Historian and biographer Joseph Ellis has called Jefferson, who had a monumental role in shaping American politics, the American sphinx for his enigmatic character. Since his terms in office, presidents and politicians from both ends of the political spectrum have borrowed from Jefferson’s political philosophy in an attempt to link their own leadership with this most influential and admired founding father.
Jefferson’s character—as a man or a president—defies definition in black and white. He was at once an intellectual, architect, philosopher, musician and essayist. His fascination with science prompted his study and collection of fossils. He projected a down-to-earth, relaxed and unconventional attitude and his desire to be seen as a common man was reflected in his penchant for receiving White House visitors in a robe and slippers. Jefferson denounced oppressive government and was a fierce proponent of freedom of speech and religion. He worried that fellow founding fathers George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton had designs to fashion the American presidency after a monarchy. When Washington and Hamilton proposed a national bank and state assumption of national debt, Jefferson resigned from Washington’s cabinet in protest. He adamantly rejected Hamilton’s plan to build a strong federal military, fearing it might be used by a tyrannical leader against American citizens.
Though Jefferson was highly principled, he was not above using smear tactics against political opponents. He anonymously assailed his victims in print under a pseudonym and helped to fund the anti-Federalist press.
Although in theory Jefferson desired the abolition of slavery, it is a fact that Jefferson owned other human beings who worked his plantation. Historical accounts indicate Jefferson treated his enslaved workers well within the context of the times. It has long been rumored—and debated by historians—that one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, was Jefferson’s lover. She bore a son, named Eston, in 1808. For 200 years, the Hemings affair and Eston’s paternity were the focus of intense scholarly analysis. In 1998, DNA testing proved that a Jefferson was Eston’s biological father, which many took to mean that he was indeed Thomas Jefferson’s son, a fact backed up by the oral tradition of the Hemings family. However, other scholars have disagreed with this conclusion and it remains a topic of fervent debate.
Jefferson, a widower since the death of his wife Martha in 1782, is also thought to have had a relationship with Maria Cosway, a beautiful (and married) British painter and musician whom he met while serving as minister to France. Jefferson’s relationship with Cosway inspired him to write the romantic essay A Dialogue Between the Head and Heart in October 1786. One historical account of their affair paints Jefferson as a lovesick schoolboy—as he and Cosway shared a romantic walk in the countryside near Paris, Jefferson attempted to leap over a fence, fell and broke his wrist.
Jefferson’s anti-federalist policies and personal attacks on John Adams caused a huge falling-out between the two former friends. After retirement, though, Adams and Jefferson rekindled their personal connection. The last two original revolutionaries living, Jefferson and Adams, died on the same day: July 4, 1826.