25 Things You Might Not Know About Thomas Jefferson

iStock
iStock

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third president of the United States, penned one of the greatest documents of the modern world in the Declaration of Independence. While that’s certainly a career highlight, it’s far from the only interesting thing about him. For more on Jefferson’s life, accomplishments, and controversies, take a look at this assembly of 25 facts.

1. He was addicted to learning.

Born April 13 (April 2 on the pre-Gregorian calendar), 1743 at his father’s Shadwell plantation in Virginia, Jefferson was one of 10 children (eight of whom survived to adulthood). While he attended the College of William and Mary (he graduated in 1762), he was said to have studied for 15 hours daily on top of violin practice. The hard work paid off: Jefferson moved into law studies before becoming a lawyer in 1767. Two years later, he became a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the Virginia legislature. His autodidact ways continued throughout his life: Jefferson could speak four languages (English, Italian, French, Latin) and read two more (Greek and Spanish).

2. His greatest work was a study in contradiction.

As a member of the Second Continental Congress and the “Committee of Five” (a group consisting of John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson brought together for this purpose), Jefferson was tasked with writing the Declaration of Independence, an argument against the 13 colonies being held under British rule. While the Declaration insisted that all men are created equal and that their right to liberty is inherent at birth, Jefferson’s plantation origins meant that he embraced the institution of slavery. In any given year, Jefferson supervised up to 200 slaves, with roughly half under the age of 16. He perpetuated acts of cruelty, sometimes selling slaves and having them relocated away from their families as punishment. Yet in a book titled Notes on the State of Virginia (which he began writing during his stint as governor and published in 1785), Jefferson wrote that he believed the practice was unjust and “tremble[d]” at the idea of God exacting vengeance on those who perpetuated it. Though Jefferson acknowledged slavery as morally repugnant—and also criticized the slave trade in a passage that was cut from the Declaration of Independence "in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia”—he offered no hesitation in benefiting personally from it, a hypocrisy that would haunt his legacy through the present day.

3. He didn't like being rewritten.

After drafting the Declaration, Jefferson waited as Congress poured over his document for two days. When they broke session, Jefferson was annoyed to find that they were calling for extensive changes and revisions. He disliked the fact the passage criticizing the slave trade was to be omitted, along with some of his harsh words against British rule. Benjamin Franklin soothed his irritation, and the finished Declaration was adopted July 4, 1776, spreading via horseback and ship throughout that summer.

4. He recorded everything.

After inheriting his family’s Shadwell estate, Jefferson began constructing a new brick mansion on the property he dubbed Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian. For operations at Monticello and the properties he would acquire later in life, Jefferson was preoccupied with recording the minutiae of his daily routine, jotting down journal entries about the weather, his expansive garden, and the behavior of animals on his property. He kept a running tally of the hogs killed in a given year, mused about crop rotations, and noted the diet of his slaves.

5. He doubled the size of the country.

Jefferson’s greatest feat as president, an office he held from 1801 to 1809, was the Louisiana Purchase, a treaty-slash-transaction with France that effectively doubled the size of the United States. The deal took careful diplomacy, as Jefferson knew that France controlling the Mississippi River would have huge ramifications on trade movements. Fortunately, Napoleon Bonaparte was in the mood to deal, hoping the sale of the 830,000 square miles would help finance his armed advances on Europe. Bonaparte wanted $22 million; he settled for $15 million. Jefferson was elated, though some critics alleged the Constitution didn’t strictly allow for a president to purchase foreign soil.

6. He fought pirates.

Another instance where Jefferson pushed the limits of his Constitutional power was his fierce response to Barbary pirates, a roving band of plunderers from North Africa who frequently targeted supply ships in the Mediterranean and held them for ransom. Under Jefferson’s orders, American warships were dispatched to confront the pirates directly rather than capitulate to their demands. The initial Navy push was successful, but the pirates were able to capture a massive American frigate—which an American raiding party subsequently set fire to so the ship couldn't be used against them. A treaty was declared in 1805, although tensions resumed in what was known as the Second Barbary War in 1815. Again, Naval ships forced Algerian ships to retreat.

7. He helped popularize ice cream in the U.S.

Jefferson spent time in France in the 1700s as a diplomat, and that’s where he was likely introduced to the dessert delicacy known as ice cream. While not the first to port over recipes to the United States, his frequent serving of it during his time as president contributed to increased awareness. Jefferson was so fond of ice cream that he had special molds and tools imported from France to help his staff prepare it; because there was no refrigeration at the time, the confections were typically kept in ice houses and brought out to the amusement of guests, who were surprised by a frozen dish during summer parties. He also left behind what may be the first ice cream recipe in America: six egg yolks, a half-pound of sugar, two bottles of cream, and one vanilla bean.

8. He bribed a reporter.

Presidential scandals and dogged newspaper reporters are not strictly a 20th or 21st century dynamic. In the 1790s, a reporter named James Callender ran articles condemning several politicians—including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—for various indiscretions. In 1801, he turned his attention to Jefferson, whom he alleged was having an affair with one of his slaves, a woman named Sally Hemings. Callender went to Jefferson and demanded he receive $200 and a job as a postmaster in exchange for his silence. Disgusted, Jefferson gave him $50. Callender eventually broke the news that Hemings and Jefferson had been involved, a relationship that resulted in several children. Jefferson supporters ignored the story—which modern-day DNA testing later corroborated—but Callender was never in a position to gather more evidence: He drowned in the James River in 1803.

9. He had a pet mockingbird.

Even before the Revolution, Jefferson had taken a liking to mockingbirds, and he brought this affection to the White House, which they filled with melodious song. (And, presumably, bird poop.) But he was singularly affectionate toward one mockingbird he named Dick. The bird was allowed to roam Jefferson’s office or perch on the president’s shoulder. When Jefferson played his violin, Dick would accompany with vocals. Dick and his colleagues followed Jefferson back to Monticello when he was finished with his second term in 1809.

10. He invented a few things.

Not one to sit idle, Jefferson used his available free time to consider solutions to some of the problems that followed him at his Monticello farming endeavors. Anxious to till soil more efficiently, he and his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, conceived of a plow that could navigate hills. He also tinkered with a way of improving a dumbwaiter, the elevator typically used to deliver food and other goods from one floor to another.

11. His wife had a curious connection to his mistress.

Jefferson was married for just 10 years before his wife, Martha Wayles, died in 1782 at age 33 of unknown causes. Curiously, Jefferson’s involvement with his slave, Sally Hemings, was part of Martha's convoluted family tree. Martha’s father, John Wayles, had an affair with Sally’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings—meaning most historians think Sally and Martha were half-sisters.

12. He's credited with creating a catchphrase.

During his second term as president, Jefferson was said to have run into a man on horseback near his Monticello estate who proceeded to engage him in a lengthy complaint of everything wrong in Washington. Reportedly, the man had no idea he was speaking to the commander-in-chief until Jefferson introduced himself. The man, deeply embarrassed, quickly spouted “my name is Haines” and then galloped away. True or not, Jefferson is credited with originating the resulting catchphrase that was popular in the 1800s, with people saying “my name is Haines” whenever they wanted to feign embarrassment or were forced to leave abruptly.

13. He was served with a subpoena.

Long before Richard Nixon landed in hot water, Thomas Jefferson resisted attempts to compel him to testify in court. The matter unraveled in 1807, when James Wilkinson insisted he had sent Jefferson a letter informing him of Aaron Burr’s plot to invade Mexico. Government attorneys wanted Jefferson to appear with the letter, but the president—who said that the country would be left without leadership if he traveled to Richmond to answer the subpoena—refused to appear, an act of executive willpower that was never challenged in court.

14. He had a secret retreat.

Though Monticello remained Jefferson’s pride and joy, he had another residence for times when he wanted to be alone. Poplar Forest, located near Lynchburg, Virginia, was an octagonal home that he had built to exacting detail: The windows were measured so they would bring in only Jefferson’s preferred amount of sunlight. The home took years to construct and was nearly ready by the time he left office in 1809. It’s now open to the public.

15. He was a shabby dresser.

After taking office, Jefferson offended some in Washington who believed the president should be an impeccably-dressed and polished social host. While many of his stature would opt for a carriage, Jefferson rode a horse and dressed in plain and comfortable clothing. He acknowledged only two official White House celebrations annually: the 4th of July and New Year’s Day.

16. He was an early wine connoisseur.

Centuries before wine appreciation became a national pastime, Jefferson was busy accumulating an eclectic wine cellar. His love for the drink coincided with his trip to France, where he was introduced to the various tastes and textures. He kept a well-stocked collection at Monticello and also tried growing his own European grapes, but was never successful.

17. He shocked people by eating a tomato.

Jefferson’s multitudes of crops included what were, for their time, unique and sometimes puzzling additions. He grew tomatoes when their consumption in Virginia was uncommon, and, according to one account from 1900, Jefferson reportedly appalled some onlookers when he would consume one in front of witnesses.

18. He probably had a fear of public speaking.

Without today’s methods of addressing the public—radio, television, and Twitter—Jefferson was largely free to succumb to his reported phobia of speaking in public. While working as a lawyer, he found himself unable to deliver orated arguments as eloquently as he could write them. When he did speak, it was apparently with a meek disposition. One listener to his inaugural address in 1801 described Jefferson’s speech as being in “so low a tone that few heard it.”

19. He harvested opium.

At Monticello’s sprawling vegetable and plant gardens, Jefferson grew over 300 different kinds of crops, flowers, and other sprouts. Among them were Papaver somniferum, the poppy seed that can be used to create opioid drugs. Common in Jefferson’s time, the plant is now under much closer scrutiny and the estate was forced to pull up their remaining crop in 1991.

20. Abraham Lincoln was not a fan.

Though they weren’t contemporaries, Abraham Lincoln sometimes seethed with animosity toward Jefferson. William Henry Herndon, Lincoln’s onetime law partner, wrote that Lincoln “hated” Jefferson both for his moral shortcomings and his political views. But Lincoln also recognized the potency of the Declaration, citing its words as proof of equality among the population. “All honor to Jefferson,” he said, for making the document a “stumbling block” for anyone arguing in favor of tyranny. But he still never liked the guy.

21. He sold a lot of books to the Library of Congress.

Jefferson, a voracious reader, was dismayed when the War of 1812 resulted in British forces burning the Capitol in Washington and reducing its 3000-volume library of books to ashes. To repopulate the repository of knowledge, Jefferson sold Congress his entire personal library of 6707 titles for $23,950. The sale was finalized in 1815, and the books were sent via wagon from Virginia to Washington.

22. He helped found the University of Virginia.

A fierce advocate of education, Jefferson used his later years to propagate an institution of higher learning. Jefferson began planning the resources for a Virginia state university during his presidential term, writing to the Virginia House of Delegates that a college should not be solely a house but a “village.” In the proceeding years, Jefferson arranged funding, contributed design ideas, and helped shepherd the University of Virginia toward its formal opening in March 1825. Known as the “founding father” of the school, his influence has not always been welcomed. In April 2018, protesting students spray-painted the words rapist (in reference to his controversial relationship with slave Sally Hemings) and racist on a campus statue.

23. He was always in debt.

Status, salary, and opportunities should collude to make sure presidents are in solid financial shape during and after their tenure in office. Jefferson was an exception. Despite inheriting his father’s estate, he was plagued by debt for most of his life. He often spent beyond his means, expanding his property and making additions and renovations with little regard for the cost involved. His father-in-law, John Wayles, carried debt, which Jefferson became responsible for when Wayles died in 1774. Jefferson himself died owing $107,000, or roughly $2 million today.

24. His onetime nemesis dies on the same day.

Before Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826, he had finally made amends with John Adams, the president who preceded him in office and for whom Jefferson had acted as vice-president. The two men, once on the same side, had grown to resent the other’s approach to diplomacy and politics, with Jefferson lamenting Adams’s preference for centralized and meddlesome government—though according to Jefferson, the major issue was the so-called “Midnight Judges,” appointments that Jefferson felt “were from among [his] most ardent political enemies.”

Strangely, Adams passed away the same day as Jefferson, just five hours later. The date, July 4, was also the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence being adopted.

25. He wrote his own epitaph.

Jefferson wasn’t willing to leave his final resting place in the hands of others. He was exacting in how he wanted his grave marker to look and how his epitaph should read. He also directed the marker be made of inexpensive materials to dissuade vandals from bothering it. Following his death in 1826, several people chipped away at his grave in Monticello as souvenirs. Congress funded a new monument in 1882, which is still toured by visitors to the estate today. The engraving reads:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

& Father of the University of Virginia

This time, no one had the temerity to rewrite him.

25 Inspiring Theodore Roosevelt Quotes

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Born in New York City in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt grew up to become an influential politician and conservationist. He was also one of the most quotable figures in our nation’s history. The 26th president was known for his rousing speeches, informative books, and witty letters—most of which are still available for the public to appreciate today. Read on for some of the quotes that contributed to Theodore Roosevelt's reputation as a great writer and speaker—and make sure to subscribe to Mental Floss's new podcast, History Vs., which is all about TR, here.

1. On Hardship

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

—From the speech “The Strenuous Life,” given in 1899

2. On Power

“Power invariably means both responsibility and danger.”

—From his inaugural address given in 1905

3. On Conservation

“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight; we have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!”

—From the speech “Conservation as a National Duty,” given in 1908

4. On His Life’s Motto

“I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’”

—From a letter written to Henry L. Sprague in 1900

5. On Woodrow Wilson

“Instead of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, President Wilson spoke bombastically and carried a dish rag.”

—From an address given in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1916

6. On Democracy

“Democracy to be successful, must mean self-knowledge, and above all, self-mastery.”

—From an address to the Union League Club in Chicago in 1911

7. On Progress

“I don’t for a moment believe that we can turn back the wheels of progress.”

—From his 1911 address to the Union League Club

8. On Yosemite

“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

—From Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, 1905

9. On His Fighting Style

“Don't hit a man at all if you can avoid it, but if you have to hit him, knock him out.”

—From a speech given in Cleveland in 1916

10. On Success

“There are many qualities which we need in order to gain success, but the three above all—for the lack of which no brilliancy and no genius can atone—are Courage, Honesty and Common Sense.”

—From the pamphlet "The Key to Success in Life," 1916

11. On Perseverance

“Sometimes in life, both at school and afterwards, fortune will go against anyone, but if he just keeps pegging away and don’t lose his courage things always take a turn for the better in the end.”

—From a letter to his son Kermit Roosevelt written in 1904

12. On Life and Football

“In life as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard.”

—From “The Strenuous Life

13. On Takeaways from George Washington's Career

“Washington's career shows that we need to keep our faces steadily toward the sun. You can change the simile, to keep our eyes to the stars, but remember that our feet have got to be on the ground.”

—From a 1911 speech at the Union League Club in Chicago

14. On Brains vs. Brawn

“Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character.”

—From “The Strenuous Life

15. On Wilderness

“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.”

—From Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter

16. On What Makes a Great Democracy

“A great democracy has got to be progressive, or it will soon cease to be either great or a democracy.”

—From a speech given to the Colorado Legislature in 1910

17. On Passion

“Remember always that the man who does a thing so that it is worth doing is always a man who does his work for the work’s sake […] A scientific man, a writer, a historian, an artist, can only be a good man of science, a first-class artist, a first-class writer, if he does his work for the sake of doing it well.”

—From an address given at Columbia University in 1902

18. On Wisdom

“Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time!”

—From a speech about military preparedness given in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1917

19. On Equality

“This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in if it is not a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”

—From the speech "What a Progressive Is," given in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1912

20. On Failure

"Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

—From “The Strenuous Life

21. On Criticizing the President

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

—From an editorial written in 1918

22. On Being in the Arena

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

—From the speech “Citizenship in a Republic," a.k.a. "The Man in the Arena” given in 1910

23. On Death

“Death is always and under all circumstances a tragedy, for if it is not, then it means that life itself has become one.”

—From a letter to Cecil Spring-Rice from 1900

24. On William McKinley’s Assassination

“It is a dreadful thing to come into the presidency in this way; but it would be far worse to be morbid about it. Here is the task, and I have got to do it to the best of my ability.”

—Likely from 1901, the year of McKinley's assassination

25. On Prejudice

“There are good men and bad men of all nationalities, creeds and colors; and if this world of ours is ever to become what we hope some day it may become, it must be by the general recognition that the man's heart and soul, the man's worth and actions, determine his standing.”

—From a letter written in 1903

Further Reading: Books About (And By) Theodore Roosevelt

Alexander Lambert // Library of Congress
Alexander Lambert // Library of Congress

If you're enjoying what you're learning on History Vs. Theodore Roosevelt, we suggest checking out these books about—and a few of them by—our 26th president. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast here!

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The first book in Morris’s trilogy covers TR’s years from birth to the vice presidency.

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

The second book in Morris’s trilogy covers TR’s seven years in the White House.

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The final book in the trilogy focuses on Roosevelt’s post-presidential years.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton

A fascinating one-volume biography of Roosevelt.

The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family by William J. Mann

In addition to covering the big three Roosevelts—TR, FDR, and Eleanor—this must-read book features the Roosevelt siblings and cousins, revealing secrets and feuds within this famous family.

Theodore Roosevelt's Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon by Michael Cullinane

An analysis of Roosevelt’s legacy.

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley

A look at TR’s life from a naturalist perspective.

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks

A look at TR’s time as police commissioner of New York.

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy by Dan Abrams and David Fisher

This book covers when Roosevelt was accused of libel, and took the stand in his own defense.

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis

An account of the lives of Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, and their relationship—including their dinner, which made history.

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West by Roger L. Di Silvestro

Di Silvestro’s book covers TR’s time as a rancher in the Dakotas, where he retreated after the deaths of his wife and mother and a rough end to his career as an assemblyman.

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough

This National Book Award–winning biography takes on TR’s early years.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

An account of Roosevelt’s journey down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon—during which he almost died.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

A look at the relationship between Roosevelt and his successor, Taft, a one-time friend who became an enemy.

A Passion to Lead: Theodore Roosevelt in His Own Words by Edited by Laura Ross

Selections from Roosevelt’s writings accompanied by gorgeous photographs.

Hunting Trips of a Ranchman by Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt on hunting.

Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt on his time as a rancher in the Dakotas.

Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt

This book, published in 1913, is Roosevelt's life in his own words.

Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches

This book features four famous speeches and more than 350 letters written by TR to family, friends, and diplomats between 1881 and 1919.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER