Best known for his part in writing the Declaration of Independence that declared the thirteen original colonies’ independence from Great Britain and sparked the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson was arguably one of the most interesting men to grace American history. Not just for his influence on United States politics, but the man himself was somewhat of an enigma and loved by those who knew him well. He had a strong attention to detail and was well-versed in many areas of life from horticulture to architecture. In case you don’t know much about Jefferson, the man rather than just the American legend, here are ten interesting facts about our nation’s third president.
- Monticello means “little mountain” in ItalianMonticello, meaning “little mountain” in Italian, took forty years to complete (photo courtesy of Martin Falbisoner)Just a quick little intro into a project that took up a large portion of Jefferson’s life. The hilltop was part of the 1,000 acres he inherited upon turning twenty-one. The hill was a favorite spot of Jefferson’s childhood, and he chose it build his home. Not far from Monticello is the childhood home of Jefferson, Shadwell, which was one of the largest tobacco farms in Virginia. Shadwell burned down after construction had begun on Monticello, so Jefferson moved into the South Pavilion.
- Monticello is an architectural wonder Monticello’s dome was inspired by Jefferson’s time in Paris as Minister to France (photo courtesy of Eric Langhorst)Unlike anything at the time (or since), Jefferson’s Monticello speaks volumes of his personality. A man of varying interests, it’s no wonder the immaculate forty-three-room house took forty years to complete. The dome topping the house was inspired by one of Jefferson’s visits to Paris. The dome was the first to be placed on a home in America, and the oculus (the circular window) was made in Austria. Needless to mention, Jefferson was also a man of refined (expensive) tastes. Including the oculus, there are thirteen skylights throughout the mansion, allowing for plenty of natural lighting.A lesser known tidbit about Monticello: the cat doors. Jefferson had small, round holes cut in many of the doors on the upper level to allow the cats to move about freely while chasing mice.
- Jefferson was an accomplished architect The Virginia State Capitol was inspired by the Roman temple Maison Carrée in Southern France (photo courtesy of Ron Cogswell)
Monticello wasn’t the only building designed by Thomas Jefferson. His designs are proudly displayed in the form of the Virginia State Capitol and the main buildings of the University of Virginia.
Jefferson was America’s minister to France when he designed the new state capitol building for Richmond. While there, Jefferson was inspired by the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple in southern France dating back to the reign of Caesar Augustus. He commissioned French architect Charles-Louis Clerisseau to draft his idea for the capitol and sent a scale model back to the U.S. The model is still displayed at the Virginia State Capitol. The building itself was completed in 1788.
In 1819 Jefferson founded his greatest contribution to education, the University of Virginia. He designed the Academical Village, a place where he envisioned everyday life flowing seamlessly into academic life. Faculty and students alike lived in the buildings surrounding the sprawling lawn, which is still a life center of the university. At the north end of the Lawn stands the Rotunda. It stands at half of the height and width of Rome’s Pantheon, Jefferson’s inspiration behind his designs.
- He was a slave ownerAccomplished lawyer, horticulturalist, and architect to name a few, Thomas Jefferson was one of the most interesting men to grace American historyJefferson spent much of his time in the political arena pushing legislation that he hoped would end slavery in the United States. Which is why many people find it hard to reconcile their idea of Jefferson with the fact that the man was a slave owner. Over the course of his lifetime, Jefferson owned just more than 600 slaves, freeing only a few upon his death. And although he advocated abolition, he feared it as well. He believed it would be best that freed slaves be sent overseas, as a racial war was surely to erupt. But he also believed that if slavery continued in the United States, a civil war would break out dividing the nation.
- Jefferson actually only has one invention to his name The only invention to be fully credited to Jefferson, the moldboard of least resistance, earned him a gold medal from the Parisian Society of Agriculture in 1807It’s commonly believed that Jefferson was a great inventor with multiple inventions attributed to him. That’s partly true. Jefferson was a great inventor, but only three of the many attributed to him are actually believed to be his. And only one is certain. The majority of the rest are improvements on existing inventions. Jefferson didn’t believe in patents either.Still, Jefferson is credited with three inventions: the cipher wheel, the spherical sundial, and the moldboard of least resistance. The moldboard of least resistance (allowing the plow to go through the soil with the least resistance possible) is the only one certain to be of Jefferson’s own design. Jefferson was awarded a gold medal from the Parisian Society of Agriculture in 1807 for the invention, which has been regarded as a significant contribution to the agricultural field.
- He was rather fond of the English peaJefferson grew 250 varieties of vegetables in the gardens of Monticello (photo courtesy of Billy Hathorn)Jefferson cultivated 250 varieties of vegetables at his Monticello gardens. Of those, he grew fifteen varieties of the English pea. Each year there was a contest among Jefferson and the neighboring farms to see who could produce the first pea crop of the season. The winner would then host a dinner for the other neighbors. It seems that despite his best efforts and knowledge of agriculture, Jefferson lost each year to his neighbor, George Divers. Jefferson’s grandson once noted that he remembers his grandfather producing the first crop one year, but gracefully bowing out, as to let Divers believe he had won again.
- He was a doting grandfather Jefferson was a doting father and grandfather. His daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, gave birth to twelve children, eleven of which survived to adulthood. (Portrait by Thomas Sully)Jefferson was close to his family, and much of his extended family lived at Monticello at one time or another. Twelve of his grandchildren survived to adulthood, eleven of them belonging to his beloved daughter Martha, and one to his daughter Maria. He enjoyed his retirement listening to his grandchildren playing throughout the home, playing with them in the yard, or writing frequent letters to them when apart. His granddaughter Ellen, who he was especially close to, once remarked that he was “her earliest best friend.”
- He was an avid readerAfter the Library of Congress was burned in the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his collection of 6,487 books to Congress. After suffering loss to fire once more, the Library of Congress is currently reconstructing Jefferson’s collection. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)Jefferson was once quoted as saying to John Adams, “I cannot live without books.” And seemingly so. An avid reader, Jefferson collected books throughout his travels. At his Monticello library he amassed the largest personal book collection in the United States. After the British burned the Library of Congress during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his collection of 6,487 books to Congress for $23,950. He began collecting books once again, which were sold in an auction in 1829 to cover some of Jefferson’s large debt.
- Jefferson died on Independence DayJefferson died on July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Coincidentally, John Adams died five hours before on the same day.More notably, Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, fifty years after signing the Declaration of Independence. He was eighty-two and died in his bed at his beloved Monticello. More than a stone’s throw away in Quincy, Massachusetts, Jefferson’s friend-turned-political-adversary—and then once again friend—John Adams, lay on his own deathbed. Jefferson passed nearly five hours before Adams. Unaware of this information, Adams was quoted as saying before passing, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”
- He enjoyed a good glass of wine A lover of wine, Jefferson installed a wine cellar in the basement of Monticello, complete with a custom wine dumbwaiterUnderneath Monticello, Jefferson had a well-stocked wine cellar complete with dumbwaiters designed by Jefferson solely for the transfer of wine bottles to the dining area. Jefferson came to appreciate the fine wine of France and Italy during his time as minister to France. He once wrote, “In nothing have the habits of the palate more decisive influence than in our relish of wines.” Upon returning to the U.S., Jefferson planted two vineyards at Monticello in the south orchard. Despite his hope, the vitis vinifera grapes did not grow well in the Virginia soil. He had hoped to make wine from his Monticello grapes but never made a single bottle. Still, his efforts led the way for future vineyards in the region, and Jefferson has since been labeled as America’s “first distinguished viticulturist.” He would be pleased to know that the vineyards have been replanted at Monticello, with many bottles made from their harvests.