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Thomas Jefferson

“He loved his wife, his books, his farms, good wine, architecture, Homer, horseback riding, history, France, the Commonwealth of Virginia, spending money, and the very latest in ideas and insights. He believed in America, and in Americans. The nation, he said in his first inaugural address in 1801, was ‘the world’s best hope.’ He thought Americans themselves capable of virtually anything they put their minds to. ‘Whatever they can, they will,’ Jefferson said of his countrymen in 1814.

A formidable man, ‘Mr. Jefferson was as tall, straight-bodied man as ever you see, right square-shouldered,’ said Isaac Granger Jefferson, a Monticello slave. ‘Neat a built man as ever was seen … a straight-up man, long face, high nose.’ Edmund Bacon, a Monticello overseer, said that Jefferson ‘was like a fine horse; he had no surplus flesh.… His countenance was always mild and pleasant.’…

A philosopher and a scientist, a naturalist and a historian, Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, always looking forward, consumed by the quest for knowledge. He adored detail, noting the temperature each day and carrying a tiny, ivory-leaved notebook in his pocket to track his daily expenditures. He drove his horses hard and fast and considered the sun his ‘almighty physician.’ Jefferson was fit and virile, a terrific horseman and inveterate walker. He drank no hard liquor but loved wine, taking perhaps three glasses a day. He did not smoke. When he received gifts of Havana cigars from well-wishers, he passed them along to friends.

Jefferson never tired of invention and inquiry, designing dumbwaiters and hidden mechanisms to open doors at Monticello. He delighted in archaeology, paleontology, astronomy, botany, and meteorology, and once created his own version of the Gospels by excising the New Testament passages he found supernatural or implausible and arranging the remaining verses in the order he believed they should be read. He drew sustenance from music and found joy in gardening. He bought and built beautiful things, creating Palladian plans for Monticello and the Roman-inspired capitol of Virginia, which he designed after seeing an ancient temple in Nîmes, in the south of France. He was an enthusiastic patron of pasta, took the trouble to copy down a French recipe for ice cream, and enjoyed the search for the perfect dressing for his salads. He kept shepherd dogs (two favorites were named Bergere and Grizzle). He knew Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish.

He was also a student of human nature, a keen observer of what drove other men, and he loved knowing the details of other lives…

A guest at a country inn was said to have once struck up a conversation with a ‘plainly-dressed and unassuming traveler’ whom the stranger did not recognize. The two covered subject after subject, and the unremarkable traveler was ‘perfectly acquainted with each.’ Afterward, ‘filled with wonder,’ the guest asked the landlord who this extraordinary man was. When the topic was the law, the traveler said, ‘he thought he was a lawyer’; when it was medicine, he ‘felt sure he was a physician’; when it was theology, ‘he became convinced that he was a clergyman.’

The landlord’s reply was brief. ‘Oh, why I thought you knew the Squire.'”


From the prologue to Jon Meacham’s biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

If you enjoyed the above excerpt, check out a similarly readable and expansive biographical sketch of one of Jefferson’s chief political rivals and late-life companions, John Adams, in an excerpt pulled from David McCullough’s eponymous biography:

John Adams

Meet John Adams

Click here for the rest of the Bully Pulpit’s posts relating to Jefferson or the American founders.