April 13 was the 275th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, one of history’s greatest men who gave us 60 years of public service. Alexandrians can be proud of our connections to him: he was a regular visitor at George Mason’s Gunston Hall and held his Presidential inauguration party at our Gadsby’s Tavern. The city also owns a letter bearing his signature.
Jefferson deemed his most important accomplishments to be his epitaph were author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and founder of the University of Virginia. In producing his impressive documents, he was indebted to George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. Jefferson edited Mason’s language so admirably that those ideas of freedom were well understood by the common man, and his words have continually inspired people around the world. Indeed, our period of history can well be understood as the Age of Revolution.
Jefferson’s other two proudest accomplishments are a natural derivative of the first. Jefferson wanted to expand the vote (expecting his friend Madison would have a better chance of being elected to the House of Burgesses). Local Baptists who objected to paying taxes to the Anglican Church promised to vote for Madison if they were relieved of this burden and Jefferson had long agreed with that position. After the Revolution, the Anglican Church was unpopular because it was associated with British rule, so the bill finally passed the General Assembly.
Jefferson was a great believer in the potential of the common man to participate in government, but realized he needed to be educated to do so ably. Jefferson had been educated at the College of William and Mary, but wanted to create a new approach to higher education. He drew up the plans for his university, including gardens, hired the professors, helped choose the students and planned the curriculum. When Mr. Jefferson’s university opened in 1825, he was 82 years old. He died the following year, but he had seen his dream fulfilled.
Although not listed among his three most notable accomplishments, he was a significant President. Jefferson knew the United States had to control access to the Mississippi River so Western goods could be transported to the East Coast and abroad, so he authorized the Louisiana Purchase which also doubled our country’s land area. He won the respect and admiration of European powers when he cleaned out the Barbary pirates – which they had cowered from doing. This act enabled the Marine song’s phrase “… to the shores of Tripoli.”
When we celebrate a birthday and other occasions with ice cream, remember Jefferson so enjoyed that treat while he was our ambassador to France that he had his cook learn French cookery. Also pasta! And French wines! Also, as we calculate our taxes, we can be thankful that Jefferson insisted on a decimal based monetary system, not the British pounds, guineas and shillings.
Thank you, Mr. Jefferson, and a belated happy birthday!
Ellen Latane Tabb