September 22, 2011

Thomas Jefferson: Five Things You Might Not Know

[Plus: Observe The Weather Activity]
By Brandon Marie Miller
To celebrate the publication of Thomas Jefferson for Kids: His Life and Times, check out these tidbits you might not know about Jefferson. Then let Jefferson himself give you directions for keeping track of the weather.

      1)    Did You Know Jefferson Was Shy?

Nineteen-year-old Jefferson needed an entire year to work up the courage to speak to his first crush, Rebecca Burwell. Then, on an October night in 1763, they shared a dance. “I was prepared,” he wrote a friend, “to say a great deal. I had dressed up in my own mind such thoughts…in as moving language as I knew how, But, Good God! When I had an opportunity of venting them, a few broken sentences, uttered in great disorder and interrupted with pauses of uncommon length were the too visible marks of my strange confusion!” Not surprisingly, he soon heard Ms. Burwell planned to marry someone else.

2)    Did You Know Jefferson’s Mentor Was Murdered?

George Wythe, Jefferson’s law professor, faithful friend and mentor for over forty years—was murdered. A legal scholar, judge, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Wythe was poisoned by his greedy nephew Mathew Sweeney in 1806. Sweeney was charged with murder, but eventually set free because no one witnessed him poisoning Wythe’s food. A free African American woman, Lydia Broadnax, may have known what happened, but as a black woman, she could not testify in court against a white person. Jefferson called Wythe, “my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life.”

3)    Did You Know Death Marked Jefferson’s Life?

Jefferson lost his father at age fourteen. Often gloomy, he turned to his violin for solace. Within a few years his dearest sister, Jane, died—“Ah, Jane, best of girls!” Jefferson wrote. “Flower snatched away in its bloom! May the earth weigh lightly upon you! Farewell for a long, long time.” He soon buried his best friend and brother-in-law, Dabney Carr, at Monticello. But the most tragic losses lay ahead. During ten years of marriage Jefferson and his wife Martha mourned three babies. Then Martha, died September 6, 1782, weak and ill after childbirth. Her death shattered Jefferson, who barely found the will to survive his darkest void. In 1784, while Jefferson served as minister to France, his two-year-old daughter, Lucy, died of whooping cough. His daughter Maria, like her mother, died in childbirth during his presidency. Martha, his eldest daughter, was the only child by his wife to survive Jefferson. In Jefferson’s eyes, the losses of his most beloved “embittered” all other “favors of fortune” life had granted him.

4)    Did You Know He Only Freed Slaves From The Hemings Family?        

Out of the 600 slaves Jefferson owned during his lifetime, he freed only eleven—all of them the children or grandchildren of Betty Hemings. Betty and her children became Jefferson’s property on the death of his father-in-law. Most likely, some of Betty’s children were the half-siblings of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Over the years Jefferson held more than 80 people related to Betty Hemings in bondage. Many of the Hemingses mastered skills and trades (cooks, carpenters, blacksmiths, butlers) that made them more valuable to Jefferson and earned several members a yearly paid bonus. The first rumors swirled about Jefferson and Betty’s daughter, Sally, in 1802. Jefferson fathered five children with Sally Hemings. Four of Sally’s children survived, daughter Harriet, and sons James Madison, Thomas Eston and William Beverly. Held in slavery by their father, Harriet and Beverly vanished from Monticello around their 21st birthdays.  Jefferson freed Madison and Eston in his will.  He did not free Sally.
5)    Did You Know Peas Were His Favorite Veggie?

Today we’d call Jefferson a “foodie”—a lover of fine food and wine. Jefferson studied food: how was it grown, how was it made, he lavished attention on it. His love of food shared the spotlight with his love of nature and gardening--plants were a particular passion. Jefferson’s orchards and vegetable gardens served him as laboratories, where he used a scientific method to winnow out less desirable crops. In his gardens he experimented with hundreds of varieties of vegetables, fruits, grape vines and herbs. He planted 130 varieties of fruit trees including 38 varieties of peach. He planted some 300 varieties of over 70 different types of vegetables. The English pea—he planted 15 different types—is considered his favorite vegetable.

So, did you learn anything new about Thomas Jefferson? Continue in Jefferson’s scientific bent of mind with this activity—from Jefferson to you—for recording the weather.


  1. I did not know all of those things about Thomas Jefferson. Thanks for sharing. I'll have to read your book.


  2. Thanks you really helped me out! :)