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I Visited Thomas Jefferson’s Tombstone On Presidents Day – And I Learned Why 5 Words Are Missing…

Along with thousands of other intrigued tourists trying to be productive over Presidents Day weekend, I found myself wandering Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historical Virginia estate, last Sunday.

The estate is beautiful, if you haven’t been. Monticello (“Little Mountain”) sits atop a hill with breath-taking views of the Shenandoah Valley. His home is amazingly preserved, filled with paintings, books and other objects that Jefferson had decorated it with more than two hundred years ago.

Jefferson’s eternal resting place, in the Jefferson family graveyard that is still used by his descendants today, is just a short walk from the home. You can see his large obelisk tombstone and read the epitaph – and if you’re history-savvy, you may notice something odd.

The short epitaph reads:

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia For Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

The epitaph, while factually accurate, makes no mention of the fact that Thomas Jefferson was our third president of the Unites States. 

Why would the grave of one of America’s most celebrated and accomplished founding fathers fail to include that he served as president? The fact that we were visiting the site during Presidents Day weekend, no less, only heightened the irony.

It’s a remarkable omission, but as we learned, it was not an accident. The epitaph was written by Jefferson himself and he specifically demanded “not a word more.” Jefferson saw those three accomplishments as his most significant and it was by them that, he wrote, “I wish most to be remembered.”

Historians routinely rank Jefferson, who served two terms, as one of the nation’s most successful presidents. But the man himself didn’t see always see it that way. Even before he ran for president, Jefferson had referred to the presidency as “splendid misery.” While he used his presidency to further many of his democratic ideals, he grew increasingly tired of the bitter reality of politics:

”I am tired of an office where I can do no more good than many others, who would be glad to be employed in it. To myself, personally, it brings nothing but increasing drudgery & daily loss of friends.”

It’s not too surprising then that Jefferson didn’t see his presidency as the pinnacle of his career. Instead, he pointed to his more intellectual pursuits of liberty. Writing the (first draft of the) Declaration of Independence is an obvious one. His lesser known Statute For Religious Freedom largely set the stage for the Bill of Rights’ protections for religious expression and worship.

Jefferson was also an ardent believer in Francis Bacon’s famous phrase ‘Knowledge is power’ and founded the University of Virginia during his retirement from politics as a secular institution for higher learning. He made sure that the university’s Rotunda, which Jefferson himself designed, housed a library instead of a church – a departure from tradition.

In today’s political climate, which provides the president with almost god-like powers and a big ego, it’s refreshing to see Jefferson refuse to include the title in his list of accomplishments. The office has drastically changed since Jefferson held it two hundred years ago – maybe he would feel differently today.

But Jefferson probably understood that the presidency was restrained by politics, while writing two liberty-enshrining documents critical to our nation’s founding provided unbound potential.

From IJR.