Two hundred seventy-eight years ago, on April 13, 1743, Thomas Jefferson was born to Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph on a plantation just a few miles from Charlottesville. Eighty-three years later, Jefferson would die on July 4, 1826, leaving behind one of the most impressive legacies of any American.
Jefferson, like many members of Virginia’s gentry class, studied law, and was admitted to the Virginia bar at the age of 24 and to the Virginia House of Burgesses at 26, making his first forays into politics. When the American Revolution began, Jefferson was one of the delegates at the Second Continental Congress, where he wrote the Declaration of Independence with the aid of four other representatives.
Throughout the war, Jefferson returned to Virginia politics, serving as governor for two years. After the American Revolution ended in success, he returned to the national stage, serving as a minister to France and later secretary of state and vice president. During his eight-year presidency, he conducted the First Barbary War to protect American trade, arranged for the Louisiana Purchase, and authorized the Lewis and Clark expedition, paving the way for westward expansion of the country in the future.
After retiring from the White House, Jefferson turned back to his original loves: education and knowledge. Jefferson hoped to one day establish a school that would be open to the best and brightest minds regardless of social class. In 1819, his dream was realized as the University of Virginia, which would become (and remain) one of the most popular and demanding institutes of learning in the country.
However, while the list of achievements for which Jefferson is remembered is quite long, he himself wished for only three of his acts to be recorded on his epitaph:
HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON, AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
Jefferson’s final achievement may have been the one that brought him the most pride. Jefferson spoke of his idea for the university while he was still president and hoped that his new school would be a suitable alternative to what Jefferson saw as the overly-religious schools such as the College of William and Mary, where he had studied in his youth.
Jefferson balked public trends at the time by centering his school around the Rotunda – a library, rather than a church. He wished for his school to be oriented towards academic excellence, and saw no reason why religion needed to be so intimately tied to higher education.
Jefferson’s wish to separate religion from aspects of public life is echoed in the second achievement for which he wished to be remembered: the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Written in 1777 and passed in law almost a decade later, it was a groundbreaking act that forever severed the official ties between the Church of England and Virginia, making it only the fourth colony to do so. It furthermore guaranteed religious freedom for everyone, Christian or not. The document was one of the first major written defenses of the separation of church and state and freedom to practice religion without persecution, and served as a forerunner to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which expanded the guarantee of religious freedom to the entire country.
While Jefferson himself likely considered the University of Virginia to be his greatest legacy, the Declaration of Independence may be his most important achievement. Written in less than a month, the Declaration was ratified on July 4, 1776, sending a clear statement to Great Britain and the world that “…these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States…”
The Declaration served not only as a list of injustices perpetrated by Britain on the colonies, but in its first few sentences also established Jefferson’s theory of natural rights that are unalienable and cannot be violated by any government. The Declaration is a written defense of the political theory of John Locke, which was expanded by Jefferson into a workable political philosophy.
In the document, Jefferson affirmed to all citizens the rights of “…Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…” and made it clear that the role of government is to secure these rights. As the government of Great Britain had long been trampling these rights in the American Colonies, “…it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government…”
With the Declaration’s words, Jefferson set out a dream of a nation built on the consent of the governed, an idea that would be famously repeated nearly a century later by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, where he swore to defend a government “…of the people, by the people, for the people…”. Jefferson’s ideals of the right to self-governance went on to be codified in the United States Constitution, which formalized the first government built entirely on the consent of its citizenry, a direct rebuke to the pre-Enlightenment ideals of the divine right of kings to rule with absolute authority over their citizens.
On July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day that his greatest work was ratified and declared to the world, Thomas Jefferson died. Hours later, his longtime rival-turned-ally, John Adams, also died. Adams’ son and then-United States president, John Quincy Adams, remarked on the passing of both founding fathers on the Declaration’s anniversary as “visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor.”
Thomas Jefferson, perhaps more so than any other founding father, was a champion of liberty, freedom, and democracy. He helped establish the first nation founded on ideals of equality and liberty, ideals that would take a long time to be fully realized in an imperfect country, but that would be achieved by the ability of subsequent generations to remain committed to the idea that “all men are created equal” and are guaranteed fundamental freedoms and liberty that have now become the founding principles of many nations.
Jefferson’s legacy lives on in the school that he created. The University of Virginia has consistently been ranked among the best universities in the nation, thanks in large part to Jefferson’s commitment to the idea that all people should love to learn. The university maintains many traditions in honor of Jefferson’s ideas, such as the implementation of titles like “third-year” and “fourth-year” in place of the traditional “junior” and “senior”; to Jefferson, learning was a lifelong process, not one that was completed after four years at college.
The University should not be afraid to celebrate the accomplishments of its founder. While Jefferson, like any human being, was not perfect, his ideas of academic excellence and a love for learning gave birth to one of the most famous institutes of learning in the world. By celebrating the life and achievements of Thomas Jefferson, the UVA student community is living up to his wish that students of all backgrounds would be, as then-Vice President Jefferson once wrote, welcomed to “drink of the cup of knowledge” as intellectual equals.
Cheney, Lynne. The Virginia Dynasty: Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation. New York: Viking, 2020
Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestley, Jan. 18, 1800
Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013.