Thomas Jefferson (April 2, 1743 O.S. – July 4, 1826) was the third president of the United States serving in that office from 1801 to 1809, when he was succeeded by James Madison, his protégé and political ally. Jefferson stacked up an impressive record as president—he doubled the size of the country with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory; reversed the Alien and Sedition Acts of the previous Adams Administration, and sent off Lewis and Clark to explore the vast North American continent, among many other accomplishments.
But what he is likely remembered for most happened before he was elected to the highest office—in the hot summer of 1776, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, our founding document. He penned those immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And with the following words our new nation was born, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Perhaps one of the greatest tributes to Jefferson was given in a speech to Nobel Laureates on April 29, 1962, when President John Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”
He was definitely, to use an over used word, a genius. He could read and write Latin and Greek and was fluent in French. He designed his palatial home, Monticello. Jefferson was a voracious reader and writer. But Jefferson, though an accomplished politician and statesman, only wanted to be remembered for three things, which he had carved on the obelisk that he designed. Jefferson left explicit instructions that not a single word more be carved on his gravestone but the following:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& the Father of the University of Virginia
The gravestone that marks the grave of Thomas Jefferson is a replacement. The original was picked at by souvenir seekers. Jefferson left instructions that his gravestone be made of a lesser stone, of a course stone, so as to prevent someone from wanting it. He had no idea it would be chipped away by tourists.
I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Denny, and my friend and neighbor, Doug, for sharing their photos of Monticello and Jefferson’s graveyard with me.