Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Thomas Jefferson,
Author of the Declaration of Independence

The name of Thomas Jefferson always calls up to us a vision of the Declaration of Independence, that famous state paper which has never been surpassed in this or any country. Jefferson was its author, and his name will ever remain associated with it. Elected to the Continental Congress, he took his seat in that body on the day when news reached Philadelphia of the battle of Bunker Hill and of the splendid fighting of the "rebel "troops. Washington was then on his way to Boston to take command of the army, and the hope of liberty burned high in the people's hearts.

Eight months later, when the British army sailed away from Boston and left it to the Continentals, this hope burned still stronger, and men began to feel that it was time to cut loose for good and all from British rule and sail onward in a ship of independence of their own. So a resolution in favor of such a course was offered in Congress, and five men, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, were chosen to draft a declaration to be given to the world.

This declaration was to show why and on what grounds the American colonies claimed freedom, and Thomas Jefferson was chosen by his four fellow members to write it. He was known by them to be an able writer on such subjects, and two years before he had published "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," which had attracted great attention and was full of the sentiments they wished.

So Jefferson was selected to write the paper, and did so. He did it so well that his fellow members felt more like dapping him on the back than making changes in it. Hardly a word was rewritten, either by the committee or by Congress, and it was quickly passed and signed, as America's declaration to the world. It is to-day regarded as one of the ablest documents ever written, and as the most important state paper in modern political history, and it will make the name of Thomas Jefferson famous for many centuries to come.

On a Virginia plantation near the present city of Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson was born in the year 1743. Not far away rose the Blue Ridge Mountains, and broad forests spread for miles around, for the country was then very thinly settled. Here the young Virginian grew up, learning to ride, swim, and shoot, and reading every book he could get. He was fond of music, too, and spent many hours learning to play on the violin. He was a tall, straight, slender boy, with reddish hair; no beauty, but a pleasant-looking lad.

At seventeen he entered William and Mary College, studied like a young Trojan, graduated in two years, and then began to study law as diligently. When admitted to the bar he quickly won a place among the foremost lawyers of the time.

The young lawyer soon became active in politics. These were the days of the Stamp Act and the Tea Tax, and America held no more ardent patriot than our bright youthful Virginian. A fine-looking fellow he had then grown to be, over six feet tall, with square, well-cut features, ruddy skin, and a face full of intelligence. He had a quick, positive way of speaking and paid little heed to the over-formal politeness of the day, characteristics that made him prominent. A rigid republican, he did not even like the formality of "Mr." Anything like a title displeased him.

He believed in the equality of all men, and was bitterly opposed to slavery. He said, "I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just, for this is politically and morally wrong."

Jefferson was no orator. He never made a formal speech in his life. But he was a deep and able thinker, an adept with the pen, and he soon ranked with the ablest political leaders of the age. He took an active part in all the movements of that period of excitement, was seen in all the conventions and congresses called, was always active, zealous, and capable, and crowned his work at length with the noble Declaration of Independence, the writing of which formed the high-water mark of his life.

Jefferson soon left Congress to enter the legislature of his native State. Descended from the best stock of Virginia, and as well born as its greatest aristocrat, he was still a democrat to the core. He did not believe in the privileges claimed by the proud old families. Liberty and equality were his watchwords. He had put them in the Declaration, and he worked for them in his State. He fought for religious freedom till he got it, and he stopped the importation of slaves. He also drew up an excellent plan for the education of all the children of Virginia. If he could, he would have put everybody on the same plane and have them all start equal in life.



When Patrick Henry gave up the office of Governor Jefferson succeeded him. But he was not a military man and was not suited to this office in time of war, and at the end of his term he declined to serve again and was succeeded by a soldier, General Nelson, of Yorktown. But in 1783, when the treaty of peace with Great Britain was made, he had the honor of reporting it to Congress, and thus completed the work he had begun with the Declaration of Independence seven years before. It must have been a great joy to him to proclaim that the world now acknowledged this independence.

Let us here give some anecdotes which are told of Jefferson. In 1770, when he was practicing law, his old home at Shadwell took fire and burned down. When word was brought him of it his first thought was for his favorite books, and he eagerly asked if they had been saved.

"No, massa," said the ebony servitor. "Dey is burned up; but de fire didn't git yo' fiddle. We sabed dat."

To the simple-minded negro a fiddle was of more account than a whole library of books.

The burning of the old Jefferson mansion was a serious loss. A new one had to be built, and for it he chose the top of a forest-covered hill near by, five hundred and eighty feet high, on the side of which was a favorite spot where he had loved to sit and read and converse with his special college friend. Here, under a great oak, this friend, Dabney Carr, was afterwards buried, for the two had made a compact that he who died first should have his grave under their favorite oak. Many years later Jefferson was buried on the same spot beside his old friend.

The hill was named Monticello, or "Little Mountain." Jefferson had its broad, round top leveled off, and he built there a handsome manor-house, of his own designing, which has since been known as Monticello. It is to-day a place of pilgrimage for patriotic Americans. A few miles away stands the University of Virginia, of which he was the founder. Not far away is the old Virginian town of Charlottesville.

An interesting story is told of how, in 1772, Jefferson brought his young wife home to this newly finished mansion. They had more than a hundred miles to travel in midwinter, with no easier way of doing it than in a two-horse carriage. At least, the only easier way of traveling in those days would have been to put more horses to their carriage.

Much of the way ran through the forest, the trees often meeting over the road. As they went on it began to snow, and long before their home was reached a thick white carpet covered the ground. Night had fallen and the hour was late when the high hill was reached and they began to climb the steep roadway up its side to the house on the summit. As they drew near the darkness was deep and not a light to be seen. The servants, not expecting their master and mistress at that hour, were all asleep in their cabins, and there was not a fire in the house.

A gloomy and chilly welcome was that which Monticello gave to its young mistress. Fortunately, they were at that age when ill hap does not weigh heavy and discomfort can be easily borne. The shivering pair had to go straight to bed to keep from freezing. The next morning the fires were all blazing, the house was bright and cheerful, they were able to laugh at their predicament of the night before, and they began what was to be a long and happy life in their mountain home.

There is another story told of Monticello that might have led to a more tragic ending. Years later, when the Revolutionary war was nearing its end and the British troops had invaded Virginia, there came with them Colonel Tarleton, the daring cavalry leader who had been fighting with Morgan and Marion and other patriot leaders in the South. Jefferson was then at Monticello, and the Legislature of Virginia was in session at Charlottesville, a few miles away. It seemed to Tarleton a good chance to catch all the Virginia leaders in one nest.

While the family at Monticello were at breakfast, up the hillside came a frightened horseman at full speed. When he reached the door he shouted: "The British are coming! Fly for your lives! Tarleton will soon be here with his dragoons!"

When the man was questioned he told Jefferson that Tarleton, with two hundred and fifty men, had galloped into Louisa, twenty miles away, at midnight. The family was in a panic, but Jefferson coolly told them to finish their breakfast, as there was time enough. He then sent the family away to a place of safety, but stayed behind to gather certain precious papers.

Soon came another messenger, shouting that the British were coming up the mountain. Jefferson listened. No sounds of hoofs could be heard. He rode to a place where he could look down on Charlottesville. All was quite and peaceful there. Deeming it another false alarm, he turned back, intending to get more of his papers.

As he did so he saw that his sword was missing, having fallen from the scabbard. He turned to search for it, and, looking down on Charlottesville again, saw that a great change had taken place in that little borough. Armed horsemen filled its streets. He could see some of them already on the road to Monticello, galloping at full speed. Jefferson put spurs to his horse and rode swiftly away. His fallen sword had saved him from capture. A brief delay longer and the author of the Declaration would have been a prisoner in British hands.

Another story is told of this raid which, if true; goes to show how faithful to their masters were the old Virginian slaves. Two of them, Martin and Caesar, were trying to save the silver plate of the house by hiding it in a secret place closed by a trap-door. Caesar entered the hole, and Martin handed him down the plate. They had not finished when they heard the British bursting into the house. Martin quickly closed the trap, and the faithful Caesar lay without a sound in the dark hole until the British were gone. He was a sorry figure when he was drawn out.

To go back now to history, we may say that Jefferson went to Congress in 1783, and in 17844 was sent abroad as Minister to France from the young republic. He remained five years in France, so that he was not home at the time of the making of the Constitution. But those were exciting days in France. The great French Revolution was at hand, and everybody was talking of liberty and the rights of man. What he saw and heard there made him a greater lover of human rights than ever. He was active in other ways. A practical farmer, he sent home seeds, plants, and everything which he thought would be of use to grow in American fields and gardens.

He came home in 1789 to find that Washington had been made President and had chosen him for Secretary of State. It was an honor he did not want, but the President would not let him off, for he was anxious to have the ablest men in the country in his Cabinet. Jefferson was Secretary of State for five years, and then he resigned. There had been quarrels between him and Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was a strong aristocrat, Jefferson a strong democrat, and the two men could not agree. At last, in i, Jefferson, tired of the constant disputes, gave it up and went home to Monticello.

Like Washington, he was fond of home life and farming. He enjoyed landscape gardening and architecture, and was never more happy than when he was adding new beauty to his place. He did not lack company. Many visitors came to see the great statesman, despite the fact that Monticello could be reached only by a long and wearisome carriage journey.

He would have liked to spend his life at Monticello, but when Washington gave up the presidency and John Adams was elected in his place, Jefferson was chosen for Vice-President. So he had to go back again to Philadelphia, then the capital of the country, and devote himself to public duties. He did not enjoy it any more than before, for Adams was hard to get along with, and the old bad feeling between him and Hamilton was kept up.

Four years later, in 1800, Jefferson was chosen for the highest honor the country had to bestow. He was elected President. A new Democratic party had been formed, of which he was the leader, and the old aristocratic Federal party, of which Hamilton was the head, was losing its power.

Now was the time for the great believer in democracy and the simple life to show his feeling. He hated all pomp and display. Washington, when inaugurated, had gone to the Capitol in a carriage drawn by six cream-colored horses. Adams had also gone there with pomp and ceremony. Men now looked for another grand parade, and great was their surprise when they saw a plainly-dressed man, without servant or guard, ride up to the Capitol grounds, spring from his horse, fasten its bridle to the fence, and walk up to the Capitol. This was Thomas Jefferson, the great democrat, coming to be inaugurated as President of the United States. He wanted the people to see that he was a man like themselves, free from all pride and ostentation.

Jefferson was President for eight years. They were exciting years, for the great wars of Napoleon were going on in Europe, and England and France gave so much trouble to America, by interfering with its commerce, that it was hard to keep this country from going to war with one or the other of them. The people were very angry with England for taking sailors out of American vessels to serve in their warships, and Jefferson, who was a man of peace, found this very hard to bear.

The troubles in Europe did one great good for this country. France held the great region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, then known as Louisiana. Napoleon had taken this region from Spain, but he was now much afraid that England, with her strong fleet, would take it from him, so he offered to sell it at a small price to the United States. Jefferson was glad to purchase it, for he was wise enough to see how valuable it would become.

To-day this great domain is divided into a number of states, with millions of people and many thriving cities, and what is known as the Louisiana Purchase has been celebrated by a splendid World's Fair, held at St. Louis, its principal city. Jefferson's name is as fully associated with this great addition to our territory as it is with the Declaration of Independence.

A happy man was Thomas Jefferson in 1809, when, his public life ended, he was free from the cares of office, and could go home to his family, his books, and his farm. The wife he had brought home that stormy night had died many years before, but there were children in the house, both his own and those of his friend Dabney Carr, who had married his sister Martha. She was left poor, and Jefferson took her home with her six children, bringing them up as tenderly as though they were his own.

He had abundance of company, too. He was so hospitable that his house was always full of guests, some of whom stayed for months at a time. He was so free-handed in this and other ways that in his old days he became poor and was forced to sell his precious library to save his home. Fortunately, his friends came to his aid and money was sent him to pay his debts.

The end came on the Fourth of July, 1826, exactly fifty years from the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted. At noon on that day the great patriot breathed his last. It is singular that John Adams, who was on the committee with him to prepare the Declaration, died on the same day.