdotes I have encountered during my pursuit to understand this Sage of Monticello.
Portrait of Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in “a day or two”, according to John Adams (Ellis, p. 59). So what did you do with your weekend?…
- Jefferson developed a theory he called “generational sovereignty” questioning “whether one generation of men has a right to bind another.” He speculated that “the earth belongs to the living” and that “by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation is to another.” After determining a generation lasts approximately 19 years, Jefferson proposed that all personal and national debts, all laws, even all constitutions, should expire after that time (Ellis, 131). Imagine proclaiming our independence as a nation from our parents every 19 years! Since 1776, almost 13 generations have passed by. I suppose Jefferson would view that as 13 lost opportunities.
Monticello (“Little Mountain”), Jefferson’s home and one of our nation’s architectural treasures, comprises 43 rooms in 11,000 square feet. The house was built in about two phases, one 1769-84 and the other 1796-1809.
On September 18, 1786, Jefferson broke his right wrist while trying to vault over a large kettle [or fountain; the details are unclear]. Since he was right-handed, this injury made writing difficult for some time. In an attempt to write to William Stephens Smith on the incident, Jefferson included this witty comment (Ellis, 111):
How the right hand became disabled would be a long story for the left to tell.
One of my favorite Jefferson quotes, taken from his first inaugural presidential address. It’s a little clunky, but I appreciate the second half (Ellis, 215):
I ask for your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional; and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts.
- As far as we know, the only two public speeches Jefferson gave throughout his eight years in office were his two inaugural addresses (Ellis, 228).
- Jefferson spent about 10 hours a day at his writing desk. In his first year of his presidency, he received 1,881 letters and sent out 677 letters of his own (Ellis, 228).
- No—Jefferson did not write the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. He wrote about them and contributed to their development, but he was in France at the time.
Jefferson requested that the First Amendment should promote “a wall of separation between church and state”, proclaiming that “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” (Monk, 129-30). For his University of Virginia, he declared that a “professorship of theology should have no place in our institution” (Dawkins, 100). And as far as his more general thoughts on religion and science are concerned (Dawkins, 64):
Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason that that of blindfolded fear.
During the winter of 1783-84, Jefferson conceived of the dollar and a new, decimal American set of weights and measures as two parts of a single system. The weights would be coordinated with the dollar so that a pound would weigh precisely 10 dollars [Note: it is still unclear to me what benefit such an odd relationship would serve]. The lengths were to be derived from the size of the earth. After some calculations, Jefferson determined that a “geographical mile will be of 6,086.4 feet” [compared to the 5,280 feet we employ today]. He had planned to use this mile to subdivide the Western Territory, but Gunter’s Chain eventually won Congress over (Linklater, 68-73).
- Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after their great collaboration for independence in 1776 (Ellis, 346-47).
- As Joseph Ellis so eloquently writes in his book in regard to the incredible collaborations between Jefferson and his peers: “While historians have offered several explanations for the remarkable explosion of leadership at the very start of the American republic [Jefferson prime among them] the self-conscious sense that the future was watching elevated the standards and expectations for all concerned. At least in a small way, we are complicitous in their achievement because we were the ultimate audience for their performance (p. 301).
Happy birthday Tom!
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. First Mariner Books: New York, 2006.
Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Vintage Books: New York, 1998.
Linklater, Andro. Measuring America: How the United States was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History. Plume: New York, 2003.
Monk, Linda R. The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution. Hyperion: New York, 2003.