On this day, April 13, in 1743, Thomas Jefferson, who went on to become the third president of the United States, was born in what is now known as Albermarle County, Virginia.
Jefferson profoundly influenced the founding of the United States in any number of ways, but the thing he is, and probably always will be, most remembered for is his involvement in drafting the Declaration of Independence. And rightly so!
There is, of course, much more to be highlighted about Jefferson:
his role in de-institutionalizing the Anglican Church in Virginia based on his belief in the separation of church and state;
his role in founding the University of Virginia;
his role as a diplomat;
his negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the size of the new nation overnight, and;
his ongoing debates with Alexander Hamilton regarding the scope of the federal government.
Hamilton, for instance, believed presidents should be elected for life, and he further believed that governors of states should simply be appointed by presidents, rather than being elected by the people. He even went so far as to once complain of the “excess of democracy” in the new nation. Without Jefferson’s work in championing restricting the power of the federal government, we could very likely have a very different nation today.
As a vice-president and later as president, Jefferson made political enemies among the Federalists (those who favored a strong, centralized government) due to his outspoken defense of a limited federal government. Though scholars generally agree there’s no evidence Jefferson ever spoke this commonly misattributed quote, “That government is best which governs least,” the words do certainly sum up Jefferson’s beliefs.
Jefferson violated his own most deeply held principles concerning human freedom by owning slaves. A lesser known fact is that though Jefferson owned slaves, he did fight to place restrictions on America’s slave system. In 1808, during his second term in office, Congress passed, with his support, an act prohibiting the importation of any more African slaves to the United States.
One of the most admirable things about Jefferson is that he, unlike so many modern day politicians, was not ambitious for political power. After the revolution, he kept trying to retire to Monticello, his farm in Virginia, but he kept being asked to return to Washington to help guide the new nation.
In accepting his role as statesman, he was doing what he regarded as best for his country, not what he would simply prefer for himself. This is a quality of character all too often missing in today’s political landscape. Such a disinterest in power would be a welcome and refreshing thing to see among contemporary elected officials, wouldn’t it?