Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4 Law, Life and Love

TWO years of assiduous application to his studies exhausted the potentialities of William and Mary for Jefferson. He was now nineteen, and it was necessary for him to come to a decision as to the future. For most of his fellow students the path was simple and direct. They returned to their estates and became gentlemen managers of broad plantations, tilling the soil with the aid of slaves and overseers, establishing families, riding and hunting, and partaking in the local affairs of their counties. For those who wished to do otherwise, only three courses were open--to practice law, to enter the ministry, or to study medicine. Politics as a career was as yet subsidiary in colonial Virginia, and was chiefly engaged in as an adjunct to the law. Trade was out of the question.

It does not seem likely that at the moment young Jefferson had any hankering to return to Shadwell and develop his holdings. His mother was resident there and in possession for life of its perquisites. The acres on the Rivanna and elsewhere, of which he held the fee, were still on the rim of what might be called civilization and would have required arduous and exacting toil to bring them to the level of Tidewater estates. Besides, his appetite for the life of learning and for the gracious variety of Williamsburg had grown on that with which it had been fed. The ministry held no charms for him; his emerging deism and the sceptical influence of Dr. Small closed that avenue quite effectively. Medicine, though fitted for a gentleman, held no high estate, and Jefferson never thought much of the ministrations of doctors. That left the law which, as a learned profession, highly esteemed and centered in Williamsburg, fitted all requirements.

The young man discussed the matter with his preceptor, Dr. Small, in their innumerable walks and talks. There were no schools of law anywhere in America and, unless one went to England to attend the Inns of Court, the procedure to follow was to study with some practicing attorney and under his guidance. Dr. Small's most intimate friend in Williamsburg was George Wythe, perhaps the most learned and scholarly lawyer in all Virginia, if not in the colonies generally. On Small's advice, Jefferson entered Wythe's law office and thereby came under the second great influence of his early career.1

George Wythe, then thirty-five, years of age, had never, received any formal schooling and, according to Jefferson, had unassisted become the best Latin and Greek scholar in the state, teaching himself as well mathematics, natural and moral philosophy.2 But a British traveler made a more

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