Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

Thomas Jefferson


The treaty that closed the American Revolution was signed at Paris, in 1783. Before the new year the British soldiers had gone home; the Continental troops had disbanded; and the American people had begun to test their ability to use in peace the freedom that they had declared to be theirs by right.

On that day, long before, when Patrick Henry offered his resolutions against the Stamp Act, he had other hearers besides the members of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Near the door stood a tall, gawky young man with sandy hair, freckled face, and large hands and feet. He was Thomas Jefferson, who was later to write America's Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson was the son of a well-to-do Virginia planter. In 1760, when seventeen years old, he came to Williamsburg and entered William and Mary College. After two years he left the college and took up the study of law.

Thomas Jefferson

These were happy years which Jefferson passed in Williamsburg. Cheery, genial, and fond of fun, he made many friends. But especially did he enjoy the evenings of violin playing, story-telling, and laughter spent with Patrick Henry, the rising young lawyer.

Fortunately for Jefferson, his legal instructor as well as certain of his college professors were among the ablest men of the time. He attracted their attention and wen their friendship because he was interested in his work and wide awake to everything around him. And under their influence he learned to think clearly and to express his views simply, but with force.

In 1767, Jefferson's student life came to an end, and he began the practice of law, at which he proved himself a great success.

Two rears later, he was chosen a member of the House of Burgesses. He was still a member when, early in 1775, the Burgesses met at Richmond. Here he heard Patrick Henry's second stirring speech—the speech in which he denounced all efforts at peace and for himself chose liberty or death. Jefferson was thrilled by his eloquence and heartily approved Henry's motion that Virginia "be immediately put into a state of defense."

Later in the same year Jefferson was sent to represent Virginia at the Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia.


The crisis had come. England had thoroughly roused the blood of her American colonists. Fighting had begun, and dependence on England was no longer to be endured. It was time for Ainerica to declare her rights and claim het freedom. So in June, 1776, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson were appointed to draw up a declaration of the colonies' independence.

Thanks to Jefferson's early training, he had developed into a powerful writer; and it now fell to his lot to draft this all-important paper. He worked on it for three weeks. By the end of June it was ready, and Jefferson submitted it to the Continental Congress.

Congress spent a few days in going over it, making changes here and there. As a whole, they were well pleased with Thomas Jefferson's work; and on July 4, 1776. the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted. The first to sign it was John Hancock, the President of Congress. He wrote his name in a clear, bold hand and, as he put down the pen, exclaimed, "There, John Bull can read that without spectacles!"

Meanwhile, about the State House throngs packed the streets. Would Congress adopt the Declaration? If so, the old State House bell was to announce the fact. While the anxious crowd watched and listened, up in the building a small boy waited for a signal from the doorkeeper. At last it came. Away to the old bell ringer rushed the boy shouting, "Ring! ring! ring!" And in an instant the great bell pealed out the joyous news.

Liberty Bell


The excitement was intense. Cheer rose after cheer; and there were handshakings and shouting, and even tears of joy. Then a copy of the Declaration was sent to each colony. And everywhere by, fireworks, cannon firing, and flag flying the American people proclaimed their new-born freedom.

Reading of the Declaration of Independence


It was the 4th of July, 1776, when this greatest, this most prized blessing—independence—became the possession of America. That day marked the founding of the American nation. And on each 4th of July, we, the American people, still proclaim our undying love of independence by patriotic speeches, cannon firing, and flag flying.


But to return to Thomas Jefferson. Two months after the adoption of his Declaration of Independence, he resigned from Congress and went home to Virginia. Some say that he did this because his wife was ill and needed him; ot'ners hold that he left Congress because he was anxious to bring about certain reforms in the laws of Virginia.

His first attack on the laws was on those of inheritance. At this time a Virginia landowner was obliged to leave his property to his eldest son. He could not divide it among all his children, nor could he will it away from his family without a special act of legislature. This seemed all wrong and unfair to Thomas Jefferson, and he succeeded in having these laws annulled.

Another law that he attacked was that which required the people of Virginia to pay taxes for the support of the Established Church. Jefferson felt that no one should be compelled to attend or support a church against his will; and this law, too, was abolished through his efforts.

For two years he was Governor of Virginia. For five years he was abroad as envoy to France. On his return to America he was appointed Secretary of State under President Washington. And later, so well had the American people come to know his value, he was elected the third President of the United States.

Jefferson was the first President to take the oath of office in the city of Washington, the new capital of the country, named for George Washington and founded on a site of his choice. At the time, Washington was a city of but a few thousands, and the Capitol was an unpretentious building.

This fact must have well suited Thomas Jefferson. Both Washington and John Adams, Washington's successor, had felt that the President of the United States should stand a little apart from the people. They had kept up a dignity and formality befitting their idea. All this was very unlike Jefferson. He believed in "Republican simplicity"; believed that all men are equal, and that the President should be always ready to exchange a friendly handshake with anyone. On the day of his inauguration, dressed in his everyday clothes, he went on foot to the Capitol.

Thomas Jefferson was President for eight years. One of the wisest things he did while in office was to buy from France the land known as Louisiana. This was not merely the present state of Louisiana; it was a great stretch of land containing nearly nine hundred thousand square miles, lying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, and between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


All this Jefferson got from Napoleon Bonaparte, at a veritable bargain. At the time, Napoleon was in sore need of money; so he was glad to sell Louisiana to America for fifteen millions of dollars—less than three cents an acre. Now that Louisiana was the property of the United States, Jefferson wanted to know what it was like. Few, if any, Americans had ever crossed that part of the country; so no one could tell him. Accordingly he sent out an expedition under two young men named Lewis and Clark. They started from the log cabin village of St. Louis and went by boat up the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains.

They were away nearly two years and a half, and when they came back they brought with them tales of adventure and descriptions of the natural wealth and beauty of Louisiana, and a carefully made map of their trail.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


In 1809 President Jefferson's term ended, and he went back to Monticello—his beautiful home near Charlotteville—to live with his daughter in a house full of rollicking grandchildren. His wife had died many vears before; but Jefferson still kept up the hospitality of their home, receiving and entertaining the many who came, drawn either by friendship or to ask advice of the "Sage of Monticello." Nor did he lose his keen interest in the welfare of Virginia. He had long wanted to see a new university in his State, and during these peaceful years at home he himself founded the University of Virginia.

Jefferson lived until 1826. It is a strange coincidence that his death should have occurred on the 4th of July, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. His body was laid in the family cemetery at Monticello, and on the stone which marked his grave were written the words, "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence."