Thomas Jefferson Childhood

Early Life and Family Background

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at the Shadwell plantation in Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a planter and surveyor who had amassed around 5,000 acres of land by the time of his death. From his father, Thomas inherited land and a legacy of exploration and boundary-setting.1 Thomas's mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, came from one of Virginia's most distinguished families, the Randolphs, known for their lineage intertwined with British gentry and deeply rooted Virginia aristocracy.

Following the passing of his father in 1757, Thomas became the head of his young family and inherited responsibilities that prepared him for adult life's bureaucratic and societal challenges, including managing a large estate and the slaves his family owned. As a boy, Thomas had diverse educational experiences, ranging from study under private tutors to more structured settings, eventually culminating in his attendance at the College of William and Mary.

Aerial view of Thomas Jefferson's boyhood home, Shadwell Plantation in Virginia in the 1700s

Education and Intellectual Formation

At the age of nine, Jefferson began his formal education under the tutelage of a minister-teacher, learning Latin and Greek and absorbing classical Enlightenment principles. Upon completing these studies, Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1760. There, he encountered Professor William Small, who introduced him to advanced notions of politics, philosophy, and ethics. Jefferson also had the privilege of dining frequently with luminaries such as Governor Francis Fauquier, further shaping his social and political views.2

Following his college experience, Jefferson began to study law under George Wythe in 1762. Wythe, a revered attorney and America's earliest professor of law, imbued his teachings with a blend of moral philosophy and legal technicalities. Under Wythe's guidance, Jefferson became one of the well-read legal minds of the nascent American epoch.

Jefferson's education, replete with classicism and Enlightenment ideas, formed the basis of his intellect and character. These experiences magnified his reasoning and rational skills and mapped out pivotal pathways through which he could exercise influence over socio-political platforms in revolutionary America.

Thomas Jefferson as a student at the College of William and Mary in the 1760s

Inheritance and Early Responsibilities

Inheriting significant property and a large contingent of slaves at just fourteen, following his father's death, Jefferson was positioned suddenly as the master of Shadwell. This circumstance necessitated a maturity atypical for his age and granted him insight into political and architectural authorities.

As a young estate manager, Jefferson was responsible for architectural decisions on his property. The architectural designs for Monticello stemmed from these early engagements, demonstrating Jefferson's forward-thinking about functional yet innovative estate practices.

The inheritance of property and slaves instilled in Jefferson a complex viewpoint on the institution of slavery. Despite his public denunciation of slavery and his push for legislative efforts against the trans-Atlantic slave trade during his political career, his personal practices often contradicted his public stances.3

Aerial view of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's plantation home in Virginia

Social and Cultural Influences

Growing up in the 18th-century Virginia planter society, Jefferson was deeply ensconced within a community that was swiftly evolving both culturally and socially. The planter society of Virginia provided Jefferson both the comfort of belonging and the challenge of living up to the demands of his class, which emphasized governance, land ownership, and agrarian success.

The community of neighboring planters around Shadwell and later at Monticello formed Jefferson's immediate social circle and his political and economic community. Relationships with these individuals served as early models of Republican virtue and participatory governance, shaping his future commitments to democratic ideals and practices.

The plantation culture further imbued him with the necessity of contriving a self-sufficient lifestyle that was reflected in his later advocacy for agrarian independence in American policy. Moreover, this milieu afforded Jefferson a front-row seat to the pivotal role enslaved labor played within his community, shaping his views on slavery.

Socially, the cultural life of Virginia's planter society was enriched by a blend of English aristocratic traditions interwoven with emerging American customs. These interfused experiences of community engagement, political participation, cultural richness, and the stark reality of slavery permeated Jefferson's developmental years and early adulthood, shaping his thoughts and actions throughout his momentous public career.

Scene of daily life on a Virginia plantation in Thomas Jefferson's time
  1. Malone DP. Jefferson and His Time: Jefferson the Virginian. Boston, MA: Little, Brown; 1948.
  2. Mayer DM. The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press; 1994.
  3. Wiencek H. Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2012.