1743 — Thomas Jefferson is born
Future President Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the nation's preeminent political theorist, is born on this day in 1743.
Historian and biographer Joseph Ellis has called Jefferson, who had a monumental role in shaping American politics, the American sphinx for his enigmatic character. Since his terms in office, presidents and politicians from both ends of the political spectrum have borrowed from Jefferson’s political philosophy in an attempt to link their own leadership with this most influential and admired founding father.
Jefferson’s character — as a man or a president — defies definition in black and white. He was at once an intellectual, architect, philosopher, musician and essayist. His fascination with science prompted his study and collection of fossils. He projected a down-to-earth, relaxed and unconventional attitude and his desire to be seen as a common man was reflected in his penchant for receiving White House visitors in a robe and slippers. Jefferson denounced oppressive government and was a fierce proponent of freedom of speech and religion. He worried that fellow founding fathers George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton had designs to fashion the American presidency after a monarchy. When Washington and Hamilton proposed a national bank and state assumption of national debt, Jefferson resigned from Washington’s cabinet in protest. He adamantly rejected Hamilton’s plan to build a strong federal military, fearing it might be used by a tyrannical leader against American citizens.
Though Jefferson was highly principled, he was not above using smear tactics against political opponents. He anonymously assailed his victims in print under a pseudonym and helped to fund the anti-Federalist press.
Although in theory Jefferson desired the abolition of slavery, it is a fact that Jefferson owned other human beings who worked his plantation. Historical accounts indicate Jefferson treated his slaves well within the context of the times. It has long been rumored — and debated by historians — that one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, was Jefferson’s lover. She bore a son, named Eston, in 1808. For 200 years, the Hemings affair and Eston’s paternity were the focus of intense scholarly analysis. In 1998, DNA testing proved that a Jefferson was Eston’s biological father, which many took to mean that he was indeed Thomas Jefferson’s son, a fact backed up by the oral tradition of the Hemings family. However, other scholars have disagreed with this conclusion and it remains a topic of fervent debate.
Jefferson, a widower since the death of his wife Martha in 1782, is also thought to have had a relationship with Maria Cosway, a beautiful (and married) British painter and musician whom he met while serving as minister to France. Jefferson’s relationship with Cosway inspired him to write the romantic essay A Dialogue Between the Head and Heart in October 1786. One historical account of their affair paints Jefferson as a lovesick schoolboy — as he and Cosway shared a romantic walk in the countryside near Paris, Jefferson attempted to leap over a fence, fell and broke his wrist.
1861 — Fort Sumter surrenders
After a 33-hour bombardment by Confederate cannons, Union forces surrender Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. The first engagement of the war ended in Rebel victory.
The surrender concluded a standoff that began with South Carolina’s secession from the Union on December 20, 1860. When President Abraham Lincoln sent word to Charleston in early April that he planned to send food to the beleaguered garrison, the Confederates took action. They opened fire on Sumter in the predawn of April 12. Over the next day, nearly 4,000 rounds were hurled toward the black silhouette of Fort Sumter.
Inside Sumter was its commander, Major Robert Anderson, 9 officers, 68 enlisted men, 8 musicians, and 43 construction workers who were still putting the finishing touches on the fort. Union Captain Abner Doubleday, the man often inaccurately credited with inventing the game of baseball, returned fire nearly two hours after the barrage began. By the morning of April 13, the garrison in Sumter was in dire straits. The soldiers had sustained only minor injuries, but they could not hold out much longer. The fort was badly damaged, and the Confederate’s shots were becoming more precise. Around noon, the flagstaff was shot away. Louis Wigfall, a former U.S. senator from Texas, rowed out without permission to see if the garrison was trying to surrender. Anderson decided that further resistance was futile, and he ran a white flag up a makeshift flagpole.
The first engagement of the war was over, and the only casualty had been a Confederate horse. The Union force was allowed to leave for the north; before leaving, the soldiers fired a 100-gun salute. During the salute, one soldier was killed and another mortally wounded by a prematurely exploding cartridge. The Civil War had officially begun.
1941 — Japan and USSR sign nonaggression pact
During World War II, representatives from the Soviet Union and Japan sign a five-year neutrality agreement. Although traditional enemies, the nonaggression pact allowed both nations to free up large numbers of troops occupying disputed territory in Manchuria and Outer Mongolia to be used for more pressing purposes.
— This Day in History is courtesy of History.com.
1743 — Thomas Jefferson is born