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Thomas Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale, from life, 1791-1792.  Used by permission of Independence National Historic Park.
Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale, from life, 1791-1792. Used by permission of Independence National Historic Park.
Thomas Jefferson was born on the second day of April, O. S. 1743, ( April 13, 1743) at a place called Shadwell, in the county of Albermarle, and state of Virginia, a short distance from Monticello. His family were among the earliest emigrants from England. They sustained an honorable standing in the territory in which they resided, and lived in circumstances of considerable affluence. His father, Peter Jefferson, was much known in the province, as a gentleman of considerable scientific attainments, and more than ordinary firmness and integrity. It was probably in consequence of these qualifications, that he was selected as one of the commissioners appointed to the delicate and responsible task of determining the division line between Virginia and North Carolina. On the decease of the father, the son inherited from him an extensive and valuable estate.

Of the early incidents in the life of Thomas Jefferson, but little is known. He was entered, while yet a youth, a student in the college of William and Mary, in Williamsburg; but the precise standing which he occupied among his literary associates, is probably now lost. He doubtless, however, left the college with no inconsiderable reputation. He appears to have been imbued with an early love of letters and science, and to have cherished a strong disposition to the physical sciences especially; and to ancient classical literature, he is understood to have had a warm attachment, and never to have lost sight of them, in the midst of the busiest occupations.

On leaving college, he applied himself to the study of the law under the tuition of George Wythe, of whose high judicial character we have had occasion to speak in a preceding memoir. In the office of this distinguished man, he acquired that unrivalled neatness, system, and method in business, which through all his future life, and in every office that he filled, gave him so much power and despatch. Under the direction of his distinguished preceptor, he became intimately acquainted with the whole round of the civil and common law. From the same distinguished example he caught that untiring spirit of investigation, which never left a subject till he had searched it to the very foundation. In short, Mr. Wythe performed for him, as one of his eulogists remarks, what Jeremiah Gridley did for his great rival, Mr. Adams; he placed on his head the crown of legal preparation, and well did it become him.

For his able legal preceptor, Mr. Jefferson always entertained the greatest respect and friendship. Indeed, the attachment of preceptor and pupil was mutual, and for a long series of years continued to acquire strength and stability. At the close of his life, in 1806, it was found that Mr. Wythe had bequeathed his library and philosophical apparatus to his pupil, as a testimony of the estimation in which he was held by his early preceptor and aged friend.

Mr. Jefferson was called to the bar in the year 1766. With the advantages which he had enjoyed with respect to legal preparation, it might naturally be expected that he would appear with distinguished credit in the practice of his profession. The standing which he occupied at the bar, may be gathered from the following account, the production of the biographer of Patrick Henry:

"It has been thought that Mr. Jefferson made no figure at the bar; but the case was far otherwise. There are still extant, in his own fair and neat hand, in the manner of his master, a number of arguments, which were delivered by him at the bar, upon some of the most intricate questions of the law; which, if they shall ever see the light, will vindicate his claim to the first honours of the profession. It is true, he was not distinguished in popular debate; why he was not so, has often been matter of surprise to those who have seen his eloquence on paper, and heard it in conversation. He had all the attributes of the mind, and the heart, and the soul, which are essential to eloquence of the highest order. The only defect was a physical one: he wanted volume and compass of voice, for a large deliberative assembly; and his voice, from the excess of his sensibility, instead of rising with his feelings and conceptions, sunk under their pressure, and became guttural and inarticulate. The consciousness of this infirmity, repressed any attempt in a large body, in which he knew he must fail. But his voice was all sufficient for the purposes of judicial debate; and there is no reason to doubt that, if the service of his country had not called him away so soon from his profession, his fame as a lawyer would now have stood upon the same distinguished ground, which he confessedly occupied as a statesman, an author, and a scholar."

The year previous to Mr. Jefferson's admission to the bar, Mr. Henry introduced into the Virginia house of burgesses, then sitting at Williamsburg, his celebrated resolutions against the stamp act. Mr. Jefferson was, at this time, present at the debate. "He was then," he says, "but a student, and stood in the door of communication, between the house and the lobby, where he heard the whole of this magnificent debate. The opposition to the last resolution was most vehement; the debate upon it, to use his own strong language, 'most bloody ;' but," he adds, "torrents of sublime eloquence from Henry, backed by the solid reasoning of Johnson, prevailed; and the resolution was carried by a single vote. I well remember," he continues, "the cry of 'treason,' by the speaker, echoed from every part of the house, against Mr. Henry: I well remember his pause, and the admirable address with which he recovered himself, and baffled the charge thus vociferated."

He here alludes to that memorable exclamation of Mr. Henry, now become almost too familiar for quotation: "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third ('treason !' cried the speaker; 'treason! treason!' echoed the house;) may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it."

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Last modified January 2, 2004