On April 29, 1962, President John F. Kennedy held a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere, considered the brightest minds at the time. To the winners, President Kennedy remarked:
“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.”
This praise of the third president of the United States from the thirty-fifth was certainly far from exaggeration.
At the age of nine, Jefferson studied Greek, Latin, and French.
At fourteen, he learned Classical literature and additional languages.
At sixteen, he entered The College of William and Mary. Interestingly, Jefferson could write in Greek with one hand while writing the same in Latin with the other hand.
At nineteen, he was tutored in law for five years under George Wythe.
At twenty-three, Jefferson started his own law practice.
At twenty-five, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
At thirty-one, Jefferson wrote the widely circulated “Summary View of the Rights of British America” and retired from his law practice.
One year later, Jefferson was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
At thirty-three, he wrote the revolutionary Declaration of Independence. Beginning this year, Jefferson took three years to revise Virginia’s legal code and wrote a public education bill and a statute for religious freedom.
At thirty-six, he was elected the second Governor of Virginia, succeeding Patrick Henry.
At forty, he served in Congress for two years.
At forty-one, he was the American minister to France and negotiated commercial treaties with European nations along with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
At forty-six, Jefferson served as the first Secretary of State under George Washington.
At fifty-three, he served as Vice President and was elected President of the American Philosophical Society.
At fifty-five, he drafted the Kentucky Resolutions and became the active head of the Republican Party.
At fifty-seven, Thomas Jefferson was elected as the third president of the United States.
At sixty, he obtained the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the nation’s size.
At sixty-one, he was elected to a second term as president.
At sixty-five, Jefferson retired to his home of Monticello.
At eighty, he helped President James Monroe shape and construct the Monroe Doctrine.
At eighty-one, Jefferson almost single-handedly created the University of Virginia and served as its first president.
At eighty-three, leaving behind a long life of achievement and revolutionary establishment, Thomas Jefferson died on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, hours apart from John Adams.
Our modern times are accursed with the skewed perspective of moral relativism. This year, for the first time since World War II, Jefferson’s birthday will not be celebrated in Charlottesville, Virginia as it is being replaced with a holiday observing the end of slavery. Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly complicated, leaving more than enough room for his critics to call his character into question from his vehement stance against the institution of slavery yet an active participant in it to his expansion of executive power in the Louisiana Purchase despite his anti-Federalist position on centralized governments.
Gordon S. Wood, author of Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, wrote of Jefferson: “Beneath all the images, beneath all the allegorical Jeffersons, there once was a human being with every human frailty and foible. Certainly Jefferson’s words and ideas transcended his time, but he himself did not.”
A mere week before his death, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Roger Weightman to decline an invitation to a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence due to illness, also wrote that “all eyes are open, or opening, to the rights of man.”
In the midst of this Founding Father’s debated character, there was a man driven by his own intellect and Enlightenment ideals that left behind an accomplished legacy at every stage of his life and a newborn nation centered on the ideal of a self-governing people in a republic free from hereditary aristocrats or monarchs.