Early Life 1743-1766
Thomas Jefferson was born April 13, 1743 to Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson on their estate at Shadwell, in what is today Albermarle County, Virginia, along the banks of the Rivanna River. It was a significant location for an aristocratic youth in the sense that it lay within the sparsely populated Piedmont Region, between the gentrified Tidewater coastline and the Blue Ridge Mountains of the frontier. In keeping with his borderland origins, Jefferson would throughout his long life occupy a political and psychological space that balanced the responsibilities of establishment privilege with the lures of open, unexplored territory.
Peter Jefferson, a self-educated jack of all trades, moved from the Tidewater to the sparsely populated Piedmont in his youth, where he made a name for himself as a cartographer and surveyor. He had a hand in establishing the border between North Carolina and Virginia, and his prominence in affairs of state later led to his appointments as sheriff, colonel, and ultimately, representative to the House of Burgesses.
Jane Randolph Jefferson came from a leading Tidewater family, and had a noble bloodline ranging back to various locations in England and Scotland. Family lore held her as descended from various European royalty ranging as far back as Charlemagne, and Peter Jefferson was thought to have descended from a line of Welsh Kings. Ostensibly, such conspicuous antecedents would have held little charm for the egalitarian Jefferson in his maturity, but the thought of possessing noble blood holds a certain fascination for any child, and is not easily outlived.
While the Jeffersons established themselves in Virginia from the earliest colonial days, they remained British in character down through the generations. Jane Randolph, born in London, inspired Peter Jefferson to name the Shadwell estate after the district of her birth. This estate, along with other family holdings on both sides, were constructed to a plan thoroughly English in design. Yet despite this and other attempts to retain a sense of European heritage, life on the frontier had its effect on winnowing colonial influence. Neighbors were few and far between, and those that were in evidence were largely natives. To combat this influence, a series of classically trained tutors were arranged to provide for the young Jefferson's education.
In his second year, Jefferson's family relocated from Shadwell to the nearby Tuckahoe estate in order to live with a wing of Jane Randolph Jefferson's family. They remained there for seven years. During the course of their stay, a private tutor was hired and a family schoolhouse erected to serve the purposes of educating the Jefferson and Randolph children. Upon returning to Shadwell at age nine, Jefferson commenced studies under the Scottish Reverend William Douglas. In addition to laying the foundation for Jefferson's wide interests in adult life, Douglas saddled Jefferson with the idiosyncratic trait of speaking French with a Scottish accent.
Jefferson's pastoral upbringing, on the very frontier of European settlement, likely fueled his later love of the outdoors and of natural history. In addition, his penchant for architecture probably grew from his early observations of the constantly expanding family estate. Moreover, his voracious reading habits and facility with the violin were both established in these formative years. And his father's involvement in the House of Burgesses, like his grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather before him, must have suggested statesmanship as an obvious career path to the young Jefferson.
The idylls of this rural, aristocratic childhood came tumbling down in 1757, when Peter Jefferson died unexpectedly at the age of fifty. Jane Randolph Jefferson found herself a widow at thirty-seven, and Jefferson the de facto patriarch at fourteen, with a cadre of six sisters and a younger brother in tow. In his will, Peter Jefferson elected not to follow the custom of primogeniture to the letter, but nevertheless endowed his eldest son with the majority of holdings upon reaching a majority at age twenty-one. But for the next seven years, his inheritance, including 2,500 acres and over 20 slaves, would be managed by several guardians, and Jefferson would feel ill-at-ease under the watch and ward of his newly widowed mother.
Soon after his father's death, in order to further his education and to gain relief from the encroachments of his uncomfortable domestic situation, Jefferson became a boarder under the care of Reverend James Maury at Maury's home near Charlottesville, not far from Shadwell. Maury was also at this time a tutor to Jefferson's friend and later brother-in-law Dabney Carr, and later provided an education to James Monroe. As under Douglas, Jefferson's curriculum under Maury focussed on the classical curriculum, and especially on the language arts.
During the two years that Jefferson stayed with Maury, he traveled home at weekends to help his mother and siblings in the upkeep of the Shadwell estate. However, at age sixteen, Jefferson made a cleaner break with his family tethers when he made the 150-mile journey to the Tidewater center of Williamsburg in order to begin studies at the College of William and Mary. Though Williamsburg was a more cosmopolitan and populated area than the Piedmont, it hardly qualified as a college town, much less a thriving metropolis. In 1760, when Jefferson arrived at Williamsburg, the town consisted of one thousand residents, and the college of three buildings and seven faculty members.
With characteristic precociousness, Jefferson made fast friends with several of the most prominent men of Williamsburg society. Before long, he was dining regularly in the company of the royal lieutenant governor Francis Farquier, the philosopher William Small, and the lawyer George Wythe, all of whom were his senior by at least a generation. These three men were all thoroughly Europeanized in manner, if not in origin, and did much more than any formalized course of study to welcome Jefferson into the company of educated men.
Jefferson followed two years of study at the college with five years of the study of law under the direction of Wythe. Per Wythe's recommendation, Jefferson commenced his lifelong practice of keeping a commonplace book, filled with reading notes that included summaries and observations of the texts he examined. These were Jefferson's most intensive years of study, featuring a strong diet of philosophy and political theory to supplement his law curriculum. To a lesser extent, works of history, literature, criticism, rhetoric and oratory found their place amidst other European luminaries such as Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Classical influences also had their place, although Jefferson was not alone among his contemporaries in flatly dismissing the work of Plato as a nonsense (See Philosophy SparkNotes for multiple works by Plato.
Upon reaching majority in 1764, Jefferson came to inherent the 2,750 acres of land left him by his father. In this way he officially entered into Virginia society. And while Jefferson spent significant time amongst his elders, he also made acquaintances with his contemporaries. He shared rooms near the college for an extended period with John Tyler, father to the eventual eleventh President of the United States. In addition, an early disappointment in love came during this period, when he unsuccessfully attempted to court a highly sought-after sixteen-year-old by the name of Rebecca Burwell. With the frustrations that accompanied his failure in this regard came the first of many severe migraine headaches that would sporadically plague him throughout his adult life.
Unfortunately, Jefferson's ill health at this time prevented him from embarking on a long-planned trip to Europe, which had been arranged in view of his then limited exposure to the world outside of Virginia. Eventually he settled for a brief tour of the middle Atlantic colonies, including stays in Annapolis, Philadelphia, and New York. These travels did much to distract him from his disappointments with Burwell and the recent death of his beloved sister, Jane.
Thus, at the age of twenty-three, Jefferson finally gained something of an education beyond provincial book learning. He observed a session in the Maryland state legislature, received a progressive inoculation against smallpox, and generally rubbed elbows with people of various backgrounds and origins. Most significantly, Jefferson established many important contacts in his travels, including the valuable acquaintance of the young Elbridge Gerry.
Upon returning to Williamsburg, Jefferson concluded his law studies, and was admitted to the bar in 1767. In the next few years, he initiated a successful law practice in Williamsburg, winning established clients all across Virginia. Beyond this, in the interest of his financial standing, he made various real estate deals to improve the holdings he had already inherited.
Now, having reached his majority, and with the Shadwell estate firmly under his control, Jefferson began to level land on a nearby mountaintop in order to build his own country home, which would eventually materialize in the shape of Monticello. And while the foundation for Jefferson's dignified mansion was just being poured, the foundations of Jefferson's rise to prominence as a statesman were already solidified.
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