Tuesday, August 11, 2009

True in the Decisions of Youth

The year is 1757. George Washington is 25 years old and is engaged in the French-Indian War. Near Charlottesville, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter, has just died at age 49 at his home in Shadwell. Young Thomas is only 14 years old -- the third of ten children and the oldest son. While his father was not well educated, he made sure that Thomas received schooling and had books to read. With his father gone, what would he decide to do with his future? Years later, speaking of this time in his life, Jefferson wrote to his grandson:

“When I consider that at fourteen years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely, without a relative or a friend qualified to advise or guide me, and recollect the various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time, I am astonished that I did not turn off with some of them, and become as worthless to society as they were. From the circumstances of my position, I was often thrown into the society of horseracers, cardplayers, foxhunters, [as well as] scientific and professional men … and many a time have I asked myself … "Well, which of these kinds of reputation should I prefer--that of a horsejockey, a foxhunter, … or the honest advocate of my country's rights?"

Thomas made his choice to be an ‘advocate of his country’s rights’ … and pursued an education in Williamsburg. He bought many books. Under the guidance of Dr. William Small, who taught natural history, Jefferson discovered Bacon, Newton, and Locke, studied science and philosophy, bowed the fiddle, debated ethics, and polished his manners. Along with Professor Small, Jefferson also learned from another mentor, George Wythe. They quickened Thomas’ interests in the world, interests he would apply to a variety of subjects including weather, music, mathematics, paleontology, surveying, education, literature, physics, architecture, art, history, medicine, law, religion, government, and agriculture … they opened his mind.

After Dr. Small departed for England in 1764, Jefferson continued under Wythe. Commuting from Shadwell with bundles of books, Jefferson devoted five years to his study under Wythe and emerged in 1767 among the elite of the lawyers, a man of polished politeness, taste, and unblemished behavior. Thinking on what he learned in his twenty years at Williamsburg, an aging Jefferson described his personal experience there as "the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America." He had become a community leader, and would eventually take his role in the leadership and governance of his state and of our nation. Thomas Jefferson stood true in the decisions of youth.…

By: J. David Gowdy

See Colonial Williamsburg: http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/jeffart.cfm