American Presidents special

John Trumball's "declaration of independence" (1817) now hanging in the Capitol Rotunda.

John Trumball’s “Declaration of Independence” (1817) now hanging in the Capitol Rotunda.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, was born on April 13th 1743, on the Shadwell Plantation on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia to Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph, the third out of their ten children. Peter Jefferson was a skilled and successful farmer, and also a qualified cartographer and surveyor, credited with producing the first accurate map of Virginia Province. Thomas’ formal education began at the age of nine, when he studied Latin and Greek at a small private school. At the age of fourteen he extended his studies to develop his classical language skills, and also studied mathematics and literature. Jefferson was also a prolific violinist from an early age. He later stated however that as a child, his favourite pastime like all small boys, was playing in the woods.

At the age of 17, Jefferson left home to attend William and Mary College in Williamsburg. Despite being the second oldest college in America, after Harvard, Jefferson was disappointed to discover his higher education would be heavy on horse racing and women, and so instead made friends with older academics including Lawyer George Wythe, with whom he subsequently read law. In those days, law was not on a formal curriculum of higher education and therefore, law students “read” law under a qualified lawyer and then took examination at the bar. Wythe forced Jefferson to study for five years, rather than the usual three, and as a result, by the time he qualified, Jefferson was already a skilled lawyer. Following his admission to the bar in 1767, where he practised law for 7 years rarely losing a case, Thomas met and subsequently married Martha Wayles Skelton, a wealthy young widow, in 1772, with whom he had six children. Sadly only two made it to adulthood, Martha, their firstborn and Mary, their fourth. Mary predeceased her father.

In 1768, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, and quickly found a niche within the circle of the more radical supporters of Independence, Patrick Henry and George Washington. Following his 1774 publication of ‘A Summary View of the Rights of British America’, Jefferson was put forward to draft the statement which would become known as the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Following Independence, Jefferson remained a delegate of Virginia, until 1779, during which time, he successfully abolished the laws of entailment of property, meaning that a property owner did not have to leave his land to his heirs, and primogeniture which meant that in the absence of a will, property was no longer automatically inherited by the eldest son. Jefferson was also the successful author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777 which although not adopted for another nine years, when eventually passes meant not only freedom to practice ones religion but also the separation of Church and State. In the interim years, Thomas Jefferson met and taught law to his protégé James Monroe, who would also become America’s fifth President.

James Monroe was born to Spence Monroe and Elizabeth Jones in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in April 1758. Following an education at Campbell Town Academy, at the age of sixteen, Monroe’s father died, leaving him heir to a substantial plantation, worked by slaves. Monroe attended the William and Mary College for around 18 months from 1774, but cut short his studies to enlist in the Continental Army, 3rd Virginia Regiment where he was able to obtain a commission based on his college education and being the son of a wealthy plantation owner. Monroe subsequently participated in the Battle of Trenton, where he was wounded in the shoulder trying to seize Hessian guns before his unit could be ambushed, a musket ball nicking his artery. A young doctor, John Riker managed to tie off the artery and saved his arm, and his life. His friend and comrade, William Washington, cousin of the General, and later first President George, was injured in both hands in the attack. Unable to continue serving with such an injury, Monroe was sent home to recuperate.

He later resumed his studies with Jefferson, believing Law to be the quickest path to status and political standing until 1783, when he passed the bar, and sold his plantation to pay for his future in Law and Politics. In November that year, Monroe entered Congress. He married Elizabeth Kortright in 1786 and they had three children. Monroe established himself in Senate as a central figure alongside Edmund Pendleton in the struggle to ratify the Constitution, Monroe proposing a Bill of Rights. Defeated by Madison in the First Congress, Monroe later joined Jefferson and Madison eventually becoming party leader in the Senate. Jefferson had high profile roles within the Presidential cabinet, including secretary of state under George Washington, and later forming the Democratic-Republican Party with James Madison. He was Vice-President under John Adams, and later opposed him, secretly writing, with Madison, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which were aimed to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Following the ‘Revolution of 1800’, Jefferson was elected as 3rd President of the United States, and subsequently oversaw the Louisiana Purchase. He instigated the Lewis and Clark Expedition and doubled the territory of the United States. Jefferson also initiated the Indian Removal to the area west of the Mississippi, and drafted the Act banning the importation of slaves into the US. Jefferson was a lifelong opponent to the slave trade, yet owned hundreds of slaves. It has been alleged that following his wife’s death, Jefferson entered a long-term relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and is rumoured to have fathered some or all of her children. His famous statement in the Declaration of Independence regarding that all men are created equal was used several times during the debate for abolishment of slavery in America, particularly by Abraham Lincoln, who was an ardent fighter for the freedom of slaves both before and during his own Presidency. Jefferson refused to officially recognise the Republic of Haiti following the Slave rebellion of 1804, fearing it would encourage US slaves in the south to rise up in a similar fashion, however during the rebellion, he tried to discourage French attempts at regaining control of Saint-Domingue, and supplied the island with arms to aid their cause.

Monroe meanwhile had resigned his position within the Senate in 1794 and had travelled to France as Minister, achieving the release of Thomas Paine, who had objected to the execution of Louis XVI and securing the release of all Americans being held in French Prisons, and their passage back to America. Despite his attempts to convince the French that America was to remain neutral, George Washington subsequently signed the Jay Treaty with London, thus placing America in effect on favour with Britain in the war between her and France. Washington dismissed Monroe as Minister for France. Following his Presidential election Jefferson later placed Monroe with fellow declaration signee Robert R Livingston in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase.

Following Madison’s election in 1807, Monroe spent short periods of time in various offices including Secretary of State and Secretary of War, following the burning of the White House, and the dismissal of John Armstrong in 1814. He formulated plans to invade Canada, but a peace treaty was signed and ratified before he finalised the plan. He resigned as Secretary for war and was formally reinstated as Secretary of State, an office he had held unofficially alongside his other, due to no replacement being cast. He continued in this role until he was elected President as Madison’s successor in 1817. He ran unopposed for a second term, due to the collapse of the Federalists. In 1825, Monroe’s run as President came to an end, he was replaced by John Quincy Adams. He retired to his home on Monroe Hill, Virginia, having sold off some of his plantation interests to pay his debts. His wife’ health by this time was poor. The farm stood in what is now the grounds of the University of Virginia. James and Elizabeth moved to Oak Hill, another one of their properties, where they remained until she died in 1830. James Monroe then moved to live with his daughter in New York.

John Adams was born on October 30th 1735, the eldest of three sons of John Adams Sr and Susanna Boylston, in what was Braintree, Massachusetts, now Quincy. His birthplace now forms part of Adams National Historical Park. His ancestor, Henry Adams had emigrated as a founder of the town from Braintree in Essex, England as one of a group of Puritans in 1630. John attended Harvard from the age of 16 and trained to be a lawyer. In October 1764, he married his third cousin Abigail Smith, with whom he had six children, five of whom survived, his youngest was stillborn. His second child, eldest son John Quincy would later follow in his father’s footsteps as America’s 6th President.

John Adams first rose to prominence following his opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765, which he argued contravened two basic rights of Englishmen, the right to be taxed only by consent and the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers. In December of 1765, he gave a speech attended by the Governor and council in which he declared the Stamp Act was invalid in Massachusetts as being without Parliamentary representation, they had not assented to the Act. Adams was elected as a selectman by the town in the following year. Following the Boston Massacre of 1770, where armed British soldiers fired into a crowd of Boston civilians, killing five, the offenders struggled to find legal representation. Despite fearing for his reputation, Adams agreed to be their counsel. Working on the premise that a verdict must be delivered based on the facts and the evidence, Adams was able to have six of the accused acquitted of the charges. Two others although charged with murder were found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

In 1772, Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, a known Royalist, declared that henceforth his salary and that of his judges would be paid by the Crown rather than his electorate. Many Bostonians objected and requested Adams put forward their objections. Adams stated that the original charter to which the colony was held, provided allegiance only to the person of the King and not to a sovereign parliament. Hutchinson invoked arguments by Daniel Leonard in his defence, which Adams subsequently negated by using the unwritten English constitution to imply that legislature was the right of colonies, and the colonies were only connected to and therefore answerable to the King.

In May 1776, Adams was called to second the motion for independence proposed by his colleague Richard Henry Lee, and went on to be a member of the council of five who drafted the statement of Independence. Following the Declaration of Independence, Adams travelled to Europe in 1783 in a capacity as US Ambassador, first to strengthen trade between the US and Prussia, and then on to London in 1785 to attempt to renew a bond with England during which time, in an effort to avoid the hostility at Court, they spent time away with Minister Richard Price and his protégé Mary Wollstonecraft, whose works on the rights of women appealed directly to Abigail. Both Abigail and John Adams were fierce opponents of slavery, and never owned a slave. Adams however tried to keep the issue out of politics claiming that raising the debate would drive a split with the South in a time when unity was important for independence. Likewise, Adams further spoke against emancipation for slaves for use in the Revolution, fearing reaction from the Southern states.

George Washington won the first Presidential election of 1789, with John Adams coming second, making him Vice-President. His goal was actually to secure the position of Chief Justice, his interest in politics minimal. As a result, Washington rarely consulted him on policy but utilised him repeatedly for points of law. In the 1796 campaign, Adams beat Jefferson by a narrow margin to become President, with Jefferson as his vice. In 1800, Adams was defeated by Jefferson, and retired to his home where he joined Abigail. He did not attend Jefferson’s inauguration, mainly due to the death of his son Charles from alcohol related illness, and he and Jefferson remained estranged for twelve years. Fellow declaration signee, Benjamin Rush, a mutual friend, encouraged the pair to reconnect. From the first notes sent to each other over the New Year 1812, until their deaths 14 years later, the pair wrote regularly, the letters surviving today to demonstrate a warm funny and insightful look into the intertwined lives of two men brought together by revolution.

In 1818, Abigail died of Typhoid after nursing their daughter, also Abigail as she died from breast cancer following the breakdown of her marriage. His son Thomas and his family moved into the family home to care for John. He was proud to watch his son John Quincy become America’s sixth President in 1825. Sixteen months later, on July 4th, 1826, fifty years after signing the most important document in the foundation of America, John Adams died just a few hours before his friend and co-signee, Thomas Jefferson. In July 1825, Jefferson’s health had begun to deteriorate. He suffered a series of illnesses including Pneumonia and toxaemia. By the following year, it was obvious he was fading. He wrote his final letter at the end of June to a Washington newspaper, reaffirming his belief in the Declaration, and set his affairs in order. He awoke briefly in the evening of the 3rd and uttered his final words. “Is it the Fourth yet?” His doctor replied “it soon will be.” At ten minutes to one the next afternoon, Jefferson died. A few hours earlier, his former friend and fellow founding father, John Adams had passed away, his own last words being “Independence forever” and “Thomas Jefferson survives!”

In April 1831, John Quincy Adams visited former President James Monroe in New York, where he found him alert and eager to discuss current political events. However Adams cut short the visit, fearing he was tiring Monroe. On July 4th, 1831, as a result of Heart failure and tuberculosis, James Monroe also passed away on American Independence day. Forty one years later, Calvin Coolidge, one day to become 30th President, was born, on July 4th, 1872…….

Phoebe