April 13, 2010

Thomas Jefferson's Birthday

On this day in 1743, Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia. At age 33, he wrote the U. S. Declaration of Independence, and he served as governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President.

He was arguably one of the most intelligent presidents the United States has ever had, and one of the greatest.
Many years after Thomas Jefferson died, President Kennedy invited 49 Nobel Prize winners to a White House dinner. He told them, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House– with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."


Thomas Jefferson was a polyglot who spoke Greek, French, Italian, Latin and Spanish, as well as English. He was a polymath who “achieved distinction” as a horticulturalist (one who works with plants and gardens), architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, inventor, political leader and writer. He was a lawyer, a violinist, a horseman, and a scientist. He dabbled in theology and Biblical criticism. As well as serving his country in the positions listed above, Jefferson served as a Virginia lawmaker and as minister to France. He also founded the University of Virginia.

Jefferson died, coincidentally, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Another coincidence about his death is that John Adams, the second U.S. president, died just a few hours later on the same date. Jefferson wrote his own epitaph (a saying carved on a tomb or grave marker), and he insisted that it be used without changing a word or adding any words. Here is what it says:

"HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE

OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA."

Notice that
Jefferson didn't mention about himself being governor, secretary of state, vice-president, or president. Interesting to see what made him feel proudest!

By the way, you might also notice that the epitaph doesn't include dates. There is a separate panel on which is written,
“BORN APRIL 2. 1743. O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1825.”


I know, you're probably thinking April 2??? I thought his birthday is April 13!

Well, the letters “O.S.” after his birth date mean “Old Style,” and they refer to the fact that Jefferson was bo
rn before the U.S. changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. In much of the Western world the day of his birth was April 13, and scholars retroactively reassign the Gregorian dates to make things consistent.

Learn more about Jefferson
  • The Garden of Praise has a short essay about Thomas Jefferson, plus a slide show, game, jigsaw puzzle, crossword puzzles, coloring activities, and quizzes. And probably a lot more.
WARNING: The online coloring activity from the Garden of Praise is rather silly (the sketchy type of drawing isn't suited to online coloring!), so if you like that kind of activity, this is a better choice:
  • Here is a video about Jefferson and his presidential style.
  • Thomas Jefferson is one of only four presidents carved onto Mount Rushmore. Here is a jigsaw of that famous landmark.
  • Here is an interactive word search puzzle about Thomas Jefferson.
  • And here is an interesting page about Jefferson's inventions.
In honor of Jefferson...
  • Eat mac'n'cheese!
There are some rumors that Thomas Jefferson invented macaroni and cheese, but that isn't true. However, he did seem to be a fan of this tasty dish, even serving it to presidential guests! (Also, he may have owned one of America's earliest pasta-making machines.) One of the things found in Jefferson's papers was a recipe for macaroni, written in his handwriting.
  • Eat ice cream!
Another favorite food of Jefferson's was ice cream. He wrote the first known American recipe for ice cream, found here as he wrote it (and at the bottom of the page in a revised version for modern times).
  • Record your life.
Thomas Jefferson used to get up early every morning and record temperatures, wind direction, and signs of weather or season in the sky and among plants and animals. During the entire day, he walked around with pocket-sized scales, a compass, a thermometer, drawing instruments, an a pocket-sized level and globe. He also carried about a small notebook and pencil. At any time, he could measure and/or make notes about his surroundings. Later each day, he transcribed the information into his record books. (Paper was dear enough, back then, that he would always erase the penciled notes so that that notebook page could be reused!)

Nowadays Facebook and Twitter and iPhones make it easy for many of us to keep records of our lives. I know some people are using the new technology to note and share stuff that is really important—such as wildlife sightings and light-pollution conditions.


Even if you don't have all the
latest gizmos, you can keep track of things in your own life like Jefferson did—with paper, pencil, and pen. You can watch neighborhood birds, keep weather records, study an ant hill in the yard...or?
  • Tour his life (Monticello)...
  • (Under the heading “Monticello Explorer,” click “Launch the Explorer.”


Here's a good question:


Why was the “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” even more important to Jefferson himself than being president?

(I refer, of course, to Jefferson's mention of this law, but not his presidency, on his tombstone.)


For Jefferson, separation of church and state were very necessary to avoid tyranny. During the time of the American Revolution, Virginia had a state church: the Anglican church. People's taxes supported the church (so even people who didn't belong to the church had to support it), and people who did not agree with that particular church were denied rights (they couldn't hold office or sue people in court) and were sometimes even punished (by imprisonment).


An example of the result of having a state-established religion is that Virginians who were elected to office had to swear that they did not have certain Catholic beliefs.


Jefferson pointed out that having a state religion coerces people to say that they share the majority belief—which means that, to some extent, the established church becomes more and more full of hypocrites who have to say that they believe something that they do not believe. Jefferson pointed out that having government stay completely away from religion helps the individual citizen AND religion, too!


Jefferson proposed his religious freedom statute (law) in 1779. He worked from 1784 to 1786, along with James Madison, to oppose Patrick Henry's attempts to support the church with taxes. Finally, in 1786, the Virginia Assembly passed his Bill for Religious Freedom.

Jefferson used the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State.” He believed that this principle was expressed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He stated in many letters and written materials that churches should be neither persecuted nor given any special status.

His ideas were hailed as providing “freedom of the mind,” and his law was praised by many all over the world.
Yet even today many governments DO have established churches (although I'm happy to report than most of these same governments also allow people to worship in other, non-state-supported churches). Even though Jefferson's ideas are very key to the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court decisions, many Americans seem to be confused about what these ideas are, and why they are so important.

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