The Huguenot World of Young Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson grew up in a world not just of "Old Virginia" families, but of
second and third generation French Huguenot families. In 1700 and 1701, five ships
brought the beleagured French Huguenots from England to Virginia. Many of these
settled on or near the 10,000 acres granted them at Manakintown on the James
River. By the time Jefferson was born, many Huguenot families, needing more land, had moved across the James River from Manakintown, into Goochland and
Albemarle Counties; others settled in Williamsburg.These second generation
Huguenots were likely still bilingual (Manakintown church services were held in
French for 30 years) and many were well educated. The emigrating generation had
survived religious persecution in France, escaping (as an alternative to being killed,
imprisoned, or forced to convert) after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. They had many harrowing family stories, which are still passed down. As neighbors and friends of Jefferson, they surely contributed to his lifelong passion for all things Francophile and for religious freedom.
Peter Jefferson moved his family to Tuckahoe Plantation, across the river from
Manakintown, in 1745 when Thomas was two. Next door to Tuckahoe was the estate
of descendants of Huguenot Jean Martin. A close friend of Peter Jefferson was the
family of the Huguenot Robin Easley on Fine Creek, in the western Huguenot land
grant area. The Jeffersons lived at Tuckahoe, caring for the orphaned Randolph
cousins, until Thomas was nine. We don't know who first taught him in the rough
schoolroom still on the grounds. Jefferson's first major tutor, from 1752-1757, was
the Scottish rector William Douglas, who taught him Greek, Latin and French.
Douglas' parish, St. James Northam, was filled with Huguenot families, as his
register shows. His passionate interest in these Huguenots and their heritage led him to collect parish registry information for the earliest Huguenots at Manakintown.
At fourteen Jefferson went to the school of Reverend James Maury, 12 miles from
Shadwell. There he was schooled for two years. Reverend Maury came to Virginia
from Ireland, and was the son of Huguenot refugees Matthew Maury and Anne
Fontaine. He had one of the largest libraries of his time at 400 volumes, many of
which were surely French. Jefferson's library would also be filled with books written in French, including French philosophes Diderot and Voltaire and writers Montaigne and LaRochfoucault.
One of Jefferson's closest friends at the College of William and Mary, whom he called a "bosom friend," was John Tyler, the grandson of Dr. Lewis Contesse, a prominentHuguenot physician in Williamsburg. (Tyler's grandson would become president.) Jefferson had many good friends among the close-knit Huguenot community in Williamsburg. It is said that he helped design the William Pasteur home (now called the Semple House) which still stands on Francis Street and he visited there often. Dr. Pasteur, the son of Huguenot immigrant Jean Pasteur, was married to one of Jefferson's cousins, and Jefferson roomed with Pasteur's sister while studying law with George Wythe. Jefferson was also a good friend of Governor Francis Fauquier, son of a French Huguenot doctor.
So during his formative years Thomas Jefferson was close to children and
grandchildren of Huguenot emigrants. One can only speculate on how his early
exposure to French thought and the Huguenot heritage influenced Jefferson's later
thinking. Surely his proposal of the Statute of Religious Freedom in 1779 was
influenced by the stories he heard from his Huguenot friends of their families'
struggles to worship in France. He was so proud of that Statute that he had it
acknowledged on his tombstone along with the Declaration of the Independence and the establishment of the University of Virginia.
Jefferson lived in a relatively small and tight world in Virginia as he grew up. It is
always difficult to prove how much one's youthful world influences one's adult
thought and philosophy, or even the details of that world. But there's no doubt that
the man Jefferson was shaped to some degree by the religious and intellectual
Huguenot heritage of his tutors and close friends.
Ann Woodlief, National Librarian
Adapted from the Virginia Branch Leaflet, Fall 2011