Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Thomas Jefferson
Nature Bulletin No. 265-A   April 15, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In a plain frame house, called Shadwell, set on a slight rise of ground in a clearing a few miles from Charlottesville, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a pioneer planter of obscure origin and a landowner of moderate means but his mother, Jane, was a Randolph -- one of the leading and most aristocratic families of Virginia Colony. Their son was destined to become one of America' s immortals.

Peter Jefferson was a natural leader in the community: county colonel, surveyor and justice of the peace -- a big man of tremendous physical strength, keen intelligence, and a lover of outdoor life. He died when the boy was 14 but from the time when Tom first entered school, at the age of 5, his father saw to it that he should know and appreciate wood lore, as well as hunting and fishing. Young Jefferson came to know the forest as few men did, including the names and habits of all the wild creatures: birds, mammals -- even insects and plant life. Many Indian chiefs visited Shadwell, and Thomas became the friend and champion of the red men.

At the age of 16 he entered William and Mary College at Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia Colony. At this time he was a raw-boned sinewy lad who had almost reached his full stature of 6 feet 2 inches, with a freckled face, rather angular features, hazel-gray eyes, and thick sandy- red hair of silky texture. Although a bit awkward, he had an unusually intelligent face, spoke fluently, and became a favorite with the girls because he was so good-humored and loved to dance or fiddle on his violin. He must, even then, have had extraordinary qualities because he was accepted as a friend and daily associate by three men with great minds: Fauquier, the Royal Governor of the Colony; Dr. William Small, a Scotch mathematician and philosopher; and George Wythe, a lawyer and lawgiver. During the legislative sessions at Williamsburg he met many other men of genius and great political capacity, such as Patrick Henry, and participated in their brilliant discussions.

Social life in the capital was very gay and, during the first year, the lad's studies suffered. He danced quadrilles, the minuet and the Virginia Reel; he owned a horse and went fox hunting; he went in for fancy dress, gambled at cards, and practiced much on his violin. Remorseful at the end of the year, he studied long and hard during his vacation at Shadwell and returned to complete the three-year college course in two years. Then he turned to the study of law with Wythe and, for outside reading, delved deep into history, political science and philosophy. He became proficient in several languages.

Such was the childhood and young manhood -- the formative period -- of the man who was to become the foremost philosopher of his time and who, perhaps more than any other man, laid the foundations for our democracy. We think of him most often as the author of the Declaration of Independence and its basic phrase: "all men are created equal"; and as the President who completed the Louisiana Purchase from France; but in many other ways this many-sided man still affects our daily lives more than any other American. He fought successfully for religious freedom. He is the father of our public school system and, as founder of the University of Virginia, our state universities. He fought against slavery and made certain that it would not be introduced into the Northwest Territory. He envisioned the Panama Canal and our system of inland waterways. He is responsible for our decimal system of coinage. He was a great architect and inventor. Most of all, he liked to see things grow.

Fittingly, he died on the 50th anniversary of Independence Day.

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