Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence. His father was a Virginia planter, and also a surveyor. The father was a man of strong frame, able to stand between two great hogsheads of tobacco lying on their sides and set both on end at once. He lived a hardy life, surveying in the woods.
Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743. His father died when he was fourteen, and left him the owner of a large plantation. Like most Virginia boys, he was fond of hunting, riding, and swimming. But he did not waste his life in sport. When he went to college at Williamsburg he became a famous student. Sometimes he studied fifteen hours a day, which would have been too much if he had not been strong. No man in all America, perhaps, was his superior in knowledge.
While he was a student, the colonies were thrown into violent excitement by the passage of the Stamp Act in England. This was a law for taxing the Americans, made without their consent. While this excitement was raging, young Jefferson went into the Virginia Legislature one day and heard the famous speech of Patrick Henry against the Stamp Act.
In the midst of his speech Patrick Henry cried out, "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III‚" At this point everybody thought Henry was going to threaten the death of George III, who was King of England and of the colonies. This would have been treason. So, without waiting for Henry to finish, some of those who heard him broke into an uproar, crying out, "Treason! treason!" But when they paused, Patrick Henry finished by saying, "George III may profit by their example. If that be treason, make the most of it." This scene made a deep impression on young Jefferson.
Jefferson's wealth was in creased by his marriage. He build him a house which he called Monticello [mon-te-chel´-lo], meaning, "little mountain," from its situation on a high hill. Jefferson was very fond of trying new things. He introduced foreign plants and trees, and he bought in new articles of furniture and new ways of building houses.
While yet a young man he was sent to the Virginia Legislature, and then to Congress. He strongly favored the War of the Revolution. John Adams and others tried to persuade Congress to declare the colonies independent of England. At last a committee was appointed to write the Declaration. Jefferson was not a great speaker, but he was a brilliant writer. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it was signed by the members of Congress on the Fourth of July, 1776.
In the Declaration Jefferson had declared that "all men are created equal." He now set about abolishing some of the laws which kept men from being equal in this country. In his own State of Virginia much of the land was tied up so that it could only descend to the oldest son. This was called the law of entail. Jefferson got this law abolished, so that a father's land would be more equally divided among his children.
There were also laws in most of the States which established some religious denomination as the religion of the State, and supported it by taxed. Jefferson got Virginia to pass a law separation the State from the Church, and making all men equal in regard to their religion.
Jefferson was governor of Virginia during part of the Revolutionary War, and he had to make great exertions to defend the State from the British. The British troops at length marched on Monticello, and Jefferson had to flee from his house.
Two of Jefferson's negro slaves, whose names were Martin and Caesar, made haste to hide their master's silver plate. They had raised a plank in the floor, and Caesar was crouched under the floor hiding the silverware as Martin handed it down to him. Just as the last piece went down, Martin saw the redcoats approaching. He dropped the plank, leaving Caesar a prisoner. In this uncomfortable place the faithful fellow lay still for three days and nights without food.
Jefferson was very loving and tender to his family. It was a great sorrow to him that four out of his six children died very young. His wife also died at the close of the Revolutionary War.
Jefferson was sent to take Franklin's place as American Minister to France. He was there five years, and then returned to America. He had always been kind to the negroes on his plantation. When he got back they were so rejoiced that they took him out of his carriage and carried him into the house, some of them crying and others laughing with delight because "massa come home again."
While Jefferson was gone, the Constitution of the United States had been adopted and General Washington had been elected President. He appointed Jefferson Secretary of State. Jefferson resigned this office after some years, and went back to Monticello.
In 1796 he was elected Vice President, and in 1800 he was chosen President of the United States. As President he introduced a more simple way of living and transacting business. He was much opposed to pomp and ceremony. It is said that when he was inaugurated he rode to the Capitol on horseback and hitched his horse to the fence. Another account has it that he walked there in company with a few gentlemen. At any rate, he would have no display, but lived like a simple citizen.
When Jefferson became President the United States extended only to the Mississippi River. President Jefferson bought from France a great region west of the Mississippi, larger than all the United States had been before that time. This is known as the "Louisiana purchase," because all the country bought from France was then called Louisiana. It has been cut up into many States since its purchase.
Jefferson was elected President a second time in 1804. In 1809 he retired to Monticello, where he lived the remainder of his life.
He was once riding with his grandson when a negro bowed to them. Jefferson returned the bow, but the boy did not. Jefferson turned to his grandson and said, "Do you allow a poor negro to be more of a gentleman than you are?"
While he was President, Jefferson was once riding on horseback with some friends. An old man stood by a stream waiting to get across without wetting his feet. After most of the others had passed over, he asked Jefferson to take him on behind and carry him across, which he did. When he had got down, a gentleman, coming up behind, asked him, "Why did you ask him, and not some other gentleman in the party?"
"I did not like to ask them," said the old man; "but the old gentleman there looked like he would do it, and so I asked him." He was very much surprised to learn that it was the President who had carried him over.
After Jefferson retired from the presidency so many people desired to see him that his plantation house was overrun with company, until he was made poor by entertaining those who came. It is related that one woman even poked a pane of glass out with her parasol, in order to see the man who wrote the great Declaration.
John Adams, the second President, and Jefferson, the third, lived to be very old. They died on the same day. Curiously, that day was the 4th of July, 1826. If you subtract 1776 from 1826, you will find that they died exactly fifty years after the day on which the great Declaration was signed. And they were the two men who had the largest share in the making of the Declaration of Independence.