Why Did Thomas Jefferson Omit His Presidency From His Epitaph?

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Thomas Jefferson wrote his own epitaph.  He listed the 3 accomplishments he “wish most to be remembered”.

"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia"

Jefferson left a few things out: Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams, and his two-term Presidency. The Louisiana Purchase is not mentioned either. Most of us are familiar with the Declaration of Independence, but what about the other two accomplishments?

Religious Freedom

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. Jefferson submitted his statute in 1779, but it was not passed until 1786 when future President James Madison pushed it through the Virginia legislature. Thus, the Virginia statute was the first in America to establish religious freedom. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, separating church and state, was adopted several years later, in 1791.

The statute is worth reading – Jefferson’s writing truly shines. Here are some excerpts from the first part:

“Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations … 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…

In the final clause of the statute, Jefferson worries that future legislature could repeal this Act. And remember, this is prior to the Bill of Rights. He wanted to simultaneously protect the right of future legislatures to make and change laws, while keeping religious freedom in perpetuity:

“… this assembly elected by the people …, have no power to restrain the act of succeeding assemblies, …, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, …, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such as would be an infringement of natural right.”

Jefferson was severely indebted late in life, and Monticello, his mansion, was sold after his death to pay those debts. Uriah Phillips Levy, a Jewish naval officer during the War of 1812, purchased Monticello and maintained it. He admired 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."

Levy was particularly appreciative of religious freedom, as Jews had been denied this right for centuries. When he died, Levy left Monticello to the American people. But it was 1862, and Monticello was in Confederate territory.  When the war ended and after extended litigation, Levy’s nephew took back Monticello. He continued maintaining Monticello, finally selling it to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, who has been running it ever since. There is a statue of Jefferson commissioned by Levy and donated to Congress in 1834. It is the only privately commissioned piece of artwork in the Capitol and stands watch to protect the country and its lawmakers nearly 200 years later.

University of Virginia

While in the Virginia legislature in the 1770s, Jefferson 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, he said:

“… 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, and …that those persons…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 free public education in elementary school and scholarships for college. The bill finally passed almost 20 years later in 1796.

In the early 1800s, Jefferson stated his general goal for a university in a letter to scientist and philosopher Dr. Joseph Priestley: “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. He lobbied the Virginia legislature to expand the academy 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 he provided, including a rotunda resembling the Roman Pantheon. It probably helped the University’s founding that both Presidents Madison and Monroe were on its Board of Trustees. However, it took another six years to obtain funds and build out the University. Still concerned 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. Today, UVA is one of the top-ranked public universities in the country, and Jefferson was there at the very beginning.

Conclusion

We can only speculate why Jefferson left off the Presidency from his epitaph. But his instructions, written a few months prior to his death were explicit – “On the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more” He chose to list Declaration of Independence, Religious Freedom and Education, three of the most important underpinnings of our country. As he stated: “because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.