Thomas Jefferson: Polymath

On April 29, 1962, at a White House dinner honouring Nobel Prize winners, John F. 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.

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A Wealth of Achievements

This testament to the astounding scope and resonance of Jefferson’s achievements is not especially over-stated. To list just the public offices he held:

He was a founding father, third President of the United States, Governor of Virginia, US diplomat in Paris and Minister to France, first US Secretary of State under George Washington and Vice President in 1796.

He also authored several iconic documents. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. After Independence was won he returned to Virginia and authored the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.

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In an example of his intense anti-clericalism he also created the Jefferson Bible. This consisted of taking a bible in one hand, a razor blade in the other, and proceeding to cut out all the bits he considered fantastical or immoral.

As President he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase (1803) which ‘doubled the size of the USA at 10 cents an acre.’ Napoleon sold Louisiana to USA at a knockdown price to keep it out of British hands. He dispatched Louis and Clark (1804-6) on their famous cross-country expedition. He also crushed the Barbary Corsairs, a North African pirate community that had plagued American merchant shipping.

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These achievements are well known and attest to a remarkable innate talent. Jefferson spoke five languages, learning Spanish on a single 19-day voyage. He was a pioneer in the fields of zoology and botany – mainly in his role as President of American Philosophical Society – and once, when whaling became a minor political issue, composed an entire treatise on the issue.

He was a remarkable librarian; he offered to sell his collection to the Library of Congress after the British burned it down in 1814. He once said ‘I cannot live without books.’

One of his proudest achievements was founding the University of Virginia. In 1768 he personally designed Monticello (his own 5,000-acre estate) and the university buildings (he was a superb architect) and in doing so enshrined his belief that educating people was a good way to establish an organised society. He believed such schools should be paid for by the general public, so less wealthy people could be educated as students

Admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1767, Jefferson could have become the greatest lawyer of his day. He took on a number of freedom suits for slaves, often without charging a fee. In the case of Sam Howell he expounded the principle of natural law for the first time, the principle that would become the basis for the Declaration of Independence.

Finally, he was a prolific innovator. He improved the moldboard plow and the polygraph, invented the pedometer, swivel chair, and created his own enciphering device (the Wheel Cipher) after discovering that his correspondence was being monitored. Another was the ‘Great Clock’, powered by the Earth’s gravitational pull on Revolutionary War cannonballs.

First Among Patriots

Beyond these achievements, however, was codifying the philosophical basis for the American identity. ‘I have sworn upon the altar of God,’ he said, ‘eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.’

Jefferson believed each man has ‘certain inalienable rights’ and that ‘Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others…’

Jefferson’s Cognitive Dissonance

One should not avoid the controversies. Jefferson embodied contradiction. He owned slaves and indeed fathered children with one, Sally Hemings. He spoke out against slavery but owned hundreds.

In his book, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ he wrote extensively about slavery, miscegenation, and his belief that blacks and whites could not live together as free people in one society because of lingering resentments over slavery, fearing that it would lead to the ‘extermination of the one or the other race.’ He ordered that the Santo Domingo revolt be brutally crushed, exhibiting a counterrevolutionary streak. He also had a punitive, hard-line approach to Native Americans, enacting a policy of Indian removal.

Epitaph

In reference to the words to be placed on his gravestone, Jefferson said, ‘On the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more.’ He continued by writing, ‘because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered':

HERE WAS BURIED
THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.

He did not feel being President, Vice-President and Secretary of State worth mentioning.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.