Today is the birthday (1743) of Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father of the US who served as the third president from 1801 to 1809. Previously, he had served as the second vice president of the United States from 1797 to 1801. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a proponent of democracy, republicanism, and individual rights motivating North American colonists to break from the kingdom of Great Britain and form a new nation. He produced a number of formative documents and decisions at both the state and national level that are of fundamental importance to this day. Arguably he made the most critical ideological contributions to the fabric of the nation. He has come up in posts before but today he has the post to himself, but I will be brief.
Jefferson was mainly of English ancestry, born and educated in colonial Virginia. He graduated from the College of William & Mary and briefly practiced law, with the largest number of his cases concerning land ownership claims. During the American Revolution, he represented Virginia in the Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration, drafted the law for religious freedom as a Virginia legislator, and served as the 2nd Governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781, during the American Revolutionary War. He became the United States Minister to France in May 1785, and subsequently the nation’s first secretary of state under president George Washington from 1790 to 1793. Jefferson and James Madison organized the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose the Federalist Party during the formation of the First Party System. With Madison, he anonymously wrote the controversial Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in 1798 and 1799, which sought to strengthen states’ rights by nullifying the federal Alien and Sedition Acts.
As president, Jefferson pursued the nation’s shipping and trade interests against Barbary pirates and aggressive British trade policies. He also negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, almost doubling the country’s territory. As a result of peace negotiations with France, his administration reduced military forces. He was reelected in 1804. Jefferson’s second term was beset with difficulties at home, including the trial of former vice president Aaron Burr. US foreign trade was diminished when Jefferson implemented the Embargo Act of 1807, responding to British threats to U.S. shipping. In 1803, Jefferson began the process of relocating Native Americans to the newly organized Louisiana Territory, and he signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807.
Jefferson, while primarily a planter, lawyer and politician, mastered many disciplines, which ranged from surveying and mathematics to horticulture and mechanics. He was an architect in the classical tradition. Jefferson’s keen interest in religion and philosophy led to his presidency of the American Philosophical Society. He was also a philologist and was fluent in several languages, including French, Greek, Italian, and German. He was a prolific letter writer and corresponded with many prominent people. His only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), is widely regarded as one of the most important books published in North America before 1800. In it he not only discusses the history and ecology of Virginia, but also lays out his political and social ideologies. He expressed his beliefs in the separation of church and state, constitutional government, checks and balances, and individual liberty. He wrote extensively about slavery, the “problems” of miscegenation, a justification of white supremacy, and his belief that Whites and Blacks could not live together in a free society. Given that he had several children by an African-American slave (who was biologically his wife’s half sister), these views are a little hard to understand (or should I say, hypocritical).
After retiring from public office, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and was intimately associated with both its architecture and curriculum. In contrast to other universities of the day, at which one could study in either medicine, law, or divinity, the first students at the University of Virginia could study in one or several of eight independent schools – medicine, law, mathematics, chemistry, ancient languages, modern languages, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy. Another innovation of the new university was that higher education would be separated from religious doctrine. UVA had no divinity school, was established independently of any religious sect, and the grounds were planned and centered upon a library, the Rotunda, rather than a church, distinguishing it from peer universities still primarily functioning as seminaries.
Jefferson was baptized in his youth and became a governing member of his local Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, which he later attended with his daughters. Influenced by Deist authors during his college years, Jefferson abandoned orthodox Christianity after his review of New Testament teachings. In 1803 he asserted, “I am Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be.” Jefferson later defined being a Christian as one who followed the simple teachings of Jesus. Jefferson compiled Jesus’ biblical teachings, omitting miraculous or supernatural references into the work, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, known today as the Jefferson Bible. Its basic theology is very much in line with that of 20th century Protestant theologians, but way too radical for the turn of the 19th.
Jefferson was firmly anticlerical, writing in “every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty … they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon.” Jefferson once supported banning clergy from public office but later relented. In 1777, he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Ratified in 1786, it made compelling attendance or contributions to any state-sanctioned religious establishment illegal and declared that citizens “shall be free to profess … their opinions in matters of religion.” The Statute is one of only three accomplishments he chose to have inscribed in the epitaph on his gravestone. Early in 1802, Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, “that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God.” He interpreted the First Amendment as having built “a wall of separation between Church and State.” The phrase ‘Separation of Church and State’ has been cited several times by the Supreme Court in its interpretation of the Establishment Clause.
Jefferson donated to the American Bible Society, saying the Four Evangelists delivered a “pure and sublime system of morality” to humanity. He thought that the US would rationally create “Apiarian” religion, extracting the best traditions of every denomination. And he contributed generously to several local denominations near his home, Monticello. Jefferson knew that organized religion would always be factored into political life for good or ill, but encouraged reason over supernatural revelation to make inquiries into religion. He believed in a creator god and an afterlife, and defined the essence of religion practice as loving God and one’s neighbors. But he also controversially renounced the conventional Christian Trinity, denying Jesus’ divinity as the Son of God. Jefferson’s unorthodox religious beliefs became an important issue in the 1800 presidential election and Federalists attacked him as an atheist. As president, Jefferson countered the accusations by praising religion in his inaugural address and attending services at the Capitol.
Although regarded as a leading spokesman for democracy and republicanism in the era of the Enlightenment, Jefferson’s historical legacy is mixed. Some modern scholarship has been critical of Jefferson’s private life, pointing out the contradiction between his ownership of the large numbers of slaves that worked his plantations and his famous declaration that “all men are created equal.” Another point of controversy stems from the (now incontrovertible) evidence that after his wife Martha died in 1782, Jefferson fathered children with Martha’s half-sister, Sally Hemings, who was his slave. Sally’s mother had been a slave of Martha’s father, and Sally was the product of a union between her mother and Martha’s father. She, five siblings (all sired by Martha’s father) and her mother entered into Jefferson’s household on his marriage as part of her dowry, and when Martha died, he routinely had sexual relations with her, producing at least five children. What happened to his opposition to miscegenation?
Jefferson’s time in France had culinary outcomes back home in the US. He is frequently credited with inventing ice cream as well as macaroni and cheese, which is utter nonsense. I can produce recipes for both from ancient Roman sources. It is quite correct to say that he learned about these dishes whilst living in France, and brought them back to the US where he made them popular. He served both at presidential banquets making them instantly the talk of the town. Nowadays, imagining mac and cheese served as the crowning achievement of a White House banquet is perhaps laughable (although under Trump it’s possible, I suppose), but in Jefferson’s day it was a big hit among the guests.
As it happens, Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream survives. It’s a perfectly serviceable recipe although you might want to scale back the quantities. Ice cream makers of the time did not have internal paddles, hence the need to open the container during the freezing process and scrape down the sides and break up the ice crystals.
Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream
2. bottles of good cream.
6. yolks of eggs.
1/2 lb. sugar
mix the yolks & sugar
put the cream on a fire in a casserole, first putting in a stick of Vanilla.
when near boiling take it off & pour it gently into the mixture of eggs & sugar.
stir it well.
put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent it’s sticking to the casserole.
when near boiling take it off and strain it thro’ a towel.
put it in the Sabottiere [inner container of the ice cream freezer]
then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. put into the ice a handful of salt.
put salt on the coverlid of the Sabotiere & cover the whole with ice.
leave it still half a quarter of an hour.
then turn the Sabottiere in the ice 10 minutes
open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner sides of the Sabotiere.
shut it & replace it in the ice
open it from time to time to detach the ice from the sides
when well taken (prise) stir it well with the Spatula.
put it in moulds, justling it well down on the knee.
then put the mould into the same bucket of ice.
leave it there to the moment of serving it.
to withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, turning it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.