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Biography of Thomas Jefferson: 7 Disputed Facts About First President's Life

By    |   Friday, 22 May 2015 01:37 PM

The Thomas Jefferson story has grown to be legend in American history, and as with all such prominent people, cherished “facts” about him aren’t necessarily so.

Here are seven such facts about the third president’s life that have occasioned disputes big and small:

1. Thomas Jefferson, baby daddy?

Did Thomas Jefferson father a child with his slave, Sally Hemings? This claim has been floated around since 1802, according to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, and it took until the 1990s for DNA testing to settle the issue — sort of.

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DNA test results showed someone “carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome” — which could have been any one of 25 people at the time — fathered one of Sally Hemings’s children, but “the simplest and most probable” conclusion is that it was Jefferson himself.
Soon after, the Memorial Foundation formed a research committee to weigh the DNA evidence, together with historical records. The committee concluded there was a “high probability” Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’s son, Eston, and “likely” fathered all six of her children.

2. A “good” master?

Slaveholder though he was, Jefferson was excused by much of history for being a “benevolent” master. But Henry Wiencek in Smithsonian Magazine noted slaves were kept out of sight much of the time and economic advantages trumped moral qualms for Jefferson. Weincek said Jefferson used his slaves as collateral for a loan to renovate Monticello; refused a bequest from a friend to buy and free as many slaves as he could with the money; and realized he was making a 4 percent profit every year just from the fact his slaves were having children.

Weincek related one story in which a slave boy working in Jefferson’s profitable nail factory assaulted another over a missing quantity of iron rod used to make nails. The assault, Weincek said, came from the fact that the boy whose iron rod allotment was missing — hidden by the other boy — knew he’d be whipped for not making his quota of nails for the day. The injured boy survived his head injury -- but his assailant was sold south to “terrify” the rest of the slave children into staying in line, Weincek wrote.

3: Did he really say that?
"When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny." It’s a quote popularly attributed to Jefferson, particularly among today’s advocates of a severely limited federal government, but the Memorial Foundation said there’s no proof, and the first instance of it being attributed to Jefferson in print was in 1994. The quote also has been attributed to fellow patriots Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine.

The Memorial Foundation website has a page dedicated to quotes mistakenly attributed to Jefferson.

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4. Was he a Christian?

Jefferson’s words on the separation of church and state appear not in the Constitution, but in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” and the “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.” Privately, Jefferson was raised an Anglican, but was influenced by English deists (many of whom rejected the idea of Jesus as the son of God, but honored him as a teacher of morals), and was active in local churches throughout his life, according to an article, “Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs,” at the Memorial Foundation’s website.

5. Author of the Declaration?
Though Jefferson is known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress at first appointed five people, including Jefferson, to draw it up. Jefferson wrote the first draft, which was revised upon presentation to the Congress.

6. The proof’s not in the picture:
The famous Trumbull painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence depicts a scene that couldn’t have happened. Though both Jefferson and John Adams wrote that the ceremony took place July 4, 1776, a historian examining records in 1884 found reference to the ceremony taking place Aug. 2 — and even then, some delegates didn’t sign until after that, The Washington Post reported.

7. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, allies, then enemies and finally friends again, died five hours apart on July 4, 1826.
Adams’s last words were famously reported to be: “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” not knowing Jefferson had died five hours before. But, as The Washington Post said, there’s no proof of that: “Mark that as just another story we wished so hard were true we convinced ourselves it is.”

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The Thomas Jefferson story has grown to be legend in American history, and as with all such prominent people, cherished "facts" about him aren't necessarily so.
biography of thomas jefferson, facts, first president, life
Friday, 22 May 2015 01:37 PM
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