During his first years as a lawyer, Jefferson split time between Williamsburg, the seat of his practice, and Shadwell, where he re-established a base while supervising the construction of his new estate, Monticello. He traveled widely throughout the colony in pursuit of various cases, generally relating to land claims and disputes between debtors and creditors. At times, Jefferson relied on his law practice for up to half of his income, an unusually high proportion for the gentleman lawyers of his day.
Before long, the call of public service began to intrude upon his law practice. In 1769, just ten days shy of his twenty-sixth birthday, he was named as representative of Albermarle County to the lower chamber of the House of Burgesses, in fulfillment of the lengthy Jefferson family line. Jefferson could hardly have entered into the political scene at a time more fraught with foreboding.
For several years, tensions had been building between the royal administration of the Virginia Commonwealth and the colonial membership of the House of Burgesses. As the colonies began to become more self-sufficient, the British looked to gain a more secure imperial foothold on the American continent. The British won a great victory to this effect in the Seven Years War, which established their dominance over France along the Eastern Seaboard and shored up their position inland up to the Mississippi River. However, such success came at a cost, and the British government found itself perilously close to bankruptcy.
Since the colonies had benefited from the British victory, Parliament decided that they should help to finance the spoils of peace. Thus, in 1765, by virtue of the Stamp Act, duties were established on all minor business transactions in the colonies. All revenue was to revert to Parliament with the intention of maintaining Britains vast imperial network in America. At once, King George III and Parliament were inundated with cries of protest from the colonials, who had suffered import/export taxes in the past, but never a tax on domestic goods produced and traded within the colonies.
One of the strongest objections to the Stamp Act came from the House of Burgesses, in the form of several indignant resolutions backed by the revolutionary Patrick Henry. As a law student, Jefferson had witnessed Henrys impassioned orations against British control of American interests. A few short years later, he found himself at Henrys side, plotting to undermine the increasingly harsh colonial policies levied by King George III and Parliament.
The struggle to assert colonial rights was also a regional struggle. Like Jefferson, Henry hailed from the Piedmont region, and had no vested interest in the more conservative approach of the Tidewater gentry. Whereas the wealthier members of the old guard simply stomached new taxes, the new generation of frontier legislators was less inclined to tolerate what they viewed as increasing infringements on their liberty.
Although the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, the next year saw the passage of the Townshend Acts, a series of import/export taxes on goods such as glass, lead, paint, and tea. These too were met with fierce colonial opposition. That tariffs should be levied was not the prime objection of the colonists; rather, it was that revenues should be sent back to Britain, where a Parliament completely lacking in colonial representation was free administer the revenue as it saw fit.
Objections to the Townshend Acts were voiced first in both the Commonwealths of Massachusetts and Virginia, where the House of Burgesses took steps to assert its sole right of judiciary appointment and taxation privilege. These independently-minded measures were passed a mere nine days after Jefferson first took his seat in the House of Burgesses. Thus, as soon as he had arrived, he was forced to leave. Troubled by the volatile spirit of their anti-British legislation, the sitting royal governor, Baron de Botetourt, dissolved the House of Burgesses immediately, leaving the colonials to stew in their anger.
Stripped of their power, the deposed Burgesses met of their own accord at a nearby tavern and formed a non-importation association against Britain. In so doing, they refused to buy imported British products in an attempt to put damage the imperial economy and assert colonial solidarity. Accordingly, the ensuing months saw a transformation in the colonial consciousness, as homespun cloth began to replace finer European fabrics, and cruder manufactures took the stead of finer ones.
Jefferson took advantage of the leisure afforded him by a temporary period of unemployment, and settled in for a summer of intensive reading on political theory. In the autumn, he was named to the House of Burgesses for a second time, and once again took up the delicate matter of colonial diplomacy while giving secondary attentions to his law practice.
In his characteristic way, once back in office Jefferson assumed the role of gadfly as a legislator, drumming up support for various subversive proposals. One notable instance of his friskiness came in the form of an early effort to liberalize slave policies in Virginia by allowing masters the right of manumission through registration with the relevant county courthouse. However, this bold suggestion was summarily dismissed by a committee of Jeffersons elders, winning Jefferson little praise and the decided ire of Baron de Botetourt.
Despite this domestic controversy, Jeffersons first years in the House of Burgesses were marked by a sense of good feeling; the non-importation association had sent a clear message to Parliament, and the result was a repeal on each of the Townshend Acts save the duty on tea. With imperial and colonial interests no longer at odds, the financial prospects for both began to improve, and a brief boom ensued.
In the midst of this good fortune, a personal tragedy befell Jefferson on February 1, 1770, when Shadwell house burned to the ground during his absence. The destruction was nearly total, with loses including most of his library and many of his early notes and legal papers. His cherished Italian violin was one of the few possessions that he recovered from the blaze.
After an initial period of despondency, Jefferson took to restoring his fortunes with a great degree of vigor. In his zeal, he ordered an expensive mahogany piano from London to impress his bride-to-be. Beyond this, within two years he had built his personal collection up to 1,250 volumes. Such an amassment is especially impressive when one considers that the total holdings of all lending libraries in the United States during this same period was a meager 6,000 volumes.
With Shadwell burnt to the ground, construction on Monticello began in earnest. During the spring and summer months, Jane Randolph Jefferson and her teenage daughters took lodgings in neighboring farm buildings, while Jefferson himself took a set of rented rooms in Charlottesville. By October of the same year, a mere eight months after the destruction of Shadwell, Jefferson was able to cement his own fresh start when he moved into a one-room brick cottage adjoining the Monticello construction site. His place and his profession in the world firmly established, he now turned his full attention to the question of matrimony.
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