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The early life of any man so distinguished as the subject of this memoir, must ever be interesting, not only to the philosopher, who de lights to follow the gradually expanding mind, from the weakness of infancy, through all the stages of existence, to the full maturity of manhood, and to mark the effect of even trifling causes in ennobling or debasing the mind, and in forming the character; but also, in a degree, to all, whose interest in mankind is not lost in self. When we find a man, to whom have been intrusted the destinies of nations; who has constructed and set in motion great moral machines, whose influence and effects have been felt long after he has passed away; who has been active in promoting either the good or the evil of the human race; we naturally ask, whence he has sprung? With eager curiosity we look back, and in the sports of the child, in the pursuits and occupations of youth, we seek the origin and source of all that is noble and exalted in the man, the germ and the bud from which have burst forth the fair fruit and the beautiful flower; and we carefully treasure up each trifling incident and childish expression, in the hope to trace in them some feature of his after greatness.
Feeling that even the childhood of a man like Thomas Jefferson, and the growth of those feelings and opinions which afterwards embodied themselves in the Declaration of American Independence, would be interesting to every American, we should deem it fortunate, could we give even a short sketch of his early life. But of this, or of his family, we have few accounts; and must, therefore, content ourselves with a general outline of his after life, so full of striking events and useful labors.
Thomas JEFFERSON, the third President of the United States, was born on the second day of April, 1743, (Old Style,) at Shadwell, an estate owned by his father, in Albermarle County, Virginia, and near to Monticelio, where he afterwards resided. His family emigrated at a very early period from a part of Wales, near Mount Snowden, as is supposed, and occupied a most respectable situation in the colony. His father, Peter Jefferson, although self educated, was a man of talent and science, as would appear from the fact, that he was appointed, together with Joshua Fry, then Professor of Mathematics, in William and Mary College, to complete the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina, which had been begun some time before; and also to make the first map of the State, since that made, or rather conjectured, by Captain Smith, could scarcely be called one. His father was married in 1739, to Jane, daughter of Isham Randolph, by whom he had six daughters and two sons, of whom Thomas was the elder.
At the age of five years, Thomas was sent to an English school, and at the age of nine, was placed under the care of Mr. Douglass, with whom he continued till his father's death, in August, 1757; by which event he became possessed of the estate of Shadwell, his birth-place. The two years after his father's decease were passed under the instructions of the Rev. Mr. Maury, who is represented to have been a fine classical scholar, at the termination of which period, that is, in 1760, he entered William and Mary College, where he remained two years. While at this institution, he enjoyed the instruction and conversation of Dr. Small, Professor of Mathematics; and we do not know how we can better express the benefit he received from that source, than in Jefferson's own words. “It was my great good fortune," says he, in the short memoir he has left us, “and probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small, of Scotland, was then Professor of Mathematics; a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me, and made me his daily companion, when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation, I got my first views of the expansion of science, and of the system of things in which we are placed. Fortunately, the philosophical chair became vacant soon after my arrival at college, and he was appointed to fill it per interim : and he was the first who ever gave, in that college, regular lectures in Ethics, Rhetoric, and Belles Lettres. He returned to Europe in 1762, having previously filled up the measure of his goodness to me, by procuring for me, from his most intimate friend, George Wythe, a reception as a student of law, under his direction, and introduced me to the acquaintance and familiar table of Governor Fauquier, the ablest man who had ever filled that office. With him and at his table, Dr. Small and Mr Wythe, his amici omnium horarum, and myself, formed a partie quarrée, and to the habitual conversations on these occasions, I owed much instruction. Mr. Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life.”
In 1767, Mr. Jefferson was called to the bar; and for the short time he continued in the practice of his profession, rose rapidly, and distinguished himself by his energy and acuteness as a lawyer, and by his enlarged and liberal views. But the times called for greater action; and the dull pleadings and circumscribed sphere of a colonial court were ill fitted for such a mind and for such views as Jefferson's. The policy of England, never kind and affectionate towards her colonies, whom she was disposed to treat as a froward child, had for several years past, manifested itself in more open violations of the rights of her American subjects. Her ministers seemed blinded to consequences, and wholly forgetful that the same spirit of liberty, which led the Pilgrims across the Atlantic to seek a refuge from the oppressions of a king and an archbishop, would compel them, now that the arm of the oppressor had followed them across the waters, to resist even unto blood the exactions of a Parliament. This spirit of resistance was already roused among the colonists, and was gradually spreading itself from Massachusetts Bay to the Carolinas; and every proceeding of the mother country was scrutinized and weighed with the utmost jealousy. This, then, was no time for mere professional labor; the political arena was open, and the courts of law were soon deserted; the rights of individuals were forgotten for the rights of nations; the contests for things were neglected, in the contest for principles.
The enlarged views which Mr. Jefferson had ever entertained, soon led him to take an active part in political life, and he abandoned, in a great measure, the profession of the law. In 1769, he was elected a member of the General Assembly of Virginia, for Albemarle County, and it was in this body that he made his first effort in favor of the emancipation of slaves, but without success; for, as he himself remarks, under a regal government, and while every thing was to be made subservient to the interests of the mother country, "nothing liberal could expect success.” This session was of short duration, the Assembly being very early dissolved by the Governor, Lord Botetourt, on account of some offensive resolutions which were passed, countenancing the proceedings of Massachusetts. Mr. Jefferson was, however, immediately reelected, and continued a member until the Revolution put an end to the meeting of those bodies.
In 1773 the Legislature of Virginia appointed a committee of correspondence, of which Mr. Jefferson was one, to communicate with similar committees, which should be appointed in the other parts of the country, for the purpose of animating the people of the different colonies in their resistance to British aggression; and the wisdom of this measure soon became apparent in the unity of operations which it produced during that eventful period, and in the community of sentiment and brotherhood among the inhabitants of the several colonies, whose cause was the same, and who now began to feel themselves one nation.
The people of Virginia, though they had already shown themselves determined not to submit to any infringement of their liberties, were yet far behind Massachusetts in their opposition to the encroachments of the British government. They had not yet felt the full weight of the iron arm of oppression; the acts of Parliament had pressed most heavily on Massachusetts; and the cup of her wrongs was nearly full, when the Boston Port Bill completed the measure. The passage of this bill sent a shock through the colonies, that roused them to a consideration of their situation; for although it was aimed at and intended to operate in a single place, yet it showed too well the determination of the government to destroy, one by one, the liberties of America; it taught them that they must live and die the slaves of absolute power, or promptly and manfully make common cause with Massachusetts. The news of the passage of this bill was received while the Assembly of Virginia was in session; and through the agency of Patrick Henry, Jefferson, and a few other members, a resolution was passed, setting apart the first day of June, 1774, on which the act was to go into operation, as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, “devoutly to implore the divine interposition for averting the heavy calamities which threatened destruction to their civil rights, and the evils of a civil war, and to give them one mind to oppose, by all just and proper means, every injury to American rights.”
This resolution was of course highly offensive to the royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, who immediately had recourse to the usual expedient, and dissolved the assembly. He could not, however, prevent the members from meeting in convention as private individuals, which they immediately did, and passed resolutions, recommending the people of the colony to elect deputies to a State Convention, for the purpose of considering the affairs of the colony, and also to appoint delegates to a a General Congress, in case such a measure should be agreed to by the other colonies. Mr. Jefferson was afterwards chosen a member of the State Convention, which met in pursuance of these resolutions, but was himself unable to attend from sickness. He sent them, however, a draught of some instructions for the delegates to the General Congress, which, though not adopted, were published by the convention, under the title of “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” The terms in which the rights of the colonies were asserted, the authority claimed by the Parliament absolutely and totally denied, and the conduct of the King and the administration commented upon, were esteemed so bold and severe by the majority of the members, that they refused to adopt them; and, in consequence, more mild and temperate instructions were given. The pamphlet soon found its way to England, where, after undergoing some alterations by Mr. Burke, it was published, and several editions circulated. In consequence of this publication, Mr. Jefferson was threatened with a prosecution for high treason by Lord Dunmore, and in England his name was added to those of Hancock, Henry, the Adamses, and others, in a bill of attainder commenced in Parliament, but suppressed in its early stages.
The doctrine advocated by Mr. Jefferson, however universally admitted at the present day, must then have been esteemed singularly bold, as is indeed evident from the fact, that it was disapproved by some of the most ardent patriots of the Revolution. The people, attached as they were to England, were certainly not prepared for it at that period. The substance of it is given by Mr. Jefferson as follows. “I took the ground that, from the beginning, I had thought the only one orthodox or tenable, which was, that the relation between Great Britain and these colonies, was exactly the same as that of England and Scotland, after the accession of James and until the Union, and the same as her present relations with Hanover, having the same executive chief, but no other necessary political connexion; and that our emigration from England to this country, gave her no more rights over us, than the emigrations of the Danes and Saxons, gave to the present authorities of the mother country over England. In this doctrine, however, I had never been able to get any one to agree with me but Mr. Wythe. He concurred in it from the first dawn of the question, What was the political relation between us and England ? Our other patriots, Randolph, the Lees, Nicholas, Pendleton, stopped at the half-way house of John Dickinson, who admitted that England had a right to regulate our commerce, and to lay duties on it for the purposes of regulation, but not of raising revenue. But for this ground there was no foundation in compact, in any acknowledged principles of colonization, nor in reason; expatriation being a natural right, and acted on as such by all nations, in all ages."
The proceedings of the first Congress which met at Philadelphia on the fifth September, 1774, in pursuance of resolutions passed by the several colonies, similar to those of Virginia, do not properly belong to the life of Mr. Jefferson, who was not a member, and are therefore passed orer here without remark. Before the meeting of the second Congress, however, Mr. Jefferson was elected in the place of Peyton Randolph, who, as Speaker of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, was obliged to attend the meeting of that body, and accordingly took his seat on the twenty-first June, 1775, and was very soon placed on several very important committees.
As Mr. Jefferson, with his colleagues, Mr. Lee and Mr. Harrison, were on their way to Philadelphia, an incident is said to have occurred of a most flattering nature, showing the confidence placed in them by their fellow-citizens. They were met by some of the inhabitants of the colony, who, living in the remoter parts of the country, had heard only by report of the tyranny which was preparing for them, and thus addressed: “You assert that there is a fixed design to invade our rights and privileges. We own that we do not see this clearly, but since you assure us that it is so, we believe the fact. We are about to take a very dangerous step, but we confide in you, and are ready to support you in every measure you shall think proper to adopt.”
In August, 1775, Mr. Jefferson was reelected by the Convention of Virginia, to the third Congress, and, during the winter, took an active part in all its proceedings.
To us who now look calmly back on the events of that momentous period, the conduct of the British Ministry seems little short of infatuation. When the American colonists first raised their voice against the acts of the Parliament, it was but to obtain a redress of a few particular grievances; the thought had not occurred to them of a separation from the mother country, and had it been but whispered to them, the proposition would have been universally rejected. They loved their fatherland; they were Englishmen, or the sons of Englishmen, and they looked up to the institutions and the customs of England, with the deepest veneration. They would have endured any thing, but slavery, every thing, but the loss of those rights, which, as Englishmen, they believed unalienable, and which they held dearer than existence itself; and had the British Ministry but adopted conciliatory measures, and relaxed somewhat of their pretensions, they might still have retained the brightest jewel of the British crown. But instead of adopting the wise counsels of Chatham and Burke, they imposed greater burdens, and added insult to oppression, till it was too late ; till the spirit of opposition had acquired a fearful and resistless energy; till the cloud, at first no bigger than a man's hand, had spread over the whole heavens, and the storm burst with a violence that swept before it the firmest bulwarks of British power. For a year or two before the meeting of the Congress of '76, the belief that a separation from the mother country was necessary, had prevailed among the leading men of the colonies, and was now fast increasing