Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy

By Francis D. Cogliano | Go to book overview
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Chapter 5
Jefferson's Epitaph

I

Thomas Jefferson died at Monticello on 4 July 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In the months before his death, Jefferson prepared for the posthumous struggle over his place in history. As we have seen, he filed and organized his papers, which he left to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, anticipating their future publication. He also designed his tombstone. He left specific instructions that his grave should be marked by a six-foot obelisk set atop a three foot square cube, of 'coarse stone'. Jefferson composed a simple epitaph that he wanted inscribed on the monument, '& not a word more'. It read:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom

& Father of the University of Virginia

Jefferson explained that he had chosen these three actions from his myriad accomplishments 'because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered'. He sketched the monument and wrote out his instructions and folded the paper with a copy of the epitaph he had composed for his wife, Martha, when she had died forty-four years earlier, in 1782. The instructions were discovered among his papers after his death and the tombstone was erected according to Jefferson's wishes.1

Why did Jefferson choose his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as well as his role in founding the University of Virginia, as the actions for which he most wanted to be remembered? He had, after all, served as a congressman, governor of Virginia, American ambassador to France, secretary of state, vice president and president of the United States as well as president of the American Philosophical Society. By eschewing these

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