A Fortunate Son
It is the strong in body who are both the strong and free in mind.
—Peter Jefferson, the father of Thomas Jefferson
He was the kind of man people noticed. An imposing, prosperous, well-liked farmer known for his feats of strength and his capacity for endurance in the wilderness, Peter Jefferson had amassed large tracts of land and scores of slaves in and around what became Albemarle County, Virginia. There, along the Rivanna, he built Shadwell, named after the London parish where his wife, Jane, had been baptized.
The first half of the eighteenth century was a thrilling time to be young, white, male, wealthy, and Virginian. Money was to be made, property to be claimed, tobacco to be planted and sold. There were plenty of ambitious men about—men with the boldness and the drive to create farms, build houses, and accumulate fortunes in land and slaves in the wilderness of the mid-Atlantic.
As a surveyor and a planter, Peter Jefferson thrived there, and his eldest son, Thomas, born on April 13, 1743, understood his father was a man other men admired.
Celebrated for his courage, Peter Jefferson excelled at riding and hunting. His son recalled that the father once singlehandedly pulled down a wooden shed that had stood impervious to the exertions of three slaves who had been ordered to destroy the building. On another occasion, Peter was said to have uprighted two huge hogsheads of tobacco that weighed a thousand pounds each—a remarkable, if mythical, achievement.
The father’s standing mattered greatly to the son, who remembered him in a superlative and sentimental light. “The tradition in my father’s family was that their ancestor came to this country from Wales, and from near the mountain of Snowden, the highest in Great Britain,” Jefferson wrote. The connection to Snowden was the only detail of the Jeffersons’ old-world origins to pass from generation to generation. Everything else about the ancient roots of the paternal clan slipped into the mists, save for this: that they came from a place of height and of distinction—if not of birth, then of strength.
Thomas Jefferson was his father’s son. He was raised to wield power. By example and perhaps explicitly he was taught that to be great—to be heeded—one had to grow comfortable with authority and with responsibility. An able student and eager reader, Jefferson was practical as well as scholarly, resourceful as well as analytical.
Jefferson learned the importance of endurance and improvisation early, and he learned it the way his father wanted him to: through action, not theory. At age ten, Thomas was sent into the woods of Shadwell, alone, with a gun. The assignment—the expectation—was that he was to come home with evidence that he could survive on his own in the wild.
The test did not begin well. He killed nothing, had nothing to show for himself. The woods were forbidding. Everything around the boy—the trees and the thickets and the rocks and the river—was frightening and frustrating.
He refused to give up or give in. He soldiered on until his luck finally changed. “Finding a wild turkey caught in a pen,” the family story went, “he tied it with his garter to a tree, shot it, and carried it home in triumph.”
The trial in the forest foreshadowed much in Jefferson’s life. When stymied, he learned to press forward. Presented with an unexpected opening, he figured out how to take full advantage. Victorious, he enjoyed his success.
Jefferson was taught by his father and mother, and later by his teachers and mentors, that a gentleman owed service to his family, to his neighborhood, to his county, to his colony, and to his king. An eldest son in the Virginia of his time grew up expecting to lead—and to be followed. Thomas Jefferson came of age with the confidence that controlling the destinies of others was the most natural thing in the world. He was born for command. He never knew anything else.
The family had immigrated to Virginia from England in 1612, and in the New World they had moved quickly toward prosperity and respectability. A Jefferson was listed among the delegates of an assembly convened at Jamestown in 1619. The future president’s great-grandfather was a planter who married the daughter of a justice in Charles City County and speculated in land at Yorktown. He died about 1698, leaving an estate of land, slaves, furniture, and livestock. His son, the future president’s grandfather, also named Thomas, rose further in colonial society, owning a racehorse and serving as sheriff and justice of the peace in Henrico County. He kept a good house, in turn leaving his son, Peter Jefferson, silver spoons and a substantial amount of furniture. As a captain of the militia, Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather once hosted Colonel William Byrd II, one of Virginia’s greatest men, for a dinner of roast beef and persico wine.
Peter Jefferson built on the work of his fathers. Born in Chesterfield County in 1708, Peter would surpass the first Thomas Jefferson, who had been a fine hunter and surveyor of roads. With Joshua Fry, professor of mathematics at the College of William and Mary, Peter Jefferson drew the first authoritative map of Virginia and ran the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina, an achievement all the more remarkable given his intellectual background. “My father’s education had been quite neglected; but being of a strong mind, sound judgment and eager after information,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “he read much and improved himself.” Self taught, Peter Jefferson became a colonel of the militia, vestryman, and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.
On that expedition to fix the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina, the father proved himself a hero of the frontier. Working their way across the Blue Ridge, Peter Jefferson and his colleagues fought off “the attacks of wild beasts during the day, and at night found but a broken rest, sleeping—as they were obliged to do for safety—in trees,” as a family chronicler wrote.
Low on food, exhausted, and faint, the band faltered—save for Jefferson, who subsisted on the raw flesh of animals (“or whatever could be found to sustain life,” as the family story had it) until the job was done.
Thomas Jefferson grew up with an image—and, until Peter Jefferson’s death when his son was fourteen, the reality—of a father who was powerful, who could do things other men could not, and who, through the force of his will or of his muscles or of both at once, could tangibly transform the world around him. Surveyors defined new worlds; explorers conquered the unknown; mapmakers brought form to the formless. Peter Jefferson was all three and thus claimed a central place in the imagination of his son, who admired his father’s strength and spent a lifetime recounting tales of the older man’s daring. Thomas Jefferson, a great-granddaughter said, “never wearied of dwelling with all the pride of filial devotion and admiration on the noble traits” of his father’s character. The father had shaped the ways other men lived. The son did all he could to play the same role in the lives of others.
Peter Jefferson had married very well, taking a bride from Virginia’s leading family. In 1739, he wed Jane Randolph, a daughter of Isham Randolph, a planter and sea captain. Born in London in 1721, Jane Randolph was part of her father’s household at Dungeness in Goochland County, a large establishment with walled gardens.
The Randolph family traced its colonial origins to Henry Randolph, who emigrated from England in 1642. Marrying a daughter of the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, Henry Randolph thrived in Virginia, holding office in Henrico County and serving as clerk of the House of Burgesses. Returning home to England in 1669, he apparently prevailed on a young nephew, William, to make the journey to Virginia.
William Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s great-grandfather, thus came to the New World at some point between 1669 and 1674; accounts differ. He, too, rose in Virginia with little delay, taking his uncle’s place as Henrico clerk and steadily acquiring vast acreage. An ally of Lord Berkeley, the British governor, William Randolph soon prospered in shipping, raising tobacco, and slave trading.
William became known for his family seat on Turkey Island in the James River, which was described as “a splendid mansion.” With his wife, Mary Isham Randolph, the daughter of the master of a plantation on the James River called Bermuda Hundred, William had ten children, nine of whom survived. The Randolphs “are so numerous that they are obliged, like the clans of Scotland, to be distinguished by their places of residence,” noted Thomas Anburey, an English visitor to Virginia in 1779–80. There was William of Chatsworth; Thomas of Tuckahoe; Sir John of Tazewell Hall, Williamsburg; Richard of Curles Neck; Henry of Longfield; Edward of Bremo. And there was Isham of Dungeness, who was Jefferson’s maternal grandfather.
As a captain and a merchant, Jefferson’s grandfather moved between the New and Old Worlds. About 1717, he married an Englishwoman, Jane Rogers, who was thought to be a “pretty sort of woman.” They lived in London and at their Goochland County estate in Virginia.
In 1737, a merchant described Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather’s family as “a very gentle, well-dressed people.” Jefferson’s mother, Jane, was a daughter of this house and had an apparent sense of pride in her British ancestry. She was said to have descended from “the powerful Scotch Earls of Murray, connected by blood or alliance with many of the most distinguished families in the English and Scotch peerage, and with royalty itself.”
The family of William Byrd II—he was to build Westover, a beautiful Georgian plantation mansion on the James River south of Richmond—had greater means than the Jeffersons, but the description of a fairly typical day for Byrd in February 1711 gives a sense of what life was like for the Virginia elite in the decades before the birth of Thomas Jefferson.
I rose at 6 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Lucian. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast. I danced my dance [exercised] and then went to the brick house to see my people pile the planks and found them all idle for which I threatened the soundly but did not whip them. The weather was cold and the wind at northeast. I wrote a letter to England. Then I read some English till 12 o’clock when Mr. Dunn and his wife came. I ate boiled beef for dinner. In the afternoon Mr. Dunn and I played at billiards. Then we took a long walk about the plantation and looked over all my business. . . . At night I ate some bread and cheese.
Whether in the Tidewater regions closer to the Atlantic or in the forested hills of the Blue Ridge, the Virginia into which Jefferson was born offered lives of privilege to its most fortunate sons.
Visiting Virginia and Maryland, an English traveler observed “the youth of these more indulgent settlements . . . are pampered much more in softness and ease than their neighbors more northward.” Children were instructed in music and taught to dance, including minuets and what were called “country-dances.” One tutor described such lessons at Nomini Hall, the Carter family estate roughly one hundred miles east of Albemarle. The scene of young Virginians dancing, he said, “was indeed beautiful to admiration, to see such a number of young persons, set off by dress to the best advantage, moving easily, to the sound of well-performed music, and with perfect regularity.”
Thomas Jefferson was therefore born to a high rank of colonial society and grew up as the eldest son of a prosperous, cultured, and sophisticated family. They dined with silver, danced with grace, entertained constantly.
His father worked in his study on the first floor of the house—it was one of four rooms on that level—at a cherry desk. Peter Jefferson’s library included Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and Paul de Rapin-Thoyras’s History of England. “When young, I was passionately fond of reading books of history, and travels,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. Of note were George Anson’s Voyage Round the World and John Ogilby’s America, both books that offered the young Jefferson literary passage to larger worlds. A grandson recalled Jefferson’s saying that “from the time when, as a boy, he had turned off wearied from play and first found pleasure in books, he had never sat down in idleness.”
It was a world of leisure for well-off white Virginians. “My father had a devoted friend to whose house he would go, dine, spend the night, dine with him again on the second day, and return to Shadwell in the evening,” Jefferson recalled. “His friend, in the course of a day or two, returned the visit, and spent the same length of time at his house. This occurred once every week; and thus, you see, they were together four days out of the seven.” The food was good and plentiful, the drink strong and bracing, the company cheerful and familiar.
Jefferson believed his first memory was of being handed up to a slave on horseback and carried, carefully, on a pillow for a long journey: an infant white master being cared for by someone whose freedom was not his own. Jefferson was two or three at the time. On that trip the family was bound for Tuckahoe, a Randolph estate about sixty miles southeast of Shadwell. Tuckahoe’s master, Jane Randolph Jefferson’s cousin William Randolph, had just died. A widower, William Randolph had asked Peter Jefferson, his “dear and loving friend,” to come to Tuckahoe in the event of his death and raise Randolph’s three children there, and Peter Jefferson did so. (William Randolph and Peter Jefferson had been so close that Peter Jefferson had once purchased four hundred acres of land—the ultimate site of Shadwell—from Randolph. The price: “Henry Weatherbourne’s biggest bowl of arrack [rum] punch!”)
The Jeffersons would stay on the Randolph place for seven years, from the time William Randolph died, when Thomas was two or three, until Thomas was nine or ten.
Peter Jefferson, who apparently received his and his family’s living expenses from the Randolph estate (which he managed well), used the years at Tuckahoe to discharge his duty to his dead friend while his own Albemarle fields were being cleared. This was the era of many of Peter Jefferson’s expeditions, which meant he was away from home for periods of time, leaving his wife and the combined Randolph and Jefferson families at Tuckahoe.
The roots of the adult Jefferson’s dislike of personal confrontation may lie partly in the years he spent at Tuckahoe as a member of a large combined family. Though the eldest son of Peter and Jane Jefferson, Thomas was spending some formative years in a house not his own. His nearest contemporary, Thomas Mann Randolph, was two years older than he was, and this Thomas Randolph was the heir of the Tuckahoe property. Whether such distinctions manifested themselves when the children were so young is unknowable, but Jefferson emerged from his childhood devoted to avoiding conflict at just about any cost. It is possible his years at Tuckahoe set him on a path toward favoring comity over controversy in face-to-face relations.
Copyright © 2012 by Jon Meacham. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.