Autobiography by Thomas Jefferson



by Thomas Jefferson

1743 – 1790

With the Declaration of Independence

January 6, 1821

At the age of 77, I begin to make some memoranda and state some
recollections of dates & facts concerning myself, for my own more ready
reference & for the information of my family.

The tradition in my father’s family was that their ancestor came to this
country from Wales, and from near the mountain of Snowdon, the highest in
Gr. Br. I noted once a case from Wales in the law reports where a person of
our name was either pl. or def. and one of the same name was Secretary to
the Virginia company. These are the only instances in which I have met with
the name in that country. I have found it in our early records, but the
first particular information I have of any ancestor was my grandfather who
lived at the place in Chesterfield called Ozborne’s and ownd. the lands
afterwards the glebe of the parish. He had three sons, Thomas who died
young, Field who settled on the waters of Roanoke and left numerous
descendants, and Peter my father, who settled on the lands I still own
called Shadwell adjoining my present residence. He was born Feb. 29,
1707/8, and intermarried 1739. with Jane Randolph, of the age of 19. daur
of Isham Randolph one of the seven sons of that name & family settled at
Dungeoness in Goochld. They trace their pedigree far back in England &
Scotland, to which let every one ascribe the faith & merit he chooses.

My father’s education had been quite neglected; but being of a strong mind,
sound judgment and eager after information, he read much and improved
himself insomuch that he was chosen with Joshua Fry professor of Mathem. in
W. & M. college to continue the boundary line between Virginia & N.
Caroline which had been begun by Colo Byrd, and was afterwards employed
with the same Mr. Fry to make the 1st map of Virginia which had ever been
made, that of Capt Smith being merely a conjectural sketch. They possessed
excellent materials for so much of the country as is below the blue ridge;
little being then known beyond that ridge. He was the 3d or 4th settler of
the part of the country in which I live, which was about 1737. He died Aug.
17. 1757, leaving my mother a widow who lived till 1776, with 6 daurs & 2.
sons, myself the elder. To my younger brother he left his estate on James
river called Snowden after the supposed birth-place of the family. To
myself the lands on which I was born & live. He placed me at the English
school at 5. years of age and at the Latin at 9. where I continued until
his death. My teacher Mr. Douglas a clergyman from Scotland was but a
superficial Latinist, less instructed in Greek, but with the rudiments of
these languages he taught me French, and on the death of my father I went
to the revd Mr. Maury a correct classical scholar, with whom I continued
two years, and then went to Wm. and Mary college, to wit in the spring of
1760, where I continued 2. years. It was my great good fortune, and what
probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. Wm. Small of Scotland was
then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful
branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and
gentlemanly manners, & an enlarged & liberal mind. He, most happily for me,
became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged
in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the
expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed.
Fortunately the Philosophical chair became vacant soon after my arrival at
college, and he was appointed to fill it per interim: and he was the first
who ever gave in that college regular lectures in Ethics, Rhetoric & Belles
lettres. He returned to Europe in 1762, having previously filled up the
measure of his goodness to me, by procuring for me, from his most intimate
friend G. Wythe, a reception as a student of law, under his direction, and
introduced me to the acquaintance and familiar table of Governor Fauquier,
the ablest man who had ever filled that office. With him, and at his table,
Dr. Small & Mr. Wythe, his amici omnium horarum, & myself, formed a partie
quarree, & to the habitual conversations on these occasions I owed much
instruction. Mr. Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved Mentor in
youth, and my most affectionate friend through life. In 1767, he led me
into the practice of the law at the bar of the General court, at which I
continued until the revolution shut up the courts of justice. [For a sketch
of the life & character of Mr. Wythe see my letter of Aug. 31. 20. to Mr.
John Saunderson]

In 1769, I became a member of the legislature by the choice of the county
in which I live, & continued in that until it was closed by the revolution.
I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of
slaves, which was rejected: and indeed, during the regal government,
nothing liberal could expect success. Our minds were circumscribed within
narrow limits by an habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate
to the mother country in all matters of government, to direct all our
labors in subservience to her interests, and even to observe a bigoted
intolerance for all religions but hers. The difficulties with our
representatives were of habit and despair, not of reflection & conviction.
Experience soon proved that they could bring their minds to rights on the
first summons of their attention. But the king’s council, which acted as
another house of legislature, held their places at will & were in most
humble obedience to that will: the Governor too, who had a negative on our
laws held by the same tenure, & with still greater devotedness to it: and
last of all the Royal negative closed the last door to every hope of

On the 1st of January, 1772 I was married to Martha Skelton widow of
Bathurst Skelton, & daughter of John Wayles, then 23. years old. Mr. Wayles
was a lawyer of much practice, to which he was introduced more by his great
industry, punctuality & practical readiness, than to eminence in the
science of his profession. He was a most agreeable companion, full of
pleasantry & good humor, and welcomed in every society. He acquired a
handsome fortune, died in May, 1773, leaving three daughters, and the
portion which came on that event to Mrs. Jefferson, after the debts should
be paid, which were very considerable, was about equal to my own patrimony,
and consequently doubled the ease of our circumstances.

When the famous Resolutions of 1765, against the Stamp-act, were proposed,
I was yet a student of law in Wmsbg. I attended the debate however at the
door of the lobby of the H. of Burgesses, & heard the splendid display of
Mr. Henry’s talents as a popular orator. They were great indeed; such as I
have never heard from any other man. He appeared to me to speak as Homer
wrote. Mr. Johnson, a lawyer & member from the Northern Neck, seconded the
resolns, & by him the learning & the logic of the case were chiefly
maintained. My recollections of these transactions may be seen pa. 60,
Wirt’s life of P. H., to whom I furnished them.

In May, 1769, a meeting of the General Assembly was called by the Govr.,
Ld. Botetourt. I had then become a member; and to that meeting became known
the joint resolutions & address of the Lords & Commons of 1768 – 9, on the
proceedings in Massachusetts. Counter-resolutions, & an address to the
King, by the H. of Burgesses were agreed to with little opposition, & a
spirit manifestly displayed of considering the cause of Massachusetts as a
common one. The Governor dissolved us: but we met the next day in the
Apollo of the Raleigh tavern, formed ourselves into a voluntary convention,
drew up articles of association against the use of any merchandise imported
from Gr. Britain, signed and recommended them to the people, repaired to
our several counties, & were re elected without any other exception than of
the very few who had declined assent to our proceedings.

Nothing of particular excitement occurring for a considerable time our
countrymen seemed to fall into a state of insensibility to our situation.
The duty on tea not yet repealed & the Declaratory act of a right in the
British parl to bind us by their laws in all cases whatsoever, still
suspended over us. But a court of inquiry held in R. Island in 1762, with a
power to send persons to England to be tried for offences committed here
was considered at our session of the spring of 1773. as demanding
attention. Not thinking our old & leading members up to the point of
forwardness & zeal which the times required, Mr. Henry, R. H. Lee, Francis
L. Lee, Mr. Carr & myself agreed to meet in the evening in a private room
of the Raleigh to consult on the state of things. There may have been a
member or two more whom I do not recollect. We were all sensible that the
most urgent of all measures was that of coming to an understanding with all
the other colonies to consider the British claims as a common cause to all,
& to produce an unity of action: and for this purpose that a commee of
correspondce in each colony would be the best instrument for
intercommunication: and that their first measure would probably be to
propose a meeting of deputies from every colony at some central place, who
should be charged with the direction of the measures which should be taken
by all. We therefore drew up the resolutions which may be seen in Wirt pa
87. The consulting members proposed to me to move them, but I urged that it
should be done by Mr. Carr, my friend & brother in law, then a new member
to whom I wished an opportunity should be given of making known to the
house his great worth & talents. It was so agreed; he moved them, they were
agreed to nem. con. and a commee of correspondence appointed of whom Peyton
Randolph, the Speaker, was chairman. The Govr. (then Ld. Dunmore) dissolved
us, but the commee met the next day, prepared a circular letter to the
Speakers of the other colonies, inclosing to each a copy of the resolns and
left it in charge with their chairman to forward them by expresses.

The origination of these commees of correspondence between the colonies has
been since claimed for Massachusetts, and Marshall II. 151, has given into
this error, altho’ the very note of his appendix to which he refers, shows
that their establmt was confined to their own towns. This matter will be
seen clearly stated in a letter of Samuel Adams Wells to me of Apr. 2.,
1819, and my answer of May 12. I was corrected by the letter of Mr. Wells
in the information I had given Mr. Wirt, as stated in his note, pa. 87,
that the messengers of Massach. & Virga crossed each other on the way
bearing similar propositions, for Mr. Wells shows that Mass. did not adopt
the measure but on the receipt of our proposn delivered at their next
session. Their message therefore which passed ours, must have related to
something else, for I well remember P. Randolph’s informing me of the
crossing of our messengers.

The next event which excited our sympathies for Massachusets was the Boston
port bill, by which that port was to be shut up on the 1st of June, 1774.
This arrived while we were in session in the spring of that year. The lead
in the house on these subjects being no longer left to the old members, Mr.
Henry, R. H. Lee, Fr. L. Lee, 3. or 4. other members, whom I do not
recollect, and myself, agreeing that we must boldly take an unequivocal
stand in the line with Massachusetts, determined to meet and consult on the
proper measures in the council chamber, for the benefit of the library in
that room. We were under conviction of the necessity of arousing our people
from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events; and
thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting & prayer would be
most likely to call up & alarm their attention. No example of such a
solemnity had existed since the days of our distresses in the war of 55.
since which a new generation had grown up. With the help therefore of
Rushworth, whom we rummaged over for the revolutionary precedents & forms
of the Puritans of that day, preserved by him, we cooked up a resolution,
somewhat modernizing their phrases, for appointing the 1st day of June, on
which the Port bill was to commence, for a day of fasting, humiliation &
prayer, to implore heaven to avert from us the evils of civil war, to
inspire us with firmness in support of our rights, and to turn the hearts
of the King & parliament to moderation & justice. To give greater emphasis
to our proposition, we agreed to wait the next morning on Mr. Nicholas,
whose grave & religious character was more in unison with the tone of our
resolution and to solicit him to move it. We accordingly went to him in the
morning. He moved it the same day; the 1st of June was proposed and it
passed without opposition. The Governor dissolved us as usual. We retired
to the Apollo as before, agreed to an association, and instructed the
commee of correspdce to propose to the corresponding commees of the other
colonies to appoint deputies to meet in Congress at such place, annually,
as should be convenient to direct, from time to time, the measures required
by the general interest: and we declared that an attack on any one colony
should be considered as an attack on the whole. This was in May. We further
recommended to the several counties to elect deputies to meet at Wmsbg the
1st of Aug ensuing, to consider the state of the colony, & particularly to
appoint delegates to a general Congress, should that measure be acceded to
by the commees of correspdce generally. It was acceded to, Philadelphia was
appointed for the place, and the 5th of Sep. for the time of meeting. We
returned home, and in our several counties invited the clergy to meet
assemblies of the people on the 1st of June, to perform the ceremonies of
the day, & to address to them discourses suited to the occasion. The people
met generally, with anxiety & alarm in their countenances, and the effect
of the day thro’ the whole colony was like a shock of electricity, arousing
every man & placing him erect & solidly on his centre. They chose
universally delegates for the convention. Being elected one for my own
county I prepared a draught of instructions to be given to the delegates
whom we should send to the Congress, and which I meant to propose at our
meeting. In this I took the ground which, from the beginning I had thought
the only one orthodox or tenable, which was that the relation between Gr.
Br. and these colonies was exactly the same as that of England & Scotland
after the accession of James & until the Union, and the same as her present
relations with Hanover, having the same Executive chief but no other
necessary political connection; and that our emigration from England to
this country gave her no more rights over us, than the emigrations of the
Danes and Saxons gave to the present authorities of the mother country over
England. In this doctrine however I had never been able to get any one to
agree with me but Mr. Wythe. He concurred in it from the first dawn of the
question What was the political relation between us & England? Our other
patriots Randolph, the Lees, Nicholas, Pendleton stopped at the half-way
house of John Dickinson who admitted that England had a right to regulate
our commerce, and to lay duties on it for the purposes of regulation, but
not of raising revenue. But for this ground there was no foundation in
compact, in any acknowledged principles of colonization, nor in reason:
expatriation being a natural right, and acted on as such, by all nations,
in all ages. I set out for Wmsbg some days before that appointed for our
meeting, but was taken ill of a dysentery on the road, & unable to proceed.
I sent on therefore to Wmsbg two copies of my draught, the one under cover
to Peyton Randolph, who I knew would be in the chair of the convention, the
other to Patrick Henry. Whether Mr. Henry disapproved the ground taken, or
was too lazy to read it (for he was the laziest man in reading I ever knew)
I never learned: but he communicated it to nobody. Peyton Randolph informed
the convention he had received such a paper from a member prevented by
sickness from offering it in his place, and he laid it on the table for
perusal. It was read generally by the members, approved by many, but
thought too bold for the present state of things; but they printed it in
pamphlet form under the title of “A Summary view of the rights of British
America.” It found its way to England, was taken up by the opposition,
interpolated a little by Mr. Burke so as to make it answer opposition
purposes, and in that form ran rapidly thro’ several editions. This
information I had from Parson Hurt, who happened at the time to be in
London, whether he had gone to receive clerical orders. And I was informed
afterwards by Peyton Randolph that it had procured me the honor of having
my name inserted in a long list of proscriptions enrolled in a bill of
attainder commenced in one of the houses of parliament, but suppressed in
embryo by the hasty step of events which warned them to be a little
cautious. Montague, agent of the H. of Burgesses in England made extracts
from the bill, copied the names, and sent them to Peyton Randolph. The
names I think were about 20 which he repeated to me, but I recollect those
only of Hancock, the two Adamses, Peyton Randolph himself, Patrick Henry, &
myself.1 The convention met on the 1st of Aug, renewed their association,
appointed delegates to the Congress, gave them instructions very
temperately & properly expressed, both as to style & matter; and they
repaired to Philadelphia at the time appointed. The splendid proceedings of
that Congress at their 1st session belong to general history, are known to
every one, and need not therefore be noted here. They terminated their
session on the 26th of Octob, to meet again on the 10th May ensuing. The
convention at their ensuing session of Mar, ’75, approved of the
proceedings of Congress, thanked their delegates and reappointed the same
persons to represent the colony at the meeting to be held in May: and
foreseeing the probability that Peyton Randolph their president and Speaker
also of the H. of B. might be called off, they added me, in that event to
the delegation.

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