Thomas Jefferson

Early Life 1743-1766

Summary 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.

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