Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5 The Shape of Things to Come

NOW that his abortive love affair with Rebecca Burwell had collapsed, young Jefferson once more devoted himself to the serious business of life. The projected journey to England, on which his love had foundered, never did materialize. Instead, he alternated between Shadwell and Williamsburg, continuing a leisurely reading of the law and commencing, on a more grandiose scale, that omnivorous and insatiable inquiry into all the kingdoms of knowledge that was to mark him through life.

The surprising thing about his legal preparation, indeed, was that it took so inordinately long. He commenced his studies under Wythe in 1762; it was not until 1767 that his mentor led him for induction to the bar of the General Court. Five years is a lengthy period for preparation even today, when the corpus of law has immensely expanded; in the eighteenth century it was practically unheard of. Two years was more than ample then, and the record is full of cases in which a year or less was deemed sufficient. The names of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Marshall and Patrick Henry come immediately to mind.

It is obvious, therefore, that Jefferson was in no hurry to commence practice. His conception of preparation, not merely for the law, but for the business of life itself, included a broader field of knowledge than that envisaged by almost anyone else of his time.1 His several commonplace books mark the progression of his wide readings for many years to come.

Languages he considered the fundamental tool. Already possessed of an excellent foundation in Latin and Greek--for which he never ceased expressing his gratitude to his father--he read deeply in the classics and excerpted those passages which touched responsive chords in his own being. In the Greek, Homer, Euripides and Anacreon seem to have been his favorites in those early years, and chiefly he copied down their comments on life, destiny and woman. He read Herodotus among the historians, but not yet Thucydides. The philosophers he did not touch at all, though later he sampled Plato and conceived a violent aversion to him. He liked his philosophy rational, as became a child of the Enlightenment, and professed a vast scorn for metaphysics of all kinds. Later on he discovered Epicurus and became his disciple, and admired the Stoics, at least in their ethical pronouncements. Why he found no pabulum in Aristotle is a mystery; for the great Stagyrite was certainly a rationalist. The answer may lie in the ill repute into which that philosopher had fallen because of his identifi-

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