What did Thomas Jefferson Write for His Epitaph?
Thomas Jefferson wrote his own epitaph. He listed the 3 accomplishments he wanted “most to be remembered”. Why did he choose these three?
“Here was buried
Author of the
Statute of Virginia
and Father of the
University of Virginia”
Left a few things out - Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams, and President for two terms. The Louisiana Purchase is not mentioned either. Let's explore these accomplishments.
The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom is the origin of legally guaranteed freedom of religion in the United States. Jefferson wrote this in 1777, during the Revolutionary War while working in the Virginia legislature. It was submitted in 1779 but was not passed until 1786 when James Madison, the future President, pushed it through the Virginia legislature. The U.S. Constitution itself was not written until 1787. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, separating church and state, was not adopted until 1791, making the Virginia statue the first in America to establish this freedom.
The first part of the statute starts:
“Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;
That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens (sp), or by civil incapacitations (sp) … are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do…"
Jefferson was severely in debt late in life and his mansion Monticello had to be sold after his death to pay debts. Uriah Phillips Levy, a Jewish naval officer during the War of 1812 purchased Monticello and maintained it. He was an admirer of Jefferson, stating:
"I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history …He did much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man's religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life."
As a Jew, Levy was particularly appreciative of religious freedom, something Jews had been denied for centuries. When he died, Levy left Monticello to the American people. But it was 1862 and it is in Confederate territory. When the war ended, after extended litigation, Levy’s nephew took over Monticello. He continued to maintain it finally selling it to the Thomas Jefferson private foundation which runs it to this day. There is a statue of Jefferson commissioned by Levy and donated to Congress in 1834 - to this day it is the only privately commissioned piece of artwork in the Capitol.
University of Virginia
In the 1770’s, while Jefferson was in the Virginia legislature he wrote a bill entitled “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”. Jefferson believed that an educated public is the best guard against tyranny in the future. From the preamble to the bill:
“Whereas it appeareth(sp) that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights,…yet experience hath shewn, that…those entrusted with power have, in time...perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large… (this) should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or accidental condition of circumstance;”
The bill goes on to provide for free public education in elementary school and scholarships for college. The bill finally passed in 1796.
In the early 1800’s, Jefferson repeated his goal of a university in a letter: “We wish to establish…a University on a plan so broad & liberal & modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other states to come, and drink of the cup of knowledge & fraternize with us.”
In 1814, Jefferson was named as trustee of an academy planned in Charlottesville, Virginia. He lobbied to expand the school into a full university. In 1819 the legislature established the University of Virginia on this site. The building plans followed Jefferson’s concepts and architectural drawings including a rotunda resembling a Roman Pantheon. It probably helped the university’s founding that both Presidents Madison and Monroe were on its Board of Trustees. It took, however, another six years to obtain funds and build out the university. Concerned still with religious freedom, Jefferson stated that “…a professorship of theology should have no place in our institution…”. The Marquis de Lafayette, on his grand tour of the United States, toasted Jefferson as "father" of the University of Virginia at the school's inaugural banquet in 1824. Today UVA is one of the top-ranked public universities in the country and only one of two Universities founded by Presidents (the other? University of Buffalo by Millard Fillmore).
Declaration of Independence
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Can you guess who used these same words when declaring independence in 1946? Ho Chi Minh, declaring Vietnam independent from France. Abraham Lincoln used these same words in his famous debates over slavery with Stephen Douglas in 1858. And Martin Luther King included them in the 'I have a dream speech'.
No doubt, among the most famous words ever written.
I can see why Jefferson listed these three items on his epitaph. His largest concern was freedom, the protection of the people from the tyranny of government. The Declaration of Independence is the most elegant statement of the rights of man. Freedom of worship is one of the most important rights. And, in his opinion, education critical to maintenance of freedom in the future. In the long span of history, I can see why he thought these his most important achievements.