Thomas Jefferson: Early Life & Education

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the early life of Thomas Jefferson. We will highlight aspects of his childhood and we will learn about his educational experiences (and how he was shaped by them).

Thomas Jefferson: A Man of Genius

Many of us are probably relatively familiar with Thomas Jefferson. We know he was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. Some of us may even have more detailed knowledge, such as an understanding that he was sympathetic to France, or that he held to a religious belief system called Deism (the belief that God exists, but that He doesn't interact supernaturally in the universe). But how much do most of us know about his early life? Jefferson was a brilliant man, but how much do we know about his educational background? In order to fully appreciate the genius of Thomas Jefferson, we need to have an understanding of the ways his mind was shaped as a young man. Let's learn more about the early life and education of America's third president.

Thomas Jefferson is often regarded as the premier intellectual of his time. He had a profound love of learning and excelled in numerous academic fields.

Early Childhood and Education

Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia, just outside of what is now Charlottesville. Jefferson was the third of ten children born to Peter Jefferson and his wife, Jane Randolph Jefferson. When Jefferson was just a few years old, his family moved to a plantation just outside of Richmond. At the Tuckahoe Plantation, Jefferson received an early childhood education provided by tutors. There he learned to read and write and spent considerable time roaming the outdoors, and in the process, acquiring a love of nature.

The Jeffersons moved back to Shadwell in 1752, at which point Jefferson began attending a formal school led by a Presbyterian minister. At only the age of nine, Jefferson began learning Latin, Greek, and French. Within a few years, he came under the instruction of James Maury, a well-known Anglican minister and educator. Maury taught Jefferson history, science, and the classics. Jefferson also received a solid education from Rev. Maury in the area of religion, although as Jefferson matured, he did not come to embrace Anglican doctrine.

At Maury's school, Jefferson and another young man named Dabney Carr met and became the best of friends. They enjoyed discussing literature, science, and philosophy, in addition to hiking the woods surrounding the place where Jefferson's future home, Monticello, would one day be built. Jefferson loved learning and considered the opportunity to acquire knowledge one of life's greatest privileges.

College Experience

Jefferson enrolled in the College of William and Mary at the age of 16. Founded in 1693 in Williamsburg, Virginia, the college is the second oldest institution of higher education in America. Williamsburg at this time was the capital city of the American Colonies, and it was a sophisticated, vibrant cultural center. The city was wonderfully suited for Jefferson and he thrived academically and socially.

Thomas Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, and thrived there academically and socially.

Jefferson was greatly influenced by the faculty at William and Mary, and by two professors in particular. A professor of natural philosophy, Dr. William Small introduced Jefferson to the thinkers of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, of course, was an 18th-century intellectual movement characterized by reason, humanism, and a skepticism of organized religion. Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Francis Bacon, Montesquieu, and others had a profound impact upon Jefferson. Jefferson thought highly of Dr. Small and regarded him as ''a man profound in most of the useful branches of science'' and a man from whom ''I got my first views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed.''

Jefferson also studied under law professor George Wythe. Jefferson obtained his license to practice law under the mentorship of Wythe. Interestingly enough, Wythe went on to become one of the signers of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Certainly, we can imagine how proud George Wythe would have been to sign this document written by his one-time student.

Professor of law George Wythe mentored Jefferson and eventually became of one the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
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