Thomas Jefferson — The Sage of Monticello

When George Washington was elected commander-in chief, Jefferson took the place which he vacated in Congress. He was at once recognized as an influential member. No one was better than he on committees. He was so prompt, frank, and decisive. Again, no one had a clearer insight of a situation or understood his countrymen better. He was sagacious, wise, and prudent; by birth an aristocrat, but, by nature, a democrat. He cared very little for pomp and ceremony, and despised titles and the insignia of rank. He could not make a brilliant speech, but in his hand the pen waxed mighty indeed

Jefferson is known to fame chiefly because of his authorship of that immortal document, the Declaration of Independence. In June, 1776, he was appointed one of a committee of five to draw up such a document. The other members were Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. Providence must have decreed that the lot of writing it should fall to Jefferson, for no one else could have written it so eloquently, so inspiringly. The achievement was dear to his heart, for he directed that these lines be carved upon the granite obelisk at his grave: “Here lies buried Thomas  Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.” Glory enough for one man!

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

On New Year’s Day, 1772, Thomas Jefferson was married to Mrs. Martha Wayles Skelton, a beautiful, childless young widow. Their life together was a most happy one; Jefferson was an ideal husband and father, and his wife was “one of the truest wives with which any man was ever blessed of heaven.” She died just after the close of the Revolution. Six children were born to them, but only two — Martha and Mary — lived to grow up.

Jefferson looked at life through the lens of a philosopher. Here are ten rules which he considered necessary for a practical life:

1 – Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.

2 – Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.

3 – Never spend your money before you have it.

4 – Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap: it will be dear to you.

5 – Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, or cold.

6 – We never repent of having eaten too little.

7 – Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.

8 – How much pain has cost us the evils which have never happened!

9 – Take things always by their smooth handle.

10-When angry count ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.”

Needless to say that he followed these rules to the letter.

Jefferson was known far and wide for his fairness and justice. He had hosts of friends everywhere, and he entertained them with such lavish hospitality that, in his old age, he was brought to the verge of want, and had to mortgage his estate.

Jefferson deplored slavery as a great moral and political evil. He once said: “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” He treated the slaves on his large estate so kindly that they almost worshiped him. It is said that when he returned from his five years’ absence as Minister to France, his slaves were so overjoyed that they took him from the carriage and carried him into the house, laughing and crying, and otherwise expressing their joy because “massa done got home again.”

When George Washington became President, he made Jefferson a member of his cabinet as Secretary of State. Here, he collided with Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury. The two were exact opposites in many ways, and could no more mix than oil and water. It required all of Washington’s tact to keep peace between them. “Each found the other so intolerable that he wished to resign that he might be freed from meeting him.” At last Jefferson could stand it no longer. He resigned in January, 1794, and returned to his beloved farming at Monticello.

Two years later he and John Adams were the candidates for the Presidency. Adams received 71 votes and Jefferson 68. As the law then stood, this made him Vice-President. Adams was a Federalist, Jefferson a Republican. Therefore, it was not perhaps to be expected that they should agree. Adams, however, did not try. He simply ignored Jefferson in all political matters. At the next election, Jefferson and Adams were again the candidates for the Presidency and Jefferson was elected. The quick-tempered Adams was so nettled over the affair that he arose at daybreak, on the day of the inauguration, and set out in his coach for Massachusetts, refusing to wait and see his successor installed in office. In later years, however, he repented of his foolishness. Jefferson and he became reconciled and kept up a friendly correspondence to the end of their lives.

John Adams, by John Singleton Copley

John Adams, by John Singleton Copley

As President, Jefferson was much beloved. His inauguration was observed as a national holiday throughout the country. Of course, this was distasteful to Jefferson, who hated pomp and ceremony. A story is on record to the effect that he rode to the Capitol on horseback and hitched his horse to the fence, while he went in, unattended, to take the oath of office.

Whether it be true or not, we know that during his term of office Jefferson frowned upon all display, and would have no honors shown to him that might not have been offered to him as a citizen.

Jefferson chose James Madison, his most intimate friend at that time, for his Secretary of State. Congenial men made up the remainder of the cabinet. This “happy family” worked together in peace and harmony throughout the two terms of Jefferson’s presidency. Many important national events marked his administration. Chief of them all was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, in 1803, for fifteen millions of dollars. Eleven entire States and parts of four others were later carved from this vast domain.

Jefferson retired forever from public life at the close of his second term. “From that time,” said Daniel Webster, ”Mr. Jefferson lived as becomes a wise man. Surrounded by affectionate friends, his ardor in the pursuit of knowledge undiminished; with uncommon health and unbroken spirits, he was able to enjoy largely the rational pleasures of life; and to partake of that public prosperity to which he had contributed so much. His kindness and hospitality; the charm of his conversation; the ease of his manners; and especially the full store of revolutionary incidents which he possessed, and which he knew when and how to dispense, rendered his abode attractive in a high degree to his admiring countrymen. His high public and scientific character drew toward him every intelligent and educated traveler from abroad.”

“The Sage of Monticello” died on the afternoon of July 4, 1826. A few hours afterward John Adams, too, breathed his last. Thus passed away, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the two men who had been the most instrumental in bringing it about. “Their country is their monument; its independence their epitaph.”

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