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Thomas Jefferson

In 1770 Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend about a fire that destroyed his family's home in Shadwell, VA:

"My late loss may perhaps have reached you by this time, I mean the loss of my mother's house by fire, and in it, every paper I had in the world, and almost every book. On a reasonable estimate I calculate the cost of the books burned to have been 200 pounds sterling. Would do to god it had been the money; then had it never cost me a sigh!"

Thomas Jefferson embodied the Enlightenment Age and was the major force behind the Lewis and Clark expedition. Image © 2002 www.clipart.com.

Perhaps no incident characterizes Jefferson better. The third president of the United States, the man who sent Meriwether Lewis off to explore the terra incognita of the West, the man who crafted this country's Declaration of Independence, the man who spent a lifetime building an architectural masterpiece that still stands today, the man who founded a great university, well, at heart, he was a bookworm.

Not just any bookworm, mind you. No, the books were the food that fed Jefferson's hunger for knowledge. He was the embodiment of the Enlightenment Age. For him the quest for knowledge was the highest calling.

It's little wonder that the greatest accomplishment of Jefferson's presidency was the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark's ensuing exploration of the vast territory. In one move Jefferson doubled the size of the United States and made possible a country that spanned from Atlantic to Pacific Ocean. For Jefferson, always the dreamer, it meant a chance to explore untold riches, to learn about thousands of things heretofore a mystery. Still, in his storied life, it's difficult to term one thing a crowning achievement.

Busy from the Start
Born in Shadwell in 1743, Jefferson was the son of Peter, a successful planter and surveyor, and Jane Randolph, a member of one of Virginia's most prominent families. No doubt Jefferson inherited his love for geography from his father. Peter's maps and surveys of Virginia in the 1740s helped build his fortune. In 1735 Peter had patented 1,000 acres that would become his son's Monticello estate.

Three years after his father died in 1757, Jefferson began attending the College of William and Mary in Virginia. He had grown to be a tall, slender man by most accounts. In 1762 he began studying law. Two years later he came into his inheritance at the age of 21, inheriting slaves and a considerable estate from his father. In 1767 he was admitted to practice law, and the next year he was elected to the House of Burgesses in Virginia. That same year Jefferson began leveling the mountaintop at Monticello. By 1770 construction had begun at Monticello. It was a process that never ended as Jefferson over the years added to the estate inside and out.

In 1772 Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton. They lived happily together for 10 years before she died. They had six children, but only two survived to adulthood. He never married again.

By 1774 he had retired from practicing law to concentrate on his plantations. However, the winds of revolution stirred him, and he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775. The next year he found himself authoring this country's most famous document. The Declaration of Independence is considered the charter of American and universal liberties.

That Jefferson should leave such an indelible mark in writing seems appropriate. From a young age Jefferson was one of the most well-read people in America. Of course, he lost most of his library in the Shadwell fire in 1770, but he soon had another collection started. By 1773 it was reported that he owned 1,256 volumes, including excellent records of Virginia's early history. His quest for books was voracious. He looked for them everywhere, writing to friends and ordering volumes from abroad. When he served in France, he said he "devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science."

Thanks to his library and his associations at the American Philosophical Society where he served as president from 1797-1815, Jefferson was able to provide Meriwether Lewis with the best information and training available at the time to prepare for his journey west. In 1815 Jefferson sold his then-6,700 volume library to Congress, which formed the foundation of today's Library of Congress.

Serving the Young Country
The quest for knowledge went hand in hand with his desire for public service. From 1779-1781 he served as governor of Virginia. Two years later he was a delegate to Congress. From 1784-89 he represented the United States in France as the U.S. minister plenipotentiary. With the adoption of the Constitution and election of George Washington as the country's first president, Jefferson returned to America to serve as the country's first secretary of state. He held that position from 1790-1793. In 1796 he ran for president as the candidate of the Republicans. He lost by three electoral votes to his close friend, John Adams, before defeating him in 1800. It was the first peaceful transfer of authority from one party to another in the country's short history.

Jefferson served two terms as president. After the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark expedition in his first term, he faced more difficulties in his second term. He spent much of that time trying to stay neutral in the conflict between France and Britain.

James Madison succeeded Jefferson as president in 1809, and Jefferson retired to Monticello. Still, he had one more great gesture of public service in store. In 1817 he laid the cornerstone of Central College, which went on to become the University of Virginia. Jefferson led the legislative campaign for its charter, secured its location, designed its buildings, planned its curriculum, and served as the first rector.

In one of the great ironies of American history, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, hours before Adams died as well. It was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

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