Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

By Fawn M. Brodie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II

The Parents

The tradition in my father's family was, that their ancestor came to this country from Wales, and from near the mountain of Snowdon, the highest in Great Britain.

Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography

Like George Washington, whose father died when he was eleven, Jefferson lived all his life with memories of his father as a young and vigorous man, against whom he had never pitted his own strength. Jefferson's father died when he was fourteen, before he had come to terms with him as an equal in adulthood, before he could match his weight as giant against giant. That Peter Jefferson was a giant at least in physical stature we learn not from Jefferson's Autobiography, with its scant but important paragraph of definition, but from anecdotes passed down from Jefferson's grandchildren. Biographer Henry Randall, who interviewed several of them, and Jefferson's own great‐ granddaughter Sarah Randolph, wrote that Peter Jefferson was a man of extraordinary height and such prodigious strength that when standing between two hogsheads of tobacco lying on their sides he could "head" them both up at once. 1 Whether the hogshead of the time weighed "nearly a thousand pounds apiece," as Randall said, or the standard 560 pounds of today is not important. What counts is Jefferson's memory of his father's prowess and his own relation to it, neither of which is easy to document.

It is not difficult to conjure up a picture of the gangling freckled son—who though eventually six foot two and called "Tall Tom" would never be the giant his father was—watching the slaves and

-33-

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