Abraham Lincoln admired him. So did Franklin Roosevelt. So did John F. Kennedy. Dozens of other presidents expressed similar sentiments. They were talking about Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president. Carol Swain explores why their praise was so well deserved.
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There’s a reason why Thomas Jefferson’s face is on our coinage; why his sculpted head is on Mount Rushmore; and why there is a magnificent memorial in his honor in Washington, DC.
As British historian Paul Johnson put it in A History of the American People, “…no one did more than [Jefferson] did to create the United States of America.”
Born on April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, Jefferson early on displayed an intellectual curiosity that would never be quenched.
He devoured books on history, science, math, and philosophy, while learning Latin, Greek, and French. He would eventually amass a personal library of 6,500 volumes, declaring, “I cannot live without books.”
There was virtually no subject which he didn’t find fascinating and didn’t try to master. Most of the time, he succeeded.
He graduated from college in just two years with a plan to practice law. At age 25, he won a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses—Virginia’s colonial equivalent of a House of Representatives—entering politics just as the American colonies were beginning to challenge British rule.
Although Jefferson was not a gifted speaker, he was a genius with words.
This gift did not go unnoticed.
John Adams and Benjamin Franklin—no rhetorical slouches themselves—asked him to write the first draft of America’s Declaration of Independence.
Their confidence was richly rewarded. Jefferson’s assertions that “all men are created equal,” and that “nature’s God… The Creator” had granted them “inalienable” rights formed the cornerstones of the American experiment.
Jefferson was not yet 34.
In 1790, President Washington appointed him to be the new nation’s first Secretary of State, one of the two key posts in Washington’s cabinet. The other post was Secretary of the Treasury to which Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton.
The two became bitter rivals. Jefferson distrusted Hamilton’s belief in a powerful central government; Hamilton thought Jefferson was an impractical dreamer.
Both misunderstood the other. This was probably inevitable given their strong convictions and considerable egos. And although it’s true that Jefferson was a lofty political theorist, he was also a cunning politician.
His hardball tactics angered or alienated people who had once been close allies—most notably John Adams.
After defeating Adams in a contentious election in 1800, Jefferson served two terms as America’s third president—a tenure historians still consider among the most consequential and successful in American history.
He reduced the scope and reach of the federal government—cutting taxes, lowering spending, and retiring half of the national debt.
This was the small-government Jefferson in action. But he had no problem exercising vigorous executive authority when he felt it was necessary. Nowhere is this better expressed than his greatest accomplishment as president: the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million, or just four cents an acre.
In one fell swoop, Jefferson orchestrated a deal that doubled the size of the United States, incorporating territories of what are now fifteen states, while also eliminating the presence of a powerful European empire from North America.
After completing two terms, Jefferson, following Washington’s example, stepped down from the first office.
He spent the last seventeen years of his life at his beloved home, Monticello, an estate he built not far from his birthplace.
There, he not only founded the University of Virginia, but repaired his relationship with his long-lost friend, John Adams. They began a fabled correspondence that continued nearly to the end of their lives.
Remarkably—if one is so inclined, one might even say providentially—Jefferson and Adams died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
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