Thomas Jefferson Biography ID 12

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy hosted a White House dinner for America's Nobel Laureates. He told the assemblage that this was "probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius in this house except for those times when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Jefferson was a man of many talents. He began his career as a lawyer, served in the Virginia House of Delegates, and subsequently became governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, secretary of state, vice president, and president. But when he wrote the epitaph that appears over his grave, he mentioned none of these public offices. He simply stated that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and the father of the University of Virginia.

An architect, inventor, philosopher, planter, and scientist, he was convinced that the yeoman farmer, who labors in the earth, provides the backbone of republican society. A stalwart defender of political, intellectual, and religious freedom, he took as his inspiration, the motto on his family crest: "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God." A child of the Enlightenment, he popularized the idea that the success of republican society depended on an informed citizenry and that government should create a system of state-supported education to nurture a meritocracy based on talent and ability.

Jefferson was an extremely complex man, and his life is filled with many inconsistencies. An idealist who repeatedly denounced slavery as a curse and expressed his willingness to support any feasible plan to eradicate the institution, he owned 200 slaves when he wrote the Declaration of Independence and freed only five slaves at the time of his death.

Yet Jefferson remains this country's most eloquent exponent of democratic principles. Abraham Lincoln said that his words will always "be a rebuke and stumbling block to… tyranny and oppression."

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