Read an Excerpt
Thomas Jefferson for Kids
His Life and Times, with 21 Activities
By Brandon Marie Miller
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Brandon Marie Miller
All rights reserved.
"Bold in the Pursuit of Knowledge"
Peter Jefferson's wood-frame farmhouse overlooked the Rivanna River and vast tracts of green forest. In the distance rose the soft gray-blue silhouettes of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The house — called Shadwell — nestled in the Virginia wilderness. Hardy folk like Peter pushed west to settle the farthest reaches of British America, the perfect place for a self-made man. Peter Jefferson carved a farm from the forest, explored Virginia's frontier, and made a name for himself as a land surveyor and skilled mapmaker.
But Peter Jefferson had not chosen a "backcountry" woman for his wife. Instead, he'd courted a cousin of his good friend William Randolph. The sprawling Randolph clan boasted some of the best-educated, wealthiest, and most influential men in the colony. In 1739 Peter married 19-year-old Jane Randolph. Jane's father, a planter and merchant, often dealt in human cargoes. His business sold Africans into slavery and poor Europeans as indentured servants.
The marriage connected the Jeffersons to one of Virginia's first families. Over the next 18 years Jane and Peter welcomed eight children to their clan, six daughters and two sons. Jane gave birth to her eldest son on April 13, 1743. They named the baby Thomas.
LIFE AT TUCKAHOE
When Thomas turned two, Peter's friend William Randolph died, leaving his three young children and his plantation, called Tuckahoe, in Peter's care. The Jefferson family left an overseer to run Shadwell and moved east. Thomas's first memory was the 50-mile ride to Tuckahoe, cradled on a pillow in front of one of Peter's slaves. Far grander than Shadwell, Tuckahoe stood a full two stories, an H-shaped white house with large rooms paneled in wood. For the next six years the Jeffersons called Tuckahoe their home.
Roughly 100 enslaved workers tilled Tuckahoe's fields and served the Jeffersons as cooks, maids, and craftsmen. Virginia planters depended on slave labor to plant, hoe, and harvest tobacco, the colony's main crop. Each year planters shipped barrels packed with crumbly dried tobacco leaves, good as cash, to agents in London. Planters instructed their agents to sell the tobacco, then buy and dispatch crates of goods back to the colony, crates of clothing, dishes, toys, tools, even carriages and harpsichords. The Jefferson family, like other Virginia planters, enjoyed comfortable lives on the labor of slaves. Thomas grew up in a world of master and slave, where an African American belonged to Peter Jefferson the same as a horse, a chair, or an acre of land.
As a boy Peter taught himself to read and write and vowed his own children would never lack for education. Peter hired a tutor, and young Thomas squeezed with the others into the cramped schoolroom near the main house, reciting drills in math, reading, and writing. Under their tutor's scrutiny they memorized lessons in religion and mastered penmanship with quill and ink. Thomas's quick mind delighted in words and numbers, encouraged further as he noticed how his beloved father always had a book open or sat at his desk poring over his accounts, scratching sums with his quill pen. Jefferson family legend boasts that five-year-old Thomas soon read Peter's entire collection of books. True or not, Thomas's early passion for books never cooled.
With his siblings and Randolph cousins, Thomas rambled among the woods, fields, and rivers surrounding Tuckahoe, discovering the riches of nature. He learned to fish, swim, and ride a horse with grace and ease. Peter taught his son how to carefully measure and survey land, a practical skill for any man, but especially for a lad who'd one day possess his own lands.
As much as Thomas basked in his father's company, Peter's growing wealth and reputation often pulled him away from home. Peter invested in a large land speculation company and spent much of his time exploring and surveying. In 1746–47 he mapped Virginia's "Northern Neck" for royal officials in Great Britain. As a man of means and position, Peter's neighbors elected him their representative in Virginia's legislature, the House of Burgesses, in the capital city of Williamsburg.
HOME TO SHADWELL
When the oldest Randolph son, Thomas Mann, turned 12, Peter moved his family back home to Shadwell to better tend nine-year-old Thomas's education. In 1752 Peter enrolled his son in a boarding school run by the Reverend William Douglas. For the next five years, Thomas acquired a basic gentleman's education, reading Greek and Latin, and a smattering of French.
Most spare hours Thomas spent playing his violin. Self-taught, he both played by ear and read music. If he heard a piece played on the harpsichord, he could transpose the notes for violin. On visits home, he loved accompanying his favorite sibling, Jane, while she sang.
With his large family overflowing Shadwell, Peter began expanding his home in 1753. Thomas's weekend visits found his family deep in the midst of stacks of bricks and dust and mortar, grating saws, and ringing hammers. But he had little time with his father. The land speculation business kept Peter absent nearly four days a week. A man on the move, he also served his fellow westerners as a justice of the peace, sheriff, and militia officer.
Then on August 17, 1757, Peter Jefferson suddenly died at age 49. His father's death staggered 14-year-old Thomas, who felt "the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely." He buried himself in a refuge of books and music, seeking comfort.
THE YOUNG SCHOLAR
Peter had named friends to oversee his finances and serve as guardians to his children. To Thomas, his eldest son, Peter left Shadwell, half of his 7,500 acres, the choice of two plantations, his best body servant, and 25 more slaves — all this would become Thomas's on his 21st birthday. Thomas also inherited his father's library of 40 books, his bookcase, cherry writing desk, and surveying tools. Thomas's brother Randolph also received land and a plantation. The Jefferson daughters received no property but would get dowries when they married. Jane was only 37 when Peter died and left her with eight children. Peter granted his wife the use of one-third of his property and Shadwell's house and farm until her death or remarriage.
After Peter's death Thomas entered a new school about 12 miles from Shadwell run by the Reverend James Maury. The Jeffersons paid Reverend Maury £22 worth of tobacco a year for Thomas's education. As the eldest son, Thomas returned home on the weekends to help his mother, sometimes bringing a friend like Dabney Carr. With Thomas's sisters, Martha and Jane, they hiked and rode horseback, played music, and sang. One story tells of Carr challenging Thomas to a horse race. Carr owned a sleek racehorse guaranteed to beat Thomas's fat old mare. Thomas set the race date for February 30 — a day that did not exist, and avoided the race completely!
Reverend Maury encouraged Thomas's natural talent for languages. Over the next two years his hungry pupil devoured the classics, books by Homer, Plato, Livy, and Cicero, read in Latin. Maury pushed Thomas to hone his writing skills and "natural philosophy" — science. Best of all for bookworm Thomas, Maury possessed a library of 400 titles. Thomas not only threw himself into his studies but often practiced his violin up to three hours a day as well.
Teenage Thomas grew into a tall, gangly, string bean of a youth. He eventually stood six feet two inches tall. Thomas's red hair, as well as his height, singled him out. Shy and soft-spoken, he sometimes mumbled and hated to speak in public. Not close to his mother, after Peter's death he remained often away from Shadwell, immersing himself in school.
Death ran like a dark river through the commonplace book where Thomas, frequently secretive and gloomy after Peter's passing, copied passages from literature that touched him. From Horace's Odes he wrote, "Pale Death with foot impartial knocks at the poor man's cottage and at princes' palaces." In another passage about fleeting time and looming separation, a melancholy Jefferson copied lines from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy: "Time wastes too fast! ... The days and hours of it ... are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day never to return more!"
"BY GOING TO THE COLLEGE"
By January 1760 17-year-old Thomas longed for a change. He wrote his guardian John Harvie seeking permission to leave Reverend Maury and attend the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg.
"By going to the College," Thomas presented his case, "I shall get a more universal Acquaintance which may hereafter be serviceable to me. ... I can pursue my Studies in the Greek & Latin as well there as here, & likewise learn something of the Mathematics."
His guardians agreed to the plan, and in spring 1760 Thomas set out on horseback, his slave Jupiter riding alongside, for the 150-mile trip to Williamsburg. On the way he met Patrick Henry, seven years older than Thomas and heading to the capital to study law. They discovered a shared love of the violin. Their paths would cross many times over the years.
Thomas rode into Williamsburg and discovered the grandest town he'd ever seen, a hive of 200 houses and 2,000 residents. Enslaved workers made up half the town's population. Thomas arrived during the legislative season, when the capital hummed with business and pleasure. The mile-long stretch of Duke of Gloucester Street between the Capitol Building, where the House of Burgesses met, and the College of William & Mary, bustled with people and carriages. Taverns and shops lured visitors with the promise of rich fare and gossip or the latest goods, fresh from England. Wealthy planters who kept a home in Williamsburg to enjoy the social season hoped to show off their silk and velvet finery, their best wigs, and their most graceful dance steps at the Governor's Palace. Virginians loved dances, horse races, and gambling, betting large sums on cards, dice, and cockfights.
Many of the college's 100 male students arrived more prepared to party and woo young ladies than study. Thomas joined the amusements, too, slipping into dances at the Raleigh Tavern's Apollo Room, and he especially loved horses and horseracing. He attended plays performed by traveling companies from London and New York. Though Thomas carefully tallied his expenses in a ledger, money vanished from his pocket, spent on clothes, a new horse, and entertainment with close friends Dabney Carr and John Page. Thomas's blood ties to the Randolphs earned him invitations to the beautiful homes of Virginia's influential families.
But these diversions didn't distract Thomas from studying, sometimes 15 hours a day, poring over his books in flickering candlelight while his fellow students snored in their beds. Thomas balanced his rigorous studies with exercise whenever possible, hiking, swimming, riding horseback, and even soaking his feet in cold water each morning as a health booster.
The college did not require students to attend lectures — the young men showed up or not. Church attendance every Sunday was required, however, and Thomas shuffled into the pews at Bruton Parish Church alongside the rest of the students. Part of William & Mary's mission was training future Church of England, or Anglican, ministers. Thomas's mind, so eager to grasp new knowledge, swayed toward the school of philosophy, not the divinity school.
School breaks meant a return to Shadwell. Thomas often hiked the surrounding hills. He dreamed of building his own home someday on this land his father had left him, overlooking mountains and valleys. Shadwell, after all, would house his mother and younger siblings for many years. Thomas spent hours shut away studying, plagued by boredom with life at home. Everything "trudged on in one and the same round," he complained to John Page. "We rise in the morning that we may eat breakfast, dinner and supper, and we go to bed again that we may get up the next morning and go the same, so that you never saw two peas more alike than our yesterday and today." He felt much happier back at school.
In Williamsburg the promising, hardworking student drew the notice of Professor William Small, a young Scotsman who taught mathematics and physics. Thomas admired Small's gentlemanly manners and "enlarged and liberal mind" that opened doors of new thought to Thomas. Dr. Small tutored him in science and encouraged his love for math. Thomas later recalled, "When I was young, mathematics was the passion of my life." Small also owned a collection of fascinating scientific instruments and introduced his brightest pupil to the writings of enlightened thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.
Small also dragged along his freckled, lanky student on visits to Governor Francis Fauquier, where music, politics, and science dominated dinner discussions. Jefferson even played concerts at the Governor's Palace, joined by musicians on the cello, flute, and harpsichord. He later recalled, "It was my great good fortune," one that "probably fixed the destinies of my life" when he met Dr. Small. And it was through William Small that Jefferson met his life's greatest mentor, the legal scholar George Wythe.
A leading lawyer in the colony and in his late 30s, Wythe owned a large brick home facing Palace Green, just a moment's stroll from the gates of the Governor's Palace. After two years at William & Mary, Thomas left the college to study law with Mr. Wythe.
At the time, no law schools existed. Instead a student "read law" with a member of the bar, working through stacks of books, legal treatises, and contracts. Eventually graduating to the level of an unpaid clerk, students copied out piles of writs — the legal documents used in lawsuits — hoping that each stroke of the pen etched the forms and language of law into the brain. When the would-be young lawyer felt ready, usually after about two years, he appeared for questioning before the bar. If he passed, the student became a full-fledged lawyer. Patrick Henry read law for only six weeks. Thomas, the young man who loved learning above all else, studied with George Wythe for five years! Jefferson remembered those years fondly, "a time of life," he wrote, "when I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge."
Under Wythe's supervision Jefferson read history, philosophy, and ethics as well as law. Jefferson analyzed and pondered volumes of English law recounting centuries of court cases and legal opinions. He studied parliamentary law, learning how to conduct the business and debates of a legislature. Jefferson read civil law cases involving issues such as land ownership and inheritance. Jefferson needed nearly a year to plow through Sir Edward Coke's gigantic volumes on the whole of English law. "I do wish the Devil had old Coke," Jefferson wrote John Page, "for I am sure I never was so tired of an old dull scoundrel in my life."
Jefferson's day began at five o'clock in the morning when he read "ethics, religion, and natural law" until eight o'clock. From eight until noon he concentrated on his legal studies. After lunch he read political theories by writers like John Locke and Montesquieu. Late afternoon he paused for a meal or conversation, or read Greek and Roman history in the original language. In the evenings he practiced his writing, learning how to craft a clear argument, or sharpened his speaking skills, something the shy young man never quite mastered. Jefferson found time to teach himself Italian after attending an Italian opera, and his beloved violin rested never far from hand. He also indulged his new obsession: buying and collecting books.
TOO SHY FOR LOVE
In 1762, 19-year-old Thomas fell smitten with Rebecca Burwell, age 16. His great shyness prevented the first-year law student from even speaking to Rebecca for over a year. Instead, he talked and wrote about her to his friends.
When he finally worked up the courage to speak to her, Thomas asked Rebecca to cut a silhouette of herself for him to carry in the back of his watch. But his bedroom's leaky roof ruined the picture. Even without the silhouette, "there is so lively an image of her imprinted in my mind that I shall think of her too often, I fear, for my peace of mind." It would look bad asking her for another silhouette "after my suffering the other to get spoiled," he wrote John Page.
Thomas finally had his chance to dance with Rebecca in October 1763. The couple met at the Apollo Room in the Raleigh Tavern. But the evening dashed Thomas's hopes.
Excerpted from Thomas Jefferson for Kids by Brandon Marie Miller. Copyright © 2011 Brandon Marie Miller. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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