“We confide in our strength, without boasting of it, we respect that of others, without fearing it.” —Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson is one of the most enigmatic and often-discussed figures in the history of United States. Born in 1743 in the Colony of Virginia, a young Jefferson famously authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776 before serving as the third president in American history. Here are 42 steadfast facts about Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson Facts
42. Metric Error
In 1794, Thomas Jefferson was to meet with a French scientist named Joseph Dombey. The subject of the meeting? The adoption of a new system of measurement called the metric system. The only problem was that during Dombey’s voyage over the Atlantic, his ship was intercepted by British pirates! Dombey was captured and imprisoned on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where he died before the pirates could ransom him back to the French. As a result, the United States retained the archaic and inconsistent British imperial system of weights and measures—a system that the United States is the only developed country to retain to this very day. At least he tried!
41. Religious Equality
Jefferson was a voracious reader and studied the Quran as a young law student. Jefferson studied the Quran in order to gain insight into Islamic law and religion and criticized Islam as he did Christianity and Judaism. Regardless, he insisted that practitioners of different faiths should be afforded equal civil rights under the law.
Jefferson’s religious views strongly diverged from the strict Christianity of the 18th century in which he grew up. Some historians believe that Jefferson’s religious views would likely be considered deist: the idea that a God created the universe but hasn’t interfered with it since.
39. Imperial Ambitions
Jefferson long eyed Cuba as the object of American annexation. In 1820, Jefferson remarked that Cuba is “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States” and instructed then US Secretary of War, John Calhoun, that the US “ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.” I mean, I’ve had strong cravings for a mojito too, but I’ve never gone that far.
38. Never Underestimate Canada
When the United States invaded the British colony of Canada in the War of 1812, many believed the war would be a cakewalk for the Americans. One of those prognosticators was Jefferson, who predicted that the “acquisition of Canada” would be “a mere matter of marching.” Instead, the war turned out to be a disaster for the Americans, and the British ended up burning down the newly constructed White House. Whoops!
37. Constitutional Best Before Date
In a letter to James Madison in 1789, Jefferson wrote that he believed the US Constitution should expire every 19 years, because he believed that no past generation had the right to bind subsequent generations, as “then the earth would belong to the dead and not the living generation.”
36. High Praise
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited 49 Nobel Laureates to the White House for a formal dinner. In his address, Kennedy stated that, “this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
35. Smear Campaign
Jefferson ran against John Adams in the presidential election of 1800. And if you think political mudslinging has reached its apex today, you should take a look at the barbs that these two combatants slung at each other. Jefferson called Adams “a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman,” whereas Adams called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Meee-yow!
34. Warring With Pirates
As President, Jefferson fought a war against North African pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. The battles were known as the Barbary Wars and began after Jefferson refused to pay tribute to the pirates for the fair passage of American vessels through the Mediterranean, and instead bombarded various pirate strongholds in present-day Tunisia, Libya and Algeria.
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33. American Degenerates
A French count by the name of Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, argued as part of his “theory of degeneracy” that as a result of living in the cold and wet climate of the Americas, all the species living there—including humans—were weak, feeble, and, well…degenerate. Jefferson devoted the largest section of the only book he ever wrote, Notes on the State of Virginia, to countering the French Count’s claims, including defending American indigenous tribes from these claims.
32. Present the Moose
As Minister to France, Jefferson dined with Count Buffon on regular occasions and tried in vain to convince the Count to retract his theory. Aside from the reasoning and data collected in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson attempted to produce real physical contrary evidence to the Count of America’s potency by bringing him the skin of a panther as well as the bones of a mastodon. Jefferson’s last-ditch attempt to counter the French Count was a seven-foot-tall stuffed moose (antlers included) that he presented to an unimpressed Buffon.
31. Mac and Cheese
Jefferson is credited with helping popularize macaroni and cheese in the United States by serving it to dinner guests during his Presidency. There even survives a recipe for making macaroni that was written by Jefferson himself! Great achievement, or his greatest achievement?
30. Reduced Penalty
Jefferson proposed the punishment of castration for men guilty of rape, polygamy or sodomy, and a minimum half-inch hole bored in the nose cartilage of women convicted of those same crimes. As awful is this proposal sounds, it actually circumscribed lesser punishments than the current laws on the books at the time, which set death as the maximum penalty for these offences.
29. Mammoth Crossing Ahead
Jefferson was obsessed with the idea that mammoths still existed and roamed the Western part of the North American continent. When he sent Lewis and Clark to the Louisiana Territory, he told them specifically to keep an eye out for mammoths. I mean, they were great explorers, but that’s a tall order.
While you may be forgiven for assuming he was always a distinguished, white-haired gentleman, Thomas Jefferson was actually a natural red-head!
27. Acquired Taste
Jefferson was a notorious wine lover. What few people know is that Jefferson acquired his taste for vino while journeying to France in 1784. Prior to the trip, Jefferson drank Madeira and port almost exclusively, as was the custom in the America at the time. But in France, Jefferson was enthusiastically introduced to lighter French wines at the tables of Parisian philosophes and in the vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
26. Expensive Mistake
In 1989, a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1787 from Jefferson’s wine collection was valued at a ridiculous $500,000 by its owner, a New York wine merchant. When the bottle’s owner took the vino to a dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel, it was accidentally knocked over by a waiter and destroyed! Insurers later paid out a cool $225,000.
25. Man of Many Tongues
Jefferson was a lifelong linguist who could speak, write and read in all of English, French, Greek, Italian and German. He also claimed to have taught himself Spanish during a 19-day visit to France with little more than a grammar guide and a copy of Don Quixote. And here it took me 6 months of Duolingo to learn how to say “where is the bathroom?” in Spanish.
24. Collector of Languages
Jefferson collected and understood a number of American indigenous vocabularies and instructed Lewis and Clark in their infamous Expedition to collect and record examples of these languages. Following the end of his presidency, Jefferson packed 50 Native American vocabulary lists in a chest and sent it on a riverboat back to his home in Monticello. During the trip, a thief stole the chest presuming that it contained valuables, but threw it into the river upon realizing it contained little more than papers. This resulted in the loss of 30 years of collection of Native American languages.
23. Final Edit
In the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” It was Benjamin Franklin who, in his edits of the draft, changed this line to the famous “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Franklin’s change was in order to center human rationality rather than religious conviction, which was implied at by the term “sacred” in the first draft.
22. Turns Me Right Round
Jefferson was also an avid inventor and is credited with inventing the modern swivel chair—the first of which he constructed and used to write the Declaration of Independence.
21. The Abridged Version
Jefferson made his own version of the Bible in 1820, called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, by cutting and pasting with a razor and glue passages from the New Testament that extracted the moral philosophy of Jesus Christ. The work is notable in that it excludes all miracles performed by Jesus, almost all mentions of the supernatural, including the resurrection, and other passages that paint Jesus as a divine figure.
20. Chip Off the Old Bard
In 1786, Jefferson and John Adams were in England on diplomatic business. While there, they visited the home of Shakespeare and chipped off a bit of his chair as a souvenir.
19. Walking the Same Path
John Adams was the United States’ second President and Jefferson it’s third. Both men also played key roles in the drafting and passage of the Declaration of Independence. Coincidentally both also men died within hours of each other on the same day—July 4, 1826. A day that came exactly 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence!
18. By the Way, I Was Also President
Jefferson’s gravestone contains an inscription regarding his life work but curiously leaves out the fact that Jefferson was President of the United States! Jefferson left explicit instructions as to what he wanted printed on his gravestone, stating “and not a word more.” The inscription reads that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and the father of the University of Virginia. Jefferson explained why he only wanted these three accomplishments on his gravestone, saying that “by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”
17. The Big Cheese
While President, Jefferson was presented with a mammoth wheel of cheese weighing in at 1,235 pounds (560 kgs). The cheese wheel was presented to Jefferson by the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts and reportedly contained the milk of every cow in town—over 900 cows. As Jefferson had a policy while he was president of not accepting gifts, he paid $200 for it.
16. First Pet
Jefferson had a mockingbird named Dick that he kept at the White House (thought to be the first pet to live at the White House). The bird would reportedly sing Jefferson to sleep, retrieve food from between Jefferson’s lips, and sing along with Jefferson as he hummed or played the violin.
15. Amateur Architect
Jefferson drafted and designed the blueprints for his mansion home, Monticello, which is Italian for little mountain, which sat atop a hilltop overlooking his 5,000-acre plantation. While he had no formal training as an architect, Jefferson read extensively on ancient Roman and Italian Renaissance architecture. Monticello is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Jefferson would later put his architectural skills to use in designing Virginia’s State Capitol and the main buildings of the University of Virginia.
14. Burning Books
After the British destroyed the Library of Congress in a fire during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his entire personal book collection to the Library. Jefferson’s collection numbered at 6,487 books on an enormous variety of topics, including philosophy, science, literature, architecture, law, religion, mathematics, and even cookbooks. The Library of Congress paid to Jefferson nearly $24,000 for the books. Unfortunately, another fire in 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of Jefferson’s original transfer.
13. Erased from History
In 2010, the Texas Board of Education removed Thomas Jefferson from its social studies curriculum on 18th-century figures that inspired revolution. Jefferson was removed, in part, because of his coining of the concept of “separation of church and state.” They instead replaced him with religious figures such as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin.
12. Altered States
Sylvania. Chersonesus. Assenisippis. These are just some of the new state names Jefferson proposed for the newly divided Northwest Territory (now comprised of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan etc.) These state names were a mixture of Latin and Native American languages and have been derided by one historian as “absurd.”
11. Accommodating Difference
Jefferson welcomed the first Muslim ambassador from Tunisia to the United States in 1805. In order to accommodate the ambassador’s observance of the Ramadan fast, Jefferson arranged for the state dinner to be moved from 3:30 to precisely at sunset. In one sense, this can be considered the first official American celebration of Ramadan.
10. Bacon Lover
Jefferson would rather have sat in a small cabin with his books and friends eating bacon than be president! In one of his letters, Jefferson remarked: “I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.”
Did you know that there was almost a state in the Pacific Northwest called Jefferson? In 1941, there was a growing movement to create a new state called Jefferson comprised of Southern Oregon and Northern California. The name was inspired by Thomas Jefferson, who sent Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Northwest in 1803 and who envisioned the establishment of an independent nation in the West called “Pacifica.” The state of Jefferson had inaugurated a governor as well as symbolically seceding, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor crippled the movement.
8. Industrial Concerns
Jefferson believed that the new United States’ economy should be centered around agriculture rather than industry. Jefferson feared that the growth of a class of industrial wage laborers, who relied on property owners for income and sustenance, would leave the American public vulnerable to political subjugation and economic manipulation. As a remedy, Jefferson proposed a progressive income tax “that would serve as a disincentive to vast accumulations of wealth and would make funds available for some sort of benign redistribution downward.”
Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres of land and over 50 slaves from his father when he was 21 years old. Jefferson’s wife was also from a large slaveholding family and a year after marrying, the couple inherited 11,00 acres of land and an additional 135 slaves, making Jefferson, then 30 years old, one of the largest slaveholders in the state of Virginia.
6. Secret Affair
Historians agree that it is very likely that Jefferson fathered six children with his slave Sally Hemings. In 2017, an archeological restoration of Jefferson’s home in Monticello discovered Sally Heming’s living quarters adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom.
5. All in the Family
Historians also believe that Jefferson’s wife, Martha, is the half-sister of Sally Hemings. How did this happen? Heming’s mother, Elizabeth, was a slave owned by Jefferson’s wife’s family. Historians believe that Martha Jefferson’s father used Elizabeth Hemings as a concubine and fathered six children with her—the youngest of which was Sally Hemings.
4. Hatchet Man
During the intense 1800 election, Jefferson hired a political hatchet man named James Callendar to smear his opponent, John Adams. Callendar’s methods were very effective as he convinced much of the American public that Adams was hell-bent on going to war with France, which was untrue. Callendar later had to serve jail-time for slandering Adams, and when Callendar got out of jail he felt that the new-elected President Jefferson owed him. When Jefferson demurred, Callendar spread the (now confirmed true) rumor that Jefferson had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, a rumor that plagued Jefferson until his death.
Jefferson directed the first archaeological dig in the history of North America. In his 20s, Jefferson was interested in learning about numerous Native American burial mounds near his home in Virginia and organized an archeological expedition, directed fieldwork, and analyzed, wrote, and published what he found. Some have written that Jefferson’s use of stratigraphy (studying successive geological layers) and systematic trenching “anticipates the fundamental approach and the methods of modern archaeology by about a full century.”
2. Jefferson the Infidel
Jefferson’s rather unorthodox religious views led to him being accused of being an “infidel” when he ran for President in 1800. Jefferson was called a “howling atheist” and one newspaper raged that “Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous 'prostitute', under the title of goddess of reason, will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the most High.” Seems just a little dramatic, don’t you think?
1.Written Statement of the Union
Jefferson wrote all of his State of the Union addresses rather than giving them as speeches before Congress. In merely writing his remarks, Jefferson was not in keeping with his two predecessors, Washington and Adams, who both gave State of the Union addresses to Congress. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s approach of only writing his remarks stuck around for more than a century until Woodrow Wilson made his State of the Union address in 1913.