By his own instruction, Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone notes his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his founding of the University of Virginia, and his responsibility for Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom. But it fails to mention his presidency.
That omission, however, does not mean that his administration lacked significance. On the contrary, Jefferson’s White House tenure marked one of this country’s greatest territorial acquisitions, the Louisiana Purchase.
Under his leadership, the country also stood its ground against interference from Africa’s Barbary Coast pirate states in the American-Mediterranean trade. Unfortunately, these successes were ultimately eclipsed by the popular wrath resulting from the disastrous implementation of a trade embargo designed to curb British and French infringements on this country’s shipping. Smarting from the sting of that wrath, Jefferson thus ended his presidency, regarding it as a best-forgotten “splendid misery.”
The earliest known portrait of Jefferson, this likeness is one of two versions derived from sittings with artist Mather Brown in London in 1786, during Jefferson’s tenure as American minister to France. This version went to John Adams and was part of a portrait exchange between him and Jefferson that betokened their warm friendship.
Mather Brown (1761-1831)
Oil on canvas, 1786
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Bequest of Charles Francis Adams