Lesser-Known Facts About Thomas Jefferson

By | May 26, 2022

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Thomas Jefferson drafting Declaration of Independence; painting by N.C. Wyeth. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Thomas Jefferson: Pirate Fighter

Sure, Thomas Jefferson was a U.S. founding father who wrote the Declaration of Independence and became the nation's third president, but did you know he fought pirates, too? As far back as the 16 century, pirates known as the Barbary corsairs raided the open waters around northern Africa all across the Atlantic and captured innumerable merchant ships, taking ransoms or otherwise selling the crew as slaves. When Jefferson came into office in the early 19th century, the tensions between the U.S. and the Ottoman Regencies of North Africa were high and the treaties they held were on thin ice. After all, the United States was paying tributes to the tune of $1 million, or one-sixth of the entire treasury, so the pirates wouldn't capture American merchant ships.

Enough was enough, Jefferson thought, and declined to pay further demanded tributes, launching an all-out war between the Barbary pirates and the newly formed U.S. Navy. Sweden and the Kingdom of Sicily also banded up with the United States, and together, they blockaded the port of Tripoli. The fighting went on for many decades, with Barbary piracy finally ending in the 1830s.

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Battle of a French ship of the line and two galleys of the Barbary corsairs. (National Maritime Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

Bible Editor

Like fellow founding fathers George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson was a Christian Deist, which meant he believed the teachings of Jesus were the "most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man" but did not necessarily believe in the divinity of Jesus. Therefore, it was no great sin to him to edit the Bible into what he considered to be a more useful text, which excluded all miraculous events, the resurrection, and heaven and hell. Though he shared the pared-down version of Jesus' teachings with people in his life, the Jefferson Bible was not published until well after his death in 1895.

Library Hero

Jefferson's love of reading and books came in especially handy when the British decided to burn down half of Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. Despite its name, the war went on for several years, culminating in a huge fire that consumed much of the city, including the White House and U.S. Capitol building. It also destroyed much of the collection of the Library of Congress. Heartbroken over the intellectual loss, Jefferson sold them his entire personal library, consisting of over 6,000 books, in an effort to rebuild.