Today in History

Today in History: April 13

Thomas Jefferson

Let me describe to you a man, not yet forty, tall, and with a mild and pleasing countenance…. An American, who without ever having quitted his own country, is at once a musician, skilled in drawing, a geometrician, an astronomer, a natural philosopher, legislator, and statesman…. Sometimes natural philosophy, at others politics or the arts, were the topics of our conversation, for no object had escaped Mr. Jefferson; and it seemed as if from his youth he had placed his mind, as he has done his house, on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the universe.

Description of a visit to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1782,
from Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780-81-82 by the Marquis de Chastellux.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States, [detail],
Pendleton's Lithography after a painting by Gilbert Stuart, circa 1828.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

Thomas Jefferson (external link) was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia.*  He was educated at the College of William and Mary and read law under the eminent Virginia jurist George Wythe.  A member of the group of Virginia radicals who opposed Parliamentary policy from the early stages of the American Revolution, Jefferson came to special prominence in 1774 as the author of the influential pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America. The following year he was elected to the Second Continental Congress, where he was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence at the age of thirty-three.

Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence
Jefferson's Original Rough Draught of the Declaration of Independence,
Thomas Jefferson, June 1776.
From the Top Treasures section of the exhibition American Treasures of the Library of Congress

After the American colonies declared independence from Britain, Jefferson worked for the revision of the laws of his home state of Virginia in order to bring them into conformity with the principles he had articulated in the Declaration. Near the close of the Revolution, he also served two terms as Virginia’s governor.  After a brief retirement that ended with the death of his young wife of ten years, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, in 1782, Jefferson returned to Congress and crafted legislation that laid the foundation for governance of America’s western territories.

Document
An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson,
broadside printed by Laidler, July 1786.
Section V: Religion and the State Governments in
Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

Although he had drafted a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1777, Virginia's General Assembly postponed its passage. In January 1786, through the efforts of James Madison, the bill was passed as An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.  Pioneering in its affirmation of the absolute right to freedom of belief (or unbelief)—in Jefferson’s words, “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination”—it was widely hailed in Europe, where Jefferson was then serving as America’s minister to France, and has since been recognized as a landmark in the development of human rights.

Returning to the United States after the ratification of the Constitution, Jefferson served as the nation’s first secretary of state and then as its vice president.  During these years, he became the first leader of one of the nation’s two earliest political parties, the Republican Party, from which today’s Democratic Party descends. 

In the election of 1800, which he and his followers framed as a contest between aristocratic Federalists and the more democratic Republicans, Jefferson defeated his old friend John Adams to become the third president of the United States. In that capacity he skillfully merged the roles of president and party leader, setting a precedent that all presidents since have followed.  Highlights of his two-term presidency included the acquisition of the vast Louisiana Territory from France and Jefferson’s initiation and guidance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

These achievements were in some measure offset in his second term by the Embargo of American maritime commerce and navigation, a desperate attempt to keep the young nation out of war with Britain.  The deeply unpopular Embargo failed and was repealed as Jefferson left office.  War with Britain followed in 1812, and in 1814 the British set fire to the U.S. Capitol, destroying the fledgling Congressional Library.  As an inveterate collector of books, Jefferson was able to sell his superb personal library to Congress in 1815 as the foundation of the new Library of Congress.

Monticello
Monticello, Home of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville, Virginia,
John Collier, photographer, April 1943.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945

The last years of his life were spent in retirement at his Virginia estate, Monticello (external link), in the house he designed (external link). Although Jefferson had no formal architectural training, his influential designs and lifelong commitment to the importance of architecture in the life of the nation did much to establish a distinctive American classicism. And in the eight years before his death on July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of American independence—Jefferson founded, designed, and directed the building of the University of Virginia. (external link)

Jurist, diplomat, writer, philosopher, architect, gardener, statesman, and principal founder of the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson requested that only three of his many accomplishments be noted on his tomb at Monticello: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”

University of Virginia
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, copyright 1909.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, 1606-1827, includes approximately 27,000 documents, or some 83,000 images, from the Library’s collection of Jefferson’s papers, which is the largest group of original Jefferson documents in the world. The online version of the collection also includes additional features such as an essay on Jefferson by the historian Joseph J. Ellis and timelines of Jefferson's life and of the early Virginia history whose records Jefferson collected and preserved with his own.

*With the intention of more accurately reflecting a solar year, the Julian (“Old Style”) Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. At that time Thomas Jefferson's April 2, 1743, birth date was adjusted to the “New Style” date of April 13, 1743. (Return to text)

Grand Old Flag

Flag, U.S. Capitol
Flag and East Front of Capitol,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer, circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

Although it did not become official until July 4, on April 13, 1818, a new flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol for the first time. The flag's thirteen stripes represented the original colonies; its twenty stars symbolized the number of states in the Union at that time. Samuel C. Reid designed the flag, which was sewed by his wife and her friends, and sent it by mail to the Capitol.  Congressman Peter H. Wendover arranged for the flag to fly over the Capitol on the same day that it was received in Washington, D.C.  Since the arrangement of the stars was not yet standardized (and was not until 1912), the stars on Reid’s flag were arranged into one big star.

The first national flag, emblazoned with thirteen stripes and thirteen stars, was modified in 1795 when Kentucky and Vermont entered the Union. The flag with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner."

Continued expansion of the Union meant Congress soon again faced the prospect of adding to the number of the flag's stars and stripes. Thus, in 1818, Congress settled on the expediency of altering the flag according to its present formula whereby stripes represent the original thirteen colonies, and stars are coincident with the number of states in the Union. The Independence Day following the admission of a state was set as the occasion for adding new stars to the flag. After Hawaii became a state on August 21, 1959, the fiftieth star was added to the flag on July 4, 1960.

woman with flag
She Has Been Shopping and Bought a Flag for the Fourth of July, Caldwell, Idaho,
Russell Lee, photographer, June-July 1941.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945

"True to the Flag March,"
composed by F. von Blon,
performed by United States Marine Band,
recorded 1922.
Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

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