Thomas Jefferson: His Early Life and Education

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

While Thomas Jefferson’s father had not received much education, Jefferson was sent to good educational institutions. Let us take a look at the kind of education that was imparted in those days. Did this education include the scientific knowledge that had already created a revolution in Europe?

Photo of the Wren Building in the College of William & Mary.
Thomas Jefferson studied at the College of William & Mary where the curriculum was based on textbooks written by somber Church of England divines. (Image: Jrcla2/Public domain)

History of Thomas Jefferson’s Family

The social origins of the Jefferson family are actually something of a murk that only begins to dispel at the beginning of the 1700s, when his grandfather, Thomas, married the granddaughter of the speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, and lived to accumulate 1,500 acres just above the falls of the James River.

Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, plunged into the land acquisition frenzy with a will, acquiring local offices—sheriff, magistrate, then county surveyor—and a wife, Jane Randolph, who connected him to even more numbers of Virginia acres.

He built a modest plantation on the Rivanna River at Shadwell, just east of modern-day Charlottesville. And it was there that Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Thomas Jefferson’s Education

A portrait of James Blair.
James Blair was the founder of the College of William & Mary. (Image: Charles Bridges/Public domain)

When Thomas Jefferson was nine, he was dispatched to the Latin school operated by the Reverend William Douglas in nearby Northam parish. Later, he was sent to the school of the Reverend James Maury, rector of Fredericksville parish, where he had mastery of Latin and Greek fastened onto his mind. In 1760, he was packed off to Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary.

William & Mary encumbered its students with a curriculum heavy on the study of classical literature, rhetoric, logic, and ethics, based on textbooks written by somber Church of England divines. The Church may or may not have noticed that a complete revolution in the world of learning had been in process for half a century.

Learn more about Aristotle and the Socratic legacy.

The Principles of Authority and Hierarchy  

The first European universities were founded in Middle Ages. These universities offered their students a vision of the world which was wrapped around two principles: authority and hierarchy.

The path to truth, wisdom, and beauty had been laid down for all to see in two sources: the Bible and the writings of Aristotle. Although the pious raised an eyebrow at Aristotle, both of these sources were understood, ultimately, to be compatible. Those in search of truth, wisdom, and beauty therefore took themselves either to the Bible or to Aristotle to find out what they needed to know, and, at the end of the process, they were deemed learned.

The Early Understanding of the Universe

At the end of all this reasoning sat an overall picture of the universe as a rational, reasonable place, in which all the parts fitted together logically. The universe was, in short, a hierarchy.

The physical universe was arranged with the earth at the very bottom or center, and then, in ascending order of perfection, the moon, the planets, the stars, and finally the firmament, the heavens, and the empyrean realm where dwelt God and the angels and the saints.

All these parts of physical nature were, in turn, held together logically by certain relationships to each other based on their possession of certain intelligent or moral qualities.

Hierarchy in Human Society

Human society followed the same pattern of hierarchy, like a pyramid, in which kings ruled over nobles, and nobles ruled over the commons, and in which the lower order served the next higher, and the higher orders were responsible for preserving and protecting the lower.

And human society, also, was held in place by differing qualities and status.

European Intellectual Life

These twin principles of authority and hierarchy gave European intellectual life stability for 400 years. It survived even the uproar of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, since Protestant intellectuals merely took over the two principles for themselves.

And then, at the dawn of the 1600s, with a snap, it all cracked.

Learn more about the Church, Copernicus, and Galileo.

Lenses and Telescopes: Unravelling the Mystery

A portrait of Galileo Galilei.
Galileo Galilei used powerful telescopes to learn more about the moon and space. (Image: Ottavio Leoni/Public domain)

The technology of lens grinding had finally achieved a level of finesse by the beginning of the 17th century and it could provide powerful new telescopes with which to behold the heavens. When curious astronomical observers like Galileo Galilei looked through those telescopes, they did not see much there which looked like a hierarchy.

The earth, of course, everyone knew to be deformed by mountains and other forms of uneven, illogical nastiness, but when Galileo trained his telescope on the moon, he discovered that the moon was even more uneven and disfigured.

By Aristotle’s reasoning, the moon, since it was higher than the earth, ought to have been more perfect in shape. It wasn’t. Nor were the other planets.

Nor, Galileo soon concluded, were the physical movements of the moon and the planets governed by moral relationships of superiority and inferiority to each other.

The Beginning of Scientific Revolution

A portrait of Sir Isaac Newton.
Isaac Newton led the Scientific Revolution by discovering gravity and its effects. (Image: Godfrey Kneller/Public domain)

Isaac Newton refined this to explain the movement of all physical objects in terms of a simple and entirely measurable force, which he called attraction at a distance but which we call gravity. As a result, the idea of the universe as a harmonious whole, with its various parts adhering to each other on the basis of their possession of intelligent qualities, went out the window.

The universe, instead, became an assortment of material substances, governed only by faceless and indifferent physical laws and forces.

People no longer searched in the Bible and Aristotle for truth, wisdom, or beauty, but in the world of those substances and forces. This led to what the Europeans then called the New Philosophy, and which is now called the Scientific Revolution.

Common Questions about Thomas Jefferson’s Early Life and Education

Q: Where did Thomas Jefferson get his education?

When Thomas Jefferson was nine, he went to the Latin school operated by the Reverend William, then to the school of the Reverend James Maury, and finally to the College of William & Mary.

Q: Which two principles did the first European universities focus on to explain about the world?

When they were founded in Middle Ages, the first European universities offered their students a vision of the world wrapped around the two principles of authority and hierarchy.

Q: How did people’s search for truth, wisdom, or beauty change after the Scientific Revolution?

After the Scientific Revolution, people no longer searched in the Bible and Aristotle for truth, wisdom, or beauty, but in the world of substances and forces discovered by people like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.

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The Rolling Ball Experiments: Galileo’s Terrestrial Mechanics
The Inauguration of Thomas Jefferson